Saturday, July 24, 2010


I PURPOSELY LEFT THE ALTAS out of the saddlebag. Today’s objective was not to go some place in particular. Rather, it was to get to the high country. Without the map, I would be free to explore the pavement and trails as if I were the first person to visit these wilds. Never mind that someone before had to put in that pavement and those trails. I can suspend my own disbelief.

East of Georgetown, along the divide of the same name, a nicely engineered and maintained ribbon of asphalt seductively beckons me forward. Curves, gentle and soft, require little more than a thought to negotiate. Crests afford vistas of the silver rim of the Sierra shimmering in the late morning sun. Forests frame the road on two sides, and where the forests do not, expansive meadows of early spring lupine, goldfield and tidy-tips stretch out and drop over ridgerims. Still spring, even though August is just over the horizon.

The contrast between Rocklin’s hour-ago thick, ozony atmosphere and the here-and-now’s clarity is not lost. To spend one’s days in the high country, I always think, if only regarding air quality, is to spend them well. My goal on such fanciful trysts is to keep to the higher elevations for as long as possible.

AT AN INTERSECTION, US 50 is 25 miles in one direction so I go the other. Almost at once, the smooth pavement deteriorates into a pucky patchwork of blacktop repairs. Narrow now, willows from the stream course off to the right appear to be choking it. Several have whip-like branches freed of foliage by passing Jeepers. Topping a minor rise, an ancient bowl has silted in. Succession. Grasses advanced across the playa centuries ago. Pine nuts processed and pooped by some squirrel, raccoon, bear or other ancient rooted. Now, a second or third generation yellow pines advances across the meadow.

Sometime back, folk found this spot perfect for grazing cattle or sheep or goats. A few of those pines were felled and a crude log shelter was constructed. Followed by a post and beam barn, a livestock chute, another house, a small short structure with a sunken floor that appears to have been a icehouse, and an “essential,” complete with crescent moon cut into the doorway. From relentless seasons of sun and snow, regular as a heartbeat, each building now occupies a different point on the timeline toward decay. Homes on crude rock foundations stand longer than those without. Tin roofs hold off the elements better than those shingled. Trees bust through the interior floor of one whose roof is weathered to flinders. More succession.

The invitation on the decrepit post and wire fence said “Keep Out,” so I cross for pictures, stepping over the running brook and detouring around its tiny pools.

Perching atop a stump with apple and jerked beef in hand I scan a distant ridgeline through the stand of trees, breathe deeply the springtime air of the meadow and return to the thought: To spend one’s days in the high country is to spend them well.

I wonder what the name of this collection of derelicts might be. I wonder how many other high mountain meadows were once home to small livestock operations, both here in the Sierra and west over in the Coast Range. I think about the Rockies and countless other mountain systems in our North American backyard; musing about the cavalcade of trappers, timber-men, sourdoughs and settlers all of whom did or didn’t leave their mark for history. When did they come? How long did they stay? Why did they leave? Why is this place left and what’d they call it? And, what’s with the “Keep Out” sign? Not very neighborly.

I MAKE MY WAY BACK HOME, burrowing through the temperature inversion and down into the blanket of stale, summer heat. Once in the reference library, I retrace my route. I find I was up toward Wentworth Springs on the El Dorado National Forest. The maps – the Forest Service one, the California Gazetteer one and the Metsker Map – can’t seem to agree on a place name for this little meadow. The Metskers, I note, are pretty reliable in pointing out the otherwise forgotten.

Conflicting evidence aside, I choose to refer to this locale as “Brigadoon,” and imagine how many similar Brigadoons must exist west of the hundredth meridian in North America. I return to my collection of maps and spot scores of them. Each with a history. Each with a mark man-laid upon the land. Many in the high country.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, July 23, 2010


I DON’T CARRY THE “BIBLE” WITH ME on the road. But I should. When passing a field of Checker Mallow and wondering the name, or when being halted by a crossing bear cub and mama and wondering about their range, or trying to determine whether the grove is of fir or pine, or doing a little forensic research on the butterfly wing pressed in death against my windshield, Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger’s Sierra Nevada Natural History is an indispensable tool. It sits in the Church of the Open Road’s reverence library along with an atlas, a sheaf of flat maps and a dictionary. On the road, I photograph what I’m curious about, maybe take a note or two and reference the volume as soon as I’m home. Since 1972, I’ve bought and worn out at least three copies.

