The Head Ride, Part I

by Denis Rouse

Rider magazine’s founder and first publisher weighs in from a recent introspective road trip. Part I of II.

It’s May 1, Sunday, May Day I think it’s called, the next Sunday if it comes in these tendentious times is May 8, Mother’s Day, but since my mother has long since gone to her early reward she didn’t deserve it’s this Sunday the first of May that is the subject of our current focus. Canadian friend Paul who lives 90 miles west in Redding, an intelligent pilot/mechanic/hockey puck to whom I’ve referred previously in a Favorite Ride piece I scrolled for you few of Rider’s sensitive intelligent discerning readers who still mourn the day I escaped from Rider magazine’s publisher’s seat not before a certain unpleasant executive of the new corporate owners whose body language suggested that of someone named Lurch stood over me as I cleaned out my desk drawers, he observing the operation with professional if disturbing aplomb like I was guilty of something. In truth I was innocent but guilty of association with unsavory individuals at least one of whom was a member of my family. My father always told me this would lead to trouble. But this is getting afield of our favorite ride story. The point is its May 1 after a very long winter of immoderate drinking and short days and long dark nights of two qualities disappearing quickly in America as we speak, peace and quiet. The gender ambiguous weatherperson on TV says it’s going to be a beautiful spring day, “nice” it calls it. I want to scream at the TV, “What do you mean by ‘nice’ jerkoff? Is this a weather report or a PR stunt to mollify the masses?” Paul calls from Redding, the frenetic Shasta County seat on the Sacramento River where it is very clear, we, the sentient few who mourn what has been happening to this country for the last forty years, are doomed. Ride down here Saturday, he says, we’ll crash at my place on Poverty Flats, we’ll get up in the morning and drink my famous crank coffee and then I’ll show you some roads east of here that’ll be like medicine I need very badly. Paul needs medicine because his wife of sixteen years, who he loved totally, who he regarded as his best friend, she who rode as aggressively and adroitly as he does, suddenly recently left him with no explanation beyond “I felt like I was alone with you.” Paul asks me, “What did she mean by that?” I offer, “Yo Paul, Freud went to his grave trying to figure out what a woman wants and he never did figure it out and you want me, a very messed-up neurotic Jewish guy who has failed with women forever to give you the lowdown? I’m in the dark as much as you are on this subject, bruddah, so where are we riding?”

Turns out we are riding away–thank God–from Redding, east from contempo coitus interruptus golfer-friendly Wal-Marted Mall Land Redding where nice white people drive like they’re on speed or equally efficacious and quite legal brain-deadening drugs prescribed, mind you, by their own doctors, where a once coherent downtown is now a stifling maze of one-way streets, where Cypress Avenue, the main drag that crosses The River (O Sacramento to whom I have actually love-lettered in my previous work) is actually a terrifying elongated auto mall bordered by the gruesome overblown architecture of the New City Hall with that ghastly artless fountain out front, it perhaps Northern California’s grandest monument to our soulless Big Brothers (thank you G. Orwell) busily spiritually and economically vacuuming the lives of millions. Yes, we ride away from Redding into the grand green watershed of Mount Lassen where the road is the wondrous dipping diving rising curvaceous humping thing we know and love, where it crosses creeks still alive with rushing snowmelt, where the trees are bursting with May’s wet fecundity, where history pulls like a draft horse, where from a road shoulder perhaps two thousand feet above the Sacramento Valley a rider can pause, remove his helmet, and observe a staggering view of California’s mother river, her largest river (El Rio del Sacramento early Spanish explorers called her) and choose (or not) to mourn a little for her, she who has been left nearly bereft of her once profound natural state including one of the great riverine fisheries in the world, by a hundred and fifty years of human caused pollution. I’m not making this up; you can Google it on Wikipedia and remember Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I realize this is getting off negative in first gear but that’s the trouble with an article entitled “The Head Ride” because riding and thinking isn’t always a box of chocolates, it’s more often like a mixed bag of nuts.

