Monday, August 31, 2015


The story of a medical mirage

For folks who like spirited riding on snazzy sport-touring motorcycles, there are Mecca-like roads – a few of them – scattered throughout the world.  In California one might be State Route 36 from Red Bluff to the coast.  In Wyoming and Montana, folks will consider Beartooth Pass.  There’s the Tail of the Dragon back east.   

But the granddaddy of ‘em all is found in the Italian Alps: Stelvio Pass.  Rising 6,138 feet through 75 hairpin turns, the British automotive show Top Gear pegs it as “the greatest driving road in the world.” 

It may or may not remain unchecked on my bucket list.

The summer of 2015 has found me taking a forced hiatus from riding due to a condition called Dupuytren’s Contracture.  
In older men of northern European extraction (I have to cop to at least two of these three characteristics), oft times the fascia which overlays and protects the tendons which allow the fingers to flex and/or straighten, shrinks up – contracts – disallowing the tendons to do their job.  In my case, the crook in my right pinkie made it impossible to put on riding gloves.  ATGATT: No Gloves = No Ride.

Repair for this malady involves removal of a section of the uncooperative fascia.

A very worthy surgeon at my local Kaiser undertook this operation.  When I awoke from anesthesia, my throttle hand was casted and wrapped.  It would remain so for two weeks.  I guess I can go without riding for two weeks, I thought to myself.
Those fourteen days dragged by and when the wraps came off, it turns out that my expectations had been a little vigorous.  It would be at least another two (more than likely four) weeks until my palm fully knitted and I could competently and safely operate a motorcycle.

To add a tiny bit of insult to this injury, it seems the incision necessary for removing the fascia has to be of a zigzag design so as to protect the route of the still working tendon.  I’ve been told to remove the dressing daily to inspect and clean the thing, which I do.  On one of these routine inspections, it struck me:  My surgeon had carved a map of that glorious Italian road right into the palm of my hand!

Thanks Doc!  When I do get over there, I’ll not need GPS to find my way across Stelvio Pass.  But I will have to slip off those gloves.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


The Aborted Nor-Cal – Oregon Tour

The idea was simple.  Coordinate with a colleague on his ride north from the Bay Area to his home near Seattle.  Spend a night in Redding, and then head to Bend, Oregon, with a detour around Crater Lake.  Part there and return south, exploring some of the few Southern Oregon and Northern California roads I’d ridden only once, or better yet, only heard about:  OR 62 from Crater Lake along the Rogue River to I-5; CA 3 from Yreka down past Trinity Lake with, perhaps, a side trip out to Ramshorn Summit; Alder Point Road from Bridgeville through Blocksburg and down to Garberville. 

I looked forward to taking pictures of old barns and old bridges and old trucks, pausing at bergs and farmsteads one may fly over yet never see; places where people make a living but it’s not clear how they do (dismissing, perhaps, medicinal herbiculture.)

Fire season in the west, much like the presidential campaign season in the US, never really ends.  Two years ago, a wild fire coughed choking smoke over our home in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley at Thanksgiving.  This year, in mid-July, a wild fire across the ridge in Lake County would grow to over 70,000 acres – 20,000 of them in a three-hour run one Saturday afternoon.  And it wasn’t the first one in the area this go-round.

Meeting up with my riding partner in Winters (after lunch at the incomparable Putah Creek Café) we bolted up Interstate 505 to Dunnigan and I-5 toward the Shasta-Cascade Wonderland hubbed in Redding.  The further north we traveled, the more the blue sky deteriorated into a yellow-gray haze.  He on his Stelvio and I on the GSA, we reveled in being able to legally bat along at 75 mph through the smoky, 100-degree Sacramento Valley. 

At a stop in Orland, we were informed that a bunch of lightning caused blazes were torching the far northern part of the state.  Cal Fire’s central command post was set up at the Shasta County Fairgrounds in Anderson.  Perhaps we could worm our way in and take a look at the current incident map.

“How can I help you fellas?” The Public Information Officer (out of Riverside County) wore a snappy blue uniform – one that looked as if someone engaged in cutting much line hadn’t been wearing it.  The PIO extended a hand and welcomed us with a smile.  Pointing to the incident map, there were, indeed, over seventy active fires within this camp’s sphere, stretching from Del Norte County in the north into Napa and Solano Counties in the south.  It didn’t look good.

The Coast Range had been seared by a wave of dry lightning a few days prior and another wave was forecast to swing north this very evening.

