The Trail to Grandmother Oak

My friend Melissa who works at Sugarloaf State Park signed up to GPS (can it be a verb?) the trail to the grandmother oak at Hood Mountain. My friend Marci and I were delighted to be invited to accompany her. imageShe emailed me this map to show where we’d be hiking. She wanted to know exactly how long a hike it it and how much altitude is gained and lost. This GPS app will give you all the information you could possibly want. You access the trail from Los Alamos Road off Highway 12.


This part of Sugarloaf, called the McCormick Addition, wraps around the east side of the mountain and connects Sugarloaf to Hood Mountain Regional Park. My wife Holly and I had explored it in the wet winter of 2010. At that time the road had washed out, which made the hike in to the trailhead a slog. I had just assumed budget cuts would prevent work on park roads for years to come. But I’m happy to report the road has been repaired.


Otherwise this part of the park looks very much like it did then, except for the seasonal differences. While much of Hood Mountain sustained damage from the October fires that devastated Sonoma County, this area was spared.IMG_6997This hike took us down into a cool forested ravine where we crossed Santa Rosa Creek whose headwaters can be reached if you stay on the Maple Glen Trail. Maples soon give way to the oak forest, and then open scrubland. Melissa and I took the same class–Native Trees and Shrubs–at Santa Rosa Jr. College from the wonderful teacher Kasey Wade. We had to memorize the Latin names of the plants, a difficult task for me, a poor memorizer. I wrote a song with all the Latin names that I sang in class at the end of the semester. It starts with Quercus agrifolia, the Coast Live Oak. We made Melissa recite the names as we hiked up the mountain (she remembered far more than I).


She misidentified one large bush near the top of the ridge as a kind of ceanothus. I thought it might be Birch Leaf Mountain Mahogany. Turns out I was right! The Latin name is Cercocarpus betuloides–unforgettable! We found the grandmother oak near the top of the ridge serenely overlooking her queendom, a stately representative of Quercus agrifolia. She has a spectacular view of the hills and valleys. We are not sure of her age. Melissa thinks it is written somewhere in park pamphlets but I couldn’t find it. Let’s just say she’s 300 years old. In any case, old enough to have witnessed a lot of history and to hold great wisdom.


The hike to the oak is exactly 2.3 miles says the GPS app. This 4.6 mile hike was a perfect distance for me, now officially old. Today is my 69th birthday, July 4. As I begin my 70th year, I hope to keep on hiking the hills and vales of Sonoma County. Thanks to all the open space advocates for making these beautiful places available to the public.IMG_6945


On the Edge of the Great Basin

Our destination was the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, the federal park occupied and trashed by armed militias a couple of years ago. (the leaders were later tried and acquitted). We headed there to meet up with my brother Don and his husband John, who was turning 60. They were driving from Vancouver, BC. Soon Malheur would be occupied by us queers! 


From Santa Rosa to Frenchglen and back

We decided to take two days to get there and pledged not to drive on any interstates. Mark West Springs Road and Porter Creek Road took us through country decimated by the October fires. We continued east to Calistoga, up Tubbs Lane (the Tubbs fire, which burned all the way through to, and into, Santa Rosa on October 9th originated here) and onto highway 128 through Middletown.

This area was also a fire scene—much of the town and surrounding area burned in the 2015 Valley Fire, and trauma struck again a few months ago when the town’s central grocery store, a gathering center during and after the fires, itself burned. We drove past the wreckage. Then we were on curvy highway 29 to Clearlake.


American flag stuck in the burn

Through the town center towards the lake we found just what we were hoping for, a cafe by the lake. We were entertained by an old guy talking loudly on his cell phone. What an interesting accent! Where could he be from? Afterward he came over to apologize, explaining that he’d grown up right there in Lakeport, but “my mom was an Oakie,” he said. He’d inherited her accent.


Selfie at Clearlake

Highway 20 took us up over a mountain pass then down into the Central Valley. At Colusa we jogged onto highway 45, paralleling I-5 along the Sacramento River. Then we drove highway 32 over the Cascades from Chico to Lake Almanor, a reservoir damming the Feather River that was once known as Nakam Koyo, Big Meadows/Big Springs. Holly’s ancestors drove their cattle from the Central Valley to graze here in the summers. Construction of the dam in 1914 by the Great Western Power Company displaced a long-standing Yamani Maidu village and the settler town of Prattville, not to mention all those grazing cows.


