Friday, November 15, 2019


…I’m afraid we’re gonna be doin’ more and more of this
‘ridin’ through burn zones,’ folks…

I was due for some whole-bean coffee and my roastery of choice is a scenic 30 miles away on California’s State Route 128.  Coincidentally, most of the distance between home and Calistoga was shut down two weeks ago as the ravenous 77,000-acre Kincade fire swept across the area.  I’m not a lookee-loo and I don’t like to take snapshots of other folks’ tragedies, but I did slip a camera into my jacket before Enrico (the Yamaha) and I headed off to find some java.

Our rainy season has been getting shorter with the good riding season longer.  But along with that extended good weather comes tinder dry foothills and woodlands and massive wind driven fires that didn’t used to occur.  As a result, this year, the Kincade fire ran several miles, dancing across the hilltops of the Mayacamas and sneaking downstream into drainages toward the floor of the Alexander Valley.  The bad news is much.  Homes were lost – but in the case of the Kincade, no lives –  businesses were disrupted, and air quality for a week or so was awful.  The worse news is that this is undoubtedly going to happen again.

Overcast when I departed at noon and around sixty degrees, I should have dressed better.  Not a meteorologist, my thinking was this: It hasn’t rained since about last March.  Why would it rain today?

Halfway to my destination, the overcast gave way to mist; the mist to light rain.  Caution.  Seven months of dust and automotive drippings – and now soot – when mixed with the tiniest bit of moisture forms an invisible slurry, one bent on tossing the unsuspecting or careless rider off his or her bike and on to his or her keister or clavicle.  I’ve done the busted clavicle thing and don’t want to do it again. 

Plus, I’m wearing my favorite Fox Creek leather jacket – not waterproof but smells great when wet – and I  don’t want to scuff it up.  I’m happy to pull over and let hurried folks in more stable four-wheeled vehicles pass.

Contrasting that sweet moist leather-jacket smell, the first rain after any fire produces an acrid aroma recalling the witches-on-broomsticks embers and wicked flames that had blown through the region.  Remnants of what burned is now reduced to carbon that is dissolving and returning to its rightful home: the soil.  Ashes to ashes comes to mind for a mile or two.

I stop for a moment at one of those disrupted businesses.  

The historic buildings of the Soda Rock Winery have been rendered to rubble – rubble framed by the surviving sculpture of a wild boar.  

Also surviving is the time-honored wine country concept of hospitality - or, at least, marketing. A makeshift tasting venue is set up in front of the barn.  

I pass on tasting but purchase a couple of bottles of Cab based upon the recommendation of a fellow wearing a new-looking Triumph t-shirt who, I figured, had done some tasting on my behalf.  

[Our perfunctory motorcycle conversation ends like this: “No, I don’t own a Triumph, but I’d like to move up to a Tiger 800…”  when the woman with him suggested, “But you already have a motorcycle!”]

A brief detour up Geysers Road takes me toward the source of the conflagration.  From a higher vantage point, it is clear that the fire, riding 80 mile per hour winds, raced through the dry woodlands, but that in most instances, when it approached the margin of a vineyard, it was somehow quelled.  

5,500 firefighters – now off to Southern California, or, perhaps, Australia – may have played a hand in that.  

Deciding not to tempt fate on newly slickened roads, I head home.  Satisfied.  An operating tenet of the Church of the Open Road is that any favorite route taken on a different day is a different ride.  CA 128 is a favorite ride I’ve enjoyed many, many times.  But today was different, indeed.

A couple of pounds of dark roast and a couple of nice bottles of Cabernet will serve as both reminders and rewards for an already rewarding ride.

© 2019
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, November 10, 2019


…and those who tell us OUR stories…

On November 11, 2002, the following letter, titled “Nov. 11, 1918,” was placed first in the reader comments on the Sacramento Bee’s Opinion page:

Eighty-four years have gone by, but I will never forget that fateful day.  I and my granddad were in the little village of Franklin, Ill.  We were at the blacksmith shop having winter shoes fitted to our faithful old mare, Cricket.  All at once we heard a great commotion down in the town square.
     People were shouting, firing shotguns and the church bells were ringing.  We soon found out the reason.  The war had ended.  The German army lay in total defeat.  Kaiser Bill had fled to Holland and never again would that nation disturb the peace of Europe or the world.  And now the boys would be coming home.
     But sadly, some of them would not come home and those who did were no longer boys.  War is a terrible thing.  Armistice Day, how can I ever forget it?
 - Gil Masters, Grass Valley

His words moved me to want to say thanks, but I didn’t know how to contact him.  So, I penned a note – the content of which I cannot remember, although I must have mentioned something about being a school principal – and sent it to the Bee’s editorial desk asking that it not be published, but rather forwarded to the writer.  In response, I received a phone call from then-Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez telling me he’d honor my request and adding: the letter Mr. Masters sent to us came in really shaking handwriting and “we were all quite touched by it. It took some real deciphering for us to actually put it into print.”

