Tuesday, April 27, 2010


[Summer, 2009] CHARLES MANSON showed up at the writers’ conference I was attending. Perhaps he, like others beholden to the bankrupt State of California, was on furlough from normal obligations. Seemed odd, however: The lovely environ in which we were meeting was a bit far afield from the “B and B” in Chowchilla where I’d assumed he was so securely residing. Or was it Vacaville?

Anyway, I could tell it was Charlie right off the bat: by the hair – still amazingly true to its original color after all these years – and those signature, sunken cheeks. The eyes, however, threw me for a moment. They appeared calm, even placid. Not drugged or anything like that, but not crazed, either. And certainly no match to his most recent photos in the San Francisco Chronicle of a few decades back.

CONFERENCE ATTENDEES of my generation drew, I think, a connection similar to mine and chose to sit none-too-close to him in the auditorium.

Younger folks: not so.

My contemporaries appeared taken aback by Charlie’s presence. You know, uncomfortable. The communal aire of warmth, openness and artistic acceptance condensed into something more reserved: clammy, damp-blanketed – perhaps even phobic. During passing periods between workshop sessions, I’d pick up on diverted eyes and hushed conversations – whispers – accompanied by cloaked yet pointing fingers.

I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to be so concerned. I simply figured that, hell, like the rest of us, Charlie had a novel or a book inside of him and that conference participation with its attendant feedback was one of the necessary steps in getting the damned thing out.

Still, I sat none-too-close.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I WAS SUPPOSED TO WORK today. Punch the clock. Of course, now, it’s my own clock. But still, I'm supposed to work. Especially if I want to get that novel done. The one that’s been sitting in my head and on my desk since back in the Clinton administration.

But the sun was out – hadn’t been in some time – and an idle BMW conspired with it to prompt my sin. So, to the lord of the independent contractor, freelancer and writers everywhere – anyone whose income is derived from their personal, intrinsic motivation – I ask forgiveness.

IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER where I go – I’d decided on the delta – because I’ve ridden almost everywhere around here many, many time since I initially sold my soul and the seat of my pants to the demon of roadway and wind roar. Today I just got on the bike and went slicing through that day-after-a-good-spring-storm air – air so sweet that if I could package it, they could tax it.

I stopped for an omelet at a greasy spoon I’d passed by numerous times before. Local chain. Lousy gravelly parking lot – easy place to tip over. I could build a better omelet at home, but here, there’s no clean up. I’m not annoyed that the young waitress fails to keep my coffee hot and fresh. I’m on a ride.

Back in the saddle, the road unwinds and so do I. The self-imposed deadline for finishing my manuscript dissolves and my only real interest is the discovery around the next bend or over the next rise.

Viewing the Coast Range invites another visit along its twisting roads through rolling horizons of tall grass and Spanish moss clinging to ancient blue oaks. The delta is forgotten. Cattle dot the grasslands and that familiar derelict barn is a bit further toward oblivion.

People make a living out here, off this land. They wake up in this bucolic scene each and every day. I coin a phrase: “good bucolity of life.” Wonder if they can play hooky – let the chickens go unfed or the cows unmilked? Perhaps the pastoral is more romantic to those of us who are just passing by. To those enraptured by a combination of the physics and the spiritual nature of riding, maybe every day seems better than it actually is.

Never really had a bad day on a motorcycle – outside of the day I hit some sand, high sided and busted my shoulder. And that wasn’t really a bad day, just a bad moment fostered by my own bad judgment. My buddy once hit a deer on his bike. Even that wasn’t a bad day either. Just a bad moment with a bit of an aftermath. Really bad day for the deer, however.

Somewhere, I missed an intersection. Must have been daydreaming. I made no attempt to correct this. I found myself on one of those rare area roads I’ve not travelled before. The road is as straight as a rifle shot for countless miles, ranging across the pan of the Sacramento Valley. In a Frostian moment, I wonder if this road not [previously] taken will make all the difference. A rusted tractor sits choked in waist-high grass. A barn pancaked, its siding splintered beneath a still-intact corrugated metal roof – rusted in some areas, glinting mid-day sun in others. A field of thigh-high mustard is in full bloom. Thankfully, my Claritin knock-off tablet works. A snowy egret stands in a ditch like a lawn statue. A bit further on, another. Hawks stand sentinel on old wooden power poles. One dives into the grass to prey upon a hapless rodent. He rises with lunch wriggling in his talons.

After a time, I end up someplace I’ve been before. No, not the town. I’ve been there. But the feeling. The spirit. The new road is now an old friend.