One cannot travel the Open Road and not be captivated by the natural environment through which one passes. Scratching across the Sierra either on pavement or an unimproved route, history that precedes even the earliest man is on display. The tilted fault-block Sierra provides the canvas upon which all the colors and textures of life are painted. This volume explains why the silver granite is topped with black basalt or brown mudflow. It tells how glaciers cut through solid rock to leave mountain streams to plunge into the abyss. It speaks to the processes by which mountains are lifted, meadows are filled, plants get footholds and animals come to reside in very specific environs.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it drives me to explore ever deeper into the ridges and canyons, basins and ranges of the west. The forces that worked to create the wonder of our Sierra are the same ones that formed the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, the Sawtooths of Idaho, the Tetons in Wyoming and countless other ranges west of the 100th meridian. While I can reference a Forest Service or a Metsker map, or crack open a history book to understand the human element of all these locations, place names and industry, I must use something different to understand two essential “whys:” Why here and not there? Why then and not before?

SINCE 1963, Storer and Usinger’s book has guided, educated, opened, answered and explained the Sierra and the west to the curious. It is, indeed, the bible of the Church of the Open Road. Start wearing your copy out today.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


MY BOOKS NEEDED REARRANGING. Too many volumes for the shelf space available. Works lying prone atop those standing neat and straight as soldiers. I would either throw out some or build more horizontal space.

I cleared the shelves.

Beginning to sort, I found each title endeared. Ones I’d finished or read more than once – and ones I’d dog-eared where I’d quit on them. These were the ones I owned finish to.

Within minutes, distracted by a bookmark, I restarted one, as if paying down on a debt.

The rest rested on the floor.

My little project would take some time.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, July 10, 2010


THE ROUTE FROM HEALDSBURG back to Rocklin would have been an easy one. But there was this item in my – what’s the current term? - "Bucket List” that I needed to see about. I headed two hours north on 101 and 162 to Round Valley and Covelo to get some direction from the Ranger.

“Watch for where the property turns private,” she said. “They did a drug sweep up this way about two weeks ago and while everyone they arrested got released, there’s more than a little tension up in the hills theses days.”

“Seems to me if we just legalized the stuff,” I offered.

She nodded. “People dyin’ on the forest over this is just dumb.” She shook her head. “Have a great weekend and be careful.”

I TREKKED EAST on CA 162 - to where it turned into Forest Highway 7. Just past Mendocino Pass, keeping a sharp eye out for little roads that looked as if they might not lead to legitimate operations such as lumbering or cattle or runnin’ sheep.

Forest Highway 7 links CA 162's west end at Covelo with its east end near Willows. It crosses Mendocino Pass about 40 miles east of Covelo. The pass is where Mendocino, Glenn and Tehema Counties all meet up.

West of Mendocino Pass is Round Valley - the terminus of California's own "Trail of Tears." Native Americans from my old stompin’ ground of Chico as well as those from the foothills around Sacramento were marched to Round Valley. Many did not survive. And, just as was done in the Middle East, we "victors" did not understand that peoples of varied cultures don’t necessarily meld together just because we decide to corral them up in the same spot. So, many died after the Trail of Tears forced march as well.

As a kid in the 1960s, the drive from Chico to Simpson Camp seemed interminable. It was only near the top of the Coast Ranges highest ridge that the air became cool and the forest evolved from mixed deciduous to evergreen. One of the great memories of Simpson Camp was the Simpson's venerable boxer, Jovanna, snoozing in the tall Skunk Cabbage (also know as Mule's Ears.) This field was my first clue I might be close.

Although Simpson Camp is no longer listed on the Forest Service Map, the USGS Mendocino Pass quadrangle shows a "campground" in section 17. A nest of roads tangles that section. My initial route took me to Smith Camp. Smith, I remember, had a standing outhouse, which we’d hike east through the woods and use. Several small cabins still stood. A working wood stove warmed each cabin, early on. By our last visit in 1968, Smith Camp had been picked clean.

With the Mendocino Pass Quadrangle in hand, it was the old scientific process of elimination that led me to try this one out. They no longer use wooden engraved signs to mark roads. Now they are stakes with felt pen markings and ribbons. More difficult for frustrated visitors with hunting rifles to hit, I suppose, but also harder to see. It wasn’t until thirty minutes of hiking down these various two-tracks that I realized what the flagged stakes were all about.

"Somewhere off 22N21 or 22N35," I was told, but "there is no longer a sign for the old Simpson Camp," I was told. I finally hiked down this path, leaving the BMW at the top of the hill, only to find...

This ain't the work of the USFS. The official sign is long gone, a copy of which resides with Eleanor Simpson. I have a strong suspicion about who erected this marker once he heard the Forest Service was taking down the signs in order to preserve the area.

Back in the 60s, mom found the innards of a wood stove, all busted apart and took the firebox - converting it to an oven over a fire made of dried widow makers collected from the nearby woods. Mixing up some Bisquik and whatever else you put in Bisquik, the results were golden brown and delicious. This may be the remnant of that old stove.

The two fir saplings between which I hung a duct-white canvass hammock are still standing. But no longer saplings. I regret not getting a picture of them.

