On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 9/1/2016
Riding through history
Do you use Google Maps? Of course you do. Who doesn’t? Even if all you want to do is get directions and an estimated time of travel from where you are to where you want to be, it’s still handy, to say the least. But if you’re a cyclist who delights in discovering new roads or in weaving your old, familiar roads together into new combinations—new rides—it can be heavenly…and indispensible. Of course if you’re really laying out routes, with all their delightful complications, you’ll want one of the mapping apps out there. (I use Ride With GPS.)
But this isn’t an essay about mapping apps or even about laying out bike routes. It is instead an observation about history, and it was jump-started in my little pea brain by something I have noticed while prowling around in Ride With GPS or any other Google-style on-line maps.
Check this out for yourself: open Google Maps or Ride With GPS over your own hometown or any region you know well—or that you think you know well—and start looking around. Stop looking for the roads and landmarks you know and expect to be there and notice some other place names that may not be familiar to you. My hometown is Sebastopol, and within about a six or eight-mile radius of the town center, I will see these place names plunked down on the map: Gravenstein, Mills, Alten, Hurlbut, Fredericks, Hessel, Cadwell, Orchard, Woodworth, Cunningham, Barlow, Woolsey, Ricca’s Corner, Trenton, Ross, and maybe a few more I missed. I know these names won’t mean anything to you. Most of them mean next-to-nothing to me, and I live here. But try this on the map surrounding your town and you’ll come up with a harvest of place names as obscure and inexpilicable as mine. (It would be interesting to know how the robot spiders at Google collect these names and perpetuate their existence on the maps.)
They are not road names, although there are roads that bear some of these names: Hurlbut Road and East Hurlbut Road, Ross Road, Ross Station Road, Ross Branch Road; Orchard Station Road, Trenton Road and Trenton-Healdsburg Road, Mill Station Road, Fredericks Road, Woodworth Road, etc. The road names are on the map too, but these are place names…names of specific sites, representing some dot on the map that in some past time meant something.
Here’s what intrigues me: aside from the legacy of road names, which we can still see—on the map and out on signposts at the corners of some little country lanes—these places have mostly ceased to be places. The road names are all that’s left behind after the places for which they were named have vanished. I’m not talking about the towns that are still there: Graton and Forestville, Freestone and Occidental and Bloomfield. These names listed on the most modern maps we have represent places that essentially no longer exist. The physical land upon which they once stood is still there, and in a few cases there may be a few houses or an old country store still standing, or perhaps a country schoolhouse. Hessel and Cunningham fall into that category. But most of them? Nothing there! Not even a house or a barn and certainly no post office or store or anything that would suggest this spot used to be an important enough locus of human activity to have warranted a dot and a name on a map.
Where have all the houses and stores gone? Burnt to the ground? Bulldozed? Cannibalized for their lumber? Hauled off whole on trailers and plopped down somewhere else? (I once, in my long-ago youth, helped to disassemble a fairly large 19th-century building in Stinson Beach and then reassemble the pieces into a house in Bolinas. I then lived in it. So I know first-hand how it can happen.) You hardy climbers who chug your way up Pine Flat Road? Did you know there was a town at the “flat” with a population of 5000? Churches and bars and rooming houses and a large hotel…all gone. The only thing you can see now that shows any trace of human endeavor is one old fieldstone chimney poking up out of the bushes. Where oh where did that whole town go?
I doubt most of the places named on the map were as large and vibrant as Pine Flat, but they must have had some substance, some purpose. The roads with the word “Station” in their names give some indication of what at least one purpose might have been: stops along a train line. The train lines are gone now too, either vanished without a trace or repurposed as bike trails. At the old train station in Duncans Mills, you can read about the rail line that passed through there. Among other historical tidbits, it notes that there was a tunnel through the ridge north of Tomales and south of Valley Ford. (Any remains of the tunnel are out of sight of any road but you can still see a few bits of old trestle and an earthwork for that line when you ride along Middle Road.) Even more amazing, to me, is that they say there was a trestle in the canyon of Salmon Creek, between Freestone and Occidental—along the line of Bohemian Hwy— that was the highest railroad trestle west of the Mississippi. Personally, I find that hard to believe—think of the Rockies and the Sierra—but even allowing for the hyperbole of 19th-century boosterism, it still must have been quite the structure. And where is it now?
What all those obscure, all-but-forgotten place names say to me is that, when we go out on our bikes and tootle along the backroads around our towns, we are swimming through history. Humans have been living here for a long time. If you want to count the various tribes who have lived here for 10,000 or perhaps even 20,000 years, a very long time indeed. But even if you only consider the weight of history that begins with the Spanish land grants and then the activities of the first yankee settlers, even that short span—a couple of centuries—is packed with stories…histories.
Perhaps you wonder what this has to do with cycling. Or maybe not: maybe you are like me, treating every ride as an opportunity to expand your horizons and learn a bit more about the world around you. Every curve in the road is a learning curve. I have touched on this in past columns: learning the names for geologic formations, for trees; or coming to a better understanding of the agriculture of our region, from holsteins to gravensteins. We don’t ride in a vacuum. We ride in a rich, dense world, and not just within the present moment. Our today is just the leading edge of all past moments: all the work and play and love and tragedy and good humor, success and failure, bitterness and satisfaction that have come before and made our current world what it is. Any bike ride that just records our cadence and miles falls far short of what it could be…what it should be: a voyage of discovery.
I once offered a ride in our club called the Country Schoolhouse Century: a 100-mile ride that started in Freestone and followed a meandering loop as far south as the outskirts of Petaluma. Along the way, we were able to ride past—and make note of—almost 20 19th-century country schoolhouses. I am tempted to call them one-room schoolhouses, but several have two classrooms and a few have more. But all are in the classic style of the humble schoolhouses that dotted the American west. I like to think the riders who came out that day and followed that convoluted route, and who were made aware of all those venerable schools, were enriched by the experience…that it was more than just another ride. (Which reminds me: did you know that Ida Clayton Road is named after the first schoolmistress at the country schoolhouse in Alexander Valley? I picked up that little nugget in the same book that told about the rise and fall of the town of Pine Flat.)
It doesn’t take any extra physical effort to do a ride that celebrates old schoolhouses, or old farms or carpenter gothic churches, or even takes a tour of pioneer cemeteries. (We’ve done those too…perfect for Halloween.) You just need to pay attention to what’s out there. Bikes travel at the speed of contemplation: plenty of time to look around and take it all in. Next time you head out, flip the switch that turns your bike into a time machine and ride backward into history, even as your wheels are rolling forward.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org