Thursday, September 30, 2010


THE OTHER DAY, I found myself on the road to Napa to visit a hospitalized friend. Interstate 80 makes an efficient route just as Burger King is efficient with lunch. I chose California 128, which begins in Winters (off I-505) and winds up at the coast. The last fifty miles of 128 from Cloverdale to Route 1 is the stuff of legends, but the section from Winters to the Napa Valley provides graceful in-saddle relaxation and a few sections of challenge. Here are a very few notes on what I found:

DOWNTOWN WINTERS. If you, like I, grew up in a small town where everyone knew who you were, take heart that such places still exist. Main Street, Winters CA, is two blocks south of route 128. The downtown bank isn’t a multi-national. The realtor has his own name on the door. The Buckhorn Steakhouse provides world-class fare with area wines from small growers. My noontime found me eating a burger at the Putah Creek Café and eavesdropping on the conversations of locals about the sheriff’s race, today’s unseasonable temperature and somebody’s new baby boy. My lunch prompted me to tell the waitress that most burgers are nothing special, but this one is to die for. Nicely browned, garnished with fresh local produce and sitting atop a bun that never saw the inside of a corporate bakery – if one is destined to have coronary artery disease, this is among the most enjoyable ways to get it. Dive in. Don’t look back.

LAKE BERRYESSA. Not the most picturesque of reservoirs, the turnout at Monticello Dam, west of Winters, affords a pleasant view down the course of Putah Creek. A small resort rests at the bottom and the still waters of Putah Creek provide great fishing and invite a swim on a hot afternoon. At the dam site, the endless efforts of tectonic forces uplift and bend once-seabed into what is now the Coast Range of California. Easily seen are the layers upon layers of sediment that predate just about everything but the big bang. Off to the west, shoreline is a matrix of clustered oaks on a golden-grassland palette. Berryessa is an Anglicization of "Berrelleza" – surname of Basque settlers who first settled this and many other tranquil Coast Range valleys. Somewhere off in the distance, livestock still graze near where the Zodiac of the 1960s did one of his awful deeds. Moonset from this vantage point, one imagines, both warms and chills.

SPANISH MOSS. West, the road rises and settles into various valleys and swales. Where the temperature and humidity are optimal, long arrays of Spanish moss hang from the arms and chins of the valley oaks like beards of a Tolkien character. Its presence gives the woodlands an ethereal quality that goes unnoticed by passers-by seeking the ethereal quality of the redwoods yet another two hours west. Still the soft blue-drab beards and muted light invite fantasies of trolls and animals that talk and young maidens carrying baskets to grandmas. A picnic along the side of the road in early spring or late autumn seems in order.

THE NICHELINI WINERY. Established in 1890, my first visit to Nichelini was the result of stumbling upon it when driving north out of Fairfield with friends. I believe we purchased some wine in a jug, but three decades (and too much wine from jugs) may render the memory a bit fuzzy. One of the oldest wineries in all of California, Nichelini produces absolutely premier wines from local vineyards. Their Chiles Valley Zinfandel accompanies nicely a tri-tip dinner from the Buckhorn in Winters or that picnic under the Spanish moss. Plan on finding space on the rack at home and buying a case. Open for tours only on the weekend, and with limited parking along the windy route, too many people race by and miss this California heritage business.

STATE ROUTE 128 and sister route 121 (directly into Napa) do all the verbs we riders seem to like: sweep, twist, lilt, rise, fall, challenge and invite. My friend’s illness provided an unhappy counterpoint to this delightful route, yet the route provided a delightful counterpoint that would not have been achieved on the Interstate.

A quick scan of two of my habitual monthly reads: Rider Magazine and the BMW Owner’s News, finds that most articles about travel are from those who have journeyed great distances for their story: Alaska’s Haul Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, California Highway 1 – even globe trotting through Africa or around the world. Yet, in most of our backyards are roads people travel for days just to visit. Leave us not overlook these gem-like local routes in our quest to find something special. Special is right here.

