When my daughter was getting a divorce a while ago I sent my grandson a pup tent and told him to go sleep in the backyard. I told him sometimes a guy’s got to hide. When I was feeling that way myself recently I thought of my motorcycle and a long lonely road. Duane, a good riding bud in the midst of a stressful but rewarding career in financial management in the overcrowded nether world of Orange County in Southern California was due to visit soon. He sounded like he needed a hide ride too. Get your butt and your bike up here, I said, I’ve got the prescription.
He shows up in a Ford van loaded with a change of underwear and socks and his 1996 Honda XR400R dirt thumper converted to dual purpose street/off road with the addition of a Baja Design light and turn signal kit. It’s the same machine he rode on a Palmdale/Barstow/Las Vegas ride he finished only under great duress. It’s a fetching story involving mechanical failure, running out of water in the desert, and the dark side of human nature that often seems to raise its hoary head when the chips are down. I hope he’ll write it up one day.
The ride I’ve planned begins at the end of my driveway here in Big Valley in NE CA, well named because it’s huge; the encircling mountains look twenty miles distant from every window of the house. We head northeast toward the Big Valley township of Adin (one of only four) on a couple of old Lassen and Modoc County roads that roll ten miles or so through grain fields undulating in a wind freighted with the musk of ripening hay, where watchful hawks sit atop telephone poles, where a mule deer might dart across the road from a copse of junipers and scare years from your life if you don’t T-bone the beast and exit the mortal plain immediately.
Adin was founded in 1869 as a supply point for the gold mines on nearby Hayden Hill. It became a sawmill town in the 30’s. The population was 272 according to the census in 2010. The morning Duane and I cruise into town, it’s Tuesday about 10, yet quiet as a Sunday sunrise. The big cottonwoods that line Main Street, that form an arbor through the town, remind me of a Norman Rockwell canvas of an America that is no more. The towering trees three times thicker than Roman columns at their base have seen it all since the supply wagons first arrived from the mines, the sough of the wind through their quaking leaves is to me sweet music. The old store, Adin Supply, is open but there’s not a soul around as we park our bikes at the entrance on the boardwalk. I take a few shots, walk to the bridge over Ash Creek, and listen to the stream burbling down from the mountains. Big brown trout live here, and it’s a popular local swimming hole too.
At the west end of town we turn left on Lassen County Road 527, known locally as the old road to Madeline, once an important railroad stop, a livestock shipping center, on the line between Reno and Lakeview, Oregon, now just a wide spot on a section of US 395 that traverses some of the loneliest country in California. Since its 30 miles of gravel, I called my buddy Jeff who runs the Lassen County road crew (both he and his wife ride Hogs) to ask him about the condition of the road in advance of our ride. “It’s washboard in sections, Denis, and be wary of the log trucks”. Yep, we know log trucks hauling ass with fifty thousand pounds of logs aboard, but it turns out the only truck that startles us is a Chevy pickup that comes drifting out of a blind corner at about fifty and slides way too close for comfort as it speeds by us. What the hey, all motorcyclists know that no matter how safely they ride, risk is the hunter, and truth be known, it’s the drug that draws so many to the sport. There’s no life worth living without risk, and to paraphrase Cormac McCarthy on war, risk was there waiting for us before we were born.
The road to Madeline ascends abruptly into the vast pine forest that typifies Modoc County. The gravel is still damp from a thunderstorm that bored into the valley like an express train a few days earlier and dumped a half an inch of rain in twenty minutes. Thus no dust, and the cool June breeze is suffused with the scent of pitch and the deep organic carpet of the forest floor, and the rays of slanting morning light through the trees looks like an illustration from a religious text. I can tell Orange County Duane is blown away by the moment, and he tells me so later. We pause at a campground on Ash Creek, park the bikes on a bridge that spans it, where it drains a green mountain meadow of wild grasses, where the cut banks swirl deep and dark and hold trout the size of which occupy the wettest dreams of avid fly fishermen like yours truly.
We take a few shots of the bikes on the bridge then head on to the midway point of Road 527 which I know from priors is Ash Valley, a vast wetland that is the headwaters of the creek, a sprawling fecund alpine valley where the groundwater is so close to the surface that the raising of cattle and feed is a no-brainer and so early 19th Century homesteaders took full advantage. Reality check re living in such a remote location, and trust me, it’s still as remote as the moon, comes when we visit the pioneer cemetery here and what’s left of the one room school house nearby that date back more than a century. The cemetery is something to ponder; many of the gravestones are canted 45 degrees with age and the onslaught of more than a hundred winters, many are nearly hidden, grown over with sagebrush and cheat grass. The last time these resting places were tended was obviously a long time ago. Read the engraving on the stones that can still be read: Bennie Bath, born 23 September 1882, died 16 July 1883. Holbrook Triplets, died 1898, age 9 days. Clara Holbrook, born 1874, died 1879. David Holbrook, born 1865, died 1879. Annie Sowvlen, died 6 November 1894, age 10 days. Mary Sowvlen, died 12 September 1894, age 2 years, 3 months and fifteen days. Stone, infant son of Mr. and Mrs. H.N., born 19 May 1899, died 20 May 1899. Gaze over at the old weathered school house still surprisingly intact and clearly visible from the cemetery, and realize that sometimes going from the cradle to the grave is way too short a journey. We don’t want to get too philosophical on a motorcycle ride but we remember what Saint Augustine said about the evanescence of time sixteen hundred years ago. It comes out of a future that doesn’t exist yet, into the present which has no duration whatsoever, and then it goes into the past that disappears forever. Ride to live, live to ride. Good advice.