About a week later, I received the following (type-written):

Today I received a most heart-warming message from a lady in the office of the Sacto Bee.
     She enclosed your comments and it is indeed a pleasure to hear from you.  I am told that only five or less we run into even [remember]the end of WWII.
     Yes, my generation or what’s left of it does go back a long way.  I was eight at the time.
     When I was six, I enrolled in the one room country school called Sulphur Springs.  Grades one through eight in one room and only one teacher.  We usually ran about thirty or less students 6 thru 18.  We were required to bring a slate and a lunch bucket.  No computers or cell phones.  We were required to keep our feet on the floor and no caps on backwards.  The rod on the teacher’s desk was not put there as an ornament. I might mention that all my teachers were women.
     By listening to the older students recite before the teacher’s desk, I knew every bone by name and could do square root in my head.
     Hey this has turned into a thesus [sic], please forgive if I do ramble.  I hope to hear from you again.
- Sincerely, Gil

I am sharing this because, as I was thinning out boxes of junk in the garage the other day, I came across the clipping and his letter – again.

I say “again” because I had unburied the clipping and letter perhaps a year after receiving it.  Cursing myself for not being any kind of pen pal, I immediately wrote to Mr. Masters wishing him well and offering that I hoped I could come up and take him to coffee.  Thinking that anytime an elder to slips out the door, a lot of the unwritten slips out the door with ‘em, I wanted to absorb a bit more of his first-person history. (And I always enjoyed the drive up to Grass Valley.)

Within the week, my year-too-late letter was returned to me marked recipient deceased.

© 2019
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, November 2, 2019


…time for a visit…

Over the past week, Sonoma County has survived the biggest wildfire in its history.  The county is open for business.  While, tragically, several homes were lost and a winery or two, in essence, with evacuation notices now rescinded, power has been restored, businesses in Geyserville (we ate last night at Catelli’s – try the chicken piccata), Healdsburg (heading down to the local, independent bookstore later today), Windsor (nice BMW/Moto Guzzi/MV Agusta/Royal Enfield shop) and points south are all open.  (As of November 2, CA 128 across the Mayacamas Mountains is still subject to closure.)

All of our favored wineries are up and running, including Dry Creek’s Passalacqua (always by appointment only), Frick (one man – seven acres), Healdsburg’s Idlewild (just off the square) and Gustafson (also out on Stewart’s Point / Skaggs Springs Road – beautiful view!) and Russian River’s Flowers (out past the historic Hop Kiln.) These folks depend on visitors and want to counter media reports that the entire area was reduced to ashes.  Come visit!  

Our fair city of Cloverdale was spared everything but a few days of smoke and no power.  The raging fire started to our east and roared in a southwesterly direction leaving us unscathed.  However, with golden, crisp hills to our north and east and the way our weather patterns are changing, it is only a matter of time before a blaze ignites under just the wrong circumstances and evacuation orders send us streaming out of town with our go-bags.

This will NOT be the exclusive fault of PG&E.  This will be the cumulative effect of living in a society that demands infrastructure and service but winces at having to pay for it.  The electric grid is part of and should be considered part of the “public square.”  Like roads, police protection, park land, fire service and schools, electrical service cannot operate to serve the citizenry if first, the company has to satisfy investors.  (I have a little PG&E stock, so I’m one of ‘em.) The power grid has to transition toward public ownership.  [And as far as executive salaries and bonuses go, they most certainly provide a tone-deaf image, but in total they represent a tiny fraction of the costs associated with solving the problem.]

Nature is sending us a loud and clear message that things have to change.  Under non-profit or state sponsorship, the result will be that utility bills cover not only the production and distribution of electricity, but the true costs of upgrades and maintenance.  And fees will go up.  They have to.  They have to cover the cost of doing business.  And we, as consumers, are gonna have to pay the freight.

Having said all that, if you are not a resident of Sonoma County and would enjoy a respite from the Central Valley’s Tule Fog, the congestion of Bay Area freeways, the incessant rains of the Pacific Northwest – or maybe you’d just like to score a case or two of really good wine, come visit.  

The smoke has cleared.  The harvest is in.  

And Sonoma County is open for business.

© 2019
Church of the Open Road Press