The Head Ride, Wildcat Road Rock Wall
Rock Wall, Wildcat Road

Fear not, though. Your ex-publisher is merely older and wiser here, and the truth is that he rides and therefore he is. French philosophers aren’t usually your writer’s cup of cognac, but it’s indeed the thinking part that’s the bitch, especially here, because riding bud Paul is in obvious discord, and every time we pause, like on the little bridge over Ash Creek on Wildcat Road to observe the freshet, to fully inhale the organic vitality of it under a dripping emergent canopy of oak and alder and willow, there is the sense that Paul is preoccupied with something else, about why?, about the big question, the big Why can a woman who he loved and trusted like a soul mate run away like a deer in alarm? I try to tell him, Paul, she really didn’t run away like a deer in alarm, she’s been thinking deeply personal thoughts you had no idea about for years, while you’ve been acting things out like the man you are, like the responsible, impatient, cognitive, mercurial, analytic, conservative, maddening, thoughtful, rational, obsessive, dependable, compulsive, predictable, intolerant, capable, brilliant, fun guy you are. What was she thinking? Here’s all I know: She was unhappy with something connected with who you are down to your scrapple, and if you had a handle on what it is you would sigh in relief because you would then know there’s no fix for that, you aren’t ever going to be Mr. Beige Conventional Nice Guy if you reincarnate for four million years. Should she have been honest with you ten years ago when there were first shadows in the room? Yes, of course, but hear Professor Schlemiel: Women don’t do that. Instead they endure their woeful pain in private silence (usually when they’re bathing in candlelight in the bathroom with the door securely locked) and then they, in the parlance of obnoxious practitioners of pop psych, they “shut down”, they get solace from venal sources like Oprah or Trinity Broadcasting Network with Paul and Jan, and you’re as over and out as last year’s trash bag. Onward, bruddah, the road and the wind and that uber responsive machine between your legs and the bounty of nature is your solace, as well as is the fact there’s no shortage of other fine female company out there in Toonerville.

Ok, faithful readers, back to the ride even though I know you’re already fascinated by Paul’s issue. Maybe we’ll get back to it. The night before the ride at his house on Poverty Flats Paul turned a barbecuing chicken into a torch and then when ash blew into the house Paul immediately set to housecleaning with his Consumer Report’s top-approved CR-awarded vacuum cleaner and then didn’t feel like eating much chicken, for sure to my delight, because then there was more for me and despite the torching, hell maybe because of it, the chicken was a smoky crispy-skin juice ball, near the best I ever had, proving once again that O/C disorder has its upside. My 90-mile ride to Redding from home in Big Valley on Highway 299W, soaring up and over two mountain ranges as it does, and then snaking through one gorgeous riverine canyon wherein the road is so shaped, is always a thing of joy particularly amidst the bursting beauty of May although I must add quickly this May of 2011 has featured enough snow, rain, hail and sub-freezing temperatures to give the most ardent lib-lab global warming theorists to further reflect on the grand question, Are our puny asses affecting the eons-old weather patterns of the planet? See: Permian and Cretaceous Extinctions. We weren’t there then warming things up. As you can see by the photos herewith it’s not just weight gain and chronology challenge that has me looking like the Michelin Man, it’s because I’ve got everything I own on while knocking at the front door of summer.

Afterthought Mine
Ruins of the Afterthought Copper Mine and Smelter.

