Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Geography is the study of man and land and the interrelationships between them.
Professor David W. Lantis
CSU, Chico

ONE CANNOT SEPARATE a population of living things from the resources necessary to sustain it. James Algar’s film “Nature’s Half Acre” (produced in 1951 by Disney) made this point over and over.

When the principal of Rosedale School, Eldred Self, rewarded the “good kids” with a film party, and this was the film, I was elated. I probably saw the footage four or five times beginning when I was eight.

During the formative years, long weekends and vacations were spent in the old Ford Ranchwagon traveling from one place to another exploring.

Dad would hike us into the Yahi Country northeast of town. Mom once drove me down to Death Valley.

From as early as I was able to sling a pack on my back, we traipsed all over the Sierra in California and the cascades in Washington. All the while, we learned about the Indians who came before us, or the gold seekers, or the lumbermen. We’d think about living in houses made of sticks or bark. Or canvas.

We’d imagine the joy surround trips to town, once towns finally appeared. And around campfires, we’d hear stories – some factual, some not so much – about who lived here, why they came, what sustained them and why they left.

Or how they died.

EARLY IN MY COLLEGIATE CAREER, I decided my major would be Geography. “What’ll you do with that major?” “Nobody hires geographers.” “What are they going to teach you? How to fold a map?”

What I learned was how things fit together. Why civilization began around the Fertile Crescent – anthropology. How stores with like wares choose to locate in close proximity – economics. How glaciers form and what is necessary to sustain them – climatology. Why evidences of sea floor can be found atop Mount Everest – geomorphology. How the cloud of putty-colored air got locked in over the northern Sacramento Valley – physical geography. Why Constantinople is considered among the crossroads of the world – transportation. How come world maps seem to split the eastern hemisphere and not the western – cartography. Why Rome, Paris, Saigon, London, Shanghai, Lisbon and San Francisco might be centers of thought and creativity, while Oslo, Christchurch, Omaha, Panama City, and Biggs or Lodi might not be – Cultural Geography.

MANY FOLKS WHO RIDE motorcycles are asked, “Why?” They respond with terrific and varied reasons. All legitimate. Yesterday, I drove from home, up I-80 to Colfax; from Colfax into and out of the North Fork of the American to Iowa Hill; from Iowa Hill to Michigan Bluff, then down Gorman Ranch Road to the Middle Fork; thence up the ridge to Foresthill, Auburn and home.

I viewed the original route of the transcontinental railway over the Sierra, piles of slag from dry hole hard-rock mining, flume moorings that supplied water to placer claims, both clear and selective timber harvests, and evidence that a dam would one day be built – but never was.

The tiny brick jail in Iowa Hill suggests primitive criminal justice.

A steel bridge across the American suggests early public works.

The reservoir at Sugar Pine reminds of the relationship between humans and water.

The hundred-mile loop provided field lessons in history, hydrology, transportation, economics and politics. At many points I asked, “Why here?” Followed shortly by, “Oh.”

I WORRY ABOUT THOSE OF US who cannot ask “Why here?” and follow it up sooner or later with “Oh.” It seems to me that citizens of this world who do not understand that quote at the top of this piece are more likely to:
  • Drink water with little concern about where it comes from;
  • Consume and throw away without grasping that there is really no “away” to throw to;
  • Travel paths following ancient routes without realizing the why the past passed this way, or that there even was a past;
  • Assume our resources are limitless;
  • Assume our people are chosen;
  • Assume the future is now; and
  • Not grasp the breadth of the continuum we enjoy for only a fraction of time.

There is beauty in both the world’s complexity and its simplicity. I enjoy the ride because of what I can see, learn, figure out or prompt to research as a result of having been on the journey. I need to pause to thank Dave Lantis, Jerry Williams, Bruce Bechtal, Art Kiernan and a number of other CSU Profs for the life-long gift.

And I must not forget Eldred Self.



“Nature’s Half Acre” may be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meaFIBdGewY

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, May 21, 2011


AS KIDS, WE VISITED BUCKS LAKE and stayed in the Greg’s family’s chalet. Greg was a neighbor kid. I hadn’t been to the cabin in forty years. But on a motorcycle ride up into Plumas County, my brother insisted we drop in.

Uncle Wilbur was out front, cutting willows. His deep blue eyes belied any trace of now being in his mid-eighties. With fewer than a couple of hints, Wilbur remembered us.

