It’s a little strange to look at this as a long-time Californian (or at least a long-time Californai resident. Are they the same thing?).
Pat Brown was a really important figure in state government through the mid-1960s, and there are several things I immediately associate with him: the State Water Project, for instance, and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. And the fact he took office in a period where the state was growing like crazy. But what, specifically, would have made me, a fifth-grader in the Chicago suburbs, write the governor’s office for a picture? Maybe I had heard mention of him as a potential running mate for President Johnson in 1964 (yes, I would haver been paying attention). Maybe I heard some other news item or an approving remark from my parents. I have no real idea.
This arrived in the mail in March 1965 — probably the same week that I got the first picture in my collection, the portrait of Otto Kerner. Brown was in his second term, having beaten Richard “You Won’t Have” Nixon (to Kick Around Anymore) in 1962. Standing for his third term as governor, he wasn’t so lucky. In 1966, Brown lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, winning just three of the state’s 58 counties (San Francisco, Alameda and Plumas).
Brown: It was 1917 when I was in the seventh grade they had these four-minute speeches for the sale of Liberty Bonds. We had to write a speech and then we had to deliver it. I’ll never forget that I made the speech and I ended up by saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and the kids at school started calling me “Patrick Henry” Brown. It’s an amazing thing how they shortened it to “Pat.”
Q.: How did you see that at the time, as derisive or as something that was …?
Brown: Oh no, it was friendly, very friendly. It usually is when they give you a nickname. It was a fortuitous thing that happened because I think “Pat” Brown helped me later on in political life. It gave me an Irish connotation which was really somewhat undeserved because I was half German and half Irish.
Of course, I should mention Bernice Layne Brown, the governor’s wife, also pictured above. She and her husband were both San Francisco natives. Her official biography mentions that they eloped to Reno when they were in their early 20s. The short writeup also says this: “Bernice was ambivalent toward politics. The Governor’s Office confirmed this in a 1960 press release which stated, ‘Mrs. Brown frankly admits she never would have chosen a political career for her husband if the choice had been hers to make.'”
Not mentioned in the official biography: The Browns were parents to the state’s longest-serving governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. But you knew that.
Part 1 covered the San Francisco Zephyr trip from Chicago to Denver. Part 2 took me from Denver to around Evanston, Wyoming — the southwestern corner of the state. This part —the last! — picks up with me in the dome car — a car with expansive windows and skylights to accommodate meditative scenery gawking — sitting in what I describe here as a “lounge” — part of the car that was arranged in side-facing sofas.
I had been watching a couple in the dining car. The woman, a sort of plain-faced New Englander in her late twenties, now sat across the aisle from me in the dome car. The guy with her, probably in his mid-thirties, was suave Tom Wolfe radical chic: uninflated.1 He was leading her along, she was laughing and having a good time, and I thought, “How nice.” He was making excellent progress when a third party arrived on the scene.
The new arrival was a writer for a New Jersey paper, and had dropped in a brief conversation with Rodeo and me that he’d been to the North Pole. He was carrying a copy of “Luce and His Empire” with him, which he would momentarily open when he closed his mouth.
Well, he arrived, and I thought with interest that Tom Wolfe could be counted out of this business. The writer (Newark, I’ll call him) was successfully putting his foot in the door, and Tom couldn’t stop him.
They talked about some trivial things, and came to the Donner Pass, recalling there had been a train marooned there in the 1950s (1956, I think2). Tom went off to fetch a bottle of port he had acquired along the way, and on his return joined a discussion between the girl (Boston), Newark, and a guy on my side of the aisle on the expansion and contraction of freezing liquids. My friend was really mixed up about what he was saying, and Tom, Newark and Boston were finding him amusing.
Then they got back to Donner Pass.
“When was that? 1952?”
“1956, I think.”
“Yeah, that’s where the digger Indians sat watched the Donner Party go through their thing, isn’t it?” the guy next to me said.
“The digger Indians just hung out up there and watched the people eat each other, man.”
“But Indians don’t ‘hang out.'”
And that comment by Tom evidently offended my neighbor, because he didn’t participate in the conversation of the wine drinkers (Newark had graciously accepted his own invitation to share the wine with the romantic couple) except to add a comment about “Governor Ronald Raygun.”
I had been watching the land move by outside while picking up snatches of this repartee, and now we were in Utah. The hills were now mountains of rock, there were canyons, and snow-covered streambeds below. We were in the Rocky Mountains.
The guy next to me asked if I wanted a beer, and I said, “OK.” He was a tall guy who was also riding in my car; with glasses, red hair, and a red beard. He came back, and we drank our beer, and told each other where we were going, where we were from, etc. He had come from Chicago and was bound for Frisco.3
We talked about the deepness of the moonlight on the mountain, and “hanging out” there, and a lot of good things. His name was John Sweeney, and his father was a Chicago cop, Tom Sweeney, and had been in Studs Terkel’s book “Division Street.”4
I went for a second round because John was, as it developed, tripping. Amazing! No wonder he had been having a struggle with freezing liquids. We continued to watch and talk and everything, and I was getting a little drunk and liking it.
We talked about a lot of things you talk about in Chicago: WFMT, what a great and valuable thing it is; the police, whom John didn’t like at all; the crooked government and the beauty of the lakefront. And hanging out.
Some observations he made:
“Hamm’s is a lousy scab beer.”
“During the King riots, I was driving a junky old Buick, and it broke down on the Kennedy expressway and I had to get off at Cabrini-Green. There were squads rolling down the street, and dudes poking shotguns out of windows. I figured I had more to fear from the pigs than from the dudes around there. I’d be driving down the street in this old beat-up machine, and they were running alongside the car telling me ‘right on!’ There was one place they were looting a liquor store, they ran up and were pushing beers through the window at me. It was all right, you know.”
Looking then at the rocks we passed, he’d say, “It’d be all right to hang out up there.”