Nearing noon we’re hungry and looking forward to the ham and eggs and hash browns served up by mom and her daughter at the little storefront restaurant in Likely, another wide spot on the road on US 395, just 12 miles north of Madeline on the other side of Sage Hen Summit. So we’re riding a little more briskly out of Ash Valley, anticipating the pavement again at Madeline to expedite a large late breakfast where the urge will be to smother the whole deal in country gravy. Full throttle ahead and damn the cholesterol. The issue of the moment is that anxiety of any kind is antithetical on a motorcycle ride. The proof of this comes as Duane and I ride by a huge meadow on our left that is ablaze with a thick carpet of yellow buttercups. As I learn later we’re both stunned by the sight of it, we’re both thinking we’ve got to stop for a shot, but we don’t, we’ve got ham and eggs and hash browns overloaded with country gravy in mind. Here’s how I rationalize it: Some photographs need to remain perfect and private forever in the mind’s eye. I’m going to write about it someday, title “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Photography”.
There’s not much left in Madeline save the water tank that served the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad in its heyday before rail traffic dwindled. I like water tanks but breakfast in Likely is calling. We zoom up and over Sage Hen Summit and cruise into town and find to our dismay mom and daughter’s restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Thus no ham and eggs and hash browns smothered in country gravy. How do they put it in the Marines? Adapt and overcome. We do it with a visit to the Likely Store next door to the closed restaurant where Duane inhales two microwave bean and cheese burritos, hold the mystery meat, and I make do with a large can of tuna and a tin of sardines into both of which for health reasons I squeeze the juice of a fresh lemon. The town is called Likely because it was originally named South Fork and when the post office insisted that only one-word names were acceptable, residents were unable to agree what to name their town until a local rancher observed they would most likely never agree upon a name. Guess what? Likely was voted in in 1886. One of the last battles with American Indians was fought nearby at Infernal Caverns and there’s a ghost town on the road that rises east of here into Jess Valley and the wilderness of the Warner Mountains. It’ll be the subject of another hide ride in the near future. Stay tuned to this channel.
Termo is the next stop south as we begin to close the loop of this ride back to Big Valley. In July 1901 Termo lost its title as the northern railhead of the N-C-O when the line was pushed on an additional 14 miles north to Madeline. Today Termo represents the apotheosis of Gertrude Stein’s famous observation that there’s no there there anymore. A few crumbling boarded up buildings and the world of trash including paradoxically enough a banged up water ski on the front porch of the old depot, a trio of ruined gas pumps, an upholstered lounge chair with its stuffing bulging out, rusted metal and splintered wood all belie that there was life here once, a depot, a store, livery stables, hotels, a bar, restaurants, an enormous warehouse, housing for the rail crew, fuel and water for the railroad, in other words, there was once a place that functioned here. Get off your bike and listen to the wind on these lonely high plains. Can you hear the ghost train coming? Can you hear the bell tolling? Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Your writer here highly recommends you peruse John Donne’s famous 16th Century sonnet entitled “No Man Is An Island” for further thinking along these lines.
At Termo we make a right turn on Termo-Grasshopper Road to ride twenty or so more miles here on the lonely planet to connect with Highway 139 and the watercourse of Willow Creek to connect with the final leg of our journey back to Big Valley. Just before that connection is an establishment known as Dream Catcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary run by a compassionate lady, who by the way is one of our hay customers, who is in the rescue business. Her heart is with the wild herds of Mustangs which populate this last corner of California that hasn’t come under the gun of development. She adopts herds that are in trouble and cares for them, feeds them, has established for them a refuge. We park our bikes at the fence and see a wild black stallion and his mare with a new born foal that canter off into the grass that looked to be as high as their withers. Can we delve a bit into the lives of these beautiful animals who first evolved here 55 million years ago and then became extinct 12 thousand years ago? Science is not clear why the disappearance but climate change is in first place. Welcome to the present. But one thing is clear, the horse returned to America on the ships of Columbus to the Caribbean and later, with Cortes, to the main continent with Hernan’s conquest of Mexico in the 16th Century. The rest we know. Native Americans like the Comanche became superb horsemen who didn’t do too badly for a while stemming the so-called winning of the west by a culture of some very weird people from England.
There’s a saying here in the west that’s rooted in a time long before Map Quest and GPS and the whole nine yards of unnecessary high tech convenience that’s come to rule our lives. The horse knows the way home.
So do we.