I pause for a stretch along the waterfront in Rio Vista. I wish I’d stopped to photograph the egrets or that old barn. But some days, when attending the Church of the Open Road, parishioners simply ride.

AFTER COMMUNION, vespers, the sermon and a hymn or two inside my helmet, I am home. I ask for forgiveness for having played hooky. Tomorrow, I promise, I will write.

Depending on the weather of course.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, April 19, 2010


YEARS AGO, following a misplaced directional sign way to hell and gone out in the woods, I ended up on a road that I hadn’t intended to take. Yesterday, I found that road again. This time, with intent, I took it.

Lost in the region bounded by Colfax, Iowa Hill, Sugar Pine Reservoir and Foresthill, Shirttail Canyon Road, doesn’t really go anywhere. It simply follows a creek in to and out of a little eight-mile long ravine. There was no point A at one end; no point B at the other. No village or berg or derelict mining camp anywhere along the route. No alpha. No omega. No reason at all, that I could see, for this particular road to go in this particular direction. To be certain, there are better roads – smoother with more engineering – in the immediate area.

I MAKE SEVERAL STOPS to explore things I might otherwise miss if I simply raced by.

A wonderful cluster of bush lupine – actually several of them – clung to the top of the cut bank on the uphill side of the road. Dismounting a moment, I scramble up the little bluff to examine the blossoms and to uncover that hidden claw for which the lupine derives its Latin name. I snap a digital photo which comes out remarkably well.

A few hundred yards on, one of perhaps dozens of spring rivulets seeps down the mountainside, running through thick, verdant moss. After a week or two of dry weather, this moss will turn brown and disappear until the rains return in winter. I touch the spiraling, spongy leaves and let the water squeeze through my fingers. Then I struggle to pull my riding gloves on over wet – and now cold – hands.

At a point, an ancient madrona is locked in battle with a black oak. Roots entangle one another, wrapping around a slate-like chunk, grasping for nourishment from the scant soil in this rocky terrain. Limbs stretch skyward seeking the energy of a sun that rises and sets within mere hours deep in this canyon.

A doe that has chosen to run along side for a few yards surprises me.

Poison oak grows vigorously in select spots.

Then there’s the suspension bridge, built probably a hundred years ago, still in rickety service to the rare passer-by. It swings and gives and sways side to side as the weight of the motorcycle clatters across the ancient steel decking, warped by a century of travel.

AS I RIDE, I think about story. I think about the elements that go into writing a compelling piece. A piece with an arc. A story line. I recall that every element the author places into his or her text must contribute or move the story forward. When editing, one must jettison those words or phrases that don’t move the reader from point A to points X, Y or Z. A difficult task for a writer who has given birth to those words he or she is about to axe.

Then my mind wanders back to this road. There is no point A or point any-other-letter along this route. Perhaps it is a road with no story. No place names or passions. No human drama. No life or death quandaries.

When all was said and done, my ride down the Shirttail Canyon Road really didn’t take me anywhere. However, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the lupine, or the cascade, or those tangled roots, or that jiggly, antiquated suspension bridge. Like a good story, once I’d descended to the other end of Shirttail Canyon, I knew I’d been somewhere.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


BEYOND YANKEE JIM’S – little more than a place name now-a-days – the pavement disappears, replaced by nicely graded and securely packed gravel. Snaking down the wall of a tributary of the North Fork of the American, it’s easy to maintain a moderate speed, if moderate speed is tempered with caution. Blind curves? There are some. Precipices over which one might encounter serious injury? Some of those, too. And although this oft-traveled route deteriorates the further one goes, dropping 2,200 feet in elevation to the rickety, 1920s era suspension bridge at the canyon bottom, this is a delightful tour of vegetative and geologic zones, today made even more interesting by the mid-spring storm.

Foresthill is a mining/lumbering community seated atop the Foresthill Divide. Foresthill Road is a divine 17-mile stretch of pavement providing primary ingress and egress for this mountain community to I-80 west at Auburn. Sport bikers have deemed the route a Mecca and many have sacrificed themselves on the guardrail altars that line sections of the roadway. Makeshift memorials abound. And the CHP valiantly tries to prevent.

Summer and autumn fires race from canyon bottom to ridgeline frequently in this environ, and, on occasion, the Foresthill Road must be closed, effectively sealing the little berg off from the outside. Thus, Yankee Jim’s Road: Foresthill’s emergency escape route. Yankee Jim’s Road courses northerly, twisting into and out of the deep canyon of the North Fork to emerge at Colfax. 18 road miles – about six and a half the way the crow flies.