The black and white bleakness of the Wasatch Range rose up in the moonlight. It was all rock, and black where there was no snow. The train rolled past the lonely towns on I-80, all under the moon — it was the moon, the country of Frederic Remington.
And every once in a while, the voices of Newark and Boston, minus Tom (who had taken a powder at the strong advances of Newark) drifted our way.
We found out that Boston was a scientist (macro-biologist, I think (?)) and was going to some sort of conference in San Francisco. Newark stuck to his journalist story (the Star-Ledger5), but was just taking a week off from his daily column to skirt around the country by train. How nice!
Then John told me that “the god-damn idiot who tried to tell me that Indians don’t hang out” had made advances toward him during the evening. So I related my experience [with the amputee], and we were both relieved to find out it had happened to someone else.
Newark was continuing his campaign, asking Boston (quite phallically) where the dagger on Orion was. “Where’s the dagger?”
The mountains rose higher, and as we made the approach to Ogden, two peaks jutted high above the plain we rode on. Black and white, you could see the deep snow in relief on their summits. They must have been 6,000 feet high, seemingly right behind the town of Ogden.
Street lights strung right to the base of the mountains; there was nothing but darkness above. Where there was snow on the ledges, you could see the mountains, but otherwise they hid themselves under the full moon and the stars.
We started out of Ogden on the Southern Pacific the third and last leg of the trip. Within half an hour of leaving Ogden and the Wasatch Towers behind us, we were starting over the causeway across Great Salt Lake. The water sparkled darkly, was uninviting; there were only snow- and brush-covered hills in the distance now, and despite the noise in the car, everything had an air of dead silence.
John had gone back to the coach, and I lay on the seat and looked through the panels of the dome at the stars, watched them wheel as the train rounded bends in the track. Pretty soon, having lost interest in the Boston-Newark affair, and being tired (and a little drunk), I went back to my coach to sleep. I saw no more of Utah, and slept until we were about 25 miles east of Reno, thereby missing almost the whole state of Nevada.
And waking up (it was Sunday) we were still beside Interstate 80 (now heavily laden with signs for casinos).
We stopped first in Sparks, Nevada (six miles outside of Reno) and I have no idea why. It was a dirty little town with little or nothing that made an impression (except the men, who all looked desert-tough Nevada types; were wiry thin and sunburned, wearing faded denim and cowboy hats).
Reno was a dump. I thought there was supposed to be something big and special about it, but I couldn’t see anything to justify its reputation. But there must be something there, because two hundred people boarded the train; these were all California week-enders I guess, most of them just couples, and a few who had come with their kids.
There was one guy I remember in particular, whom I saw as he was getting on. He was wearing a cream-colored western suit with string tie, white shirt, and matching hat. The shape of his head was what really made me notice him: it was as close to cubic as it could come, like a block of granite, and sat on an almost non-existent neck hidden somewhere in his shirt collar. Everything about this man suggested the image of stone: his heavy, squared jaw, his nose, his forehead, even his obsidian black eyes. He had his wife with him, but somehow I didn’t note any of her physical details. She could have had a face right off of Mount Fillmore6 and remained unimpressive beside her husband.
I ate a heavy breakfast amid all the weekend gamblers, and then went to the dome car, and sat with a couple from Laramie. The guy was a trainman, and was just on a little vacation with his wife, I guess. They didn’t talk to me much (or at all) and I really didn’t say much to them, either.
But the train was rising now, up the abrupt eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Creeks foamed down the hillside beside us, there began to be thicker stands of pine on the slopes, and there was a lot of snow as we climbed higher under still cloudy skies.
Up and up we went, through a tunnel and a switchback, and to the west blue sky could be seen. As we cleared four thousand feet the sun came out, the clouds were just a grey band below us.
The trees seemed to get bigger, the snow much deeper as we progressed toward the Donner Pass. I’d know what kind of trees they were, but they stood like spikes 180 feet high, with their branches laden with snow. There was snow standing two feet deep on the crossarms of the telegraph poles, making the oldtimer who’d gotten on way back in Cheyenne say, “The snow doesn’t stay like that in Wyoming, does it? We have that little breeze up there,” with his grin, and eyes watery from the brightness of the snow in the sun.
There was a man reading a book behind me, a book about this rail route, and he kept telling us what lay ahead — the snow sheds, tunnels, view of Donner Lake — and I sort of wondered what kind of enjoyment he was getting from it (perhaps an immense amount).
Soon after he announced we would be skirting Donner Lake, we were, two thousand feet above it. It lay frozen and cold, the only sign of life (and it was an outstanding one) was a string of cottages and summer homes along its shores.
My mother gave me a book entitled “The Donner Party” for my last birthday; it begins with the lines, “My name is George Donner/I am a dirt farmer…” and I thought of the dirt farmers from central Illinois who struggled here so long ago beneath the weight of an October storm.
The trees seemed there highest here, the snow the deepest. I said to the woman from Laramie, ” My God, those trees are hearty,” and she nodded. I felt tears welling in my eyes for a minute or two, but they didn’t roll down my cheeks, as I wanted them to. For a moment I saw or felt something there. I don’t know what: “My name is George Donner/I am a dirt farmer….”
The Southern Pacific wound through the mountains, now slowly down, and past a wreck. which re-inflated the Cheyenne old-timer with more story-telling energy. (Most of the stories I heard were about a train coming around the bend in a blinding snowstorm to find a wreck place inconveniently in its path).
We went through the clouds again, passed through Truckee8, and were headed for the Valley and Sacramento. I went to my coach and slept, waking up in Sacramento.
The sun broke out again as we went southwest toward Oakland, and it looked beautiful: many of the fields were under water; there were a few ducks in the flood (and thousands of decoys), and red-tail hawks glided in the sky between the soft green hills of the coast ranges.
The whole country, palm trees, bright blue sky with the purest white clouds sailing above, looked like a sort of paradise. (I’m not sure exactly what kind — advertisers’?). It reminded me of the part in “The Grapes of Wrath” where the Joads come to a ridge-top on Route 66 and see a Canaan-like scene before them. But it’s not clean; there is always something to remind you you’re in the middle of civilization: earth movers levelling a far off hill for a highway, or a junkyard overflowing with wrecked cars.