After a gracious forty minute tour of the camp, covering personnel, sleeping arrangements, shifts, the difference between state and federal fire fighting protocols and technical improvements to assist the guys on the line, the PIO concluded:  “You’ll want to get out of Redding early tomorrow in case more of these things blow up.”  He swept his hand over that incident map.

We would hightail it in the morning.

Or would we?

I own a Moto Guzzi: a hoot to ride and, in my 11,000 miles of ownership, bulletproof.  But for longer trips, I take the BMW.  My riding partner’s ride of choice is his ’09 Guzzi Stelvio.  Quirky looking, tank a bit too small for long distance runs, but infused with Italian passione.  He loves the thing.

Unfortunately, some of that passione decided to burst through a blown gasket just beneath the left side cylinder head about fifteen minutes north of Redding that next morning.  The fix may have been simple and the tow to the nearest dealer would be covered by insurance, but the nearest dealer was 194 miles to the south.

The rest of my trip would be solo.

There was no reason for me to continue to Bend so I retraced steps to Redding.  The fire incident map had indicated that CA 3 from Yreka was closed south of Hayfork due to wildfire.  Alder Point road was closed at CA 36 at Bridgeville due to wildfire, which proved a moot point since I wasn’t going to be able to get to 36 via 3.

Recalling that incident map, I knew CA 299 was one of the few roads traversing the Coast Range that would not be closed by fire activity.  I opted to take it from Redding through Weaverville to Arcata on the Humboldt County coast. 

A 30-minute roadwork delay afforded the opportunity to visit with a distance running coach from Utah State U. and a young couple from Iowa – both parties concerned about the area’s thin pall of smoke.  “Unseasonable smoke is pretty common this time of year,” I said.

Beyond Weaverville, CA 299 crests at Oregon Mountain Summit and descends into the Trinity River drainage.  On a normal day, the view from that high point prompts the rider’s pulse to quicken in anticipation of a nicely paved highway twisting in and out of forests, through rustic, tiny villages and along a delightfully tumbling wild river.

Today?  Only smoke.

In cool mornings through early afternoons, airborne particulates settle into lowlands, valleys and canyons.  As the day warms, the smoke rises and dissipates.  The day hadn’t warmed yet.

The further west I drove, the thicker the smoke became to the point that, if there were city blocks in the area, you couldn’t see further than two of ‘em.  I stopped for a picture near Burnt Ranch wondering if they might rename the place “Reburnt” or “Twice Burnt” Ranch by the time these conflagrations played out.

Near Blue Lake, now following the Mad River, the valley opens to the sea.  On-shore breezes mercifully pushed against the burgeoning blanket of smoke.  Thus, the air was a clear and lovely azure.  Deep breaths yielded only freshness, no cinders.   

The ride south on US 101 into Eureka emphasized just how strongly that cross wind, on-shore breeze can blow.

A quick shower to rid myself of soot.  Dinner near the historic wharf, followed by an evening walk along the waterfront, then a night’s rest at the Eureka Inn.

Morning of the final day dawned gray and drizzly, a pleasant, fresh change from the hot, murky interior. 

South on US 101 and west on CA 1 led me to a crystal view of the Pacific over the rugged Mendocino coast. 

Dubbed the Shoreline Highway, California’s State Route 1 is one motorcyclists, worldwide, come to experience this most entertaining road. 

Along the way, riders enjoy quaint fishing villages, stately redwood stands, inviting strolls to the bluffs and views that reach beyond forever.   

I dawdled in the clean maritime air, and stopped for a plate of clams at Noyo.

Ninety minutes inland and I would be home.

Whether this loop at this time could be categorized as a great trip, I’d have to offer doubts, given the conditions.  But all in all, it was an excellent experience; just one I’d rather not repeat any time soon.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Early 1970s – After about two years on my Honda 90, it was time for me to graduate into something larger.  A buddy of mine named John had been tooling around on a Honda 55 and was confronted with the same angst.

Living in Chico, on Sunday mornings only, we received the Sacramento Bee delivered to the end of our long gravel drive.  Perusing the want ad section as I had for months, one Sunday I came across a display ad from Spinetti’s Hardware (an authorized Honda motorcycle dealer) in far off Jackson, California.  It was the year that Honda had changed the tank on their venerable CB 350 from something rectangular to a more rounded shape.  The boxy tank looked better in John’s mind and my own and Spinetti’s was closing out last year’s model for a couple of hundred bucks off.

I alerted John.  “Look, man!  Only $875.00!”  I’d been working a concession stand and John was a lifeguard at the local pool.  We checked our bank balances.  Yep, we could do this.

