Saturday, January 28, 2017


A Church of the Open Road
mini memoir

My grandfather, “Hap” Bagnell smoked Lucky Strikes, a habit conferred upon him by the US Army.  So-called “tailor-mades” were once offered as part of a doughboy’s c-rations.  Young teens in the 1960s didn’t receive c-rations, but we could easily get our hands on cigarettes.  Cigarettes made us cool.  Cigarettes made us adult.  Cigarettes made the girls like us.  Or so we thought.

In those days the Marlboro ad campaign was moving from the elegant choice for women of the forties and fifties to the rugged “come to where the flavor is” west.  Cue Elmer Bernstein.  Many of the guys in the seventh and eighth grade fancied themselves leather-skinned cow busters, therefore the routes spoking out to the neighborhoods from the junior high were littered with Marlboro butts.  Some kids were a bit more individualistic.  The town jeweler’s son lived a half mile away from me.  He picked a menthol brand called Alpine.  Their slogan was “Go to the mountains, it’ll do a lot for you.”  One of the twins who lived next door was different too.  His brand was Tareyton – “I’d rather fight than switch” – although he wasn’t much of a fighter.  Ultimately, as kids were joshing and poking at each other and puffing on the way home from school, I felt late to the party.  Out of the gang.  Different, in a bad way.  That’s how you feel when you’re thirteen.  And I knew I needed to do something about it.

Out through a couple of orchards in back of our house, a tilt-up, pre-McDonald’s hamburger stand was positioned next to the state highway.  Going to the “Jolly Kone” was a slightly longer, alternate route from school, but there you could get an order of fries and a milkshake for about eighty-five cents, so a visit was worth the extra time and trouble.   

In the back corner of the stand’s small, enclosed dining area stood a cigarette vending machine about the size of a jukebox.  On the front of the machine were three or four rows of rectangular clear plastic buttons.  Beneath each surface was a small likeness of a package of cigarettes.  There must have been three dozen to choose from.  Staring at it one day, while downing a strawberry shake and waiting for my fries to cool off, I was overwhelmed by all the choices.  Which of these brands would ultimately be mine?

I wanted to fit in so I had to start packin’ smokes, but within limits, I liked being a bit different.  So I eliminated Marlboro for obvious reasons and both Tareytons and Alpines.  I considered Lucky Strikes for a long while but figured maybe I wasn’t being fair with the others brands on that machine.  I ruminated on this for quite some time until, walking home with the boys one day, I settled on a plan.  I’d start with whatever brand was in the upper left hand corner of those rows of buttons and move across until I settled on something that I liked.  The next time I dropped in for my fries and shake, I figured I’d take the 15 cents change I was to get from my dollar bill, drop it in the slot, push that first button and pocket whatever came out. 

One problem with this plan however: A pack of cigarettes cost 35 cents. 

The next time, I’d be ready.

And I was.  

I placed my order.  “Your usual?” the owner asked.

“Yeah,” I stammered as he slid my change across the Formica counter.

When he turned and went to work dropping my fries into the sizzling vat and whirring my shake together in the Hamilton Beach, I slipped over to the cigarette machine.  The mechanical activity in the kitchen would certainly cover the sounds of my sin.  Deftly, I slipped a quarter I’d saved and the dime I’d just received into the slot.  They clattered into place sounding like thunder to me.  I glanced over my shoulder, happy to see the cook not peeking round the corner at me, then I stabbed at the upper left button.  Something tumbled out of the machine like a rock fall and thumped into a slot at the bottom.  Blindly, I grabbed whatever had fallen out, slipped it into the front pocket of my jeans and escaped through the screened back door of the dining area.  No fries and shake this day.

Heart pounding, I raced through the orchards to an old shed I’d predetermined would be safe to begin my exploration of finer tobacco products and where I’d hidden a book of Hap’s matches.  Making the boy-cave, I paused for a moment to catch my breath.  Then I fished in my pocket and pulled out the pack of cigarettes.  Chesterfields.  Never heard of ‘em before.  The package was adorned with some sort of shield or coat of arms and lettered in fancy English style stuff. 

Pretty sophisticated, I thought.  I think I’m gonna like these! 