And we hit the bay and the tracks moved down alongside it. We passed lots of fishermen on the rocks (and the rocks were in the sun) who smiled and waved as we passed. We continued, farther and farther along the shore, and I thought, “Damn, this thing is big.”
On the highway next to the tracks we saw ads for all the motels in Oakland and San Francisco. We passed through refineries, and the Sherwin-Williams factory, through water-front communities and too-neat tract developments. “When do we get there?”
The train slowed, and finally stopped. Everyone anxiously asking, “Is this it?”
Then the announcement: “Oakland 16th Street Station.”
“This is it!”
Another announcement: “A bus will take you from here to San Francisco.”
I was very nervous all this time about my luggage [which consisted of a frame backpack and accouterments] — whether it would be destroyed or simply lost. But I saw it safe and secure on the luggage wagon outside.
I boarded the designated bus, and just as I saw them stow my pack, I was Rol9 outside. I climbed out, retrieved my luggage, and … California.
The meaning of “uninflated” here is lost to time. Maybe I meant he was an “uninflated” — less than impressive? — version of Tom Wolfe? Your thoughts welcome.
1952, actually, which someone in the trio’s conversation says.
“Frisco.” There — I said it. Possible explanatory circumstance: Maybe I was quoting my companion.
After coming across this a week or so ago (January 2023), I went and found an online copy of “Division Street: America” and tried to look up Tom Sweeney. There’s no one in the book by that name. But there is an interview with a Chicago cop named “Tom Kearney.” Terkel says in his introduction that he had used pseudonyms for most of his interviewees, so my guess is that “Kearney” was actually Sweeney. Further evidence: In the interview, conducted in 1966 or so, Kearney mentions having a 22-year-old son. That would square with the age of John Sweeney, who I would guess was in his late 20s when we met in 1973.
An actual paper in Newark, New Jersey. In 2023, I might have asked this person’s name and then looked up what he’d been writing.
Fillmore? I think I meant Rushmore.
The work (mis)quoted is indeed called “The Donner Party,” by George Keithley, who taught for decades at Chico State. It’s a book length poem about the epic of suffering endured by said group of emigrants from the Midwest to California in 1846-47. The actual first lines are: “I am George Donner, a dirt farmer/who left the snowy fields/around Springfield, Illinois/in the fullness of my life/and abandoned the land/where we had been successful/and prosperous people.” I note that the way I quote the line matches precisely the meter of “my name is Jan Jansen/I live in Wisconsin….”
I’ve placed Truckee on the wrong side of Donner Pass. Maybe I was referring to Colfax here
Rol Healey, a childhood friend of my mom’s from the 8300 block of South May Street in Chicago, met me in Oakland. Rol was a high school English teacher in San Jose who put me up during my Bay Area stay. He was a fantastic host — that first night in the Bay Area, he and a fellow teacher took me over to North Beach and City Lights Books. We also visiting Monterey (pre-aquarium), San Juan Bautista, and Yosemite. Rol was one of the reasons I came away with the idea that the Bay Area was an amazing place.
I arrived in the Bay Area for the first time 50 years ago this month. I was 18 and had never been more than a few miles west of the Mississippi River. On summer evenings sometimes I’d see clouds building in the west and thought maybe that’s what the Rockies might look like on the horizon. After working for eight months at my first job — as a copyboy at Chicago Today — and saving most of what I earned, I bought a ticket from Chicago to Oakland on Amtrak.
I was moderately serious about keeping a journal, and I wrote a long entry about the train ride west. From the dates in my notebook, I can see I didn’t write the narrative until about three weeks after the fact. So while I think I believed everything happened just the way I related it, and I feel that I must have worked from notes of some kind — my notebook is remarkably free of scratch-outs and rewriting — some of the details about people and places may have become lost by the time I wrote it all down. Reading the account now, I can see a few mistakes. For instance, I put the town of Truckee on the wrong side of Donner Summit, and I seem to have been confused about Bay Area geography. What follows is the first partof the entry, complete with botched spelling and punctuation, embarrassing asides, vague semi-true historical details, and with notes where I feel the need to explain or correct something.
The date on the journal entry in my notebook is February 9, 1973, when I was visiting with a family friend up in Twain Harte, Tuolumne County. I believe the train I was taking, the California Zephyr, pulled out of Chicago’s Union Station at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, January 19 and arrived in Oakland almost exactly 48 hours later.
West on the Train
The train rolls out slow from Chicago’s center, and gathers its speed through the West Side. The afternoon is cloudy and is turning dark as you enter the Prairie, past the grey, dirty town of Aurora.
Familiar Illinois country: neon lamps scattered across the rich farmlands. Farms and their houses stand close by the lights, in the deep dusk you can see a few as the Burlington opens up. The farmers sit inside the houses and wait for the warmness of March and April to break the dormancy of the winter earth; or, impatient, they wait for the furrows to dry so their combines can take out last year’s corn and soybeans without sinking.
They might see the train running west beneath their big sky; red lights flash at rural crossings, cars wait for your thirty-second passing, and go on. The land is unchanged as you head west, pulling into Galesburg at 7 o’clock. The station is small and dimly lit, the town looks quiet, a few neon signs flashing down quiet main streets.
And you continue,. You’re coming to Iowa. The train stops at Knoxville; “I didn’t know we stopped here;” ah, well, Burlington next.1 Eating a turkey sandwich with a middle-aged couple from the Quad Cities, talking on the expense and extent of the Midwest night life. Out the window, the reflection of the broad Mississippi River. The “Father of Waters,” flowing to New Orleans, by Memphis, St. Louis, New Madrid, Vicksburg, river towns along the way. Picking up the Missouri and Ohio and smaller streams along the way. I’ve never been more than 30 miles past this in my life; it’s a real border.