Although I thought it began much later, Zibe Simpson's family began summering sheep in this glade beginning in 1887 - or so says the sign he erected. There's spring water available. Not a bad place to spend June through early October. This July afternoon, the glade is mottled by a thunderhead that developed over only a few minutes time. I remember retreating into an old Coleman tent during a similar event forty years prior; playing cards and getting marshmallow stuck in my hair.

Ellie tells me, that on the occasion of our trips to Simpson Camp on Memorial Days back in the 60s "My heart would sing when Zibe and I saw you and your family coming down the hill." This is the hill.


And now.

(c) 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, July 4, 2010


"The proof of the pudding is in the tasting."
Adage ripped off by “Dr. Smith”
in nearly every episode of Lost in Space,
circa 1960-something.

THEY HAVE ASSISTED SUICIDE in Oregon and apparently, Wendy, the waitress at the bar and café in Lakeview, Oregon thought it was among her duties to be the assistant. A group of ten state economic development staffers from Salem had preceded me by, perhaps, ten minutes. When I placed my order for a New York steak, medium rare, a wave of laughs and rolled through their number. “You have any idea what you’re in for?” “Good luck, stranger.” “Nice knowin’ ya, pal.” “You from California? Don’t do it! We need your money!”

The steak was preceded by a green salad slathered with bleu cheese and then some homemade soup that I hadn’t counted upon. By the time the entrée arrived, I was registering full. The New York stretched across both ends of a rather large oval-shaped plate and it was nearly buried in slippery, salty, hot deep-fried potatoes and onions. One of the state workers hummed “Taps” and others joined in.

I decided that tomorrow, I’d skip breakfast and take off with only a cup of motel coffee to amp me up and sustain me. I carved into the steak.

THE LAST DAY of an extended road trip is a mixture of excitement and melancholy. To be in Candi’s embrace was the reward at the end of a long trail, but the road’s siren song never really goes away. There is so much to see. So many places. And, as they say, so little time.

The entire trip had been pleasant. The only rain had been on a layover day in Jackson. Riding temperatures ranged from the fifties to the mid-eighties. Today, however, I’d need to craft a route home that would avoid the Sacramento Valley where the thermometer was expected to eclipse 100. Stay to the high country.

California’s route 89 is one of the most beautiful rides anywhere in creation. To the north, it starts at Mount Shasta, one of California’s most singular gems. As it courses along the spine of the Sierra, it passes through pastures, across fly-fishing streams, past Lassen Peak, and through towns rich with lumbering or mining heritage. It winds up on 395 just north of Bridgeport. Outside of the traffic around Lake Tahoe, this route is superlative.

I plotted a course down CA 299 to Bieber, a place I’d always wanted to visit. (The former publisher of Rider Magazine now grows wheat on ninety acres up in those parts and I was curious about the attraction.) Then I choose CA 89 through Lassen Park, down CA 32 along Deer Creek to Chico for a visit with mom, and home from there. But snow – in late June – still closed 89 through the park, so I detoured across the high grass lands of Lassen County on CA 44, took a forest service road through standing pines to Westwood, catching 89 below Lake Almanor.

It was around 12:30 when I rumbled into Greenville. Last night’s steak had run its course and I absolutely needed something light to hold me for the final three hours of the journey. Kathy’s Corner Café is a favorite spot. I parked out front, stretched my crushed backbone and butt-weary muscles and went in looking for some pie and a cup of coffee.

“Got pie?” I asked as I sat at the counter.

“Got cheesecake,” the young woman answered.

“No pie?”

“No pie,” she said. “But have a piece of pumpkin cheesecake. It’ll save me eating it at the end of my shift as I always do.”

A geography major and student of topography, I eyed the young woman up and down. Didn’t look to me as if she’d had too many pieces of pumpkin cheesecake in her time, I thought with appreciation, but said, “Okay, and coffee.”

Like ordering a Coca Cola but being asked if a Pepsi is okay, I hadn’t wanted cheesecake. I wanted pie. And while the cheesecake was good, it wasn’t pie and a scoop of ice cream.

I reached atop a rounded glass and chrome pastry unit and fetched a copy of the Indian Valley newspaper. Having lived in the region 15 years prior, I wanted to see if any names I recognized had made the blotter. I was bones-played-out tired from three solid days of riding a thousand miles of high sun roadway. The newsprint did not come into focus. I folded the rag and placed it atop the pastry container, readying myself for the last bite of cheesecake when I looked through the glass and chrome countertop display.

There: inside. Coiled. Lightly tan with reddish-brown edges under a creamy glaze of sweet whiteness, like a high-country snowfield on a distant summit. Big. Round. Eye level to me. I stared through the glass. The cinnamon roll had been fresh within the last hour or two. They didn’t ship them in from anywhere because anywhere was just too far away from Greenville. Sometime, during this period of reverie, my cup was refilled. I don’t think I blinked. I don’t think I thought. I just knew that the perfect cinnamon roll rested within inches – INCHES – of my waiting fork, and I’d just polished off a chunk of pumpkin cheesecake that now sat in my belly like a barrowful of wet, heavy concrete.