RESOURCES: Info on the Buckhorn Steakhouse and Putah Creek Café Established in 1890, the Nichelini Family is the oldest continuously operating family owned winery in the Napa Valley.  This site is devoted to providing information about Winters, California to residents and visitors alike.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


SOMEWHERE between here and the Owens Valley and home again, I lost a favored tool. I suspect I left it on the dresser at the Mt. Williamson Motel in Independence. I recall looking at it several times as I was packing the BMW’s panniers and loading my pockets for the ride home. Wallet. Watch. Note pad and pen. All of these found place on my person in one of the dozen or so compartments in my Motorrad pants or jacket. But the pocket knife – a single locking-blade Schrade “Old Timer” with a “Delrin” handle and a nickel-silver bolster on the hinge – sat on the corner of the dresser as I did this, then that, in preparation for departure. Gotta put that in my pocket, I thought to myself each time I saw it, always immediately distracted by some other task.

FOR A TIME, I owned an original Isuzu Trooper II. It was called the Swiss Army Knife of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Tough. Versatile. Dependable. For a time, I owned a Kawasaki KLR 650 – dubbed the Swiss Army Knife of dual-sport motorcycles. Tough. Versatile. Dependable. For a time, I owned a Swiss Army Knife. It proved not to be as advertised. The stainless steel blade failed to keep an edge and was nearly impossible to re-hone. The built-in corkscrew hyper-extended itself and would no longer settle into its nest in the handle after the first pull on a stubborn bottle of red. The scissors didn’t cut and once the tweezers were lost, my fingers always searched out their cavity like a tongue finds a missing filling. The Swiss Army Knife was chic and versatile, but it didn’t do any task particularly well.

Not so the Old Timer. Sure, it hadn’t the facility to pull a cork or a splinter, but its steel blade took an edge nicely and was up to any whittling, carving, smoothing, slicing or trimming task asked of it. I’d carried this tool for eight to ten years, certainly longer than any other pocketknife I’d ever owned. Others had been lost. A black handled Buck stuck into a picnic table and forgotten up in the Lakes Basin. A Bokker “Tree” busted when used to pry something it was not engineered to pry. A Case dropped between couch cushions somewhere. Several cheapies, I know, are resting in the cobbles of the streambed of Chico Creek out in front of a house on Bidwell Avenue.

The Schrade Old Timer, however, was different. In part because of its elegant design: a smooth simple 2 inch blade that folds nicely into a rustic handle. In part because of its ease of maintenance: a couple of swipes across an oiled whetstone as part of my Sunday evening ritual while barbecuing lamb or chicken. In part because the machined hard edges of the Delrin handle had been softened by constant use over the decade: splitting tape on a box, opening an envelope, whittling a stick into tender for fire starter, slicing an apple for lunch or cleaning fingernails. Always something.

Until that day in that motel. I know it is still sitting there. Or that Maria, the housekeeper, has added it to her collection of derelicts left by forgetful hostliers.

A MONTH AND A WEEK have elapsed and I am more assured that the thing will not resurface. I decide to drop a couple of twenties on a replacement. But none of the local stores sell Old Timers: neither the Home Depot/Lowe’s chains nor the independents. The hardware stores seem to have buyers that acquire product from the same sources so all of the inventory in all of the stores is all the same. On-line, I discover that Schrade no longer makes the Old Timer line. My heart sinks. While the good news is that a similar model may be had for half the price, the bad news is that the new knife looks to be of far lesser quality than my original. “Imported,” the entry admits.

I’m okay with imported. I ride a BMW; drive a Nissan and a Civic. But, still, I feel as if I’d lost a piece of quality that I will never regain and think about calling the Mt. Williamson to see if the thing had turned up.

Instead I decide to go for a ride. Perhaps I could head up to the Lakes Basin and find that Buck still stuck in the picnic table. It’s only been 30 years.

