Monday, November 30, 2015


Dusk may be the time
when history speaks
in greatest clarity

I drove through Artois, California the other day.  I recall stopping there about five decades back, my parents looking to buy me a Nehi Orange at the local market.  

Long ago, the old store was boarded up.  The main highway through town, upon which this day I was the only traveler, used to accommodate all the major north south traffic on the west side of the valley.  I turned down a back street and explored its crumbling pavement.  A couple of dozen homes, many dilapidated, stand among vacant weedy lots. 

Artois, once a shipment point for wheat, later rice, on the old SP line; once a pit stop for travelers on the old 99W; once a minor crossroad for those heading to the Sacramento River; Artois, now houses the production facilities for California Olive Ranch Oils and the occasional well-preserved Victorian, but little else.

Fort Bidwell is located at the north end of the Surprise Valley.  With a good tail wind, you could spit and hit Oregon.  Driving up that way is a lot like travelling back through time. Peter Lassen led immigrants through this country in the 1848.  Modoc leader Kintpuash (Captain Jack) was hung here in 1873 having killed US General Canby in the Modoc War.   

The vast expanse of the valley floor now supports cattle operations and small time hay farms each whose ownership goes back generations.  The main street through Fort Bidwell is utilized by equal parts pickup trucks, horses and those little four-wheelers made by Honda or John Deere or Kubota. 

It is easy to imagine when there might only have been horses.  Now, however, the school is closed, the general mercantile is closed and the Chevron closed about two years back, or so I’m told.  If a dime were burning a hole in your pocket up this way, well, you’d just have to let it burn.

Sites, California is nine miles west of Interstate 5.  It is just past the easternmost ridge of the Coast Range.  The road is rifle shot straight from Maxwell to a spot called Mills Orchard, where it twists and turns to follow the course of a seasonal creek up into the hills.  There was a town here, once.  We know, because there’s a sign that says we’re looking at the town square (circa 1887).  Sites, the town site, is at a crossroad.  West, one would travel to Lodoga; south, one would find the remnants of Leesville; east, one retraces the route down to Maxwell and a rail connection north and south. 

Whatever they once did at Sites – range cattle? – they’re not doing much of it anymore.  Recent talk has centered on damming that seasonal creek and using the resultant basin as surface storage for pumped in Sacramento River water in case the state should ever find itself in daunting drought conditions.

There is mystery in old places that are on their way to no longer existing: mysteries involving their birth, their heyday and what brought about their demise.   

My mind often wanders to the hearty families that busted ground and settled the area. 

I’m curious as to whether the old time residents thought it as beautiful or as romantic as I do from the seat of my motorcycle, or if it was just a place that, like a tool, they used until they found no value in any longer and moved on.  Then I wonder if any descendents ever come back to check on things.

Generally, the road to a near-forgotten place name is an interesting one. 

It may or may not be paved.  It likely never was engineered. 

It probably goes over and around the streams, scenery and hillsides rather than through.

On the off chance you encounter someone coming from the opposite direction, two things are practically assured: somebody’s going to pull over and both you and s/he will offer a neighborly wave.  I wonder about those who walked the road to market or to school or to the rail line and what they may have thought about those who later drove it with our smoke-belching mechanicals.  It’s easy to get lost in that or some similar reverie. 

Place names are born because something was about to happen here.  They die because that something quit happening.  The whys are innumerable: the gold played out, the wind blew the topsoil away, there was a flood, there was a drought, someone built a dam, someone built a freeway, someone built a Wal-Mart in the next town over.  Or, the off-spring saw that proverbial “Par-ee” and decided not to return “down on the farm.”

I enjoy a little first-hand visit with history perhaps staying to watch the sun dip behind a hill and darkness creep across the landscape.   

Dusk, I’ve found, may be the time when history speaks with the greatest clarity.  At these times I counsel myself: It is wise to have this little visit before all the history is erased by the winds of time and our relentless march toward efficiency. 

It is good, I conclude, that there are so very many little roads: each going somewhere.  Each going to a place name.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Pres

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – A Review

I like really good writing.  If I can smell the meadow, if I am soaked by the rain, if the winds tears through me and I am later gently warmed by a summer sun; if I can touch the character absorbing his or her quickened pulse, or feel his or her chilly sweat in the pit of my being; if I know the heartache just after the love, then I’m all in.  Because good writing is satisfying, I don’t fear falling to sleep cold having read passages of deprivation or human tragedy and I find the development of sexual tension between two characters that lasts 30 pages or more completely irresistible. I dig love and passion and appreciate loss.  Most of all, I like a story that speaks to me because I, or someone I know, plays an important part in the story.

In Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, we are introduced to Dorrigo Evans, destined to become a military hero and celebrated Australian surgeon.  We meet him as Evans is growing up in Tazmania, we follow him as comes of age, commits to marriage, then succumbs to something forbidden.  (Obviously, there’s a fresh, exciting – even, I would argue, intoxicating – woman involved.)  We serve with him as a World War II POW, as he struggles to hold together a decaying regiment of men enslaved by the Japanese in worse than torturous conditions charged with accomplishing the impossible or dying.  Along the way we are offered shredded glimpses of the aching torment in Dorrigo’s heart, finding it may not be his alone; for it may be equaled by the angst of both his men and their captors, each in his own way.  When, at the end of the war, he – well, some of them – find themselves free to go on living…

Do they really ever find themselves free to go on living?  What do circumstances give to or take from us?  What is universal?  Love?  Passion?  Honor?  Courage?  When one of these somehow goes away, what replaces it? 

Oh: And what of that beautiful woman?

Disclaimer:  I'm not a very literate guy - or, at least, I'm not as literate as I'd like to be.  Such are the wages I pay for not having been more attentive to Mrs. Lundin's 12th grade Lit class in high school. So I don't often get (or identify) the literary tools great authors use to make great, meaningful books.  The Narrow Road's... got 'em, however.  Days after completing it, I want so to savor the story and all of its layers that I haven't picked up something new to read and there is quite a stack on my bedside table.  I just go back and reread some of Flanagan's passages. 

Promotional lines co-opted from reviews from various sources and printed on the book cover call this "a masterpiece."  I think they may be right.  See your local, independent bookseller.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Richard Flanagan, Vintage Books, 2013, $15.95  Man Booker Prize winner for 2014.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


A walk in the woods

In the morning after last night’s rain we head for trails walkin’ distance from the house.

The Spanish Moss droops a little more than usual, as if a curtain through which one must pass to enter…

…an oak woodland illuminated by a low November sun.

New moisture activates long-dormant shelf lichens on what otherwise looks like a lifeless log.

White oak leaves tell us the first frost was a few days back…

…and the whole walk is scented by bay laurel, a harbinger of the upcoming holiday season. 

Not a bad way to start the day.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Twelve weeks out
Exploring Old Skaggs Springs Road

The harvest is a month past.  Temperatures in the Russian River Valley have plummeted.  Frost crusted the neighbor’s roof just yesterday.  And the leaves in the area’s vineyards, with the help of a low November sun, have turned Technicolor.   

What better time to test out that gimpy throttle hand?

It had been nearly three months since the medicos surgically repaired my permanently bent pinkie.  The quick recovery I’d anticipated was hampered by the fact that the raw materials with which the recovery had to operate were over 60 years of age.  Something, that, if given a choice, I wouldn’t admit.

A prime area for viewing autumn’s effect on wine grape foliage is the Dry Creek Valley west of Healdsburg.   

Here, acre upon acre of bottomland and hillside is planted with a wide variety of grapes, each of which may show color change under slightly different conditions.  In case my hand gives out, perhaps my goal will be to capture a few snapshots.

Dry Creek Road caresses the edge of the growing area sweeping westward toward Warm Springs Dam.  Constructed in 1982, the dam created Lake Sonoma on Dry Creek.  Here, Dry Creek Road become Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs Road, an epic route from the 101 corridor to the Pacific Coast.  I’ve ridden it several times.  The test would be how far might I go today?

On a recent visit to the Cloverdale City Museum, I repaired to the research library to learn a little about my newly adopted area.  Skaggs Springs was a place name about which I was curious.   I found out that Skaggs Springs had once been a resort with mineral springs frequented by Bay Area folks.   

It was inundated by the creation of the reservoir.  I pulled into a vista area.

Perhaps I could see remnants of the site based upon the drought-depleted lake.  No such luck.   

Lake Sonoma is about 70% full after this four-year dry spell, unlike other Northern California reservoirs that have simply become mud sinks.  Lake Sonoma’s deep blue is captivating.

So is the foliage I’d promised myself I’d photograph.  Black oak leaves and maples are nicely backlit this morning.

There are about a dozen miles of nicely paved and banked roadway on this route, a relocation circa 1980-something of the old road that would be lost to the rising water.  The new road invites motorcyclists from all over the world to enjoy the combination of its engineering and its scenery.  I figured I’d ride west until the pavement got chunky.

I didn’t make it that far.  A tenet of the Church of the Open Road is that any day one can ride a new-to-them road, well, that’s a good day.  And my good day this day would be because of the old road.