I stop in the dome car after dinner, and sit. The sky is clearing now, there’s a full moon riding in the clear Iowa sky. I’m going. I really am. And the excitement is there, a good feeling from talking to the people in the diner. What a feeling. Iowa’s farmlands slide by under the moon. We stop in a town (Ottumwa? Osceola?) and people at a crossing wave. I wave back but they can’t see me.
Into Creston, Iowa, back in my coach. The Strand theater stands a block from the tracks, its marquee dark. Even this excites me: I remember Phillips and Robinson2 going to the Strand, maybe this is the same one? They saw “Change of Habit,” with Elvis Presley. What excitement.
The land along the tracks alternates between dry, rolling hills and long, flat stretches. The moon lights all: the water standing in the turned up fields, the tall hillside grasses; small creeks all through Iowa shine with the fullness of the moon.
It was late, and I was getting tired, so before we got to Omaha I tried to sleep. It was sort of uncomfortable, but I didn’t mind much. I tried sleeping “stretched” across two seats, but that didn’t make it, so I sat up and watched as we crossed another dark river, the Missouri, and moved towards Omaha. i think it was around one in the morning by this time, and about nine hours out of Chicago; I kept thinking we weren’t going too fast.
An old lady got on in Aurora, who looked like she was about eighty, and whose eyesight was failing her. Everytime she left the car, she’d come back and have a lot of trouble finding her seat. It seemed incredible that she was finding her car everytime (because by the way most people looked when they walked through, it was obvious that they were sort of confused).
Her troubles were compounded after they turned off the lights for the night. There was a kid who was going to Omaha who helped her out a couple of times. She left her seat for a while after he got off though, and a middle-aged serviceman took it (someone had taken his old seat). She returned in the dark, and found him sitting in her seat. So she went to sit in another place, only to remember she left her shoes in her original seat.
Being awake, I saw she was having some kind of trouble, and got up and said to her, “Yes, that’s where you were sitting.” She replied that she knew, “but he’s sleeping over my shoes. I guess I’ll get them tomorrow.” All she said was in a hoarse, almost child-like whisper. That’s what she reminded me of in a way, a small child on a long trip without his parents. She walked away then, down the aisle, and went to sleep.
And I tried. I dozed off, and woke up in Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska. A woman was changing seats on the downtown side of the train, trying to see something. It was the same woman I had asked the time of in Omaha.
“Is this Lincoln?” I asked, knowing already that it was. “Yes, I lived here, that’s why I’m trying to see out. I wonder if it’s changed any.” She was middle-aged; her hair was a greying shade; in the dim light I really wasn’t sure what color it was. She wore glasses, and her face had a set expression on it, I don’t know, a neutral half-smile. She was the kind of person you think looks older than they really are.
I didn’t think Lincoln looked very interesting, so I went to sleep again, and woke up several times during the night. I was able to tell it had turned cloudy; I woke up around dawn, in time to see the cloudy, blue light of Saturday morning covering the range country of the Nebraska Sand Hills. This is the country where half of the fleeing Cheyenne tribe got lost and surrendered in November, 1876. This is the country where they died two months later in the sub-zero January plains.3
I went up to the dome car again, and saw us pass the “Welcome to Colorado” sign on the highway parallel to us. Colorado! The snow started just as we crossed the state line (or so it seemed) and got worse all the way into Denver, where they had about five inches down, and the heavy snow still coming down.
I went to breakfast at the first call, right after we entered Colorado, and met a kid from Green River, Wyoming (he’d gotten on in Galesburg). He was letting me in on all the facts of life in a small Wyoming town (there isn’t any other kind).
Yes, there are only about two people per square mile in Wyoming. “There used to be three trains a day coming through town, now there’s only this one three times a week.”
“We had a motorcycle group once; we just rode around. One time we went to Salt Lake. The cops there don’t like you; they didn’t like us. We rode in, and just went around the city. After dark a cop came up to us and said, ‘If you’re looking for a place to sleep, you can go over to the park and I won’t arrest you. You may have your head smashed in with a rock after you’re asleep, or get stabbed or killed or something, but I won’t bother you.'”
He had been visiting with his sister , who lives in Rock Island [Illinois]. He was there for a couple of days, killing time, and hitting all the bars on the Iowa side of the river. Now he was going back to Wyoming, and he was pretty glad.
“It’s great up there. My brother had a party once, with drugs and everything. When the police tried to come and get them, they just took some dynamite and blew up the road in front of them. “
The Burlington Northern stretches across the almost endless American plains, along the North Platte River in Nebraska, sometimes crossing the route of the Pony Express. In the days of the railroad, when steam was king and unquestioned, there was the Burlington and the Great Northern. The former ran its crack passenger carriers down this line; the famous “Zephyr.”
But after World War II, and before I was born, the railroads started on a long down grade, losing their battle against air travel, resigning themselves to the category of anachronisms.
The steam days ended in the middle fifties, and new diesel powerhouses wound the trains down the steel rails. There was the Illinois Central: “City of New Orleans,” “Panama Limited,” and “Floridian”4; the Louisiana and Nashville5: the “Humming Bird”; the Burlington Northern: the “Zephyr.” And they ran on their rails to the line of the horizon and were gone, and the big skies in the middle of the continent were cut at sunset by long, silver vapor trails high above the rich farmlands; and in the red dusty summer dusks, the last shrill whistle echoed, before I was born.
Now there is Amtrak, and passenger service barely survives. But the lore at the railroad crossings, bright red lights flashing in the prairie darkness at midnight, made me take the train, and we were pulling into Denver now in the snow.
I got off for about five minutes there, and got a copy of the last issue of Life, and a Sports Illustrated. Pretty soon we were backing out of Denver and transferring to the Union Pacific line, which would carry us through northern Colorado to Cheyenne and across the southern range of Wyoming. Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Green River, and Evanston.
End of Part 1.
1. This is confused. We would have passed through Knoxville, Illinois, before Galesburg, not after. Did the train make an unscheduled stop at Knoxville? I don’t recall, but probably not. The next stop after Galesburg, for the record, was Monmouth, Illinois, not Burlington (Iowa).