I pull my riding pants from their hanger and something heavy hits my sock-clad right foot. It directly impacts a bunion sending a shock wave from foot to brain. Reflexively, I kick and whatever it was skitters under the cedar chest, ricochets off the wall and lays peeking from beneath the cabinet’s edge. In the inkling prior to dousing the closet light, I see the nickel-silver bound hinge and a trace of Delrin handle.

The Old Timer had been caught in a pocket or a fold of the riding pants – and I’d painstakingly checked them all. I pick it up, open, close and open it again, run my thumb across the blade’s edge and promise myself that I’ll hone the steel as soon as I return from the day’s ride.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, September 23, 2010


CALIFORNIA’S FIRST RECESSION probably occurred in the 1860s. That’s when the labor force, seeking to line their pockets with gold scooped from the American, the Yuba and the Feather, discovered that there wasn’t as much gold to go around as had been advertised. The bubble burst.

Recessions are times when those of entrepreneurial spirit make hay with creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Thus, the Truckee Turnpike Company organized to shepherd frustrated gold miners eastward from the dying Mother Lode of California to the booming Comstock of Nevada.

Today, the Henness Pass Road is found on many maps. I carried three: The AAA’s Northeastern California, DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteer, and the Forest Service’s Tahoe National Forest Map. According to each of these, the route begins in Camptonville (eastern Yuba County off State Route 49), rumbles through the rugged heart of Sierra County and ends in Verdi, Nevada near I-80. Interestingly, on the ground, only in Verdi is there a road marker citing Henness Pass Road. At Camptonville, one doodles around until finding that the only route out of town that’s not the state highway is called Mountain House Road. It is marked as Sierra County 293, then becomes SC 302, then SC 301 although the maps don’t share these designations commonly.

There would be much more “doodling around” this day. Perhaps some of the adventure in adventure touring is the thought that you may, at times, be hopelessly lost.

A WEST-TO-EAST TOUR of this route provides a study in contrast between the verdant west side and the arid east side of the Sierra. Early on, to the north, the Alp-like Sierra Buttes rise from the thick fir forests along the drainage of the Yuba. Logging is active in the area so even after three month of summer drought, the road may be muddy based upon the dust control activities of the timber harvesters.

Cresting a ridge, a long descent into Milton Reservoir is rocky and taxing. Once there, two gunite dams hold back a tiny stream creating a pool, perhaps a hundred years old that is silting from the incessant work of storms wearing away the high arêtes that ring the area.

In another lifetime or two, the pool will be rendered into meadow.

Henness Pass itself is a mere 6920-foot draw that, were there not a sign, one would pass over without notice. 30 miles south, the Donner Party attempted to scale the crystalline cliffs of the pass now named in their honor. An honor that would be un-noted and unnecessary had they attempted a route only two days walk further north. A Virginian named James Beckworth, trapping in the 1840s discovered that the further north one traveled, the less daunting the passes of the Sierra. Peter Lassen capitalized on this and, in the Comstock Rush of the late 1850s and early 60s, so did the Truckee Turnpike Company.

Over the pass, the environs illustrate the rain shadow effect that renders Nevada so dry. Thick fir forests have given way to sparse groupings of pine. Sage invades the bottomlands where modern-day ranchers continue carrying the cudgel first borne by those who chose not to seek silver in the Comstock. The road traces ridges that afford views of flats and valleys named Kyburz, Sardine and Stampede.

The final four miles is an uncomfortable (at least on a motorbike) descent along a twisting road covered in golf-ball sized rocks down a tributary canyon of the Truckee. Reward for this is dusty adventure is a few minutes in a delightful river park in Verdi, Nevada with manicured lawns and access for kayaking, trout fishing or just reflection.

Resources: “Nevada County Gold” blogs about parks and recreation in the South Yuba drainage. “Ghost Town Explorers” provides direction to many historic places otherwise passed by. A nice link!

