I sent my grandson a pup tent and told him to sleep in the backyard. Sometimes a guy’s got to hide, I said. When I was feeling that way myself I thought of my motorcycle and a long lonely road. Duane, a riding bud in the midst of a stressful career in financial management, was due to visit. He sounded like he needed a hide ride too. Get your butt and your bike up here. I’ve got the prescription.
Duane arrived in a Ford van with a change of underwear and socks and his 1996 Honda XR400R dirt thumper converted to dual purpose. The ride I’d planned begins at the end of my driveway here in Big Valley in northeast California, well named because it’s huge; the encircling mountains look 20 miles distant from every window of the house.
We head northeast toward the Big Valley township of Adin on a couple of old Lassen and Modoc County roads that roll 10 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 mule deer dart across the road from a copse of junipers and scare years from your life.
Adin was founded in 1869 as a supply point for gold mines on nearby Hayden Hill. It became a sawmill town in the 1930s. Population is 272. The morning Duane and I cruise into town, it’s Tuesday about 10, yet quiet as a Sunday sunrise. The cottonwoods that line Main Street and 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 sweet music. The old store, Adin Supply, is open but there’s no one around as we park our bikes at the entrance. I take a few photos, walk to the bridge over Ash Creek, and listen to the stream burbling down from the mountains. Big brown trout live here. It’s a popular local swimming hole too.
At the west end of town we turn left on Lassen County Road 527, 30 miles of gravel 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 Madeline is just a wide spot on a section of U.S. Route 395 that traverses the loneliest country in California. The road to Madeline ascends into the vast pine forest that typifies Modoc County. The gravel is 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 20 minutes. 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 look like an illustration from a religious text. 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 with tails as strong as a blacksmith’s wrist.
We take 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 raising cattle and feed is a no-brainer and so early 19th century homesteaders took full advantage. A reality check about living in such a remote location comes when we visit the pioneer cemetery, and what’s left of the one-room schoolhouse that dates back more than a century. The cemetery is something to ponder; many of the gravestones are canted 45 degrees with the onslaught of more than a hundred winters; many are hidden, grown over with sagebrush and cheat grass. The last time these resting places were tended was a long time ago.
Read the engraving on the stones still legible: Bennie Bath, born September 1882, died July 1883. Holbrook Triplets, died 1898, age 9 days. Clara Holbrook, born 1874, died 1879. David Holbrook, born 1865, died 1879. Annie Sowvlen, died November 1894, age 10 days. Gaze over at the old weathered schoolhouse still intact and realize that sometimes going from the cradle to the grave is way too short a journey.
Nearing noon we’re hungry and looking forward to the ham, 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 U.S. 395, just 12 miles north of Madeline. We’re riding more briskly out of Ash Valley, anticipating the pavement again at Madeline to speed us to breakfast, where the urge will be to smother it with country gravy. Anxiety of any kind, however, is antithetical on a motorcycle ride. Proof of this comes as Duane and I ride by a huge meadow on our left that is ablaze with a floor of yellow buttercups. 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. Oh well, some photographs need to remain perfect forever in the mind’s eye.
There’s not much in Madeline save the water tank that served the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway in its heyday. We zoom up and over Sagehen Summit and cruise into town and find to our dismay mom and daughter’s restaurant is closed on Tuesdays. How do they put it in the Marines? Adapt and overcome. We do it with a visit to the Likely General Store, where Duane inhales two microwave bean and cheese burritos, and I make do with a large can of tuna and a tin of sardines.
The town is called Likely because it was originally named South Fork. When the post office insisted upon one word, residents were unable to agree what to name their town until a local rancher observed they would most likely never agree. Guess what? Likely was voted on and approved in 1886. One of the last battles with Native Americans 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
Termo is the next stop south as we begin to close the loop of this ride. 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 it represents Gertrude Stein’s observation that there’s no there there anymore. A few crumbling boarded-up buildings and a world of trash, including 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 busy depot, a store, livery stables, hotels, a bar, restaurants, an enormous warehouse, housing for the rail crew, and fuel and water for the railroad.
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.
At Termo, we turn right on Termo-Grasshopper Road to ride 20 or so more miles to connect with Highway 139 and the watercourse of Willow Creek to begin the final leg of our journey. Just before that junction is DreamCatcher Wild Horse & Burro Sanctuary, run by a compassionate lady who is in the rescue business. Her heart is with the wild herds of Mustangs that populate this last corner of California that hasn’t come under the gun of development. She adopts herds in trouble and cares for 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 newborn foal that canter off into the grass as high as their withers. Can we delve into the lives of these beautiful animals that evolved here 55 million years ago and then became extinct 12 thousand years ago? Science is not clear why the disappearance, but natural climate change is in first place. One thing is clear, the horse returned to America with Columbus and later, with Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. 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.
There’s a saying from a time long before MapQuest and GPS and the whole nine yards of high-tech convenience that’s come to rule our lives. The horse knows the way home.
So do we.
Denis Rouse founded Rider magazine in 1974 and was its Publisher for nearly two decades.