2. High school friends and neighbors.
3. In fact: We were well south of the Sand Hills. We were even farther away from the area where half of the Northern Cheyenne band of Indians were captured during their flight from Oklahoma. And that event — the surrender I mention — happened in late October 1878, not November 1876. The “the sub-zero January plains” refers to the Cheyennes’ desperate attempt to escape from Fort Robinson, in northwestern Nebraska, in January 1879, and the massacre that followed. At the time, I think my reading on the topic consisted of the historical novel “The Last Frontier,” by Howard Fast.
4. “The Floridian” was not an Illinois Central train; it appears to have been a train invented by Amtrak to continue service between Chicago and Miami.
5. The L&N was actually the Louisville and Nashville.
Back in August, I took a drive along some rural roads in Yolo County, on the edge of the Sacramento Valley, that I’d become familiar with on long bike rides 15 and 20 years ago. Most of the county is on the flat floor of the valley and was given over to agriculture — crops that even a city dweller like me could identify on the move included rice, sunflowers, alfalfa, tomatoes. Some nut and fruit orchards, too. That’s still a lot of what you see.
Northern and western parts of the county are hilly, though, and when I’d ride through, most of those areas appeared to be used for pasture with the occasional appearance of a grain crop wrapped around the hills’ contours.
In August, I was surprised to find that a lot of that former pastureland has been transformed into what I assume are almond orchards. I drove past a spot where, long ago, a couple of other cyclists and I had taken a break from riding against a fierce north wind. Back then, in 2006, it was a big open field with some abandoned-looking farm equipment that we ducked down behind to get out of the wind. Now that spot is all nut trees.
I stopped to take pictures along one of the routes I traveled, Road 6. Looking at the result — it’s the black and white shot below, which I just had developed — I realized that maybe Google Streetview would show the same scene over the years. The most recent shot Google has is from May 2012. Here’s a little of what the change looks like (and a before/after slider of the scene is here).
The transformation is not shocking; it’s part of the vast expansion of almond and pistachio acreage that’s overtaken much of the Central Valley.
If you live here, the puzzling thing about this changed landscape is that the last decade is one of the driest periods, if not the driest, since California was colonized 250 years ago. The state’s water supplies are dwindling, a situation that’s supposed to become more challenging as the effects of climate change accelerate. Given that there’s not a lot of visible irrigation infrastructure here, I assume that water is being pumped out of the ground to support these thirsty orchards. I haven’t looked into who the adventurous growers or hedge-fund investors are who have launched this experiment in the middle of our drought. It’s quite a gamble.
We happened across the sign above along Interstate 80 west of Donner Summit at the beginning of a road trip to see the August 2017 solar eclipse.
It took me nearly five years and a chance encounter with this image to actually look up George A. Wyman and what the whole “1st Across America” thing is about.
In short: Back in 1903, he made what is said to have been the first trip across the United States via motorized vehicle — in his case, a motorized bicycle produced by a company in San Francisco. The trip began at Lotta’s Fountain, on Market Street in San Francisco. The fountain became famous several years after Wyman’s departure as a meeting place in the aftermath of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, a bit of history that’s commemorated with a pre-dawn ceremony every April 18, the date of the catastrophe.
Naturally, you’ll want to read more about George A. Wyman and his machine.
If I’m write, you’ll want to check out the George A. Wyman Memorial Project, which has published a day-by-day account of the adventurer’s cross-country journey. The site includes a pretty good tale, too, about how the late publisher of the Los Angeles Times found and restored a 1902-vintage motor bicycle that he believed to be the one Wyman rode.
The day-by-day account mentioned above is drawn from Wyman’s dispatches — including pictures — to a publication called Motorcycle Magazine, which sponsored the trip. The story that unfolds in those reports shows Wyman to have been unflinching in the face of often hostile conditions along his route and the frequent breakdowns of his 90-pound, 1.25-horsepower machine. Especially in the West, he regularly found the bone-rattling ride along railroad ties — yes, he was riding on the railroad— preferable to the deep sand or intractable mud that made it miserable to travel on what passed for roads. When the trip was over, he estimated he’d ridden 1,500 miles on the cross-ties; on several occasions, he had close calls with trains that overtook him when he was on the tracks.
Occasionally, Wyman turned in truly dramatic accounts of his travels. His June 4, 1903, entry, describing his trip through a mountain downpour between Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming, is a must-read.
But mostly, he was matter-of-fact about most of his difficulties. Here he is a few days later, mentioning a piece of equipment had broken:
“One more cyclometer was sacrificed on the ride from Ogallala to Maxwell (Nebraska), snapped off when I had a fall on the road. I do not mention falls, as a rule, as it would make the story one long monotony of falling off and getting on again. Ruts, sand, sticks, stones and mud, all threw me dozens of times. Somewhere in Emerson I remember a passage about the strenuous soul who is indomitable and ‘the more falls he gets moves faster on.’ I would like to see me try that across the Rockies. I didn’t move faster after my falls. The stones out that way are hard.”