You okay, sir?” The pretty girl asked and I flushed.

“Yeah. Yeah. Check please.”

I RODE HOME through the Feather River Canyon. A great finale even though temperatures near Oroville and down the Sacramento Valley rose to over 100 degrees. But the familiar route gave me time to contemplate the great contrasts of the west. Beautiful mountains. Vast prairies. Mysterious and inviting roads coursing through canyons, over passes and across plains. Captivating history, geology, flora and fauna. Small towns that harkened back to times far less complex than present. Times before cell phone towers and internet access. And the people, both happy and challenged – wide with diversity – the people I met along the way.

I arrived home only one perfect cinnamon roll from complete satisfaction. But now, at least, I knew where to find it.

One cannot indulge in breakfast pastries after 10:00 AM and not be thought a glutton any more than one can have whiskey prior to 4:00 and not be thought a lush.
- "Duke"
June, 2010

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, July 2, 2010


“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra -
explaining why he no longer patronized Ruggeri's,
a popular St. Louis restaurant in 1950-something.

I’D BEGUN THE TOUR taking US Route 50 through Nevada. Touted as “the loneliest road in America,” I remember when it was. Ten years ago, traveling west to east from my father’s old stomping grounds in and about Milford, Utah, my wife and I motored in our Mazda MPV, awestruck by the subtle nature of the high desert. Towns and former towns were listed along the corridor. I remember dust and vistas and getting gas in Austin, a postage stamp sized outpost about halfway across. The only other patron was a gentleman with Alaska plates on a 70s era BMW R-75.

I looked at his plates and asked, “Going or coming?”

“Goin’ home,” he said. “Thought I’d take the scenic route home from the reunion in Minnesota.”

Gotta get me another Beemer, I thought being without bike at the time.

My impression, that day, was that we might have seen a dozen and a half vehicles over the entire 400-mile course of Highway 50, making the Alaskan’s trip even more tantalizing.

Then, four years ago, my buddy from Washington and I engaged in a road trip from California to Missouri. Our mission was to deliver my 1997 Toyota pickup to daughter and son-in-law back in KC. This time heading west to east, the road was still desolate, but in Fernley, Fallon, Austin, Eureka and Ely, one could buy an I Survived the Loneliest Road t-shirt or commemorative pin at any gas station or mercantile. I succumbed in Baker, lugging a coffee mug with me for the rest of the trip.

The promotion worked. More cars – still not many – used this alternative to I-80. And each of the towns seemed to have just a bit more bustle and a little fresher paint.

I began my 2010 Wyoming loop strongly urged to have accommodations reserved should I care to stop for the night along US 50 in the Silver State. To be sure, lonely ain’t what it used to be.

SIX DAYS LATER, I link up to US 395 in Oregon around the town of Burns, about 100 miles west of the Idaho state line. I will follow it all the way to Lakeview, then, tomorrow, into Alturas, in California. The eastern Oregon air is pure. Bug hatch is minimal in the high desert so I open the face of my Arai helmet in order to enjoy the morning freshness. The subtle undulations of the rolling landscape punctuated by the occasional dry wash make for a mesmerizing ride. A trio of Harley riders roars past at some point forcing me to close the lid for a moment.

US 395 turns south at Riley. I’d been there twice before each time knowing I’d need gas. Each time passing the first business establishment in search of a nicer set of pumps. Each time turning back around to discover that the first business establishment was the only business establishment in Riley. The sales person at A&S BMW in Roseville reported that he’d done this turn-about as well. Twice.

TWENTY-EIGHT MILES SOUTH is the former town of Wagontire. (For the uninitiated, at wagon tire is the steel band that rings the wooden spokes and rims of a covered wagon.) In 1983, while riding an R-65 north, I’d hope to find a restroom at this place. Sorry. Closed. Then, two years ago, on the R-1150, same thing. Why would today be any different? Interesting thing about the bar/motel/gas station complex: In the window of the bar is an advertisement for Coors Lite. But Wagontire, the town, has been only a place name since long before Coors ever brewed a light beer. Go figure.
The trio of Harley riders – two men and a woman – had parked in the wide spot, smoking. One drank a beer pulled from a side case. Across the highway, a worn out sign comically points to a flat strip of land declaring: Wagontire International Airport. Sage chokes the strip.

“I hear tell,” I tell the Harley trio, “that when the daily flights ceased, the whole damn town just sorta dried up. Killed the place.”

The woman snorts, trying to withhold a laugh. Her man shoots her an evil glance.

