Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Bear Fire brings back memories of an epic ride

October 20, 2017

I head down upper Favre Ridge in fall 1994. Jeff Vance photo.


Back in 1994, almost 23 years to the day, I went on a ride that can only be described as “epic,” covering new roads, where the Bear Fire is located, and exploring a train tunnel from the previous century in a remote forest.

Fire fighters say the Bear Fire terrain is steep and remote. That’s an understatement. Having studied a topo map (no Internet back then), I suggested to Jeff Vance that we try riding down through Las Cumbres, a secluded housing development off Skyline Boulevard south of Castle Rock State Park.

We rode down a steep paved road and then got onto a dirt road (Favre Ridge) that was unsigned and didn’t look like it had been used in eons. At that point we were just letting gravity guide us. I figured as long as we kept riding south we’d wind up on Bear Creek Road eventually.

Jeff Vance follows on upper Favre Ridge.

The road was steep at first but then gradually got less so as we descended into the bowels of Santa Cruz Mountains, swallowed up by redwoods, oaks, manzanita and dense brush. At the time there were few houses and they were concealed up long driveways.

Eventually we wound up on Bear Creek Canyon Road, near where the Bear Fire originated, and from there climbed through the dust to Bear Creek Road.

But the fun had just begun. We continued over to Hwy 9 and rode up Zayante Road where we would search for the long lost Mountain Charlie tunnel, built for the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1878-79. It’s not a long tunnel, but a strategic one as it dropped trains into the Zayante Creek drainage where they linked up with the Felton-Santa Cruz line.

I knew the general location of the tunnel, but finding it was no easy task. We got onto the railroad right of way that followed the creek, but it was covered with fallen trees and poison oak. We picked our way through for a mile before finding a rideable right of way deep in the redwoods.

From there the ride went smoothly (following a gentle grade) and before long we were staring at the tunnel entrance, lined with concrete and the year “1909” pressed into the arch. The tunnel was reinforced after the 1906 quake by Southern Pacific Railroad.

South Pacific right of way near Mtn. Charlie tunnel, in remarkably good shape.


We clambered into the tunnel as far as we could go and peered into a black abyss. The tunnel, and others, were blasted shut in 1942 for safety reasons after the railroad was decommissioned. A cave-in made any exploring out of the question.

Not wanting to backtrack, we followed a road uphill that eventually took us to Mountain Charlie Road. We had to ride right by several houses, but it was our lucky day.

We continued back home via Mountain Charlie Road.

Jeff checks out the tunnel entrance.


Looking back, the Las Cumbres route never became a regular ride for various reasons, mainly because it didn’t go anywhere interesting, the view was unremarkable after the first mile and it was not a “friendly” area.

The Mountain Charlie tunnel, I have read, had yet another cave-in and there is a huge slide over the right of way that makes access even more difficult than it was. With age catching up to me, it’s just as well.

The history of the South Pacific Coast Railroad tunnels has inspired me to write my second full-length novel, a continuation of my first, China Grade. The main character, after working on the transcontinental railroad, is hired to help build the Summit Tunnel (#2). The novel is called Wrights. Available in 2018 on Amazon.com.

Eating an oak tree — one acorn at a time

December 6, 2016

Acorns are best left for the squirrels.

Acorns are best left for the squirrels.


We’ve all ridden through oak-covered hillsides in the Bay Area, but I’ve always wondered if the acorn could be a delicious food source, so with a lot of free time these days I decided to find out.

I’ve eaten Miner’s lettuce, Chanterelle mushrooms, Thimbleberries, and other wild foods, but I’m hardly a survivalist.

If we ever have one of those events leading to a dystopian future, I’ll be the first to go.

Gathering acorns is the easy part. They’re everywhere. I picked up some in a nearby park as the squirrels chattered away in the trees, watching their food source disappear.

I followed the process recommended by Arthur Haines in his YouTube video. He recommends cold-water leaching of the tannin, the stuff that makes acorns poisonous to most animals.

I didn’t see the point in drying the acorns in the sun, as recommended, and besides, it was raining. Probably not a good idea. They should be dried.

I used a claw hammer and a flat stone to smash the acorn (lying on its side) to get to the nut.

It took at least two hours of pounding. I thought about the indigenous people who used to do this all the time and thanked my lucky stars for Costco.