I fumbled with the package until I found the slip of cellophane that when pulled would unwrap itself revealing a foil top that I tickled open with my nervous fingers.  Tightly packed inside was an unknown quantity of something tobacco-y enveloped neatly and uniformly in rolls of thin white paper.  I picked and pulled and picked and pulled at one until, with a ragged end and its contents spilling out, the first cigarette came free.  Mangled, I looked at the thing.  I must have really torn it up because, unlike the Marlboros, Tareytons or Alpines, it had no filter.  It must have busted off, remaining in the package.  I tossed the cigarette away, vowing to be more careful the next time.  The second one came more freely from the pack.  Its contents still tight and neatly wrapped, there was no filter on this one either.  I peered into the dark cavity left by the first two samples, but saw nothing.  The third one came out with ease and, yet again, filterless.

Finally, I reasoned that this must be how this Chesterfields were made.  Convenient, I thought, and you can light either end.   So I picked one, stuck an end in my mouth and on about the third or fifth try, lit the other end.

If you could somehow combine week-old barbecue ash from our grill, wilted spinach dried and dotted blue with mold and, perhaps some rusted steel wool, that flavor combination would fall well short of how awful what I’d just tasted, tasted.  I pulled the thing out as my eyes began to water slightly.  Maybe its something you just have to get used to, I thought, so I took another drag.  And then a third.  Not good, but maybe getting better?  What did I have to compare this taste to?  For several minutes, I puffed and wiped my eyes and puffed and wiped my now dampening brow until the thing was burned down close enough to scorch my tender fingers.

Before I stubbed it out, I recalled that several of the boys could light a second one off the first if they held the new one steadily between their lips and touched the lighted tip of the nearly spent butt to it.  And I’d seen Bogey do this in the movies.  Cross-eyed, I tried it rather clumsily.  In the process, the orange cinder of my first smoke briefly seared my thumb and index finger as I touched it to a replacement that wouldn’t hold still in my unpracticed lips.  Grimacing, I held on, thinking that this, perhaps, was something the Marlboro man had likely mastered.  Maybe this contributed to his being so rugged and worldly and leathery.  Less than half way through the second, however, my forehead drenched, my body somehow sweaty, a chill hit me.  I shivered a bit, then shook.  I leaned back, then forward and heaved a painful dry heave.  I was in way over my head.

Struggling to find my feet, I staggered from my hideout toward the house.  Grandpa Hap intercepted me.  “So, boy,” he said, “How you like smokin’ tailor-mades?”

I looked up at him though my watery eyes.  How the hell do adults always seem to know?  My lips quivered, but nothing came out.

“It’d be a good idea not to start,” he said, winking and slapping me on the back.

And I didn’t. 

The next day I buried the rest of that pack of Chesterfields in the bottom of the garbage can – surely no one would find them there – and waited restlessly until the following Tuesday when the disposal company came by to cart off our trash.

When you’re thirteen, fourteen or fifteen, walking and poking and joshing your way to or from junior high, sixty seems old – a long time away.  Suddenly, when you’re in your sixties, it somehow seems young.  Too young.  I think this as I am taking the long, slow journey home from services for the first of the gang of neighborhood kids I grew up with.  The one who’d made Tareyton his brand.


In grateful remembrance of growing-up neighborhood buddy Perry Harve Allread.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, January 23, 2017

California: A History – a book suggestion

By Kevin Starr, Modern Library, © 2005-2015, $17.

As a school principal I recall dropping by an eighth grade teacher’s history class the first day of school one year.  I remember him offering this sage comment to his charges: “The thing about history is that it’s a story well told.”  Surely that thought didn’t originate with him, but it stuck with me.

The story of California, from its geomorphic origins to its ranking as the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world is both dramatic and sublime.  It is expansive and illustrative of histories everywhere.  Decades back, I recall telling my fourth grade students that any kind of event that has happened in human history has happened in California.  Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in Italy?  Mount Lassen erupted here.  Overthrow of the British by the colonists in the 1770s?  The Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 tossed out a distant Mexican regime. The subjugation and massacre of Native Americans in the Great Plains?  We have the Modoc War (in which the only Cavalry officer having risen to the rank of General was killed.) Earthquakes in Alaska or Japan?  Reference shifts in our San Andreas Fault and many of its cousins.  Engineering feats like Egypt’s Aswan High Dam?  Ours are at Shasta and Oroville – and at the Golden Gate.