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Note: The following graphic provides information on the “rain shadow” effect that the uplifted Sierra affords lands to the east. This graphic regards the area around the Owens Valley and is posted in the park at Independence, CA, but explains nicely why things are the way things are.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


THE LATE MARLON PERKINS, once director of the St Louis zoo, visited my next door neighbor a couple of times while I was growing up. Mr. Perkins directorship was not his claim to fame; rather, it was his association with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Every week, we children of the sixties would rivet ourselves to our black and white TV sets, engrossed in natural tales of life and death in the Wild Kingdom. Almost to the point of comedic-ness, each quarter hour segment would end with a safari-suited Marlon Perkins intoning something like: “The Brewers Blackbird has only his combined ability for rapid flight and dive-bombing predators like Ford Falcons with poop to help him survive in the Wild Kingdom. As people, we can’t fly off into the air for protection, so we need protection from Mutual of Omaha.”

Hap Andrews, an independent agent, lived just down the street. By the time I was twelve, my folks had me covered for five grand.

I mention Marlon Perkins and the Wild Kingdom because one thing we never saw was a predator actually taking prey, crushing the smaller in the jaws of the larger and then rending its lifeless form into bloody chunks of breakfast. Too graphic for television’s then sensibilities.

THE WILD KINGDOM came to mind six weeks back while I was exploring the Manzanar Japanese Relocation Center in the Owens Valley. Afoot, I’d taken to walking through sand and greasewood and one hundred degree heat exploring the far reaches of the enclave; places not visited by those touring in air conditioned Nissans and Toyotas and Hondas – all imports from Japan. Ironic, ain’t it?

Returning at mid-day the mile-and-a-half from the cemetery near the old Victory Garden, a small storm of dust catches my eye. It moves rapidly into my vision from left to right, the source of which was obscured by sage and mesquite. My attention arrested, I note a tinier dust devil racing in front of the larger one. Amidst it, a panicked squeak. Repeated. Squeak. Squeak. Squeaksqueak!

The larger draws closer to the smaller and, in moments, the dust explodes with a tiny, shrill shriek.

BACK HOME there are two dogs. Jax, the senior Aussie mix, enjoyed a storybook life until Edward, the junior, a Lab mix, brought this paradise to a reality-based halt. In the back yard, Jax may claim the red rubber ball or the Nyla-bone or the Kong, but the persistence of the interloper always leads to fisticuffs and, ultimately, the little black lab trots away with his smiling mouth clutching whatever the prize was. Jax eyes Edward ruefully as Edward looks over his shoulder, victorious, as if to say, “Look what I have.”

Such is life in the Wild Kingdom, I always say, running my fingers deep into Jaxie’s thick shoulder fur.

IN MOMENTS, trotting out of the dust cloud, a dusky-grey coyote, no bigger than Edward, proud and tall, clutches the hapless gerbil or squirrel or bunny in his iron-like jaws. He trots light and victorious, looking over his shoulder. The predator spots me and freezes.  He eyes me in much the same manner as our Lab eyes our crestfallen Aussie - tauntingly - as if to say: “Look what I have.”

Such is life, I think, followed by: I must find out what happened to that little life policy.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, September 20, 2010


“IF YOU’VE MET ONE PERSON with Alzheimer’s disease, you’ve met one person with Alzheimer’s disease.” The old man had moved from just around the curve of the full service bar at an oyster house near the wharfs in Eureka California.

I’d completed a grueling 200-mile day – short but made treacherous by winding dirt roads and fifty-mile-an-hour head winds. Eschewing my usual lodging, the Best Western chain, I opted for the classic Eureka Inn. Built in the 1910s, the old hotel sports a huge redwood paneled lobby with an inviting rock fireplace – always with a robust log burning – and both a classy restaurant and a café. I lacked reservations, but this Monday night only four of the 126 rooms appeared occupied, if my count of automobiles in the lot proved anywhere near true.