Then I had to grind the nuts into a fine powder before leaching.

Leaching took a week of twice-daily emptying water-filled mixing bowls with ground acorn. On the eighth day the water was clear except for a slight color tinge, so I knew the tannins were gone and I wouldn’t die.

Then I had to dry the acorns. On a cold winter day that can take a while, so I used a space heater.

Finally, I used the acorn mix to make waffles. I figured, one cup of flour and one cup of ground acorn would do the trick. No, the acorn is more like ground nuts, not flour.

I had to add another cup of regular flour. The verdict: Acorns don’t have much taste, if any. Think sawdust.

The lesson here is simple. Good foods are popular.

Acorns don’t make the grade. That’s why you only see them being eaten by survivalist types. Same goes for buckeyes, only they’re even harder to prepare and taste like bland potatoes.

OK squirrels, you can keep your acorns.

Follow-up: I tried it as coffee. With sugar and half-and-half, yum! The Southern troops drank acorn coffee in the Civil War.

Purisima Creek Road cuts through a heavily logged canyon

August 23, 2016

Purisima Creek Road just below the Grabtown Gulch Trail junction.

Purisima Creek Road just below the Grabtown Gulch Trail junction.


If you were to go back in time to, let’s say 1880, and visit Purisima Canyon, you wouldn’t recognize it. The loggers clear-cut the canyon starting in the 1850s and ending in the 1920s.

There was ongoing logging here into the 1960s, but it was more like tree thinning.

On Monday morning as I rode down the “trail” from Skyline Boulevard, which I’ve been doing since 1980, I was struck by how much more brush and undergrowth I saw compared to the old days. It used to be pristine, redwoods and little undergrowth. I suppose the difference in plant life is mostly from the lack of logging, but it may also be climate change at work.

Water source for the Alvin Hatch Mill. I took a beautiful photo of Jobst Brandt drinking from the creek here in 1981.

Water source for the Alvin Hatch Mill. I took a beautiful photo of Jobst Brandt drinking from the creek here in 1981.

Most of the redwood was turned into shingles back then, mainly because it was hard to remove trees from the steep canyon over the hill to the port of Redwood City. There weren’t any harbors nearby on the Pacific Coast.

The first mill was water-powered, where Harkins Fire Road joins Purisima Creek Road at the canyon entrance. Later sawmills relied on steam engines, or steam donkeys.

Borden & Hatch Mill  in the 1880s, near where I took the first photo, top of page (From Sawmills in the Redwoods).

Borden & Hatch Mill in the 1880s, near where I took the first photo, top of page (From Sawmills in the Redwoods).


Going downhill, the first location where two sawmills existed is located where Purisima Creek runs under the road through a large steel culvert. That’s where the road levels out somewhat and there’s a sharp right turn. Right here is where a cable way was installed to haul logs uphill to Swett Road. Purdy Pharis, Shingle King, sunk a lot of money into the project, but it never was successful. He died about the time the operation was underway in 1884.

Farther down, at the Grabtown Gulch trail intersection, were two more logging camps, Charles Borden Mill and Hartley Shingle Mill, both operating around 1900-02.

Finally another half mile or so below this site was the Borden & Hatch Mill, which ran from 1871-1900.

While most of the wood went to making shingles, some was used to build a flume for Spring Valley Water Company in 1871. The nine-mile long flume, located in what is now the San Francisco Watershed (Frenchman Creek and stone dam) lasted 20 years before being abandoned.

This was the first time I rode in the Santa Cruz Mountains on a Monday. There’s no traffic to speak of on Kings Mountain Road (2 going up, 5 going down) and the same goes for Tunitas Creek Road. However, Santa Clara Valley traffic during rush hour is no picnic. I’ve learned how to get around it mostly car-free though.

Airport frontage road closed for Super Bowl

February 2, 2016

Airport frontage road is closed until Feb. 10.

Airport frontage road is closed until Feb. 10. (Google Maps)


Holy roadblock Batman! Ewert Road is closed starting Wednesday, Feb. 3, through the 10th, no doubt for the Super Bowl. In case you had never heard of that road, it’s what we all know as the frontage road around Mineta San Jose International Airport.

I noticed the sign on my Monday ride, after I checked out the Super Bowl 50 venue via San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail. Needless to say, I was being watched the entire time as two helicopters chopped the air overhead.