“How’s your dad?”

“Gone,” as were many of Uncle Wilbur’s contemporaries.

“Oh, well, want a beer?” He walked us up the path to the house past the rock pool fed by ice water from the spring up the hill – the pool in which generations of family and visitors chilled beer and pop and watermelon. Wilbur scooped out two bottles and reached in for a third.

“Thanks, but not if we’re riding.”

“Mind if I do?” he asked, placing two Millers back in the pool and adding with a twinkle: “Champagne of bottle beers!”

INSIDE, GREG’S MOM AND SISTER were preparing to head home after another pleasant weekend at the lake. Inspection of the interior revealed minimal changes. Wood stove still serviceable for cooking. Shiplap pine interior siding stained, or merely aged, nearly golden. Oval woven rug on the floor.

I looked out an expansive window recalling running toward the lake and taking a knee-barking header on the path, as well as my unsuccessful attempt to learn to water ski. I remembered the outhouse that had preceded indoor plumbing and the particular use of the stack of old Reader’s Digests cached therein.

“Where’s the privy?”

“The Forest Service made us take ‘er down.” Uncle Wilber reported with a shake of the head. “We tossed it over there in the willows.”

A glance at a watch. Approaching noon. Miles yet to travel this day.

WILBUR VAUGHAN accompanied my brother and me back down the path toward where our motorcycles waited. Along he way, with the hand not toting the bottle of Miller, he picked up his long-handled loppers as if readying himself to reengage with the willows.

“Pace yourself,” Bill said as we walked down the path to the road, hoping Uncle wouldn’t over-do it trimming the thicket.

“Oh, I’m not going to have another beer until I finish this one.” He set the pruners next to a pile of brush and held up his nearly spent Miller High Life. Then, with blue eyes flashing like the young man he once and always was, he whispered: “Champagne!”


NOTE: Wilbur Vaughan, a California native and lifelong skier who was recognized as the father of Bucks Lake Wilderness, died Tuesday [May 17] of old age, his family said. He was 87.

Read more: www.sacbee.com/obituaries/#ixzz1N0fSn4RG

Friday, May 20, 2011



[2005] POSITIONED JUST SO, with the BMW behind me, I wait for the UP freight to wind down the canyon and through the series of tunnels. Its approach is announced well before its arrival by the high pitched singing of its chorus of brakes. Steel flanged wheels twisted slightly against the teed rim of the equally steel rails…

…A BOBBING HEADLIGHT first. Then, out of the darkness, the silver and orange loco, b-unit and loco.

It’s the Zephyr! The California Zephyr! Look Dad! Look Mom!

(c) Robert Morris Photography
Starting in Chicago, who knows how many days ago, this silver snake has crossed the northern plains of the Dakotas, the Colorado Rockies, the beastly intermountain basin of a barren Nevada and up over the Beckworth Summit to find its way into a sublime Feather River Canyon, seeking Oakland and the Pacific shore and the promise that is California.

The Feather River Route was finally opened in 1909, following the inscriptions of a black Virginia trapper and mountain man name of Jim Beckworth. Beckworth had grown up in the Shenandoah Valley and as young twenty-something, left for the adventures and that promise of the west. This was before the west was tamed enough to suggest a black mountain man was any different or any less deserving, or intelligent or savvy survival-wise, or any less insightful than a mountain man of some other pigmentation.

Beckworth followed his nose over the Sierra finding a low pass that would have been much more merciful than the one chosen by the Donners some forty years before. More merciful, also, than the route mapped by Theodore Judah for Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins and Crocker and consummated at their meeting in Dutch Flat, California in 1862 – the route to be carved by the Central Pacific at the cost of the lives of thousands of Chinese and, in the end, old Ted Judah his-own-self.

Scaling a mere 6800 feet, the Beckworth Pass Route was the one that should have been opened to rail traffic first, but the Big Four wouldn’t hear of it. Their hardware business was grounded in Sacramento, not Oroville or Chico. Thus, the Beckworth / Keddie Route (William Keddie was a planner for the WP) was opened fastest, but opened last - an ironic tribute to the stubbornness of the moneyed.

The Chicago and Northwestern now owned the eastern third. The Denver and Rio Grande had the middle. And the WP took the scenic final run from about the Utah / Nevada line across the desert and down this splendid canyon.