Then there are the events that have occurred or industries that originated only in place like California:  The titanic rail crossing of the Sierra, the birth of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, the dawn of aero space, Disney, Apple, Tesla.

I used to tell kids they could almost walk out their back door and step into some aspect California’s history or at, least find something within and hour or so from home if Mom or Dad would drive ‘em.  We live in a wonderful state.

Few people have told the story of California better than former state librarian Kevin Starr.  I purchased a copy of California:  A History the other day having read that Mr. Starr passed away a week ago.  My previous copy had somehow wandered off.

Rereading Starr’s work, I am reintroduced to the names and places – and the names that have become places – that I’ve enjoyed touring over the course of my explorations.  Mr. Starr makes me want to revisit the route of the Old Spanish Trail as well as the Applegate.  I want to again see Monterey’s presidio and the site of our state capitol in Benicia.  I need to see the Mount Wilson observatory and find my grand dad’s resting spot at Forest Lawn. I want to shake hands with Fremont and Carson and Bidwell and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Kevin Starr’s well-told story of California makes me want to do all these things.  Reading like an action/adventure novel in places, his history has proven to be both a pleasant departure from current events and a bit of an explanation of them.

If you’re in need of a similar respite, consider seeing your local independent bookseller and spending a few days in Mr. Starr’s California.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


A Church of the Open Road

My father was an honorable, honest and straightforward man – except when it came to cookies.  Mom was a prodigious cookie baker often producing double and quadruple batches of Toll Houses or Gingersnaps in an effort to ensure our classic, fired-clay cookie jar was always full.  She was famous in the neighborhood.

As a letter carrier, Dad would leave for work before sunrise and pedal home at around 3:00.  Having been on his feet all day, he’d collapse in his chair for a thirty-minute siesta then rise to go prospecting for a snack.  Ever bountiful, the cookie jar was a virtual Mother Lode – one that would never disappoint.  There was a drawback, however.  It seems the clinking of the fired-clay lid back down on the fired-clay jar resonated like a pick’s head on bedrock, often alerting Mom that someone was fixing to ruin his appetite within an hour or so of dinner.  Raging invectives would follow from the sewing room or the laundry. Nabbed in the act, Dad would sheepishly slip the Snickerdoodle back into the jar and sneak away to partake in a pipeful of Half-n-Half out on the back patio or in the den.  There, he’d sit quietly puffing and contemplating.

Apparently, he eventually contemplated this:  On the counter near the cookie jar was a stand-up holder for paper napkins.  If, armed with a four-fold napkin, he could carefully lift the jar lid, snatch a nugget or two from within, lay the napkin atop the jar and gently replace the lid, then he could slide the napkin out and the lid would settle silently into place. 

At some point, spying him lumber into the kitchen after his nap, I peeked around the doorway and caught Dad returning a napkin to the holder.  It didn’t take me long to realize what was going on and that I could use this information to – what’s the word I’m looking for? – blackmail him.  Thus, every day for months and months – maybe a year or more – Dad and I enjoyed a smuggled cookie about an hour before dinner.

One day, however, Dad screwed up.  As we tittered and snacked and he congratulated himself over his shrewd and refined ability to continually outsmart Mom, he must have forgotten to slip the napkin out from between the lid and the jar.  Mom obviously discovered this, but said nothing.  Instead, the by the very next day, mysteriously, napkin holder disappeared from the counter.

And for the remainder of his time on this planet, Dad never figured out where that napkin holder went.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, January 15, 2017


A Church of the Open Road
call for civility

Check out this clock face.  It is round with twelve at the top and six at the bottom and all the other hour designations properly marked numerically around the edge. 

The clock face is the image upon which we might graphically represent and then examine how others may view us rightly or wrongly – or how we may view others, again, rightly or wrongly – based upon the tenor of our discussions and debates.

But before we do…

My first teaching assignment was in a remote and impoverished school far, far away from any major city, town, interstate or even state highway.  I would be there as a substitute for about four weeks.  During that time, I received an education the likes of which one doesn’t receive in Teacher College. 

The community was pretty evenly divided between two groups. One was then called hippies and perceived as system-draining welfare leeches of questionable morals who’d never held a job, probably raised a then-illegal cash crop and generally bummed off the system.  Kids came to school poorly clothed and poorly fed, late and often not at all.

