Thursday, June 29, 2017


On the road to the Jackson Hole Writers Conference

Whisking across Nevada’s Interstate 80 in 100-degree temperatures makes me wonder how those who did this 150 years ago survived.  In eight minutes on the big Triumph Thunderbird, I can cover what those stalwarts accomplished in one day, if they were lucky. In my teaching days, I shared with students stories of immigrant privations, of losing livestock, jettisoning furnishings, busted axles and death. One could chart their course across Nevada by simply following the detritus and graves of those who came before, I told ‘em.  I don’t think all of my kids believed me.

In eastern Nevada, ancient eroded ranges are divided by large playas filled with eons of sediment in this land of little rain.  Still, if there were a cluster of cottonwoods somewhere this side of the horizon, there’d likely be water.  The western end of the trail traverses bone-dry ridges with scant vegetation and little protection from a burning summer sun.  I’m not sure how anyone ever found a watering hole in these parts.  In fact, there’s a storied forty-five-plus mile stretch where, indeed, there is no water available.

The fur company trappers, mountain men who preceded the gold seekers by a generation, had plotted many a route and many alternatives to cross the arid basin and range.  One, the Hastings Cut-off rejoins the California Trail at the site of this interpretive installation.  Hastings devised an alternate route that he claimed would bypass Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, but it added nearly 100 miles to the trek.  Those hundred miles proved pivotal to the fate of the party captained by James F. Reed and George Donner in 1846.

I stopped in at the recently constructed California Trail Interpretive Center, just west of Elko.  Located at the junction of the California trail and the infamous Hastings Cut-off, the displays verify that what I told my students was true and that crossing the high, parched desert on the big Triumph, no matter how uncomfortable, was vastly superior to the choices available to our pioneering ancestors. 

The exhibit hall beautifully renders the cavalcade of history from Paiute days to the present.  Of great interest, of course, are the dioramas depicting the hardships of the easterners seeking fortune in the west.  Outside, however, the displays really touch on what these folks endured. 

A circle of wagons speaks to community and interdependence.  Survival, indeed, depended upon it.

Random collections including, perhaps a chair, a steamer trunk, cast iron cookery and some shreds of cloth illustrate choices and loss.

A discarded fiddle sings to the unifying nature of music, how people in the worst of circumstances find solace in performance – in art. 

The distant Ruby Mountains rise through a mid-summer haze.

I ride away consumed by the struggles of those who attempted this crossing while the soundtrack for the next hundred miles is a baleful tune scratched out on a tired old violin.


More about the California Trail Interpretive Center:

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sometimes Brilliant – a book recommendation

Dr. Larry Brilliant’s memoir.  Harper Collins.  2016.  $28.

I served 35 years in public education and felt like, for the most part, I contributed something to some greater good.  Yet, when I get hooked into some story on PBS Newshour, I see the works of others who probably contribute more and a twinge of regret tickles the backside of my brain.  Perhaps, I think to myself, if I’d better understood the movements of the 60s – the decade in which I came of age; perhaps if I’d studied science; or embraced some sort of concept of the nature of existence; or been more politically aware. 

A month or two back that twinge hit when the Newshour interviewed Mill Valley resident Dr. Larry Brilliant on the occasion of the publication of his memoir.  I was, at first, interested because “Mr. Brilliant” was an alter-ego character I wrote about in a series of true to life short stories regarding a school principal who didn’t ever quite know what he was doing – but things worked out anyway. 

Larry Brilliant’s life adventure seemed to begin in a similar fashion.  Reared in Cleveland, he moves west, earns a medical license, joins up with a cavalcade of interesting characters (including Wavy Gravy who lives just up the road from me), travels the hippie trail from London over the Khyber Pass to commune in India.  Confronted there with the reality of poverty and disease, he plies both his training and his spiritual awareness becoming “Doctor America” to the spiritual teacher Neem Karoli Baba who tells Brilliant he is to rid the world of smallpox, the ancient disease that has claimed billions of people.

And – you know what? – he does.

Now, forty years later, a confidant of presidents and counsel to titans of our electronic age, he writes of the people, great and small, that accompanied him on his remarkable journey.  He writes of God and of good, of frustration with status quo and of a type of universal love I don’t yet fully comprehend.  Good thing he does, though.