(c) Robert Morris Photography
So today, one 1963 day, this aluminum clad marriage of technology and grace spirited Midwesterners three quarters of the way across the country in a matter of days.

This was the Zephyr. A shining tribute to man’s artful triumph over the power and solidity of nature. Shimmering in the mid-canyon sun, the Zephyr awaiting a still photo op.

Mom and dad had stopped along the river to catch a gleaming glance.

We didn’t hear the roar of the Electro Motive Division diesel-electric FP-7s [built by General Motors – yes, that General Motors], just the singing of those brakes and the rumble of those wheels as each passed over randomly spaced joints in the rails. And the occasional bawl of its whistle as it entered a tunnel.

Dad held his Kodak Signet at the ready.

(c) RailwayShop.com
I waved at the engineer, or the brakeman or the fireman, or whoever it was whose elbow caught the breeze out the window of the open locomotive and had lifted a hand to wave back. Then I waved at the lucky people who had paid their fare and were dining or drinking or just looking out the coach window back at those of us who’d pulled off the highway to look at them. Like an attraction at a zoo with iron rails instead of iron bars.

Seven or eight stainless coaches traced the far canyon wall. Two or three of them sporting observation domes. “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR” was scripted on the side of each coach: “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR.” “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR.” “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR.”

“Dad?” I asked, “What’s zephyr mean?”

Dad was snapping closed the leather case on the Signet. “I think it means breeze.”

THE BREEZE SLIPPED down the canyon and, by 1970, was gone.



Jim Beckworth blazed quite a trail across North America during his days as a trapper and explorer. Starting from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, traces of his life can be seen in museums throughout the west. Some details may be found in many places on the web including: www.d11.org/bristol/Bristol_Wall/1860/front_1860_beckwth.htm and www.historycentral.com/Bio/ant/beckwourth.html

Robert Morris Photography offers a collection of vintage (like from when I was a kid) and current railroad shots.  His collection of stunning photographs capture the marriage of grace and power that is railroading.  His work is available for purchase through http://www.snowcrest.net/photobob/

The Western Pacific Railroad Historical Society and Feather River Rail Society maintain the fabulous Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California. Easily visible from State Route 70, the museum has a collection of memorabilia and rolling stock and (get this!) at the WPRM they will actually rent you a locomotive to drive!!! The Church of the Open Road intends to do this and will report back. The WPRHS may be found on-line at http://www.wplives.org/


Holmes, Norman W., My Western Pacific, Steel Rails West Publishing, Reno, Nevada, 1996.  Holmes takes a look at the WP from the unique perspective of one of the Feather River Route's engineers.

Zimmerman, Karl R., CZ: The Story of the California Zephyr, Quadrant Press, New York, 1972, 1996.  Zimmerman recounts the history of what was once America's most romantic journey with text, photos and diagrams of rolling stock.

© 2005, 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, May 19, 2011



A FEW YEARS BACK, my wife and I made our annual visit to the state fair, and having not been to a rodeo in our twenty-plus years of marriage, decided to partake in the one offered that day at Cal-Expo. While the opening event of having a half dozen rodeo ponies bullied and wrestled off their fours by cowboys seemed appalling – especially as the men mounted the horses and paraded around the ring as if they were the victors of something – what was to follow was worse. And it wasn’t an act of animal cruelty.

About five minutes into the show, a rodeo clown grabbed the microphone to welcome and warm up the crowd. In his address, he reminded us that America was the greatest country the world had ever seen, to which he received some applause. He went on to say that those who disagreed, and those who did not believe we were “one nation under God,” should leave the venue now, and “keep going ’til you cross the nearest border.”

We obliged, leaving the venue, not the country.

MEMORIAL DAY, 2008: We don’t participate in holiday sales and though we sometimes barbecue in the back yard, Memorial Day seems like a holiday that is more or less a freebie. We get the day off, but we choose not to recognize why.

This day, however, in light of those fighting and dying at the behest of our government, it seemed well past time for us to participate in a Memorial Day Service at a local cemetery. To be sure, the view of the rolling grounds where nearly every marker held a small American flag was moving to the point that I was glad I had come. Those resting beneath my feet had given their last full measure. It was long past time that I should honor what they had given up in order for the likes of me to opine what is to follow here.

The military band played. A soloist performed the National Anthem flawlessly and not as if it were a jazz, blues, rock, or country composition. A light breeze rippled the colors. The patriotism that I generally hide under a bushel, swelled.