Old Skaggs Springs Road descends into a deep canyon formed by a creek in concert with the ever-folding tectonic forces shaping the Coast Range.  The old road’s turns are flat – not banked – and the pavement is maintained by putting irregular patches in irregular places.  A few hundred yards from the Stewart’s Point highway, one feels as if they have been transported into an earlier, rustic time.   

A few head of cattle lazing on the right-of-way confirm this.

The road courses down to parallel the creek, passes from cool moist shade to blinding autumnal sunshine and past an idyllic ranch that might well have been the nearest neighbor to the old Skaggs Spring Resort.

Four and a half miles in, Old Skaggs Springs Road crosses a narrow bridge and a few yards beyond that, is gated.  A kiosk indicates that we have arrived at the tip of an arm of Lake Sonoma, one not easily reached and thus sparingly visited.

I’ve gotten an hour and fifteen minutes in on my game hand – much better than six weeks ago.  Wrist still not near 100%, but with hopes that by next riding season, it will be, I turn back and head for home.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 9, 2015


Courtesy: T R Stewart
In the comic thriller, The Curious Demise of Pug LeBreaux, protagonists Stephen and Jane Meyer hopscotch from public to private to public land while climbing Cisco Butte near Interstate 80.  A helicopter pilot (hopefully played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie) has spotted them traversing real estate supposedly closed off to the public.  He sets down and they are immediately detained.

Brother Tim and I decided to test the premise of the novel by scaling that same basaltic dome.  Having examined a few sources, we found – as did Stephen and Jane – that a marked route to the summit crossed sections printed in white (privately held) and sections printed in green (public) on the map.  A long time ago, I recall that someone in a gray-green uniform, wearing a badge representing either state or federal authorities quietly confided to me: “As long as you stay on the marked roadway, you should be okay.”  [Stephen Meyer had heard the same thing I’d heard regarding access.  Apparently the fellow in the helicopter and the folks he worked for, had not.]

A brief stop at the gate to a nationally franchised private campground, and checking with the “ranger” there, told us something a bit different.  “If it was before the end of October, I could have you pay a fee and you could head through the campground, but we’re closed right now, ‘cept for members.”  Then he added, “The guy who owns the property on t’other side is kinda nasty, so you prob’ly wouldn’t be able to get up there anyway.”

With a degree of dejection similar to Arlo Guthrie looking for another place to dump his half a ton of Thanksgiving garbage some fifty-plus years ago, we sought an alternate trailhead.  We came to the side of a side road where a steep and rocky Jeep trail…

…noted on the USGS map, seemed to lead us in the right direction.  Coincidentally, the map also indicated that on top of Cisco Butte, along with a couple of microwave towers, there was an historic airway beacon.

The Sierra Nevada is checkerboarded with square miles (or sections) of both private and public land.  This circumstance dates back to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad when, as incentive toward its construction, the government offered a square mile on alternating sides of the right-of-way to be used for the procurement of materials necessary to build the line: timber and ballast. 

(c) Howell North Books
Through a bit of skullduggery, the railroad men were able to claim more than one section for each mile of track laid.  The result is that sites for towns and private campgrounds, grazing land and hydroelectric facilities would ultimately be sold to folks, enriching the coffers of the Southern (nee: Central) Pacific.  Those of us who like to explore the mountains would ultimately need to be cognizant of where we set foot. 

We heeded this sign.
On the Tahoe National Forest map, the entirety of Cisco Butte’s summit is within a green-tinted (public) section.  Signs on either side of the Jeep trail indicate that the land through which we were crossing was not.  Still, if we didn’t stray, we’d be okay.  We hoped.

Our forestlands are crisscrossed with once-graded roadways. Some lead to forgotten somewheres like gold mines, cattle camps, timber yarding areas or pioneer graves.  Others provide access to power lines for inspection and service.  It turns out, that “kinda nasty guy” owning property up this way might well be named “Pacific Gas and Electric.”  (I don’t know, but because I enjoy heat and light now and then, I kind of like PG&E.)

Using the GPS feature of Brother Tim’s Smarter-than-I-phone, we were able to wind about two miles through forest floors, 

beside paternoster lakes and ponds, and across stretches of granite to intersect with the road that had run through the closed-for-winter campground.  

The last half-mile spirals to the top of the black basaltic bluff past a facility maintained by a multi-national telecommunications provider, a solar powered weather station and…

…finally, to a pair of towers sporting those elliptical antennas that allow calls to travel from point A to point X without wires.  It’s pretty clear why “they” don’t want a bunch of yahoos traipsing around these parts.