Lake Almanor from the rest stop

Highways 89 and 36 brought us into Susanville where we stayed the night. Susanville was named after the daughter of a an early settler. Once a center of lumber, mining and farming industries, Susanville is home to three prisons, two state and one federal, where 11,000 people are incarcerated. About half of the people who live there work at the prisons.

We stayed in a sprawling motel along with a motorcycle club and lots of Caltrans and railroad workers. Those big trucks and the motorcycles when they start up at 5 o’clock in the morning are pretty friggin loud. When we checked in  we were informed that the motel kept a $75 deposit on a credit card in case we trashed the place. When I asked about it the woman at the desk said, “Yes and old people steal the pillows.” We carefully left the pillows on the bed.

I stopped in for a short visit to the Lassen County Museum. The volunteer historians there had put together informative displays featuring local Indians and suffragists. I learned about  Lucy Philenda Montgomery Spencer, a Susanville suffragist and civic activist. She was representing Lassen County in the 1913 Washington DC demonstration for woman suffrage that was attacked by a mob.

People were hurt and the ambulances couldn’t get through the crowd. Philenda was there in a supportive role. California women had already won the vote in 1911, the 6th state to do so. The volunteer at the Susanville museum (whose name I believe is Susan) dresses up as Philenda and speaks to school kids. Philenda’s daughter was also locally famous as the first female judge in California. Susan also told stories about Indian women, one of them named Lucy who lived in the town till she was 93 and just kind of lived off the streets. “If your door was unlocked she might walk in and take the roast you’d cooked for dinner. That’s how she lived.” The people at the museum lamented that they were a blue dot in the reddest county in the state, Lassen County.

Continue reading

Report from Sugarloaf

When I last reported from Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, on Earth Day, its grass was still green and wildflowers “bound the ground.” This week when we returned, the grass had turned gold, but new wildflowers rose from the fire blackened earth. IMG_6358Looking up at Sugarloaf Ridge near the Bald Mountain trailhead you can no longer see where it was burned by the October fire that blew through the park. I wanted to hike the trail to Hood Mountain, which had opened more recently. There, where the fire had burned hotter, we saw more fire damage.

But, in amongst the blackened manzanita and scrub, new varieties of wildflowers had emerged. I could identify most of them, but some were new to me. Do help ID if you know them.

Bicycling Santa Rosa

I just got my bike tuned up and wanted to take her out for the first ride of the season. Holly and I didn’t go far but we cruised some spectacular sights. SR is in bloom!

People work hard on their yards here but roses flourish even in vacant lots. Poppies are ubiquitous.

Down in the Desert: Visiting Our Exes


Holly, Molly, Barb and Ana

It’s a good lesbian story. My wife and I introduced our exes, they fell in love and we all became besties. That was eight or nine years ago and since then we have been living in different places but we try to visit when we can. Ana and Barb (we call them Barbana) have recently established a new home base in the desert town of Hesperia, California where they’ve fallen in with a subculture of rock hounders and gold miners centered on a rock and mining shop owned by their friends and next door neighbors Cyndy and Lois.

We wanted to get down there before the desert heat set in and so we saddled up our orange Prius, Lucita Papayita, for an April trip on Highway 99 all the way to near the terminus of the old Route 66.IMG_5230

Holly did most of the driving (thanks darling) and we arrived in the midst of a dust storm that had me wearing a dust mask even in the car. The iconic vegetation in this part of the Mojave Desert is the Joshua tree, an endangered species that will in time succumb to global warming. Temperatures here in the summer routinely reach 120 degrees now and continue to rise. Relentless building of freeways and suburban housing adds to the stress on the Joshuas. The new developments–many are gated communities, many with green lawns–back up to the wild desert in oxymoronic juxtaposition.IMG_5324

Weather the next day was calmer and we drove into the neighboring town of Victorville to the Route 66 museum. We were the only visitors and the volunteer docents overwhelmed us, each wanting to tell his stories. Holly and Ana rode the VW love bus and learned to drive a Model T (it’s not so easy) before we beat a retreat. Still I continued singing “get your kicks on route 66” because it’s such a great song and I know all the words.IMG_4376

We knew we were arriving just in time for the big poppy bloom at Antelope Valley, only a short distance away. We drove back toward the Tehachapi Mountains past acres of solar and wind farms out into the desert. The Joshua trees fell away to treeless scrub and grassland but the anticipated orange poppy wonderland evaded us. It just wasn’t a good poppy year said the park ranger, too cold and dry. From the trail at the crest of a hill we could see the snowy mountains above a valley strewn with goldfields (flowers, not gold) whose bloom had peaked. We were warned to watch for rattlesnakes, said to be angry at the unseasonable weather, but we saw none. But desert lizards greeted us, and we discovered a tiny horned toad.