The Adjutant General of the California National Guard spoke of experiences in several theatres and of the historic and heroic efforts men (mainly men) had offered in our country’s short and storied history. From Lexington and Concord, through Gettysburg and Flanders and Iwo Jima and DaNang; to Afganistan and Iraq. With each illustration he spoke of bravery, patriotism, love of country and love of God. He told us that the dead had no voices but still needed to be heard.

The tenor again sang: God Bless America followed by The Battle Hymn of the Republic:

In the beauty of the lily, Christ was born across the sea;
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me,
As he died to make men holy, let me live to make men free…

A Vietnam-era chaplain vet offered the invocation, thanking us and calling on us to honor those whose devotion to country and devotion to God prompted heroic actions so that all of us could breath free. He spoke of several incidents in that theatre that had touched him. One story was of a dead Viet Cong soldier he and his squadron found. As they cleared the deceased’s pockets, the chaplain came across a picture of the dead man with his wife and two young daughters – and a crucifix. At once the chaplain fell to his knees and began digging a grave for this enemy brother. When the squadron commander said, there wasn’t time, that we needed to move on, the chaplain defied his commander and said, “You move on without me. I must offer this man a proper burial.” Within moments, his comrades joined in the effort and a Christian service was offered this Communist enemy.

AT SOME POINT I felt as if I did not belong. I was at the rodeo, again, but the clown had thrown off his clown garb and taken on a military uniform. And with it, he’d wrestled control of this occasion from the dead we were to honor. We were not honoring all those who gave their last full measure. We were honoring only people like us who gave their last full measure. The voices of the living, this day, were talking more about our nation trusting in God, our service people being devoted to God and our lives being somehow less than American if we did not embrace God as well as country. I was overcome with the question: Are the only dead worth honoring our dead, and oh, by the way, their dead, if they happened to have a Christian symbol on their remains? 

As twenty-one guns saluted and Taps was rendered off in the distance, my eyes filled with tears. My patriotism, had welled, just a bit, but my tears were for the stilled voices of those service men and women who may have believed or, perhaps, now understand:

  • All soldiers who die in combat are dead; doesn’t matter what they believed or where they came from.
  • Families grieve for war dead regardless of their religious beliefs; regardless of their nationality.
  • A just God does not side in times of war.
  • A just God does not select which dead soldier was the righteous one.
  • Belief in a just God – or any god for that matter – does not justify war.
  • Fighting until peace is attained is moronic for peace is attained only when the fighting stops; however…
  • …a precious peace has been attained by those who lay at our feet this day on which we honor them.

ON THAT DAY I ARRIVED AT THREE SIMPLE THINGS (admitting that, maybe, I was already there):
  1. We must honor those who gave their last full measure, whether they are Christian or believe in some other code; whether they died fighting for our country or their own.
  2. To truly memorialize those who have given their last full measure, our super-human efforts must happen before a conflict erupts, so that super-human efforts don’t need to happen in the theatre of war.
  3. On any Memorial Day, to truly honor them, we must listen to the stilled voices of the war dead and not our own. We must listen long. Listen hard. And listen until we, like they, understand the meaning of the phrase "last full measure.”

© 2008, 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, May 14, 2011


A GRAND THING ABOUT SPRING is that it rolls itself out slowly. About a month back, the dogwood in my side yard bloomed and faded. The grasses in my region have dried and the dog picks up nasty stickers while on walks. But at just under 3000 feet, the hillsides are green and the annuals still topped with purple or blue or bright yellow blossoms. It is predicted to be in the mid-70s today. I can catch up with spring by just heading up the hill. What better day to find and follow the Yuba River and see what’s going on in Downieville?

This May, sadly, not so much. The rivers were up but business seems down. The grocery is closed, although the sign mentions something about being in escrow. The Gallows eatery also closed but with no such sign. An ad in the window of the offices of Sierra County Realty shows that the Grubstake, a world class restaurant with living quarter upstairs was being marketed for what seemed an unreasonably low price. At least for “world class.” But, the hardware store is open as is the St Charles Saloon. And the Mountain Messenger – California’s oldest weekly newspaper (Mark Twain wrote here) – still publishes that which is fit to print and then some.