SEVENTY MINUTES further down the road, blessedly, there’s a rest stop. I pull in. Leaning on the back of his early-90s era Ford F-350, a gentleman with twenty years on me drags on a Marlboro. He eyes my bike, asks where I’m going and where I’ve been.

“A case could be made,” I mention in the course of conversation, “that Highway 50 ain’t the loneliest road in the country. Not when you see all this… this… nothing.” I make a sweeping arms-length gesture at the endless steppe of sagebrush.

“Yep,” he says. “You see up there where the color of the road changes?” He pointed south. “One time, back in ’85, I was drivin’ a diesel Cadillac down that hill behind us,” he pointed north, “and was doin’ about 110.”


“Allafasudden, I seen a light bar come on ahead o’ me up there. Cop stepped out right into the lane and held up his hand. By the time I stopped, I had my license and registration ready to hand him. I tol’ him, ‘Damn. You must not get much bid’ness out this away.’ He laughed and said, ‘that’s shore true, but when I git one, I git a good one.’”

The old gent drops his cigarette butt and steps on it. “Only wrote me up for 78.”

THROUGH ALKALI LAKE and Valley Falls, there’s not much of anything but some fine geology, signs warning of jay-walking antelope and old wooden poles with power lines lacing across section upon section of sage.

Turns out, I didn’t need those reservations I’d secured for the Best Western in Lakeview. I only hope they don’t start selling t-shirts and coffee mugs.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press


SOMEBODY WAS IMPACTING the rounded end of a ball peen hammer on the set of nerves bundled just behind my right eyeball. This somebody had been doing it all night. I awoke to an empty room and a head pounding in response to my last-night-in-Jackson celebratory double enjoyed at the balcony of the Towne Tavern overlooking the square. The perch is a great place to people watch, both those sharing the balcony and those on the square below. Up here and at an adjacent table sat the editor from a big publishing house in New York who’d read a sample of work I’d submitted. Her words about my feeble efforts in a voice nicely positioned between business-is-business and this-ain’t-New-York-City, along with her creamy, dark complexion, warm, smoky eyes and off the shoulder sweater battled some pretty fine scenery and roadways for a highlight of this trip. Aged about that of my daughters, I wondered how the young, these days, got so smart and sophisticated so early in life. Down below, a worldwide array of folks wandered the curio shops around the plaza. Of particular interest was the fellow who’d backed his 250 Honda Rebel in line with the Harleys parked out front of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. I glanced at my watch to chronicle the elapsed time it would take tonight’s latter-day Paul Reubens to get his rear-end kicked out to the curb. But the gang over ta the Million Dollar must have been a forgiving bunch this eve. That or “Pee Wee” ponied up a round for the house.

MY MODUS OPERANDI on departure days is to log some miles before breakfast. Breaks the ride into segments. Rests the butt. Keeps one fresh. Victor, Idaho, some twenty-eight miles from Jackson, up a 7500-foot Teton Pass, would be my first stop.

The fifty-degree morning did what it could, but any irregularity in the pavement reminded me that the smithy was still working on my interior head. Usually the Knob Creek 9-year small batch is my friend, but the double the night before departure proved that friends sometimes betray friends. The very first sip of organic dark roast at the Sunshine Deli and Café now serving breakfast! began to soften the blows and by about the third sip, the world had come into focus.

The first thing I realized was that I had a problem: a coffee problem. My occasional imbibing is just that, occasional. I never have any alcohol until I’m done riding for the day and I simply should have been smarter than to have a stiff one the night before. So it wasn’t the Knob Creek. It was the coffee. Whether or not I have fouled my brain the night before, every morning, that first sip of coffee melts whatever is going on in my head and opens the gate for each new tomorrow. So caffeine addiction: that’s a problem.

Second thing I noticed was the waitress who served me. In fact all of them. Not the stereotypical older, painted-up well-past-mid-life woman who had clearly worked greasy spoons since birth, calling each male customer “honey” in a voice that crackled dryly over decades of tobacco use. No, the gal waiting on me looked very natural in jeans and Keens, nicely rounded and lithe, and intelligent in her discourse up and down the counter, but just sassy enough to be entertaining this morning. She may have been the inspiration for the name of this little bid’ness. Sunshine. And, like the editor on the balcony the night before, young enough to be a daughter.

“May I have the world famous French toast and bacon?”

“You sure may, fella. More coffee?”

My third awareness was of the guy seated just around the corner at the counter. Age of a nephew of mine. Head shaved smooth. Apparently that’s the thing now. Body art tattoos wrist to shoulder that I’d didn’t have the eye for – and he likely won’t some fifteen years from now. If he lives that long.

It was 8:45 AM and he was halfway through a Sam Adams India Pale Ale. At maybe twenty-two. Next to him was an acquaintance that was doing his best to monitor and direct his conversation, keep him from falling off the stool and perhaps limit his exposure to more of the Brewer Patriot’s finest.