Barbana had visited the Rio Tinto borax mine with the local Women in Mining group and so they got to go into the processing plant. Many women work at the mine in nontraditional jobs including driving the gigantic loader trucks. We couldn’t wrangle an invitation so had to be content with the view from on top of the visitors center. Still, the plant and the adjacent mine–a contoured pit so deep we couldn’t see the bottom–was impressive. The guide, a woman of a certain age, knew the answers to all our questions. I didn’t ask her if the workers were union, but I later learned that they are organized by the ILWU, which won a 105-day lockout in 2010. See the story by Peter Olney here:

Here is something we know about our exes: they both love walking around looking at the ground. We first introduced them at Thanksgiving dinner and afterward all took a walk on the spectacular Sonoma Coast. While Holly and I gazed at the ocean waves, the whales and the birds, Barbana looked for beach glass. Since then we have visited many beautiful places and have pictures of the two of them focused on their feet with wondrous backdrops.IMG_0820

Our exes took us to a secret location on BLM land where they knew we could find chalcedony, a kind of quartz. It can be many different colors, but in this part of the desert it is pink. Especially prized are rocks with druse, or crystals, on the surface. Ana and Holly explored the desert floor while Barb and I walked up a draw to the top of a hill. This was so much fun, partly because we scored! We found several fine pieces of the mineral. And we now have more pictures of Barbana looking down.

Ana and Barb are talented jewelry makers. They take the rocks and glass they find and make beautiful pieces (check out their work on their facebook page Barbana’s Jewelry Designs). They also teach classes at the rock shop. Ana picked out a little piece of chalcedony with druse and polished it to a shine. Then she wove silver wire around it and quickly turned it into a lovely necklace given to Holly. I think the lizard T-shirt she wears it with is particularly appropriate.

Life in Hesperia has changed in the last few years, according to Lois and Cyndy, who have lived here since the 60s. It was a sleepy community of desert rats and miners where you could buy a house for little and live for less until it started turning into a bedroom suburb of San Bernardino, a long 35 miles away, and the LA basin beyond. They call it “going down the hill” from high desert to low. Only one highway connects the two cities so if there’s an accident or a backup there is no alternative. Lois worked as a teacher in San Bernardino for a time and told us she sometimes was not able to get home. Since then the traffic down the hill has only worsened.

On the way home we saw the construction of the high-speed train (hey, California, how about a train from Hesperia to San Bernardino! And while you’re at it we’d like one from Santa Rosa to Hesperia or just Santa Rosa to the East Bay. Please help us get out of our cars!).img_5358.jpg

We loved our desert adventure and we were also glad to return home to Santa Rosa. As we drove back into Sonoma County we couldn’t believe how lush and green it looked after only a few days in the desert. Of course, spring is the greenest time of the year here, after the rainy season when the soil warms, trees leaf out and plants flourish. But as Kate Wolf reminded us, even in northern California the hills turn brown in the summertime.

A Walk Through Capitol Park

IMG_4815On a visit to Sacramento this week we had just enough free time to explore Capitol Park, the 40 acre garden fronting the State Capitol building. It’s a tree museum, with trees from all over the world, many dating from the 1860s. Now it’s also becoming a museum of monuments.

I usually hate these things, but the Vietnam memorial brought me to tears. Rather than a monument to the glory of war, it’s a monument to misery and the horror wrought by our government’s failed foreign policy. I also appreciated that among the statues of soldiers were several African Americans. And the volunteer docent, Richard, was also a black man, a Marine and Vietnam vet himself.

I was pleased that the firefighters memorial used the gender neutral term instead of fireman, thus including all the female firefighters.

We were glad we also found a little plaque appreciating the conservation efforts of IMG_4821our first gay California legislator (first elected in 1994), Sheila Kuehl. For old-timers like me Sheila is best remembered for her role as tomboy Zelda Gilroy in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a TV serial. But Sheila has had and continues to have a remarkable career in public service as a state legislator and senator and most recently as a member of the LA Board of Supervisors. For more about Sheila and three other pioneering lesbian legislators, see the documentary Political Animals.

Then Holly and I discovered several specimens of the tree that grows in our front yard in Santa Rosa, the camphor tree. We had been trying to figure out what it was and had misidentified it as a Bradford pear. Our tree is already large, but it’s just a little thing compared with some of the old trees in Capitol Park. I made Holly stand next to this tree so you can get a sense of its size. We hope ours doesn’t reach this height.