John had his eye on a blue and white one and I favored the red and white one. 

Our plan was to pull money from savings – actually drain savings – and have John’s dad, John senior, ferry us the 110 miles down to Jackson in his Pontiac station wagon.  There, we’d seal the deal and, just like in “Easy Rider,” ride ‘em back north.

Ever’body’s talkin’ at me, I can’t hear a word they’re sayin’…

Apparently, among the everybody I couldn’t hear was Mom.  On the day of the deal, she put her foot down.  “That money is going to be used for your education.  You’re not going to buy another damned motorcycle!”

John’s dad didn’t need to ferry us down to Jackson.  Instead, we borrowed the Pontiac and drove there ourselves.  John consumated the deal and, wrapping his new CB in a couple of blankets, we slid the bike into the back of the station wagon and drove home.  (Insult to injury?  John bought a red one.)

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Dateline:  Healdsburg (CA) dump:  My daughter’s old upright freezer died and I was charged with getting rid of the thing.  With a little research, I find that Sonoma County landfills will recycle old major appliances charging twenty bucks per item if the unit has Freon in it.  All others are free.
So I truck it on over to the landfill.  The host waves me through without weighing my vehicle, telling me to see the fellows over in recycle.  “Take a left at the top of the hill.”
Recycle is a rich milieu of using building materials, windows, doors, toilets and such along with glass, aluminum and cardboard.  Not immediately seeing appliances in the mix, I pull in looking for someone official willing to take my twenty and give me some direction.
I don’t see anybody.  What I do see, however, amid barbecues and dressers and old couches, is a derelict spinet piano, some off brand, standing abandoned and alone, like Bogey at that train station in Paris. (My brother, who moves pianos for a living, says more and more frequently he is taking them to the dump because they are too old to tune and there is no market for them.)  Since everything in life relates in one way or another to a scene from Casablanca, I walk over to the instrument and begin to tickle out a few bars of “As Time Goes By.”
Another customer comes up to me, thinking I must work at the place and asks me where he should drop off his old RCA Victor TV.  “I don’t know,” I respond, “I was going to ask you where to put my freezer.”  I turn back to the keyboard and pick up where I’d left off:  Moonlight and love songs…

This incident got me thinking.  What if, on Saturdays, someone pulled a six-hour shift – say, ten to four – at the dump attending to an old junker piano.  He or she could play standards and take requests, perhaps placing a big glass brandy snifter on top of the thing for tips. 
Thirty years ago, my old buddy Tom and I used to trek out to the Jamestown landfill with our household garbage about once a month.  We’d look at what folks had discarded and comment on what a cultural experience it was.
A piano man would only make a trip to the dump more so.
Where are you Billy Joel?

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, August 1, 2015


People You Meet on the Road:
Ukiah, California edition

10:00 AM today:  Backing the Moto Guzzi into a space in front of Mendocino Book Company – one of the closer independent booksellers to our new digs – I noticed a gentleman, about my age, pausing before getting into the newish Grand Cherokee in a neighboring slot.  The Jeep had some random building materials tied to its roof rack.

“Man, that’s a beautiful bike,” he said as I killed the engine.  His eyes flashed like those of one anticipating a fine stretch of curves on a perfect summer day.

I gave my pat response: “Better than I deserve.”

He moved closer, staring at the gleaming chrome and polished black paint on my Breva.  “I had a V-65 Lario.  Thing was bulletproof.  Compared to a Ducati?”  He buzzed his lips and shook his head.  “Loved that Guzzi.  Sold it 20 years ago.  Haven’t ridden since.”

I nodded knowingly, though I knew nothing about a ’65 Lario or most any other vintage Guzzis.  “Haven’t ridden since?”  I asked.  “Why?”

“Bought a house.”

[The reader will note that folks who ride (or rode) often speak in phrases, or at best, very short sentences.]

 “Well, we should get you back in the saddle.”  I handed him a Church of the Open Road calling card.

He glanced at the card then returned the bike.  “Love to, but can’t.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Fixin’ the house,” he said gesturing toward the lumber on top of his Cherokee.

“You been fixin’ your house for twenty years?”

His gaze lowered to the paint stripe separating our vehicles.  “Yep.”  His now-crestfallen voice was nary a whisper.

Eventually, he looked up and, together, we laughed. 

He climbed into the Jeep, backed out and, as he drove off, said, “Some day…”

 © 2015
Church of the Open Road Press