THE RAIN HAD JUST BECOME SLEET as the descent began. Great white glops flattened against the face shield of my Shoei. Somehow, “Stars and Stripes Forever” had chosen itself for the soundtrack on this ride, when “Stormy Weather,” “Here Comes that Rainy Day,” or any of a number of other tunes would have been more appropriate. Rhythmically, I wipe the helmet face with the index finger of my clutch hand on an even 8 count, at seventy-two beats a minute.

By the time the pavement ran out, the snow had turned to rain. Rain in great, pelting quantity. I use both hands on the handlebars. I crack the face shield open a fraction to prevent fogging. Wouldn’t do to not see a twist in the road. Even if I did survive the plunge, Verison’s “Nation-Wide Coverage” somehow doesn’t mean “here.”

With each convex turn in the road, a limited view of the canyon’s twists, coves and distant reaches appears. Vespers of mist tangle with the new-green oak groves and rich early-spring glades stretching up the slopes. Above, the pewter-gray underbelly of the storm blankets the ridge top. Where the turns are concave, what’s normally a dry draw runs full with tumbling, cascading water. The rush drowns out the purr of the motor and pushes away that damned Sousa march.

I stop at one, parking well within the sightline of any on-coming traffic – there will be none – standing in the downpour, helmet serving as Kevlar-hardened raingear for the head. Looking up the cascade, an angel’s gossamer cloak has been laid against the rugged rocks and soil. Pulses of volume and breaths of wind animate the sheet-white fall and, occasionally the angel’s finger beacons me to stand in her shower and bathe. I decline. I’m already wet. And, when I think about it, cold.

Rock edges rounded smooth, verdant mosses and healthy sword ferns in the cleavage of the mountainside indicate that this water event is nothing new: certainly not unique to this day. What is unique is my riding the big Beemer in these conditions when I don’t have to. When I could be home. Warm. By the fire. Or cooking up a last pot of winter stew.

RIDING IN THE RAIN is something we avoid. It is perceived as dangerous, and at best, it is cold and uncomfortable. Yet, in the depths of the canyon, protected from the elements only by a sixty-dollar rain suit, I am reminded that the basic joys of motorcycling are sensory. And in the rain, the sensory is so much more acute. The symphony of the full cascade. The sweet aroma of moistened duff. The gentle wave of the fern frond and clusters of poppies and lupine patiently closed, awaiting passage of the tempest. Those clouds clinging to the treetops across the way. The low ceiling. The spatter of mud on boot as the front tire splits a puddle. A shaft of sunlight foretelling the end of the storm.

You don’t experience the elements quite this way in a car. Or on the BMW in August.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Concours 1400 Test Ride

(March 2007) THE ROAD FROM INTERSTATE 80 to Wharton’s Market in Foresthill is a paradise for anyone on a two-wheeler. Nice pavement. Well engineered curves. Passing lanes to get around trucks, trailers, RVs, and blue-haired octogenarians in Park Avenues. And when one dares take eyes off the road, grand views of both the North Fork and the Middle Fork of the American.

So when at 1:00, I am suited up destined to kill some hours at work, and my neighbor Fritz is suited up, throttling his new KZ 1400 Concours, and I ask, “Where you going?”

I hadn’t planned on this little forty miler. The elevation gain meant the temperature would drop from about 65 degrees to the low fifties. And I was in my summer jacket. Nor was my tank completely full. But since I had invited myself along, I didn’t feel right about holding Fritz up for a jacket change or topping off the tank of the RT.

FRITZ’S FAVORITE ONE-HOUR RIDE is a good one. Back roads to Auburn. Through Tuscan type farms and orchards. Up the bluffs on Auburn Folsom Road to the county seat, then down into the middle fork canyon along a route of tight turns and steep cliffs. No room for error. Not a good place to be captivated by the sleek rear end or triangular exhaust of the Concours.

From the river bottom at Confluence, the old Foresthill Road replicates the curves and topography of the earlier leg to the bottom. Once atop the ridge, the new Foresthill Road has those marvelous sweeping turns that lull the rider into thinking God must own a sport bike.

IT IS COOLER – much cooler – by the time we reach the market. I impose on Fritz to stop for a coffee and, although I wouldn’t admit it outside of this journal, I have a mocha that works well at thawing both my fingers and my innards. We sip these caffeine bombs outside and view the canyon, point out roads we either had ridden or hoped to ride. As it is time to leave, Fritz points to his Kawasaki Rocket Ship and says: “You wanna ride it down to the Chevron at I-80?”