Whenever I ride by Terry Mill Road on 299 atop Hatchet Mountain I recall the namesake of a big lumber mill that was falling trees up here in 1872 and shooting logs and lumber down an amazing wooden flume sometimes bridged ninety feet above the canyon floor for thirty two miles all the way down the mountain to another mill in Bella Vista in the Sac Valley. This strikes me as an achievement comparable to that of the engineers of the Roman aqueducts. One Big Valley elder here tells me there are remnants of the flume still to be seen “but it’s a hike.” Sadly, even though the thought fetches me, I’m too old to hike, especially if it’s too close to five o’clock. Further down the canyon there is this surreal little place signed on the highway as “Ingot, Pop 30” whereupon you see upstream of a dilapidated auto wrecking business where you might hear dueling banjos were you to arrive at the wrong time of day, there is a sight that always gives me stoppage, the ruins across the creek of the Afterthought Copper Mine and Smelter that was producing the big mineral that replaced gold in 1897 in Shasta County. This haunting remnant inscribes a time when toxic smoke from the copper smelters was killing every green thing it touched for as far as thirty miles away. The farmers especially were freaking. Democracy finally kicked in. Public outcry closed down this environmental catastrophe in 1919, but look closely at the evil-looking tint of the chemical rivulet that’s running out of the mine right now as we speak into Cedar Creek that of course then inlets The Sacramento. Paul thinks I’m always overstating man-caused destruction of God’s green earth (whoops, sorry, I should also mention he’s a confirmed atheist) and invariably adds something like, get over it, we may be toast but the river will eventually be fine. He always makes me feel so much better with his overarching optimism. I’ve read of another manner in which logs were once delivered from the mountain here. It involved crews of courageous men who had to have balls the size of cantaloupes. They rode log booms down to the valley on the wild white water of the Pit River where there was no saving a man if he went into the drink. Hear this from the journal of Jim Carney, one of these tungsten tough white water buckaroos who lived in Montgomery Creek at the time: “We were raised in the north woods where fighting men grew thrifty and wild. I myself came from French and Irish descent, the devil’s own child along with the rest of the river drivers. They could all fight hard, drink whiskey like water. It was customary to fight in those days and a good many of the devils had a chip on their shoulders. The miners especially hated the lumberjacks and the jacks hated the miners. They would get into town and be drinking at the bar. Some miner would holler “Timberrrrr!” as an insult and the fight would be in action right now. God, how they used to go at one another, the blood would fly and they would knock enough meat off each other to feed all the stray dogs in town.

The morning Paul and I take off from his extremely tidy three bedroom home in Redding situated on a lovely hilltop cul-de-sac, hardly “Poverty Flats” as he terms it (chalk his faux negativity up to desiccated Vancouver Island humor), the weather doesn’t look promising, it’s fifty something degrees and a stiff southeast wind feels like it’s blowing in something cold and wet. Me, I don’t care, I’m not crazy about riding in a downpour, but the expectation of a fragrant May rain freighted with the unmistakable gravid scent of renewal? I say, Bring it on. Paul, however, is not so inclined; I know he’s not fond of getting himself and his surgically immaculate Suzuki SV650 untidy. So there’s some anxiety at the start, I can feel his desire to get this ride done before the sky unloads. Thus when we approach a right turn to begin coursing a road named for the Millville Plains, a sprawling rolling grassland of haunting beauty, where the sensuous road dance of the ride, the one you live-to-ride-ride-to-live moto fruits know so well, begins to approach the ethereal, I turn left instead because first I want to check out the old Shasta County settlement of Millville that was lively in the 1850s with hotels, saloons, shops, livery stables, a church, school, flour mill and of course at least two attorneys. I can feel Paul’s impatience but he caves kindly to my desire to see what’s left of old Millville, and what’s left isn’t “lively” but rather an enticing tableau of obviously unhurried peaceful country life, of old homesteads half hidden by burgeoning Irish greenery, and wind rush in the trees, and Old Cow Creek burbling under the bridge. And this fetching local remnant from Dottie Smith’s Dictionary of Early Shasta County History: “A bull and bear fight was held here during the early Civil War years of the 1860’s on a flat toward Clover Creek to which a large crowd of men attended (women were excluded). The bull was named Jeff Davis and the bear Abe Lincoln. The bull gored the bear to death. Betting was heavy and patriotism ran high. The crowd lined up on whichever side their sympathies were, and the fist fight that followed made the combat between bull and bear look like a very mild affair.” Ah yes, the Romans again. Miss Smith, take a letter to Professor Darwin. Dear Charles, are you sure you’re right about this evolution thing? Warm Regards, D.M. Rouse.

Millville Plains Road becomes Dersch Road (named for an early settler whose wife was killed by Indians in 1866 when she was 35, resulting in vengeance, according to Dottie Smith’s writings, resulting in “the killing of untold numbers of Indians at Jelly’s Ferry, Cottonwood and Millville Indian Rancherias in retaliation”), and then Millville Plains Road becomes Wildcat Road as it ascends higher into the great range of mountains that borders the Sacramento Valley to the east. Here it is clear what has replaced mining and logging in Shasta County for we see the world’s fattest cattle grazing on rangeland undulating with rich grass that’s up to their poopiks. The road courses through pastures lined with mile-long walls of lava rock, impressive walls three feet thick and five feet high, walls built by someone or someones who have mastered the art of freemasonry. These walls require more research in order for your writer to bring them to you more fully, but I believe they are the result of wealthy white back-to-the-land people hiring brown people who never left the land who are related however distantly to the brilliant rock masons whose art can be still be seen in many regions of highland Peru. The road rises, the road winds, the road hides in captivating fashion through copses of oaks, and then we reach the abbreviated hamlet of Manton, where the local head rancher shot the last Grizzly bear in 1894, where (more happily) there is the Manton Store that dates back to then, that was later run by Les and Lena Childs through two world wars and the Great Depression (1916-1945), during hard times when Les said, as is memorialized in stone at the front door, “No one will go hungry as long as I own the store.” Les, if Yahweh can deliver my message to you in heaven, it’s this: We need you in Washington like right now, Brah.