Don’t even think about going near the stadium the rest of this week. Only way to get a bike through is if you’re an undercover FBI agent. All routes are blocked. I used Lafayette to reach Alviso.

I remember riding through Palo Alto during Super Bowl XIX back in 1985. It was a nice day, high of 59. The game didn’t start until late in the day, so I had no issues with traffic to speak of. How times have changed.

Arastradero Road: Then and Now

September 3, 2015

Arastradero Road in 1930, inset, and today.

Arastradero Road in 1930, inset, and today.


Rooting around in the Palo Alto Historical Association online archive, I found this image taken by Kenneth Merckx (Eddy’s distant cousin) in 1930.

Here’s the same location, exactly, today using Google Maps.

It’s a lot more civilized these days.

Once Upon a Ride: Crested Butte 1985

June 13, 2015

Only known photo of my Ritchey mountain bike in 1985.

Only known photo of my Ritchey mountain bike in 1985.


When the mountain bike craze took root, Crested Butte, Colorado, became a focal point. It wasn’t long before riders from all over the country gathered in September for a bike-fest.

The big ride called for a day-trip over Pearl Pass to Aspen on a gnarly road. It was more than I could handle, but many do it annually.

I ventured out there in spanking-new Amtrak cars in September 1985 and had a great time with photographer David Epperson (Mountain Bike Hall of Fame) and friends of triathlete Sally Edwards.

It was a chance to ride my new Ritchey mountain bike, one of the most advanced at the time. While I enjoyed the experience, it didn’t take me long to realize mountain biking wasn’t my strong suit and I sold the bike shortly thereafter.

While the event has been moved to June, the Rockies in September can’t be beat for scenic beauty with the turning aspen.

David Epperson, an outstanding action photographer, rides in Crested Butte, 1985.

David Epperson, an outstanding action photographer, rides in Crested Butte, 1985.

People need the “Freedom to Roam”

April 4, 2015

Gate 12 at China Grade in 2015. We get the message.

Gate 12 at China Grade in 2015. We get the message.


Gate 12 circa 1983. Out having fun. How times have changed. (Jobst Brandt photo)

Gate 12 circa 1983. Out having fun. How times have changed. (Jobst Brandt photo)

In my travels around the world, I’ve noticed that nowhere else is the concept of “private property” so zealously defended by landowners than the US of A.

I attribute some of that, especially in the Western U.S., to the persistent Old West mentality where a man defends his homestead from real threats with his trusty gun.

Times have changed and I wish our laws would change to keep up with the times.

In Europe the “Freedom to Roam” operates in many jurisdictions when it comes to allowing people to use others’ lands. As long as you’re just passing through, say on foot or on bike, not hunting, fishing or in any way defacing the land, public access is granted.

Civilized Europe has been around for millennia, which I believe is the reason for this enlightened approach. Likewise, some areas in Asia follow the same “Freedom to Roam” principle. For example, on Malaysia’s millions of acres of rubber tree farms, mountain bikes are allowed in many sections.

In the Western U.S., native Americans did nothing but roam, but this way of life came to a screeching halt with the arrival of settlers from back East and the introduction of barbed wire in the 1870s.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Freedom to Roam principle could be applied in many locations, especially private logging roads. I’ve ridden these private roads, and others, for decades and never had any issues. It’s a different story today. Back in the early 1980s we didn’t have many mountain bikes, so seeing a bike was an oddity.

Lumber companies will claim liability issues, but the “Freedom to Roam” takes that into account. The land user accepts liability, not the landowner.

Public parks and agencies need to be more proactive about gaining easements on these roads, which often border their parks.

I’m not optimistic such an enlightened approach will happen in my lifetime, but it will happen, eventually.

Silicon Valley and traffic-light heaven

December 25, 2014

Casa Grande in New Almaden, built 1854 . The red brick was painted white at least 10 years ago. Home of the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum.

Casa Grande in New Almaden, built 1854 . The red brick was painted white at least 10 years ago. Home of the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum.


Recently on one of my regular rides on a certain road in the heart of Silicon Valley I discovered the longest stretch without a stop light.

Qualifier – it has to be a public road used by cars. Any road north of Blossom Hill Road in San Jose and south of Palo Alto.