A shower at 6 PM perked me up and by 6:30 I’d hoofed it north eight blocks to the waterfront. The walk proved good after hours being beaten nearly to death in the saddle. I sought linguine and clams but found the oyster bar. Unlike the Eureka Inn, this establishment teemed with patrons. Each two- and four-place table was occupied and with the exception of two or three odd stools at the bar, there was no place to light.

“Bar’s fine,” I said to the hostess.

“To drink?”

“Sauv Blanc. What’da you have?”

“Handley and Firestone. The Handley’s better.”

I knew this and apologizing for ordering white wine, explained that sautéed scampi would probably be a nice accompaniment, given that there are no clams on the menu.

“You don’t need to hear about the specials.” It was a statement not a question. I liked this barkeep.

THE HANDLEY ARRIVED but not before a couple came in looking for a seat. The old gentleman round the corner, stood, hailed them over and said, “This’ll give you two together. I’ll just move over here.” He boosted himself on to the stool to my left setting a glass of red on the counter.

“How’s your day goin’, sir?” I asked, expecting the light talk that soothes the end of a long day.

He lifted the glass to his lips and then moved it away. “Not so good. So so, I’d say.”

I studied him for a moment. “We’ve got a warm place. You’ve got a nice glass of… what is that? Merlot?”

“Cab Franc.”

“Cab Franc. You going to eat?”

He took a sip and smiled. “Well, tonight was supposed to be date night, but…”

I didn’t want to know but what.

“…but my wife, she couldn’t make it through this time.”

My bar mate had been an aerospace engineer living down in Mountainview (California) for a career. He’d worked on Saturn rockets and Polaris submarines. “Did anything they wanted me to do. Used to be I could design 'n' build an F-18 out of a shoe box.” He laughed and slapped my knee. Then he pulled back, perhaps thinking he’d been too familiar.

“They have a great residential facility up this way for folks like…”

I didn’t get his wife’s name.

“I started noticing long ago, but three years back, I knew I couldn’t take care of her any longer, so we sold the place and come up here.”

He took another dainty sip. Then he asked: “What brings you up here?”

“What makes you think I’m not a regular?” I asked. “I mean I’m sittin’ here at the bar like a regular.”

He laughed and slapped my knee again. “Because, son, I’m a regular. Come here every Monday night with the wife.” He paused. “Sometimes she can make it though and sometimes, she can’t. Tonight, not so good. Now, you?”

I told him about my day, an aborted motorcycle trip up the rugged Lost Coast over something only approximating a road; followed by a battle with the north wind’s teeth that I nearly lost on the oceanfront out past Petrolia.

“Wisht I could do that,” he said.

My dinner arrived. “Go ahead,” he said.

“So,” I ventured, “I know you’re caring for your wife, but how’re you caring for yourself?”

He paused. I could feel the Rolodex of things done being flipped in his head. “Used to go Elk huntin’ up on the Snake in Idaho. Ever been there?”

I shared with him about my earlier-in-the-summer ride to those very parts.

“There’s a place up there where the bank’s about this high.” He held his hand about three feet off the floor. “And the river just slips by and across the river there’s a huge meadow that sweeps up hill into the forest. Always see elk. Always see elk.”

He nursed his drink.

“For myself, now-a-days – at eighty-one – I just think of myself sittin’ on the bank of the Snake. You know the place. With a fly rod and watchin’ them elk. And listenin’ to the wind and the water kinda whisper.”

I’d finished my dinner and was sopping up the buttery sauce with a piece of sourdough.

Then he added: “Makes me wish I’da learned to smoke a pipe when I was younger.”

WE CHATTED a bit further. My glass was empty, my plate removed; his glass still two-thirds full. I rose to pay my bill, but turned to him and patted his tired shoulder. He grasped my hand there and held for only a moment.

“Your wife’s got a good man lookin’ after her,” I said.