Atop the butte, the view is 360 degrees.  Such is generally the case where an airmail beacon was placed in the 1920s or 30s.

Those beacons were planted on huge concrete arrows so that airmail pilots could navigate west to east and back again.  They still exist in Nevada and eastward.  However, in California, at the dawn of World War II, they were obliterated. 

This was done to prevent an overzealous Japanese pilot from wandering into our country’s midsection to, perhaps, strafe Salt Lake City or Omaha or Dubuque.  Our hiking companion sits atop the beacon’s arrow’s crumbling remains.

From our vantage point at 6600 feet, we see the freeway running east and west to our north while a recently snow capped Sierra crest gleams in the low November sun.

(c) Howell North Books
The Union Pacific now owns the old trans-Sierra route.  As we reach the summit, a trio of monster locomotives tugs a mile and a half of freight cars through a century-old snowshed.  The roar of their engines echoes throughout the canyons and hillsides as they have echoed for over 100 years.

Courtesty T R Stewart
While enjoying the sandwich I packed, I gaze west and, over the interceding ridges and lakes, enjoy a view of the far-off Sacramento Valley, all the while, hoping that some Tommy Lee Jones look-alike doesn’t spot me from the air.


Notes and Resources: 

The Arlo Guthrie reference regards his counter-culture epic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” (Warner Bros., 1967) Folks of a certain age will recall.

A previous post regarding historic airway beacons may be accessed at:


Special Note:  The Church of the Open Road in no way suggests, sanctions or encourages trespass onto private property.  The Church believes the property rights deserve and demand our respect.  Therefore, on the off chance that the long ago advice received relative to crossing through private property on an established road is bogus, the Church will forego specific directions to this locale.  Savvy readers can look it up, anyway.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, November 5, 2015


I drove past the Orland Auction Yards the other day.  The place looked the same as it did fifty-five years ago when, as a goofy, freckled eight-year-old, I, with the family, dropped in to watch the proceedings.  We’d recently moved from the suburbs of a smoggy LA basin to a five-acre plot fronted by a creek near Chico.  We were gonna be country.

Dad wheeled our ’54 Ford Ranchwagon (that’s what FoMoCo called station wagons in those days) onto an acres-large gravel parking area, disappearing it amongst cattle trucks and stock trailers.  A maze of pens and chutes ran next to the parking area. The place smelled of manure and hay and dust.  Breaking away from Mom and Dad, I climbed on a fence rail. I was looking for a donkey and wondered if one might be in a pen readied for sale.  The neighbor’s pony had died a month or so before and his carcass hauled off to the rendering plant south of town.  Maybe we could get a donkey to use on backpacking trips and keep him where the neighbor’s pony had been.  Peering over the top of the weather beaten rail fence, I could see the humps of cattle backs squeezed tightly together.  The animals didn’t look at all comfortable.  They jostled one another, shifting and groaning, the fence boards rending and creaking in concert with their movement.

A firm grip fell upon my shoulder and I was pulled down from the fence summarily receiving a smart slap across the chops.  “Don’t you run off around this place!  You could fall in and get trampled and then what?”  It was Mom.  “And when we get inside, sit on your hands.”

We entered the building with my ear firmly in my mother’s grasp.  The foyer was dark, compared to the parking area outdoors.  There were a couple of plywood partitions each masking the entrance to a non-doored restroom.  I think there was also a small office, but what caught my attention was the concession area.  There were bottles of soda, packages of Wrigley’s gum and a selection of candy bars and it was staffed by a blue gingham-clad gal who looked a lot like Dorothy Gale, if Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s niece had somehow aged to be a little older than Mom.  I couldn’t find the words to ask Dad for fifteen cents so I could buy a Coca Cola – no, a Nehi orange. Nehis came in a bigger bottle – and a Payday, before I was pulled into the darker confines of the auction arena.

Along with the shadowy darkness there was a thunderous mix of sounds.  Some fast talking fellow with a big, chrome microphone roared numbers or words my ears were too slow to make out.  Added to this was a clunking syncopation of boot heels on wooden bleachers, the murmur of attendees evaluating the stock and the occasional bawl of a bummer calf.  The route into the arena led through a dim channel between two sets of those bleachers occupied by denim-clad cowboys with those hi-heeled boots, which because of the clunky sound they made, I immediately coveted.

“Remember to sit on your hands,” my mother repeated above the din.

We had to approach a big enclosure with a dusty dirt floor encircled with metal pipes in order find seats anywhere.  This middle part of the room was brightly lit.  Inside the corral, some cowboys herded about a few head of cattle.  We walked around the dusty ring past where the man with the microphone, dressed in a clean plaid shirt and nice straw cowboy hat, was rattling on too rapidly. 