“It’s all down here from here,” the tattooed one said to whomever was in the room.

“Naw,” I said. I cocked my thumb over my shoulder. “It’s all down here from the pass.”

His partner laughed.

So did he. “Look,” he said, “I don’t even know how I got here this morning. Pulled an all nighter last night.”

“Get done at 5:00?” his partner asked.

“Nope. 3:30 I think. Which is worse ‘cause you can’t see where you’re going.”

He drained his ale and I winced. Hammering returned to my head, if only out of sympathy. I took another slug of coffee.

Tattoo and his sidekick talked and like a turbulent morning tide, their voices flowed and ebbed and flowed again.

“You know, there’s a centipede in the bathroom back there,” Tattoo said. “They’re poisonous, aren’t they?”

“I wouldn’t eat one,” his caretaker responded.

A bit subdued laughter rolled through the patrons of the house.

A cell phone rang and his colleague stepped outside to take it.

Tattoo pushed the bottle away and called over one of the young wait staff.

“Teton Mimosa, please.” He grinned broadly. His teeth were clustered into groups of two or three.

“Teton Mimosa?” I asked, looking for his buddy.

“Yeah. PBR and Orange juice,” Tattoo said.

I thought he was kidding until the thing showed up.

I focused on my French toast. Crusted with something sweet and crunchy, I began to believe that World Famous was not just idle bluster. “And maple syrup from Vermont.” Sunshine wanted me to be sure I knew.

Eventually the friend returned and said he had to “git.” He was due to guide a group on a raft trip down the Teton River rapids. He slipped a credit card across the counter, which was scooped up by the help.

“Me, too,” said Tattoo, who also produced a credit card.


It was five or ten minutes before I finished. I’d declined a refill of my coffee, but by the time my bill came, I’d reconsidered. “Just half. Don’t want any of it to go to waste.”

“You’re such a liar,” Sunshine said with a laugh, as if we’d known each other since high school. That’d be forty years ago for me, and about eight for her.

She returned to fill my cup and scoop up the money I’d laid on the counter. “You’ll see us again?”

THE YOUNG MAN had wrested an older green Specialized® mountain bike from its mooring having won his skirmish with the cable and lock. He looked at me and shook his head twice. Violently. Then he straddled the machine and began to pedal.

After just two strokes, he was riding straight and true toward where ever it was he was going. I pictured him wearing a yellow jersey. Perhaps he did as well. Passers-by would never suspect the content of his morning repast.

Moments later, after donning my protective jacket, helmet and gloves, I motored by. Tattoo waved and I hoped for him the best. The ball peen had quit hammering in my head. For Tattoo, it would likely continue for some time.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press


HE SAID HIS NAME WAS DUKE, but I didn’t find this out until the end. In the beginning, I only knew, right off, he was a poser. A pseudo cowboy, one whose horseshit was not on the outside of his footwear. All hat, no cattle, as they might say in this section, except that he wasn’t wearing a hat. A faded blue bandana, knotted at the back, wrapped his shaven head. His thick, sandy blonde goatee told me he wasn’t all that old.

I’d sidled up to a breakfast counter and before my proudly served Starbucks was even ordered he asked, “Where you from?”

“Sacramenta area,” I said. “What about you?”

“Here,” he said.

Bullshit, I thought. “No one around here is from around here,” I told him lightheartedly. He assured me that he was.

The Eatery is one of those establishments that cannot exist outside of towns like Taos, New Mexico, Virginia City in Nevada, Telluride, Colorado, perhaps Mendocino, California and, of course here, in Jackson, Wyoming. The menu speaks to hearty breakfasts with large servings, but the hens lay amazingly small eggs (it must be nearly painless) and the pigs from which rashers of bacon are sliced may not have been fully corn-fed. The period quilted placemats and matching napkins are manufactured in Vietnam and available for sale at the register.

Towns like this used to exist primarily because the populous actually did something. They mined ore, cut trees, raised cattle or fished fish. We visit these places and view their past through lenses tinted by romance. Here and now, we never see the backbreaking toil and good luck that brought about the boom; nor the heartbreak – only the boarded up windows – that accompanied the bust. History, the revisionist kind, is recounted on the fronts of Hanes 50/50s displayed in store windows around the square.

“Duke” was wearing a t-shirt, the undershirt kind – not the I been to Jackson kind – and over the undershirt a ragged plaid that had likely seen many wearings and too few washings. He wasn’t shod in Justins or Naconas either, now that I think about it. He did have a collection of silver rings, enough for one on each finger of his left hand and three on his right.

Can’t do much ranch handing or timber felling like that, I thought, and a sharp tug by an angry sea bass or big-fin tuna would render any of those ring-decorated fingers simple, inglorious fish bait.