Riding behind fifty-something Paul as he ascends the six mile series of esses of Wilson Hill Road that rises in challenging tight serpentine fashion from Manton up to Shingletown I see again what a smooth gifted rider he is. I know he’s considerately moderating his pace but I’m still at moments scaring myself to death trying to keep him in sight on a road that demands full attention, no sightseeing. I know from personal experience that the biggest mistake a rider can make is failing to maintain a pace within one’s own limits and so wisdom that comes from the pain of a past get-off I cannot forget kicks in and urges me to slow down a notch or two and ride within my comfort level, a pace that’s risky enough at my advanced age, 69 going on 70 physically, but 69 going on 21 spiritually, the latter condition especially dangerous and inimical to anything like moderation. In Shingletown I’m disappointed to see the giant horse and ox-powered big wheel logging machine that levered up and loaded logs six foot thick in 1902 when Shingletown mills were pumping out ten million board feet of lumber in a season, is no longer there, gone, a major symbol of the town’s history gone and no one I talked to there seemed to care a whit. Is this what this country’s coming to? When no one gives a whit about the past? Tell me when the train stops at Willoughby, I want off. Paul and I know from a prior that the Shingletown Café here is owned by a Mexican family and that their homemade tamales for breakfast are to scream for. I say, Paul let’s do it buddy. Paul declines, says he’s good, not hungry. Wait Brah, you were just on this bracing ride with me and you’re not hungry just looking over there at the Shingletown Café where you know Mama’s tamales are to scream for? But I know what Paul’s thinking, he’s seeing way too many vehicles in the parking lot there, he’s thinking, No way Jose can I deal with a dense crowd of tourists in there and overhear those unbearable conversations and those screaming kids and try to enjoy my meal in such cloying conditions. In this instance I deem it wise to defer to Paul’s mood and so we rode off.

Ponderosa Road between Shingletown and Whitmore
Traffic on Ponderosa Road between Shingletown and Whitmore.

From Shingletown Ponderosa Road juts north on a circuitous course that connects with Highway 299 where Paul and I will head home in separate directions, he west to (shudder) Redding, me east to (sort of shudder) Big Valley, but not before I get a pre-prepared tuna sandwich from the cold shelves in the old store at Whitmore where settlement began in the 1860s and then apparently screeched to a halt thereafter no doubt pleasing to the Whitmore locals who presently apparently enjoy a lifestyle that makes Mayberry seem like Gotham City, nor before we ride what is obviously an old logging road narrow in places with no centerline, flying in wide open corridors where the meadows are deep green and maybe a cow on the road and then rising again into the oak shaded cuts and then into the higher country that’s like a rainforest this wet year what with the pines and the fir and the cedar dense and towering very much in fashion of what the old growth looked like when gold miner Abraham Cunningham arrived in the country around Whitmore and Manton in 1849 and described it as “a forest primeval consisting of the greatest stand of pine the world has ever known . . . “, this from Dottie Smith’s comprehensive Dictionary of Early Shasta County History. When Paul and I pause where Buzzard Roost Road meets Highway 299 to say goodbye and go our separate ways homeward he looks and sounds better, his grief obviously palliated by the brisk motorized two wheel flight we all know and love, and the weather god was kind, he and his machine never got wet. Late that evening at home he emails me one of his favorite quotes which coincidentally happens to be one of mine too, from Aeschylus, who was writing in Greece two thousand years earlier than Shakespeare in Stratford: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will, through the awful grace of God, comes wisdom.” I think Paul’s going to be fine.


The Head Ride Part II



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