I think of several questions that might also evoke an instantaneous and emphatic response. Some samples: Wanna visit Baghdad? (No.) Could you take care of my new DB-9 for the week? (Yes!) Care to kiss my grandmother? (Not really.) How would you feel about a starlit beach, a nice bottle of Padron Silver and, say, Jennifer Lopez? (Decline to state.)

THE CONCOURS HAS A KEY you keep in your pocket. If you’re close enough, you mess with the ignition switch and the thing hums to life. The brakes are not integrated but the front one has a “right now” quality that insists upon stopping at the merest suggestion. A little heat pours off the engine at ankle level, which turns out to be a good thing on this 53-degree afternoon. The power delivery reminds one of Peggy Fleming. Smooth. Graceful. Elegant. But with a touch of William “the Refrigerator” Perry: it’ll move through anything.

I slip out of Wharton’s parking lot, waiting a long time before distant traffic clears. Fritz struggles with the RT, only because he isn’t fitted to it. I keep the seat high and Fritz has a short inseam. The 35 mph sign prompts me to glance at the speedo and throttle back shifting from fourth to third, and thinking about that lever on the right hand bar. Once out of downtown Foresthill, the traffic engineers allow fifty-five. I wonder how quickly I can get there.

Damned quick.

I’m in fourth gear, tacking at 2250, speed indicating 68 and I’m wondering why this thing needs two more gears in the box. A roofer’s truck is in front of me, but a passing lane is approaching. At the first indication that he’s going to be a gentleman, I crack the twister and pull out. A glance in the rear view mirror finds the Ford one-ton slipping behind me and Fritz, on my beloved RT, about three-quarters of an inch high. The speedo is enjoys a lingering, 92 mph kiss.

I think about the area CHP officer. And deer. And throttle back

The road is engineered so that I can take the curves quickly and there is room for fudging if necessary, but fudging is not needed. Though when paddling this thing through the parking lot up at Wharton’s it feels a bit top heavy, once up on two wheels, the Concours begs to be cornered.

We arrive at the Chevron far to soon for my liking. Two hours later, as I write this, my cheek muscles still ache from grinning.

I LOVE MY WIFE and would never consider a moonlit beach and a bottle Silver Padron with anyone else. And I love my BMW as it is powerful, dependable, graceful and it has a cachet that Kawasaki won’t equal on its best day. However, the Concours is a seductress. Slippery and sexy. While strangely familiar and accommodating to the point of being comfortable.

Having recently ridden both the Concours and the Triumph Tiger 1050 triple, I am beginning to think that should something happen to the RT, perish the thought, a smooth, sophisticated multi might be in my future.

© 2007
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Death Panel" in the Season of Rebirth


ON A WEDNESDAY, just after Easter, in the season during which everything is reborn, Brother Michael Stewart left us. After an extended battle with “Pick’s Disease,” an insidious type of dementia, along with ALS, the death panel was convened. Here’s how the conversation went:


A whole bunch of reflection follows these times of passing, especially for those of us who have been involved in or witnessed the process of talking with ICU nurses, physicians, specialists, social workers, and the clergy. Some of us cry. Some laugh. Some of us turn inward and contemplate in silence. Some wander outside and look for the newest star in the heavens. Everyone seems to recollect the good times, the good husbanding or wifing, the good fathering or mothering or sonning or daughtering. Some, with faith, commend the departed to the arms of God. Others, with a different kind of faith, know that the deceased will always be with us and never really departs.

OUR OWN ABILITY to accept the movement of a loved one from this place to whatever the next one looks like is limited. If, indeed, he or she is going to a better place, then the tears shed should not be bitter, but joyous and celebratory. An irony of religion is the standardization of the mourning process and how that process conflicts with the lessons of the afterlife so commonly taught in church. The result is that we fear something over which we have no control – something that is as inevitable and, perhaps, as beautiful as tomorrow’s sunrise.

The exploitation of this fear by political interests stretches far beyond reprehensible. It is downright evil. In the recent health care debate, lies about death panels fueled an irrational opposition to necessary changes in how we care for our nation’s people. It is a damnable exploitation of our simple uncertainties surrounding the certain. It is indicative as to how discourse in our “Christian” nation has declined; how we sacrifice honest debate in the pursuit of power. A power that, in the end, really doesn’t much matter.

AFTER A LONG DRIVE HOME from the hospital in Napa, I had a still moment in the driveway. My wife – his sister – Candi had gone to bed after an incredibly difficult day and the dogs were thankfully quiet. I stared into a wonderfully clear night sky. I spotted a new star up there – I just know it – and I knew Michael was safe. Not being a prayerful kind of guy, I must admit that I did have moment. I asked that when my death panel meets, the conversation goes something like this:


© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press