“Yeah, I’m from these parts.” His face was straight and serious, perhaps a little disappointed-in-self. His Starbucks had arrived. “Just tryin’ to figure a way out.”


My coffee arrived. This morning, before my conference session, I’d hoped to read the free local paper I’d picked up outside and then give some thought to the places I’d passed through on my way to Jackson. Places that formerly existed but lacked the grandeur of the Tetons or the drama of the ocean as a backdrop. Places where the concrete walks are cracked and lifted by roots of trees planted for shade now run-away in form or dead of neglect. Boardwalks once smoothed by years of boots scrubbing across them en route to the mercantile or saloon, now splintered by decades of rain, frost and sun, rain frost and sun. Poverty or fate had swallowed up and spit out countless towns in today’s American west. And I’d been through ‘em.

“I considered myself too smart for high school so I quit in ’92 and went off to live on my own. Just down the street from mom and dad, it was, but on my own like an adult.” He laughed at himself.

The Latina waitress, merrily plump, speaking thick, broken English, slipped a blueberry muffin his way. Offering thanks in circa-sixth grade Spanish, he continued: “Yep. Too smart for my folks and my own good. Didn’t get much further than just down the street, damn-it-all.”

I wasn’t fully convinced and wondered what, here, might be for sale.

“Duke” was shorter than I. My feet both rested flat on the floor while my butt perched atop the stool. His right foot dangled while his left toe just touched the brick-patterned linoleum.

“Got me a few jobs. Buckin’ hay. Runnin’ cows.”

In those Converse All Stars? C’mon.

“Hauling sundries to and from. Once got ta goin’ too fast and flipped the boss’ truck end for end six times. Hell of a mess of hay bales busted up all over th’ road. Good news is I learnt I could fly. Through the back window. Bad news is I couldn’t land all that good.” He tapped the blue bandana twice and grinned. “Steel plate.”

A covey of young females entered and filled the six places of the table behind us.

“Tourists,” he said to me and then to a filly in nicely rounded jeans and a hot pink tube top, “Hey.”


“How long you here?”

“Leavin’ for Boise on Sunday,” I said. I turned and saw he was talking to the girl.

Their conversation was short. Perhaps not unlike some previous encounter. Certainly more abbreviated than I might have desired had I been “Duke.”

“Sunday,” he said to me. “That’s not much time.”

I explained my purpose in town, the writers’ conference, trying not to command the conversation. Rather, I wanted to hear more from him for some reason. Find out who this “Duke” really was. The free newspaper I slipped under my butt on the stool so I wouldn’t be distracted by the tragic headline of a young bronc rider dying the other night over ta the fairgrounds.

Duke was a post-modern everyman. And fancied himself a local gadabout. There’d be a cigar tasting at the smoke shop next to the old picture show this evening. Best beer in town was the 10.5% brew concocted a few blocks over in the backroom of a small restaurant. Scotch? He’d developed his palette, or so he claimed.

“Want to keep you busy in your free time,” he explained as he finished his blueberry muffin. “I’m pulling a double shift over ta the Cadillac today. 9:30 to 1:00 AM. Stop by. I can get you in.”

The plump senorita slipped my tab beneath my coffee cup and slid his under some derelict muffin crumbs.

“Tell you what,” I said, picking up both. “You leave a tip.”

He protested.

“Just leave a tip, friend,” my statement too much a command.

He caught up with me on the street outside. “Hey,” he said, “I never got your name.”

I turned. “Charley Brilliant,” a moniker I’d wrested from the far side of plausibility a while back. I held out my hand.

“I’m going by Duke.”

I sized him up. Not tall. Not stout. No particular swagger. Just a young man of a far different sort than myself trying to get out of town and eating a blueberry muffin along the way.

“Well, thank you kindly, Charley Brilliant.”

Our hands clasped. I thought about his schooling, the wrecked truck, the tourist girl and his man-about-town self-perception.

“Sure,” I said giving him a familial slap on the shoulder and went to meeting.

THAT NIGHT, LATE, after readings by two authors, I moseyed on down to the Cadillac. Through the window, I could see the kitchen and in the kitchen was Duke dumping a basket of sliced potatoes into the deep fryer.

I didn’t stop in for that drink. I didn’t like the reflection I saw in the window of that kitchen.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, July 1, 2010


OCCASIONALLY PARISHIONERS at the Church of the Open Road receive proof that God rides. Exhibit A this day (Thursday, June 24) comes in the form of US 89 between Logan, Utah and Garden City. Within three miles of departing the home of Utah State University, US 89 enters the mouth of Logan Canyon, coursing for some 33 miles east northeast along the river of the same name.