The other was the chronically unemployed worker, many of whom claimed to be both God-fearing and disabled.  They drove battered vehicles with questionable emissions and brakes, kept the local grocery afloat through the purchase of beer, cigarettes and diesel fuel.  Kids came to school poorly clothed and poorly fed, late and often not at all.

Little evidence existed to suggest to me that members of either group actually worked for the money off of which they lived.

The biggest complaint I heard from parents of either group had little to do with my lousy, inexperienced teaching capability and a lot to do with “makin’ sure mah boy don’t sit anywheres near that [fill in the blank.]  Seemed to me that a member of one group was always at the throat of a member of the other.

In my young mind, both factions seemed fanatical to a new-to-me extreme.  I was only 23 at the time – so sue me – but both groups appeared to be about the same in their crazy disdain for the other.

Now, thinking about our graphic…

Image I:  Our clock face shows a single hand pointing directly at 12:00.  12:00 represents normal – not to far too the left, not too far to the right politically, socially, economically, spiritually, and neighborly.  Most everyone imagines himself or herself at 12:00.  When we get to the end of this paper, let’s agree to first concentrate on how we view others.  We can be far more objective about others than ourselves because, well, we’re right where we want to be.  12:00 o’clock.  Perfect.

Image II:  Viewing our clock face, that single hand is now pointing directly at 6:00.  Straight down.  That’s where all the crazy people are.

At this point you should be thinking: Huh?

Image III:  Bear with me and see that the clock face has a vertical line running from 12:00 to 6:00.  1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 and 5:00 rest on the right hand side of the line.  11:00, 10:00, 9:00, 8:00, 7:00 rest on the left hand side.  This bisected clock face represents folks’ political, social, economic, spiritual and neighborliness if we labeled the 1:00 to 5:00 side conservative and the 11:00 to 7:00 side liberal. 

For the purposes of this little task, let’s examine the terms conservative and liberal and view examples of beliefs folks within those categories might espouse.

Student News Daily offers these ideas contrasting the two groups:

·      Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems.

·      Liberals believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems.             

Source: Student News Daily © 2005, 2010.
You are invited to check out the post on their website 
for more specifics.

These descriptions aren’t perfect and the two categories “conservative” and “liberal” probably don’t cover absolutely all nuances or points of view.  But you’ve invested about five minutes in this exercise all ready, so keep playing along, okay?

Image IV:  Now the clock face has two horizontal lines.  One crosses the clock face running through 10:00 and 2:00 (where you should place your hands on the steering wheel when driving – but that’s a bird walk).  The other crosses the clock face running through 8:00 and 4:00. 

The clock face has been divided into three bands – one centered on 12:00, one centered across 9:00 to 3:00, and one centered on 6:00.  Each of the three bands represents different degrees of behaviors practiced when discussing or debating an issue, a concern, or something hot in the news.

In the 12:00 band, people hold opposing views about government, economics, neighbors and families.  It’s a Giants / Dodgers or Yankees / Red Sox kind of thing where you may root for one team or the other, but everybody likes to see a good game.  People discuss their similarities and differences agreeing sometimes and agreeing to disagree at other times.  When the game is over or plebiscite results are tallied, folks support the outcome, even if the other guy won, perhaps resolving to pitch a better game or conduct a better campaign next time around.  As citizens, they stand behind the new leader in a manner similar to how passengers on a jet plane get behind the pilot of the airliner knowing that if the plane crashes the results are not good for anybody.

In the 9:00 to 3:00 band, discussion is more heated.  Resolution of differences is more difficult.  Listening begins to take a back seat to speaking often because folks are planning their next rejoinder prior to hearing all of their opponent’s argument.  The mood is less cordial, and folks may leave unhappy with the discussion mulling the points they’ll be sure to make next time around.