A real-life (and very readable) respite from the daily news, I came away enlightened to this:  As long as there is poverty, as long as there is suffering, as long as there is pain, there is good work to be done.

And this realization: When we teach, we may not be curing some ages-old disease, but we are indeed engaged in good work.

See your local independent bookseller.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


Return to a favorite ride along California’s Coast Highway

I recall my dad turning 65.  He looked really old.  His right leg, shriveled from a mining accident forty years before caused a markedly deteriorating limp.  He received hearing aides but arthritis in his hands prevented him from changing the batteries.  His active pastime changed from backpacking into nameless places to reading books – over and over – and sipping highballs starting at about 3:00.

I think about my recently repaired hand and my recently repaired knee – neither ever to be “good as new” – and I realize that turning 65 is passing a marker – a marker that causes one to reflect.  Sometimes that reflection looks clearly like a country – western song:

My knee’s near shot and my hand can’t grip
I’m getting’ hard of hearing and there’s pain inside my hip
Politics is blood sport and kids no longer spell
Seems as if my world and self are goin’ all to hell

The big Triumph had only been on local, hour-long trips for well over half a year.  I am beginning to think my touring days are coming to an end.  A trip is scheduled to Wyoming later in the month and then to British Columbia later on, and I’m wondering if I should just plan on taking the Subaru.  The Thunderbird is a fabulous bike for what it’s made for, but is it made for what I want to do any longer?  What about switching to a Triumph Scrambler – lighter, more maneuverable, or a Ducati – lighter, more maneuverable, and with mojo, or a Yamaha or Honda each of which have local dealers?  What about a Vespa?

The late spring weather is glorious.  A damp cloth massaged the bugs away from the windscreen and wiped the accumulated dust from the bike’s fenders and tank.   By 9:30, after downing a gulp of orange juice, I am on the road to I didn’t know where.

Climbing the freeway ramp onto northbound 101, the Thunderbird thrusts me forward with an exhaust note whispering, “Why haven’t we done this recently?”  I feel a smile creep across my face. 

US 101 north of Sonoma County is a mixture of freeway and two-lane coursing over hills and through valleys blocked with vineyards.  On the freeway portion, about three weeks ago, a new Chevy Impala was sliced in half in a head on collision – the spot now speckled with orange marking paint over the oil and coolant stains.  The Chevy driver walked away.  I check my speed and find myself obsessing about the weird collection of skid marks that decorate the blacktop on this length of 101.  How'd they get there?  Who survived?  Who didn't?

I pass though Hopland, eschewing a favored breakfast joint, motor north past Ukiah and the right turn that would take me inland into Lake County.  There’s a new by-pass around Willits I’ve wanted to try and it cuts about twelve minutes off the journey north.  I wonder what’s happening to down town.  CA 162 splits off toward Round Valley and Covelo to the east, but the T-bird would be no match for the rugged forest road that crosses the Coast Range.  Nice rest stop just north of the junction.  At Laytonville, I head west on Branscomb Road.  It’ll be twenty-eight winding miles out to the ocean.  Recalling that folks on the west end of this route often take their half right out of the middle of the road, I cling toward the shoulder only to be proven right on curves twice in a span of about 20 seconds.  The descent to the Pacific is a corkscrew shrouded in trees that settles onto a willow thicketed stream course.  No surprise view of the ocean.  Just a stop sign at CA 1.

The Coast Highway is tucked behind a dune until it crosses a river and then rises to one of those points where “Wow!” is simply involuntary.  Thirty miles of coastline bluffs and breakers stretch before me under an azure sky supporting just enough cirrus cloud to provide depth.  I stop at the nearest vista.

There, a couple from Minnesota gush about their drive and how we have so much in common (referring to my Governor Brown and their Senator Al Franken) and then ask if I’d snap a photo.  Of course I will.  And he insists on taking mine.