I hiked over toward the courthouse and the original gallows, then back toward town. Built at the confluence of the North Yuba and Downie Rivers, the County Seat of Sierra County enjoys a the constant musical background that can only be provided by free flowing river water. Unfortunately, an early afternoon hunger gnawed at my belly.

A mile west of town, the Coyoteville Café was open. I recalled that, in the past, it was the one place I could depend on not to be open. Today, a trio of dual sport motorcycles, including a KLR, was parked outside. Good enough for me.

I entered, sat at the counter and ordered: “I’ll try the chili burger and fries.”
“No fries.” The proprietress, cook, waitress, bottle-washer looked sheepishly resigned.
“I’ll try the chili burger.”
“It’s award winning chili!”
“Really? Yuba Pass cook off?” (The annual anybody who is anybody social event in Sierra County.)
“Yeah, but only fourth place this year.”
“Judges from the east side this time?”

BACK IN TOWN in the window of the realty office, next to the Grubstake ad, is a flyer for a place up in Cal Ida City. I’d driven past Cal-Ida Road many times but never have I tarried up that way. Today there could be no excuse. Only about eight miles west of Downieville, Cal-Ida Road twists and scales the north slope of the Yuba River canyon.

A sign over a wooden ditch intrigued me. The "domestic drinking water" supply source proved simply to be the end of the wooden structure positioned into a natural pond at the top of this little waterfall on Fiddle Creek.

Please click on this photo to enlarge.
The flume heads south along the canyon wall at a slope gentler than the gradient of the creek. The planks atop the flume are 2x6 laid there not to walk on but to keep debris out of the water supply. About a mile back down the road is a single cabin and a small campground, both of which I assume are quenched by this century-old engineering marvel.

This one, too.
There are no wide spots on the narrow, albeit paved, Cal-Ida Road. Through a break in the trees - and after about three or four healthy switchbacks - here is a view of state route 49. It lies a few hundred yards distant and far below the way the crow my might fly, but a good four and a half miles via the approved, county maintained route.

And this one.
 On the canyon walls are laces of white dogwood looking much like holiday lights strung against the deep forest green of the oaks and fir.

Cal Ida, in its most recent iteration, was a mill site. The area is graded flat and remnants of the concrete work supporting the long-gone lumber mill still poke out of the ground. A few cabins are dotted around the area with a modern home, having been constructed in 2009 the centerpiece of “town.” The whole area is privately owned and, as noted earlier, for sale. I didn’t pause for pictures because it felt I might be invading the property owner’s privacy snapping pixels here and there. However, a nice “virtual tour” of the town site is available from Sierra Realty at http://www.sierracountyrealty.com/idxSearch/listingDetail.asp?mls=1039889&offset=6 Look for the “virtual tour” button and enjoy a five minute display of the property and the historic buildings that go along with. Basically, that’s Cal Ida.

Brandy City lies two miles beyond Cal Ida. The map shows a nest of roads along this ridge top, all of which seem to lead back to here. It seems building thoroughfares into and out of the tributary canyons of the Sierra come at a steep price. I look at my gas gauge, then longingly at the map, shrug, and turn for home, adding yet another place name to my evolving bucket list.

THE LITTLE HEAD-CLEARING RESPITE up through the Yuba proved to be especially rewarding: a new stretch of road led to a new old locale. Temperature seventy degrees. Clear skies. Sweeping turns. Views. And, Whoa! The chili on the burger at the Coyoteville Café is really good. Certainly better than fourth place.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, May 13, 2011


Power steering? That’s just one more that can go wrong.
Dad, 1963

WHILE AWAITING MY CHILIBURGER at the Coyoteville Café, I decided to capture a few notes on the morning’s ride up through the Yuba region. A patron, who was about to exit, stopped by my spot at the counter. “I can’t help but notice,” he began. “What is that you’re working on?” It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked.

Three decades ago, when I taught 7th grade in Durham, California, Bud, one of my most perceptive students, could not manipulate a pencil no matter how hard he tried. His written work was, in a word, horrible, many times masking the beauty of this thought. That young man was never far from my thinking. (Obviously, he still hasn’t gone far.)

About a dozen years back, before a computer for every kid was all the rage in education, I went searching for a tool that could be used by students with special needs. Specifically, if a child lacked the fine motor coordination to manipulate a pencil, some alternative means of written communication needed to be made available.

The computer folks said, “Just get ‘em a lap-top.” But laptops, in those days, ticketed at just under two grand, and even before the assault on public education became the vogue, that kind of dough was unreasonable even though it is unconscionable to place a price tag on someone’s ability to write.