He frequently commented on the reception he got along the way — which was mostly amazement at both the length of his journey and the technology he was using. On June 24, he stopped for the night in Ligonier, Indiana, a town about halfway between Chicago and Toledo:
“I thought that when I got east of Chicago folks would know what a motor bicycle is, but it was not so. In every place through which I passed, I left behind a gaping lot of natives, who ran out into the street to stare after me. When I reached Ligonier I rode through the main street, and by mistake went past the hotel where I wanted to stop. When I turned and rode back the streets looked as though there was a circus in town. All the shopkeepers were out on the sidewalks to see the motor bicycle, and small boys were as thick as flies in a country restaurant. When I dismounted in front of the hotel the crowd became so big and the curiosity so great that I deemed it best to take the bicycle inside. The boys manifested a desire to pull it apart to see how it was made.“
Wyman’s motor bicycle was a sort of hybrid, consisting of what looked like a conventional bicycle frame fitted with a small gas tank and motor. A leather drive belt — which broke and required mending constantly — ran between the motor’s crank shaft and a pulley on the rear wheel. The motor and transmission apparatus had given out as Wyman neared the end of his journey. Luckily, he could simply pedal the bike, and pedal he did, riding the last 150 miles from Albany to New York City without stopping overnight to sleep:
“I made frequent stops to rest and I attracted more than a little attention but I was too tired to care. I can smile now as I recall the sight I was with my overalls on, my face and hands black as a mulatto’s, my coat torn and dirty, a big piece of wood tied on with rope where my handlebars should be, and the belt hanging loose from the crankshaft. I was told that I was ‘picturesque’ by a country reporter named ‘Josh,’ who captured me for an interview a little way up the Hudson, and who kept me talking while the photographer worked his camera, but to my ideal, I was too dirty to be picturesque. At any rate, I was too tired then to care. All I wanted was a hot bath and a bed. ”
Wyman’s arrival in New York after his 50-day epic attracted little attention, it seems. A scattering of papers across the country carried a brief Associate Press story that hailed him as “the first man to cross the American continent on a power-propelled road vehicle.” Motorcycle Magazine suggests one reason the feat may not have gained wider attention: Wyman himself didn’t boast about it.
“Now that the narrative has been completed and a review of the whole trip can be taken, it stands out in its entirety as a supreme triumph for the motor bicycle,” the magazine said. “It was not only the most notable long distance record by a motorcycle, but also it was the greatest long trip made in this country by any sort of a motor vehicle. This is a fact to which attention was not called by Wyman in his story and it is one that should be emphasized. In fact, Wyman’s story was altogether too modest throughout.”
Like everyone else who’s walking around with one of these “phones” equipped with a high-quality camera (or are they really decent cameras with mediocre-quality phones?), I take lots of pictures. Sometimes I try to discover a theme in what attracts my attention, but aside from “landscapes” or “birds” or “infrastructure” or “stuff on the street,” I would struggle to name any real thread that ties any of my images together.
But a couple of days ago I was looking a few pictures — just three — I had taken on three separate trips to other parts of California over the last few years and was surprised to see something of a story there.
Here are the images:
That first shot is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the Owens Valley just across the highway from Manzanar, the site of the internment camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Kate and I camped nearby, just outside the town of Independence, in 2018. After spending a beautiful September afternoon touring Manzanar, we wandered down to the aqueduct as the sun was setting.
The second shot is the Hollywood Reservoir and Mulholland Dam in Los Angeles. I had wanted to see this place for years, and we made it up on a Sunday afternoon last June while visiting our son Thom.
The third shot shows part of the wreckage of the St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon, in northwestern Los Angeles County. The dam collapsed in March 1928, killing about 450 people downstream. You have to hunt a little for the site of the dam, which Kate and I did on the same 2018 trip that took us to Manzanar.
I like the fact all three images were shot on film using relatively antique (1970s-era) Japanese rangefinder cameras. But what ties them together, perhaps obviously, is the connection to Los Angeles, water, and L.A. Department of Water and Power chief William Mulholland.
Mulholland was the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system: He played a leading role in helping secure (or steal, depending on your perspective) the Owens Valley water rights for the city. He engineered the aqueduct that brought the water to Los Angeles. Although he was initially reluctant to build dams and reservoirs to store that water, he designed and supervised the construction of Mulholland Dam, which took all of 16 months to complete in 1923-24. He used that structure as a sort of template for the St. Francis Dam, which was completed in 1926. Mulholland visited St. Francis Dam just hours before it disintegrated and pronounced it sound; the catastrophe ended his career. Although he apparently believed Owens Valley saboteurs were responsible, as they had been for the destruction of some of the aqueduct facilities in the eastern Sierra, he took public responsibility for the tragedy. “Don’t blame anybody else,” he told a coroner’s inquest. “You just fasten it on me. If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human.”
As I say, I just happened to look at the three photographs together the other day and see a story. If I ever have a show, I thought, I’d want to present them as a group. For some reason, I thought a presentation like that would be more complete with a fourth image. I remembered a 2017 visit to Los Angeles during which we stopped at the Department of Water and Power building (a.k.a. the John Ferraro Building), at the corner of First and Hope streets, and just across the way from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the former home of the Oscars.
I took some pictures when we were at the DWP building — all with a digital SLR, not film. Looking back, I found one that I thought I could add to the group — post-processed from color to black and white. It’s looking up from a corner of the building up toward the roof, with the sun just obscured:
What kind of statement is that making? I haven’t come up with words yet, though I like the image. And as I say, if there ever is a show, this one’s going in.
The original version of this post was published February 19, 2005
The Writer’s Almanac notes today is the anniversary of the date in 1942 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into remote internment camps. It’s an event we all know in the sense we’ve heard of it. Having heard about it, most of us have an opinion about it; the prevailing view, embraced eventually even by a president as conservative and all-American as Ronald Reagan, is that it was a tragic mistake.
In another way, it’s a history we know little about. Especially in a place like Berkeley where more than 1,000 residents (the official number, published in the Berkeley Gazette in April 1942, was 1,319) were forced to leave. Several older Japanese-American couples lived in our neighborhood when we moved here in the late 1980s. They were of a certain age — my parents’ age — that made me wonder not whether their families had been sent to the camps but what their experience of incarceration had been. I never talked to them to find out. But you realize that on this street, or the next one over, and all over town, families were sent packing. To the California deserts, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas, wherever the camps could be set up quickly.
In San Francisco, the Chronicle ran a story marking the departure of the last “Japanese” from the city.