The 6:00 band is typified by acrimony, and harsh words. While persons residing in the 12:00 band at 1:00 or 11:00 might engage with one another, in the 6:00 band, those at 7:00 and 5:00 mostly associate only with other 7:00ers or 5:00ers.  As in war, the opponent is often de-humanized – make sure mah boy don’t sit anywheres near that [fill in the blank.] Brothers don’t speak.  Adult kids lose respect for those who brung ‘em up.  Combatants sunshine only the parts of the story that support their conclusion or advance their narrative. To this end, creation of facts is acceptable and commonplace.  Name-calling is considered fair play. Libtard, asshat, and many other new defamations crop up as defense when positions are indefensible.  Talking heads who make stuff up point fingers across the divide claiming the other guys make stuff up.  Legislatively, one side stonewalls the other until they gain power then cries foul when the other side threatens to stonewall them. Things are said – well, written on social media sites – that if they were spoken in a barroom might send one or more participants to the hospital or worse.  Civility is not even a distant memory and agreement is rarely, if ever, reached.  And the airline passenger in me wonders: Is anybody out there concerned about whether the plane makes it safely to the airport?

In summary, conservative thought resides on one side of our clock face graphic, liberal on the other, and behaviors evolve (or devolve) as we descend through the bands from 12:00 to 6:00. 

Back to that remote elementary school…

For over forty years now, the dope smokin’ hippies and the disabled rednecks have both been firmly ensconced at or very near 6:00 on my imaginary clock face.  Crazy.  Bat-shit crazy, some might say nowadays.  Both, in my opinion, arrived at the same place but both took opposing routes to get there.  At least that’s the view of this once-23-year-old.  Four decades later I am beginning to wonder: Was the polarized circumstance of that rustic elementary school a harbinger of what we’re all witnessing on a much larger – and more consequential – scale today?

Now long out of the classroom and more recently out of the field, the teacher in me cannot resist posing a few questions at the end of this little exposition.  So here goes: 

·      From your position on the outside looking in, where do you find our important national discussions / debates today?  Does our collective position on the clock face need to change?  If so, how is that change accomplished?

·      Where might others view your position on the clock face?  Is that where you really want to be?

·      Finally, if you could change others’ perception of your place on the clock face by changing your behaviors, interactions and contributions, would that change contribute to healthier discussions and debates…

… and, over time, a more civil, healthier and stronger US?

Perhaps sadly, the teacher in me is also tempted to ask: “Bueller?  Bueller?”

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, January 7, 2017


… in words and pictures

I’m not much of a photographer, although sometimes something likeable will come from a series of shots taken on the road or trail.  I’m on my third pretty-good Panasonic camera (with an excellent Leica lens) for which I will credit much of my photographic fortune.  Here are a few pictures that turned out pretty well last year:

January:  Sonoma County’s wine country is glorious any time of year.

Old barns will always make me stop and ponder the days of cooperative effort it took to build ‘em.

February:  The Triumph Thunderbird replaced both my Italian and my German scoots.  A pleasure to both ride and look at, the T-Bird is found in more than its fair share of photos.

Fishing access to San Pablo Bay off CA 37.

March:  An historic crossing of the Eel River at Benbow.  Check out the Inn’s accommodations there.

Iris in the sunshine on the trail near the house

April:  Who could not be moved by a visit to lower Manhattan’s 911 Memorial?

The Triumph poses in West Marin County.

May:  This guy looked like he didn’t want us visiting his turf.

Close up of toothed blade at the High Dessert Museum’s mill reproduction in central Oregon.

June:  A creature great and small.

Typical view through the windshield.

July:  Humboldt’s Mattole Road near Cape Mendocino.

Sunset at Sonoma County’s Sea Ranch.

August:  Old trucks fascinate me, as do old barns.  Many, I’m sure, have stories to tell.  This one did.

A couple from Tasmania happened through on this vintage Guzzi having crossed our continent on it.  My little adventures pale in comparison.

September:  My two favorite traveling partners sneak up on an elk herd at nearby (and nearly dry) Lake Pillsbury.

Hugs and kite.

Meeting new friends on Hull Mountain.

October:  First major road trip on the Triumph.  Ice age effects on ancient volcanic peak.

Have you ever noticed that fire lookouts always seem to have tremendous views?  Why is that?

November:  Shore bird.

More birds.

December:  Time travel trip: Life off the grid (before there was a grid) at the Carrizo Plain.

Derelict implement.

My favorite travel partner (and her dog Edward.)

Shot of the Year – Second Runner Up:  Old truck.

Shot of the Year – Runner Up:  The World Trade Center.

Shot of the Year:  I don’t know why I like this shot.  It is simply a raccoon footprint in the mud, but the lighting last January had my eyes playing tricks on me.

2016 played a lot of tricks on me – perhaps many of us – it turns out.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press.