I’ve ridden this road many times on all manner of motorcycles.  On a good day, the tablelands and cliffs are spectacular and the green hills sweeping eastward seem Eden-like.  The road twists and drops into creeks and river valleys, forested and cool; then back along the pasturelands where, indeed, the cows must be contented.  Motorcyclists – even the Harley guys – wave, the experience being so grand.

A fine little winery called Pacific Star sits overlooking the sea, their Dad’s Daily Red being a worthwhile catch.  McKerricher State Park offers trails and tide pools.  There’s a nice excursion train ride out of Fort Bragg and a great coastal hike recently opened behind the old mill site.  Noyo Harbor is what San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf used to be about 60 years ago.  The state maintains the lighthouse at Caspar.  Mendocino Village invites one to stroll its wooden walkways, explore its galleries and enjoy the ocean’s symphonic sound track.  Little River, Albion – where the highway crosses on a historic wooden trestle – Elk and several other waypoints dot the route.  There’s another lighthouse and a classic motorcycle shop in Point Arena as well as a nice chowder house out on the pier a mile west of town.  

State parks, vista points, old barns, farmsteads and contemporary architectural wonders speak to the changing history of the land.  Gualala offers a nice grocery store and access to the mouth of a river of the same name.  Sea Ranch is a ten-mile stretch of privately held properties, many of which are vacation rentals.  Access is restricted to paying customers in all but a few places.  Sea Ranch’s development prompted outcries about the fencing off of the coast leading to the establishment of the California Coastal Commission.  Just moments south is Stewart’s Point with a fine country store and gas.  It rests in the heart of a coastal protection zone established by the previous administration…

…but I don’t stop at any of these.  I’ve visited them before (even renting at Sea Ranch) and I don’t want to get off.  I just want to ride. 

Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs Road heads east from this point.  An arduous 40 miles on will come to Healdsburg on US 101.  The first four miles are single lane pavement, well worn and feeling the effects of a winter in which many coastal roads succumbed to nature’s greater powers.  Climb over one ridge then another, descend into a river valley and cross on a 1911 vintage bridge that some numbskull thought would be improved by decorating it with gang sign in red spray paint.  But the redwoods here, unsung and unprotected, provide a cathedral-like canopy.  I stop for a photo and a passer-by pauses to make sure I haven’t broken down.  “You are riding a Triumph, after all,” he says.

Within ten or twelve crow-fly miles the temperature has risen from a coastal 62 to an inland 85.  The forests have faded into the rearview mirror and rolling hills awash in knee high dry grasses remind me that it’s summer.  Cresting and falling and turning, the pavement has improved and soon I pass the Warm Springs Dam on Dry Creek.  I’ve entered my home stompin’ grounds.  I’d hiked the lake just a week ago.

At 4:00 I arrive home having stopped only for gas once, for “rest” twice and for photos three times.  That glass of orange juice saw me through the day, the bulk of which had been in the saddle.  Rolling the T-bird into the garage, I reflect on the people and the scenery and the road and the day.  I assess my hand, my knee and my hip and realize I am feeling no discomfort.

Time to pack for Wyoming.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, June 2, 2017


No longer employed in a gig requiring button-down collars and pants with creases, I enjoy a semi-annual trip to the haberdashery in the next town over to purchase a pair of dungarees or two and a durable twill or plaid shirt or two.  I’ve dropped in frequently enough over the past two-and-a-half years that the gent behind the counter seems to recognize me.

After digging through a rack of tightly packed shirts, I pulled two Carhartt short-sleeved samples and headed to the jeans department.  There, I settled on pair of blue denim work pants, also Carhartts – sans the hammer loop, this time – and moved toward the counter.

“What’s new?” asked the clerk, as he slid my goods his way on the counter.

Handing him my debit card, I said, “Well, we just bought us an electric car.”


“Yeah.  The bad news is I had to sell my pick up.”

Dropping his gaze and with a slight shake of his head, he handed my card back to me, unswiped, and said, gathering up my shirts and pants, “I’ll just restock these.” 

I’m sure my faced looked quizzical.

“Cain’t have you wearin’ these workin’ duds if yer gonna give up yer truck so’s you can go out and drive an ee-lectric car.  Least not in these parts.”

My neighbor says he has a truck I can borrow next time I need to get some clothes.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press