“For the first time in 81 years, not a single Japanese is walking the streets of San Francisco. The last group, 274 of them, were moved yesterday to the Tanforan assembly center. Only a scant half dozen are left, all seriously ill in San Francisco hospitals. “
At the University of California’s commencement, campus president Robert Gordon Sproul announced that the senior class’s top student “cannot be here today because his country has called him elsewhere.” Three weeks earlier, the student, Harvey Akio Itano, had been sent to the Tule Lake camp in northeastern California. (While his family remained incarcerated, he was released soon afterward and allowed to begin his medical studies in St. Louis. As a researcher after the war, Itano played a key role in discovering the molecular basis for sickle-cell disease and is recognized today as a pioneer in the study of blood diseases.)
Among the other UC seniors forced out of school before graduation was Yoshiko Uchida, who lived with her family on Stuart Street near Shattuck Avenue and kept a scrapbook (online through the University of California) of her new life (and later wrote many books about it).
You can go looking for scraps of the internment history, and sometimes they find you instead.
In October 2004, I was driving back to the Bay Area from Mojave and decided to take the long way, up U.S. 395, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s eastern flank. Late in the afternoon, speeding north up the dry floor of the Owens Valley, I passed a sign saying Manzanar was just ahead. I knew the name, that it was one of the camps, that it was out in the middle of the desert someplace, but not much more than that. Suddenly, here it was. So I turned off and spent a while driving around what is now a national historic site.
Sagebrush has claimed most of the camp, though you can see come of its streets leading off into the desert, and several barracks buildings have been rebuilt. The most-frequented place at Manzanar — not counting the visitor center — is the cemetery. The bordering fence is heavily festooned with origami cranes, and lots of impromptu memorial offerings have been left behind. The gleaming white cemetery monument is carved with the kanji “I rei to,” or “soul-consoling tower.”
We spent last weekend in the San Joaquin Valley looking at birds. Thousands and thousands of birds — snow geese and white-fronted geese, shovelers, pintails and teals, killdeer and meadowlarks, avocets and ibises, stilts and wrens, red-winged blackbirds and red-tailed hawks, tundra swans and sandhill cranes.
Part of the experience of entering into the world of the birds is the sound. Actually: part of the experience? Visiting these places where tens or hundreds of thousands of migrating birds have gathered is mesmerizing, electric, sometimes overpowering, utterly enveloping and at moments gives a hint of what this place we live was like before we began the project of radically reshaping it.
Here are three snippets of that sound. The first is from Super Bowl Sunday, when Kate and I found ourselves virtually alone — except for the birds — in the 10 square miles of the Los Banos National Wildlife Refuge. After that clip are a couple from the Merced National Wildlife Refuge — the crazily energetic stylings of a marsh wren and a surprise overflight of about 300 sandhill cranes at midday on Valentine’s Day.
Kate and I encountered the marker above a few years back while driving on a back road in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. The text is hard to read, but it’s transcribed in full below.
A long period of unrest between the settlers and Indians of Tulare County erupted in war during the spring of 1856. Untrue reports that five hundred head of cattle had been stolen in Frazier Valley and the burning of Orson K. Smith's sawmill aroused the local settlers. A group of volunteers under the command of Foster DeMasters located a party of over seven hundred Indians in fortified positions on the cone-shaped mountain in the valley below. Unable to breach the Indian defenses on their own, the volunteers sent for help. A second company of Tulare County volunteers under Sheriff W.G. Poindexter, miners from Keysville on the Kern River, settlers from as far north as Merced and Mariposa, and Army detachments from Fort Tejon and Fort Miller responded. Captain Livingston of Fort Miller assumed overall command of a combined force estimated at three to four hundred men. Unable to withstand assault by this combined force and their Army howitzer, the Indians disappeared into the pine forest above you. Reports indicated three settlers were wounded and several Indians killed.
Dedicated October 20, 1990 Dr. Samuel Gregg George Chapter 1855 of E Clampus Vitus
When it comes to roadside markers, the easiest thing in the world to do is pick apart their abbreviated rendition of past events. There is no way that even a relatively prolix text, such as the one on this marker, can convey much in the way of detail or nuance. Too bad they don’t contain hyperlinks, though now that I’ve had that thought: QR codes. You know: “To read more about the Chicago Fire, or the Haymarket Square affair, or the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison, scan this code.” (Yes, I know there is history outside my native city.)
So perhaps the highest and best functions of these markers is to awaken someone’s interest to past events and send them looking for more. I know that’s what happened five years ago when I was driving around Oroville, a town that had been evacuated because of fears that part of a dam would give way, and happened across a marker commemorating Ishi.
As I wrote at the time, “Ishi is an instantly recognizable name for those who have spent any time in California. Ishi is the legendary last member of his native tribe, the Yahi. In 1911, he was ‘discovered.’ Meaning: starved and alone, he gave up his home country in the foothills on the northeastern side of the Sacramento Valley and entered “civilized” California.”
Here’s what Ishi’s plaque says:
The Last Yahi Indian
For thousands of years, the Yahi Indians roamed the foothills between Mt. Lassen and the Sacramento Valley. Settlement of this region by the white man brought death to the Yahi by gun, by disease, and by hunger. By the turn of the century only a few remained. Ishi, the last known survivor of these people, was discovered at this site in 1911. His death in 1916 brought an end to Stone Age California.
“His death brought an end to Stone Age California.” An entire people, an entire world, dispatched in one succinct sentence. But stumbling upon the plaque prompted me to finally read a well-known and unwittingly tragic account of Ishi’s life and final years, “Ishi in Two Worlds.” It’s a story I think of often as a reminder of how complex the history around us is and how little I know.
But back to Battle Mountain. What to make of this marker, erected in 1990 by a society dedicated to the lore, if not always the true history, of old California? There are some details in the account that don’t smell right. One I wondered about was the notion that a force of white volunteers encountered “over seven hundred Indians in fortified positions.” The concluding line about casualties — three white settlers wounded “and several Indians killed” also sounds vague and sanitized.
What do other sources say?
Wild West magazine recounts the battle as part of “The Tule River War.” That account suggests a much higher casualty count among the Native Americans — members of the Yokuts group of tribes who also faced some ugly post-battle repercussions.