A little research brought me to the AlphaSmart 3000. It is simply a keyboard with a little memory. It cannot be connected to the Internet. It cannot do e-mail. It cannot calculate math problems without a supplemental doohickey. It can’t do anything but receive typed input and save it. Using a USB cable (provided) whatever the student types can be downloaded into a word program on a computer – Mac or PC. The teacher, then can correct, edit and print out the student’s work. The document can also be saved in the student’s electronic portfolio.

Wow, I thought. If only I’d had one of these for Bud.

At $225.00 a crack (with the rechargeable battery) I bought three. Then seven more. Then a class set of twenty. Then another.

THEN I BOUGHT ONE MORE. I’d seen these little devices dropped, left on, turned off without “save,” stepped on, argued over and dropped some more. And they never failed. I’d also seen my own handwriting.

Now I carry mine in the panniers of my motorcycle and have for over ten years. Through miles of travel on interstates, back roads, dirt roads, mud holes and spills, my “made in the USA” AlphaSmart 3000 has never failed. On my trip to Wyoming in 2010, the AlphaSmart held and saved eight documents ranging up to twenty pages in length. Back in 2006, after a visit to the emergency room where my clavicle was declared “busted” by the doc up in Truckee, I made notes on the adventure on my AlphaSmart, which had survived the crash unscathed. I have replaced the battery once.

Every once in a while, my head is turned by those mini-lap tops with the 10.5-inch screens. Built by Toshiba, HP, Sanyo and just about everyone else, boasting connectivity and supported by Bill Gates and gang, these new mini-marvels are priced only a few quid more than the current generation of AlphaSmart. Yet, the more things these things can do, the more things these things can fail to do.

For taking notes on the road, for enduring the bumps and tosses of the bike’s stiff suspension, for lasting longer than and being more durable than just about anything else I own, I’ll continue to pack my AlphaSmart and gladly answer questions from the curious who see it.


NOTE: The AlphaSmart 3000 has been replaced by the Neo ($169) and the Dana ($350). For more information contact: www.alphasmart.com or www.neo-direct.com

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


 California State Route 20, east of Nevada City

A FAVORITE RIDE is east on Interstate 80 and back on California 20 through Nevada City, then south on 49 to home. At anytime of the year – except for the dead of winter – the ride through the foothills and up the easy western slope of the Sierra Nevada refreshes, relaxes and renews perspective on things. Racing east on the interstate, I find myself at ease behind the cockpit of the BMW, settled into its long saddle. Then, about the time that I find the four-lane a bit too tame, I come to the 270 degree off ramp to state route 20. Off I race past sapphire blue lakes and granite cliffs, through lovely, lush meadows and into the dense conifer forest. The cool air slices through my riding gear and its fragrance recalls a high caloric dessert, although one I will not regret having consumed. At some point, my mind shifts down and I find myself where the bike is supposed to take me.

Usually this means there is a song lacing through my brain and being vocalized within the fine acoustics of my Arai full-face helmet. The song varies depending on what was on my mind prior to departure, but generally it’ll be part of Cole Porter or Harry Warren’s songbook. Sung by Sinatra.  Or me doing Sinatra.

On some days on some rides, however, there is no song. Like today.

MORE THAN THREE DECADES BACK, I was a newly married know-it-all sitting around a campfire at Juniper Lake in Lassen National Park. With my then-wife and me were four or five other couples, each members of an age-aligned “club” formed by our church. The sun had just set over the ridge and the snowfields on a distant Lassen Peak were fading from pink to purple. The fire was warm and fragrant and the group was loose in a very churchy sort of way. Someone brought wine. Someone brought a guitar. Someone brought marshmallows. There were chocolate bars, graham crackers and sticks. We ate s’mores and drank a pinkish Almeden (because it came in a bottle with a cork) and sang until the hills on the far shore echoed back. And until the family staying at an adjacent site yelled at us to shut the hell up.

The conversation stilled and I looked around. After a time, I mentioned that a couple of our number was missing on this outing. The professor Ronnie (not his real job) and his wife Clarisa (not their real names) had been absent from a number of our meetings although Ronnie had attended one without Clar. “And I’m a little worried about her,” I said.


“She hasn’t been to church regularly for a while and she doesn’t seem to want to, I don’t know, be with us.”