“That’s the auctioneer,” Dad explained, pointing.  I think the auctioneer might have winked at me as I passed so I winked back using both eyes.

Dad pointed to an open space of seating far up the bleachers.  “Over there,” he said.

We climbed through spectators clad in weary snap pocketed plaids and faded jeans – and those boots.  The further we climbed from the auction ring, the darker things became and the harder it was to see where to put my feet.  I hoped I wouldn’t step on a cowboy and end up getting drilled by slug from his six-shooter.  Soon we reached the spot to settle.

“Remember to sit on your hands!”

I did as commanded.

In time my eyes adjusted and I began to see the entertainment that was unfolding before me.  The livestock – cattle, mostly – was shuttled onto the auction floor through an entry opposite where we’d come in.  Wranglers hooted and whistled and rapped the flanks of the beasts with coiled ropes until the gate behind them was closed. 

The man with the microphone, the auctioneer, momentarily spoke in a manner I could understand: “Now raise your sights, folks.  This here represents a herd of Herefords from the Vina Plain’s Somethingerother Ranch out there toward Gerber…” I could make out the words but not their meaning.  He ambled on with a singsongy drawl, making me think that crossing the Sacramento River to get to Orland, California we somehow ended up deep in the heart of Texas. His narrative ended with: “Now what am I bid?” followed by: “Hey gimme fi’dollah, fi’dollah, fi’dollah, ten.  Hey, fi’dollah, fi’dollah, fi’dollah. HUP! Now gimme ten dollah, ten dollah, ten dollah, twenty. HUP! Gimme twenty, twenty, twenty…”

It took a while for my ears to catch up with what was going on and a while longer to figure out what “HUP!” meant.  But pretty soon, his rapid banter stopped, a sprinkling of applause ran through the crowd and the animals were herded back out through the chute to be replaced by another group.  I finally got the drift of the auctioneer’s chatter and began to link the “HUP!” with some movement in the crowd caught by one of three or four cowboys in better blue jeans, with plaid shirts and crisp straw hats matching those of the auctioneer.

Mom wasn’t sitting on her hands, nor was Dad, but both of my hands were planted underneath my butt as a third, a fourth and a fifth group of animals came in and departed.  It didn’t seem fair.  Then the inevitable occurred: A piece of lint or dust or maybe a horsefly settled inside my nose.  I reached up to excavate it. 

“Sit on your hands!” Mom said, her voice trembling in panic while the auctioneer rattled, “Fitty, fitty, fitty, fitty.”

I quickly slipped my hand under the seat of my pants but it was too late. “HUP!”  The auctioneer was pointing right at me.  Somehow, he must have known we’d arrived in a Ranchwagon.  “Sold!” he bellowed into the big, chrome microphone.  My stomach felt like a rock had dropped into it.  I’d just bought a herd of Holsteins.  I looked at Mom, mortified. The smattering of applause rippled through the arena and I was about to cry when the skinny, older gentleman seated behind us stood up and took a bow.

Dad laughed and put his arm around me.  I felt Mom’s glare bore through both of us.

So this was how it worked.  Sellers brought livestock: cattle, horses, pigs, sheep – sheep entering the ring were met with a collective groan – the auctioneer gave a little description and then burst into his call.  Spotters pointed out buyers and over the course of a few minutes, a deal was done.  Meanwhile, my hands numbed as I sat on them for about three hours watching all this trade take place, taking in the sights, the sounds and the smells of the Orland Livestock Auction.  There were no donkeys offered this day. 

On the way out, Dad asked if I wanted a Coca Cola or a Nehi.  I picked the Nehi because it was bigger.  Dad gave the Dorothy Gale look-alike a dime and placed the wet, slippery bottle in my still-tingly, numbed, asleep hand, from which it fell to the floor rolling under the counter leaving an orange trail in its path.  For the second time, I almost cried but Dorothy offered up another saying, “On the house, buckaroo.”

Before long, we were in the old Ford heading home.

For the next couple of weeks, Dad gently – until she’d had enough – chided Mom for thinking a seasoned auctioneer would be dumb enough to sell a herd of dairy cattle to an eight-year-old kid who happened to be picking his nose up near the back row of the auction house.  Meanwhile, I scoured poultry and livestock section of our local paper’s want ads looking for a donkey to pen up in the neighbor’s back forty and carry my stuff on hikes.  One never came up. 

Pretty soon, I got interested in go-carts.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press