The Last “End of the Tulare War.’— We have frequently had occasion to remark that the accounts of Indian hostilities, not only in the north, but in the south, are almost invariably exaggerated. A small affair is soon magnified into a battle, and the origin is not unfrequently attributed to Indian outrages, when the account should read “white man’s oppression.” The following extract from a private letter written to a gentleman in San Francisco, from a friend at Fort Miller, and bearing date the 25th of May, is the latest, and it may be one of the most truthful accounts from that quarter:
“The Indian war is defunct. The volunteers from this place have returned, swearing most roundly at the [white] Four Creeks people, whom they term Petticoat Rangers, from a kind of armor made with canvas padded with cotton, which they wear in shape of a frock or blouse around their persons for protection. The whole matter has been a cowardly farce, the threatening legions of Indians turning out to be but about one hundred, seeking refuge in a brush from the rowdies, who, on the least occasion, delight in the sport of shooting them.
“As in all cases of the kind, the fault has been with the whites. The herds of cattle said to have been stampeded, have turned out to be a single calf taken to supply the deficiency of meat during an Indian feast. Retaliation, of a brutal character, for this trifling offense, created all the disturbance.”
There are plenty of other newspaper accounts of the “war” published around the same time. Some content the tribe’s “depredations” warranted a violent response, but most seem to have held to the view that the initial provocation — the “theft” of a small number of cattle during a time of starvation — served as a pretext for wanton killing of indigenous people wherever they were to be found in the area. It is not a unique story. But it’s disappointing that such a credulous mid-19th century narrative made its way onto a marker placed at the end of the 20th century.
This has been the month of butterflies. We had a stand of milkweed in the front yard, Asclepias curassavica, or what I’ve heard called tropical milkweed. According to this source, it’s native to many islands across the Caribbean and parts of South America and introduced here in California. Monarch butterflies are partial to this plant, as well as other varieties of milkweed. This particular species is believed to pose a problem for the butterflies, though. It doesn’t get cold enough here in the winter to kill the plant. So the leaves and anything living on them survive from one butterfly season to the next.
One of the things that might live on the leaves is a parasitic protozoan called Ophryocystic elektroskirrha. Called OE in the world of monarch studies, the parasite can be debilitating, causing deformed wings in some monarchs and weakening others. The biological consensus seems to be that OE is everywhere. Adult monarchs carry it and deposit it on plants where they feed or lay their eggs. Eggs can be infected. More commonly, monarch caterpillars become infected when they eat infected vegetation, and infected caterpillars metamorphose in their chrysalides to infected adults that continue the cycle.
We didn’t know from OE when I picked up those plants a couple years ago. And we didn’t know about it when I grew a bunch of new plants from seed last year and planted them in the front yard. (We also didn’t know about a lot of the other surprisingly commonplace organisms that can come along and kill monarchs, either, but that’s another story.) By last fall, we had read about OE. But we left the tropical milkweed standing because, well, it was there and no monarchs were around.
But late in the winter, there was some monarch mating activity we didn’t witness. By late March, monarch caterpillars had appeared in the milkweed. I only saw a few at first, but over the coming weeks, we counted about 40 of them in our small milkweed patch, all seemingly at a similar stage of development. They systematically devoured the leaves on one plant after another until they had stripped all the milkweed bare.
Then the caterpillars migrated to various spots around the front entrance of the house. Kate counted 30 chrysalides by the time the great pupation was finished. The stumpy remains of a pomegranate bush was the most popular chrysalis site. But we also found them on our mailbox, on one of the pillars of our front porch, on the porch stairs, on a stalk of fennel, on random pieces of wood, and next door on a neighbor’s bicycle lock cable, dog leash, fence and gate.
A couple weeks ago, they started emerging. Twenty-five so far, we think. (Kate, the science teacher, has mapped and charted the location of each. She’s also interested all the neighborhood kids in what’s going on, so we sometimes have a sort of free-form, socially distanced classroom in the front yard.)
Since we knew about OE and its effects, we were a little concerned about the condition of the butterflies that would emerge from all the chrysalides. All but about five have appeared to be healthy, emerging with no problems, all parts intact, and flying off very quickly after their wings dried.
What about the rest, the ones that have not appeared healthy or died before they emerged? Well, there’s another story there. Complete with actual butterfly names. To be continued.
A couple of days ago, the phrase Rancho Mariposa came into my head while I was describing the parade of monarch’s appearing on the estate here.
“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly,” and it’s a street name here in Berkeley and over in San Francisco and I’m betting in many, many other towns. The name has been stuck on a Sierra foothills county, on that county’s biggest town, and on a creek that runs through both. “Mariposa” was apparently first used as a California place name there.
It’s easy enough to imagine how the name came to be. Someone saw a bunch of butterflies somewhere and was inspired to name the place for the insects. You hope for a more particular story, and there is one in which butterflies aren’t lovely, fragile ephemera but a memorable nuisance.
An 1806 Spanish expedition struggling through an unattractive stretch on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley encountered an unattractive-looking stream. A priest with the party, Pedro Muñoz, recorded what they found there.
September 27: In the morning we crossed the river and, taking a northerly direction, we pushed through about a league of very high, thick tules, in the midst of which could be seen a few clearings well covered with grass. After traveling about three leagues, more or less, we stopped at a stream which runs from east to west. It has no running water, only a few pools, where we were forced to pitch camp. From the point where we left the tule swamps to this place the land is really miserable. Salt flats and alkali patches, with innumerable ground-squirrel burrows are all that one can see. There are at this spot about sixty oak trees and a few willows in the bed of the stream. The forage was extremely scanty, and that the country appeared to have been burned over by the Indians did not conceal the fact that the land is very poor. Consequently there is little pasturage.
This place is called the Mariposas, “the butterflies,” because of their great number, especially at night. In the morning they become extremely troublesome, for their aggressiveness reaches the point where they obscure the light of the sun. They came at us so hard that one of them flew into the ear of a corporal of the expedition. It caused him much discomfort and no little effort to get it out.