“She seems out of it,” someone added.

I saw nods of agreement where the firelight fended off the night.

With a little more discussion, there was a little more agreement and a resolution that one of us would check in or Ronnie and Clarisa – or just Clarisa – before the next week was out. “It’ll be sort of like a mission,” someone offered and we all laughed a bit too loudly prompting our neighbor camper to repeat his request, ending our conversation.

The following Wednesday, Ronnie came home from the university to find Clarisa hanging from a rope in the garage.

I’M NOT SURE WHY this thirty-year-old event pushed Ol’ Blue Eyes soundtrack from my mind. I stopped at the overlook below which the Malakoff Diggin’s State Park could be seen and walked the paved trail through the Ponderosas and out onto the elevated viewing platform. The mid-afternoon’s upslope breeze seemed chillier than what I was experiencing at 50 miles per hour on the bike.

I looked over the valley formed by the Yuba River and its reformation by the mining industry of 150 years back. I thought of the lives that were spent grubbing in the mud and icy water and how little many of those miners had to show for their crippled joints and busted dreams.

Then I thought about Clarisa. I wondered what busted her dreams and wished I’d made the effort to check in before that Wednesday back in nineteen-seventy-something.

I rode home reminding myself of my promise to never allow that to happen again.

Still, there was no music in my head when I set the bike on its centerstand in the garage and went inside for a shower.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, May 9, 2011


A sprint to a finish line.

A finish line, that,
with every fevered step,
moves agonizingly further way.

Doggedly we run,
terrified of the moment –
the moment that always comes –
that moment when we actually break the tape
and cross over to the other side.

© 2006
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow
to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters
on May 9, 1961

I GUESS I LIKE FACEBOOK. I must. I spent way too much time scanning what’s posted to suggest that I don’t. Way too much time.

I think I like Facebook because it makes me feel good in a rather superior sort of way. Particularly when I view items from the political arena posted or forwarded by friends or friends of friends, I feel good. I view the rants that defy logic. I read diatribes that make outstanding – albeit not very believable – fiction. I look at treasonous statements guised as God-fearing and patriotic. I feel good because after only a few moments of perusal, I can determine that there are a hell of a lot of people out there (with a computer and access to the internet) that are a whole lot stupider and more gullible than I.

Conversely, occasionally I’ll post something or respond in some way that assures friends of my friends that I am, indeed, dumber than they are. It’s only fair.

OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS, the nearly limitless bounds of electronic communication have proven revolutionary. In Tunesia, Egypt, Libya and throughout troubled areas of the globe, folks’ instant access to calls to action has changed the political landscape in ways only imaged and at paces never before realized. Communication, it is true, can be the great democratizer.

But just as, in the 50s, television held such promise only to become “a vast wasteland,” instantaneous access to information – information frequently not vetted for accuracy – serves to democratize innuendo, half-truths, and even outright falsehoods. Wasteland, indeed.  Science is refuted. History is rewritten. The constitution is cherry-picked and so is the Bible. The result is a segment of our population that is ill informed, angry, reinforced and able to mobilize others.

I watch with bemusement as friends of friends who actually do not know one another engage in vitriolic debates with neither really interested in grasping the other’s point of view. What we get is not a coming together because of reasoned dialog, but a pulling apart – a polarization – of our population at a time in history where such polarization will not serve our greater good. We’d all be better off if we took a nice long quiet walk in the park somewhere.

But we don’t. Instead we read the screen, enrage ourselves at the idiotic comments of (what are they called?) trolls, then tap out a hurtful message to someone we may never meet. We type things we’d never say to someone face-to-face for fear of getting whacked up the side of the head with a pool cue. We allow someone else’s anger to displace our own good will while hiding behind the relative anonymity provided by Facebook and the Internet.

I’m guilty of this myself.

CAN FACEBOOK be used to change someone’s mind? Probably not. Why? For a conversation to take place, it needs to happen in an environment where the inflections of voice and nuances of physicality carry at least some of the load. That doesn’t happen at a keyboard. For communication to occur, we need to set aside unfounded rumor or ideological non-truths and allow reason, reflection and rationality to reign. And for true dialog to occur, we need to accept that it may neither be quick nor convenient.

Yes, Facebook is quick and, oh, so convenient.

But if I want to change your mind – or you, mine – we’ll need to get together and chat.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press