Beginning at cottonwood elevation – an environ prompting me to wish I’d taken my Claritin knock-off along with my acid blocker and arthritis formula this morning – the road sweeps skyward. God, on her Ducati – I assume the Ducati part, given that she can ride any bike she chooses – must revel in this work of man. Leaning left, then right, then left again, it is as if a Viennese waltz has been set to pavement. The river tumbles first to one side, then the other of the strip of smoothly engineered asphalt. The route follows the animated river as it gorges itself on rock particles, scouring and slicing through 1500 feet of sediment from the basement of an ocean She knew once upon a time, not too long ago.

Upward, the cottonwoods yield to aspen whose leaves, this first day after the summer solstice, have just reached maturity. I look at the stands ringing high country glades and reaching like fingers into groves of fir and consider the life cycle of the aspen leaf. In ten weeks or so, the first frost will spread its icy glaze across this elevation – so close to heaven – if only for a night or two. But it will be enough to turn the delicate leaves to a twittering gold, dancing on twig stems until, shortly thereafter, a big snow will blow in and strip them all away. The aspen will grow dormant. The fan-shaped leaves, stomas welded shut, will have performed their task: 75 days of respiration for the host. And until sometime late next spring, everything will rest.

Geologic time. Botanic time.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press


FROM THE BORDER of Nevada and Utah, heading east, I wonder what must have happened to our Mormon brethren that they should be exiled to a place such as this. Shared routes US 50 and 6 split at Delta, Utah after a several mile run through pretty desolate stuff. And the poor town of Delta, at least what I could see during my short stop there for a Coke and a smile, looks as if it exists because “it’s about time we stuck a town somewhere.” The usual businesses line the highways with the usual number of closures of moms and pops and the usual numbers of upstart national franchises. But the town seems, again at only a glance, tired, dusty, work-a-day and sad.

Traveling north it will be several miles until the next town of any size, but shortly after heading north, the arid land becomes less arid. Those industrious folks in Delta had tamed the water and created pastures out of the dust. Long sweeping arcs of Rain Bird sprinklers fed huge green circles that I remember seeing from the air.

The closer I get to Salt Lake City, the more I marvel at the efforts of folks to tame an arid west into productivity and commerce. Each small berg has at least one Mormon Church and I am given to understand that the word “ward” refers to something other than Beaver Cleaver’s dad or a ne’er-do-well under charge of the court.

AT A POINT, I have hooked up with I-84 and am motoring north through Salt Lake. It is a city in all respects with drivers who perform as if they apprenticed in Sacramento. Coupled with highway construction through the heart of town, the inability of cagers to allow a reasonable distance between self and others at speed prompts me to take my fatigued body off the freeway and find an alternate route.

State Routes in California are paved. Some shoddily so, but paved none-the-less. I supposed state routes in every state would be similarly surfaced.

Route 39 heads east out of Ogden and, according to the map, route 162 will head north through both Eden and Paradise – two places I’m not likely to see in the next life – and take me to Logan, this day’s destination.

The great thing about the BMW GS Adventure is the versatility engineered into it. Somewhere along the 162, after about 390 miles of riding, the pavement ended. A touch of a button and the suspension is adjusted for single rider, bags, and mountain surface. I click off the ABS and plunge into the dust and rock. In first and second gear and standing on the pegs, the road unfolds, as does the view. I am entering the Front Range of the Wasatch and actually find the slow, bumpy going a bit therapeutic on my bum.

At the crest of the ride, I stop for pictures of a field of yellow daisy-like flowers and a view of Eden, with all of its pastoral and garden-like qualities.

THE SOJOURN cut a substantial distance from what was to be a 450 miler. I arrived at the Best Western, showered and took a walk along a wonderful Main Street. Rounding one corner, about ¾ of a mile from the motel, I know I heard angels. I looked up and saw not only the word “Bakery” but listed on the window in painted manuscript were the words “Cinnamon Rolls.” I knew where breakfast would be on the morrow.

Evening had me walk through neighborhoods and find a seat behind a Tabernacle where the brethren were just leaving evening services. A park bench afforded a lovely view of nighttime creeping up the base of the Front Range. I placed a phone call or two and scanned the local paper. Good way to spend fifteen minutes – until it got too dark to read.

I trundled down the hill and bedded down thinking about tomorrow’s early departure after the cinnamon roll.

I ARRIVED AT THE BAKERY at 6:55. Five minutes early. A young man let me in.

“Cinnamon roll, please.”

“The fresh ones will be out in about 90 minutes. I can sell you one of yesterday’s for half price, though.”

“I’ll walk around the block, thanks.”

“For ninety minutes?”

I thought about this and my desire for an early start. It was 228 miles to Jackson and I needed to be there by 2:00.

“You’re right. I’ll take a used one.”

“A used one?” He laughed and handed me product wrapped in cellophane.

I tipped him a buck for letting me in early and sat down outside thinking the next time I come to Logan, I need to not be in such a hurry to leave.

Day-old dry and with coffee unavailable, I couldn’t finish the pastry.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press