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Howell Mtn Rd photo courtesy of the Napa Valley Register

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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/2020

The Death of a Road

The pandemic is still with us, still going strong. And thanks to the bungling of assorted governmental leaders, it looks like it will be a part of our lives for at least another few months. Frankly, I can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel yet…can you? But we carry on anyway, buoyed by the hope that we will eventually get back to something resembling normal life.

In the meantime, I can’t devote every one of these monthly columns to some aspect of the virus. I have to make a stab at other topics, at least occasionally. So this month I’m going off-virus and talking about something else. This is the column I had prepared for March but then set aside when the pandemic became the only game in town. It’s not about the virus and not about the bungled response to it. But it does touch on the failings of government in a general way. Read on…

These are observations about a road over in Napa County called Howell Mountain Road. If you’re familiar with our North Bay roads, you probably know it. The entire road is a bit over ten miles but is divided into two quite different sections. The “main” part of the road—six miles—connects to Deer Park Road and between them they form the primary route between central Napa Valley and its quiet neighbor to the east, Pope Valley, surmounting a hefty ridge and passing through the town of Angwin along the way. But that’s not the part of the road I’m concerned about today. At the point where Deer Park and Howell Mountain meet, another section of Howell Mountain spurs off and heads downhill toward the town of St Helena. That section is 4.3 miles long and loses 1200’ of elevation as it wiggles down the canyon of Conn Creek. Or gains 1200’ if you’re climbing it from Napa Valley.

This section ought to be called Old Howell Mountain Road to distinguish it from its busier, more polished portion. This is a rustic, quiet, under-engineered road…a classic biking back road, just the way we like them. It never had excellent pavement but it used to be good enough that one could drill the 4-mile descent with confidence and comfort…really let it rip. I would rate it one of my all-time favorite descents. Four miles of kinky, slinky corners at just the right sort of grade: steep enough to be fast but not so steep as to be all about damage control. 1200’ over four-plus miles equals about 5%. There is one steep pitch that exceeds 15% but balancing that out are assorted near-flats here and there. The bulk of the descending—or climbing—would be around 6%. In other words, just about perfect. A challenging but not gut-busting climb and a rollicking downhill, if you like that sort of thing.

One other essential factoid: there are a few homes over the first mile, coming up from St Helena, but beyond that, all the way to the top—over three miles—there are no houses and no addresses of any sort along the road.

Unfortunately, most of what I can say about that nice section has to be put in the past tense. Over the years, various chunks of the road have been worked on by the winter rains and have, now and then, here and there, suffered serious damage. Landslides down onto the road from above or subsidences of the roadbed into the canyon below. On at least one occasion a few years ago—maybe twice—the road had to be closed because of such depredations. In each case Napa County eventually found the money and the will to set things right. Repairs were made, no doubt quite expensive, and the road was reopened.

HowellMtRdBut then, in the winter of 2017-18, it happened again: the ravages of winter storms caused substantial damage that was not easily fixable. The road was closed again. This time, after looking at the damage and estimating the cost of repairs, then looking at their budget, the county decided enough was enough. Just uphill from the last residence and just downhill from the junction at the top, they blocked off the road. They officially abandoned it.

There was some protest from the community. Some people thought the closed section should be preserved as a bike and pedestrian route. Others pointed out that the road provided good access for fire fighters when the all-too-common wildfires roar up the canyon. But no dice. The county didn’t want to spend one more dime on Old Howell Mountain. They surrendered. Punted. Gave up.

They gave the road back to Mother Nature and she didn’t waste any time in reclaiming it. For the first year or so, it was still possible to hit the descent pretty hard. You did need to look sharp for the various hazards that were starting to crop up on the abandoned road—tree branches, boulders, cracks, weeds growing out of the cracks—but it was still doable. However, the last time I did it, going uphill, in February of this year, I could see it would no longer be feasible as a descent on anything short of a serious mountain bike. In fact it was a challenge as a climb. The pavement had crumbled and buckled so badly, or just fallen off into the canyon, and so many weeds and shrubs had grown up through the cracks, that it was hard in some spots to find a way through. Some helpful local had been up there with a can of white paint and had marked out the best lines through some of the worst spots, Without those markers, I probably would have had to put a foot down and walk it through some really bad patches. It has effectively ceased to be a road, all in just a couple of years of neglect. It was at that point I started thinking about this column.

When it comes to roads, I’m not a big fan of Progress writ large: bigger and wider and faster. I like old roads…quaint and meandering and sleepy. And if their pavement is less than perfect, I can live with it. But even the sleepiest, off-the-beaten-path back roads deserve and require at least a minimal amount of maintenance…yes? No? I totally understand Napa County’s budgetary logic. An unimportant little road, with better alternatives nearby, with no houses or other addresses along it…and a wickedly expensive fix needed. Hard to argue against their decision. But a sad day, nonetheless, losing such a sweet biking road.

For what it’s worth, over in my home county of Sonoma, the same implacable bean-counter priorities are at work. Classic cases in point: Old Monte Rio Road and Old Cazadero Road. Both were open and maintained when I was first cycling this area in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Both have since been blocked off and abandoned because of landslides or other expensive problems and both are getting close to being impassable. The county cut their losses and moved on. One old road at a time, one more budget crunch at a time, our county administrators are staging a slow retreat. For reasons much too complex to be considered in this space, the tax dollars just aren’t going as far as they used to. Or else those dollars are being diverted to other, more pressing needs that may not have existed when those roads were built. 

With all the travail and difficulty confronting us today, it may seem petty to mourn the loss of a few minor back roads, but if you want to be a bit of a Cassandra—or a Chicken Little, if you prefer—you might see those lost roads—those surrenders—as a canary in the coal mine: little warning signs of a civilization starting to go downhill.

I read an historical novel a few years ago. I don’t remember its name nor even most of the plot. But I do remember the general setting. The main character was a Roman consul or general who was the chief administrator of a colonial outpost in what we now call Spain. This was during the period where the might of the Roman Empire was starting to fray around the edges. For this administrator that would show up in things like the funds for the local schools not arriving from Rome when needed. Little things. A death by a thousand cuts. One little shortfall at a time; one little pinch in the budget that causes something to not be done, to be abandoned or diminished… It doesn’t happen all in a day. More like erosion. But off in the distance, getting closer, is the Dark Ages: several hundred years of regression and loss and ruin.

Am I making too much of a few abandoned roads? Is my worry about the future too dystopian? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure of this: any time you start giving up on your world and letting it slide into decrepitude, you’re heading in the wrong direction.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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