He nodded, but I felt him shrug. “I hope so.”

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


ONE WOULD HAVE TO KNOW that Usal Road exists in order to be interested in taking it. There is no sign off California State Route 1; just a gravel skirt leading to a cleared path, wide enough for a rugged vehicle, heading up the mountain to the west. I’d seen the marking on the map. Clement Salvadori rode it and wrote about it in Rider Magazine. It has long been on my list of routes to explore. Usal Road traces the Pacific Coast twenty miles north of Fort Bragg splitting off the state route once it heads inland. It connects Rockport, which used to be a town, with Whitethorn, a location that may be nothing more than simply a place name.

This area of California is known as the Lost Coast. At the mouth of Usal Creek, the Sinkyone group of Eel River Athapaskans may have summered or wintered in the meadow. If they did, they probably hunted elk and black tail deer along the course of the creek up into the hills that overlook the Pacific Coast. Their trade route may have taken them to what is now preserved redwood. Certainly, along the way, they were struck by the immensity of it all. The relentless surf. The eternal glade. The towering redwoods.

Modern man approached things differently. Usal Road follows no stream course; rather, it switchbacks upward for a mile until one is afforded a magnificent view of the ocean several thousand feet below. Then it slides back down the mountain on the inland side, crosses an unmarked stream and heads back up. The road is unsurfaced, dusty, rutted and rocky. There is no place to stop to behold the view because the road is narrow, the avenue for passing or pausing non-existent. Even on the most stable of vehicles, this mountainous route catches one’s breath. Drivers pray their brakes will hold; and that no one happens to be coming up in the opposite direction.

On the Beemer, I glanced down the bluff to the roiling surf breaking over shattered rocks and offered general prayers.

It is a six-mile route from CA 1 to the mouth of Usal Creek. After 45 minutes, it was clear that the only reason the road exists is because a few intrepid boar hunters keep taking it. Way out toward the primitive camp, a road grader stands cloaked in decades old weeds. I suspect the operator finally said “To hell with it!” hopped off and walked back.

THE MAP SHOWS that Usal road progresses about 30 miles to Whitethorn. But at the Sinkyone Camp, a sign is posted: ROAD NOT MAINTAINED BEYOND THIS POINT. I considered the bulk of the last hour as I examined the course of what lay ahead: a scar that rumbles over the hummocks and slumps of the next hill and ask: Who says it was maintained this far?

Several groups of campers had staked out remote sites and morning campfires smoldered into wisps of fragrant smoke. I set the bike on the side stand and hailed a bearded man.

“Road any good?” I asked, pointing past the sign.

“The fellow with the hat’ll know,” he replied cocking a thumb over his shoulder.

Six or eight campers spotted me. All wearing hats.

“Nice bike,” one said as he approached.

After pleasantries and comments about his motorcycling youth, our conversation quickly turned to matters at hand: the condition of Usal Road beyond up to Whitethorn.

“I did it in a pickup last year, but, hell, I got me stuck in a rut that musta been eighteen inches deep. Had to drop a tree and pitch the log into the crack and drive up on top of it. Kinda snuck up on me.” He laughed and eyed the motorcycle. “You could do it, I suppose.”

A few of his compatriots gathered as we mulled the options. Soon, a woman, seventy-five years of age at least, clad in ancient khakis and a weary plaid shirt wandered up and listened to our exchange. She’d found a pine needle and was cleansing the gaps in her teeth with it. After a moment, she interrupted. Pointing at my shiny German motorcycle and then up the road, she looked me in the eye for a moment. Then she shook her head.

“Bike as beautiful as that,” she said, “should NOT go on that road.”

I MUSCLED THE BIG GSA about and made my way back to Highway 1. The Lost Coast would remain lost.

Culture, history and genealogy of the Sinkyone Indians. wilderness
Sinkyone Wilderness State Park information. Park overview, detailed park information, maps of park, links to nearby parks, links to park related businesses.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press