Do you know where it is? Distance? Send me your guess.

Answer: Central Expressway between Mary Avenue and Bowers Avenue – 3.8 miles. There are only three stoplights (counting Owens Corning) continuing on to De La Cruz Blvd., 5.8 miles.

When the river runs dry

November 9, 2014

An old bridge reveals itself at the bottom of the empty Chesbro Reservoir near Morgan Hill.

An old bridge reveals itself at the bottom of the empty Chesbro Reservoir near Morgan Hill.


In case you hadn’t noticed, the drought continues. I checked out Chesbro Reservoir, which is at 1 percent, on Oak Glen Avenue.

Uvas Reservoir is at 3 percent, Guadalupe 4 percent.

Chesbro is so low that a bridge over the old road is clearly visible. Why are all these old roads at the bottom of reservoirs?

Horse and wagon needed easy access to water, so they followed the creeks. It wasn’t until the advent of more reliable car radiators in the 1930s that easy access to water wasn’t a big deal.

In the 1950s when the local reservoirs were built, the were roads moved to higher ground.

Asphalt Bungle – the road to Bear Gulch is paved with bad intentions

September 21, 2014

I wrote about the road many years ago. Here's a little history.

I wrote about the road many years ago. Here’s a little history.

Some wonderful scenic country roads course through the Santa Cruz Mountains and Bear Gulch is one such road, about a mile south of Kings Mountain Road at Hwy 84.

It bridges Skyline and 84, looking a lot like Old La Honda Road, but a bit steeper and straighter.

Surrounded by redwoods and a canopy of madrone and tan oak, it passes by the California Water Service watershed to the north and Wunderlich County Park to the south. As with many roads in the area, it was built for logging redwoods in the mid-1800s, before being purchased by San Mateo County in 1899.

As local cyclists know all too well, it’s closed to the public. Electronic gates block both ends to keep out all but occupants of about 25 residences near the road, tucked between watershed and parkland.

Here’s the rub
The county spent $350,000 in public monies to help pave the road. In fact, ever since 1964, San Mateo County has done more than its share to help landowners build their dream homes on Bear Gulch Road. Residents got together to form an assessment district back in 1964 and over the years the county approved it and finally paved the road in November 1979 at a cost of $1.2 million, with residents chipping in about two-thirds of the cost.

But like several roads up and down the Peninsula, it is partially owned by the county — and remains exclusively private.

Before the road was closed, the county seemed eager to keep the area open to the public and provide a road for residents as well. It hired a Redwood City engineering firm to design a road 22 feet wide, broad enough for two fire trucks to safely pass one another.

The public didn’t go for it. Who needed a road as wide as Highway 84? And besides, it was too costly.

Residents continued to pursue the idea until 1974, when Martin Wunderlich made a generous offer to sell Wunderlich Ranch (now Wunderlich Park) bordering Bear Gulch Road at an extremely low price. If taxpayers didn’t want a huge road before, now, with this classy land addition, they would never approve.

Bill Royer, chairman of the county board of supervisors at the time, and himself a former real estate developer, helped find a solution.

The county said that the area was a headache, that it was impassable during winter rains and sometimes closed in the summer from fire danger. Residents complained about people shooting guns and raising a ruckus.

Bear Gulch Road property owners met with county supervisors and public works director Sid Cantwell in 1976. County officials decided to abandon the road, then pave it at its current width of 12 to 16 feet, installing gates to keep the public out.

Not only would the landowners have their paved road, it would be private. In return, the county got a bargain on a paved fire road and access to Wunderlich Park for park vehicles in exchange for turning it over to private use.

A month after the road was paved, county supervisors held a public hearing to see if anybody objected to abandoning the road. Since the road width was not up to county standards [are they ever?], the county supervisors declared it as unsafe for public use; the vote for abandonment was unanimous.

Today the road is one of the best-maintained roads in the county, partly because it has so little traffic. Its surface is as smooth as the day it was paved [it was smooth back in 1989].

Even though it is the same width as nearby county roads, it has been declared unsafe, not just for cars but for bicycles, horses and pedestrians. This was stated in the road abandonment document, dated Nov. 14, 1978, said. However, a provision was made for allowing a recreation path next to the road, not that we’ll ever see that happen. Thanks to Steve Lubin for providing the document.