Tuesday, October 27, 2020

"Stories Of The Humboldt Wagon Road"

Andy Mark spent two decades as a brakeman and conductor with the Western Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, and as a brakeman he spent his coldest night ever in Gerlach, in the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada, the mid-winter temperature below zero, the wind "howling like a pack of wolves." The Black Rock area was the scene of the great "silver rush" in the 1860s, and opening the way for miners was what was then called the Chico and Humboldt Wagon Road.

Later he graduated from Chico State and worked as a data analyst and statistical consultant; yet even before his 2013 retirement was bitten by the local history bug. Could he tell the story of Black Rock from a Chico perspective?

He eventually focused on the first hundred miles, from Chico to Susanville, and the result is a captivating foray into bygone times, accompanied by historical photographs as well as contemporary pictures taken by the author. 

"Stories Of The Humboldt Wagon Road" ($21.99 in paperback from The History Press, historypress.com; also for Amazon Kindle) traces the road's fate decade-by-decade from its beginning in the 1860s on through the 1890s to today, where remnants of the original still exist.

Its development was spearheaded by John Bidwell who dreamed of Chico "being part of a major supply route from California to Nevada and Idaho" mining sites. That didn't pan out, but "regular stage traffic to points from Chico to Susanville continued, and the road opened the foothills and mountains to stands of virgin timber to supply an expanding logging industry." Little towns along the way helped Chicoans get out of the valley heat. (Jonesville seemed to be party central.)

Mark includes dozens of stories, culled from local papers, of stagecoach robberies, murders, shootouts, snowstorms, encounters with grizzly bears, and family tragedies. 

In 1888 the five-year-old daughter of lumberman Barney Cussick died; the Chico Daily Enterprise published a poem sent in by a Butte Meadows reader: "We are waiting, Maggie, waiting,/ For the hours to pass away,/ When we'll meet to part, no, never,/ On the resurrection day."

The road goes ever on, as Tolkien said, and Mark ably shows the way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

"Behind Picketwire"

In 2008 businessman and former Paradise mayor Howard Johnson, who died in 2014, published an account of his hunting experiences with a strange title, "Picketwire." Paradise area writer M. Day Hampton had struck up an unlikely friendship with Johnson and it became clear there there was more to the story. And so, with Johnson's encouragement, a novel took shape. "I traveled the country," Hampton writes in an author's note, "in the footsteps of my protagonist Red, ending in southern Colorado at the end of the Picketwire River."

The just-published story is dedicated to Johnson and his wife Maurine. "Howard considered himself a simple man," Hampton adds, and the novel, inspired by his life, faith, love for his blended family and especially for his wife, "is a story about how significant and precious a seemingly ordinary life can be."

"Behind Picketwire" ($15.95 in paperback from HuckleberryBlue Press; also for Amazon Kindle, with more at mdayhampton.com) is a flat-out terrific novel, a can't-put-it-down, edge-of-your-seat tale that will drive readers to laughter and to tears.

Red Johnson, married for three decades to Addy, is a cranky 68-year-old man who has a difficult time expressing his deep love for his wife. After a freak accident he finds himself alone in his house, off Coutolenc Road in Magalia, save for his dog, Jake. Really alone. Out past his door there is no sign of civilization, no roads, no other humans. 

Eventually he embarks on a walking journey to Colorado where his family had vacationed years ago, convinced that Addy will be there. He leaves a note which says in part: "If someone else finds this letter, use this home with care. Know that it was here, where I loved my wife and raised my family."

What follows is more than a survivalist story (though it is that as well, including encounters with mountain lions, bears and more). Red's dreams are so real. "Everything seemed to remind Red of his past life. Memories he hadn't thought of in years all felt like pieces of the puzzle connecting one with another.... He was being allowed to see his life as others had."

Behind the mystery is the key to a man's heart.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

"Book Marks"

Mark McKinnon (the other one--not the singer and retired Butte College instructor) also has strong Chico ties. Now living in Carmel Valley, McKinnon worked for Merrill Lynch in New York but, he writes me, "I still consider Chico my hometown. ... My mother taught in the business department at Butte College until around 1998 or so ... and my father opened the Baskin Robbins Ice Cream store in Chico." He played many sports, becoming "Chico High School athlete of the year in 1973."

Later came graduate work at Chico State for an MBA and, more recently, an MA in Psychology. "I then did a job I loved as Program Director of Dorothy's Place - House of Peace in Chinatown, Salinas helping homeless people." 

A voracious reader, along the way he collected thousands of quotations, from aphorisms to poetry, and wrote some of his own. Now he's published his trove as "Book Marks" ($20 in paperback, self-published, available through Amazon).

Not intended as a scholarly work (just the names of the authors are given), the book invites dipping into. Certain writers appear often, including Friedrich Nietzsche ("Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders"); Marianne Williamson ("According to A Course in Miracles, the purpose the mind ascribes to a thing is what determines its holiness or lack thereof. Any activity is holy if it is used for purposes of love and healing...."); and Mark Twain ("When angry, count four; when very angry, swear").

McKinnon includes many of his own observations. "We can be our best and highest self by simply combining the magic elixir of compassion and gratitude." "Racism, sexism/misogyny, gay hatred/homophobia, religious hatred, arrogance--they all boil down to valuing one's own group and perspective over another group's...." "It is easy to be wise about other people's lives."

Striking quotes abound, including this Turkish proverb: "When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said: 'At least the handle is one of us.'"

And again Mark Twain: "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." McKinnon aims to help readers think about the "why."

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

"Fishing For Something"

Cottonwood writer Andrew Scott Bassett (andrewscottbassett.com) writes that "my personal history goes way back with the Chico area as my father worked in Chico when I was a small child and I managed a small, family-owned business there for almost five years." But, he adds, "I also am an abandoned son from the same father, dealing with what that implies."

Those implications are worked out in Bassett's debut novel "Fishing For Something" ($15.95 in paperback from Luminare Press; also for Amazon Kindle). Its language is mostly soft-spoken, gently risqué in places, funny, heart-warming, all contained in a wonderfully-plotted story. 

In Grants Pass, Oregon John Barrett works too many hours. So "his wife, Darlene, has separated from him and asked him to move out."

Then John's little brother Audie, from whom he is estranged, arrives with news. Their father, Raymond Barrett, has died. John has hated their father who "abandoned the family more than fifteen years ago when John and Audie were still just teenagers." Ray was a drunkard, philanderer, gambler.

The will makes an unusual request. In order for each brother to receive money from the estate, they must travel the country together, meet with their father's old friends he has listed, and break the news personally. And they must take each fishing. 

From Beale Air Force Base to New York City, the two brothers and, later, a beautiful young hitchhiker named Kitty, find themselves bonding in unexpected ways, especially after John is shot in Texas and Audie almost gets eaten by a shark. 

Ray's friends share stories about him that give Audie and John pause. How can such a bad man have friends who think so highly of him? And more questions--John finds himself in a compromising situation and is forced to ask: Does he really love Darlene after all?

Meantime, Darlene, working as a waitress, is tempted by a handsome customer who shows more than a little interest in her. Does she really love John after all?

As Audie puts it, "Catching a break in life is like catching a fish, part skill, part perseverance, part dumb luck. Life's a lot like fishing...."

The story caught me hook, line, and sinker.