The Rural Rider

Contemplations on cycling

The long road to Chico

An hour into my ride to Chico, turning northwest from Knight’s Landing
on California 45, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore. There aren’t rice
fields in Kansas, I’m fairly certain of this. I’ve crossed the mouth
of a slough feeding into the Sacramento River and then I’m down off
the levee and riding with rice fields on my right and tomato fields on
my left. I don’t think tomato fields play a large part of the Kansas
agricultural economy either. In the slanted morning light the Vaca
Range lift tall and distinct to the west, a bank of cloud rises
ominously along their far north-western flank, threatening for the
afternoon’s ride, perhaps.

It had been chilly leaving Davis. The advice about layering from the
Davis Bike Club list-serv seemed to work: a silk undershirt, my Davis
Bike Club jersey, arm warmers, a thin wind-resistant jacket, a fleece
head cover under my helmet made sure ears didn’t get crispy. The north
wind of Saturday had died down and now there was just a hint of air
moving from the south. The weather forecasts showed it would increase
and blow more from the south-west. Good to go!

As I ride along the rice fields on an empty road I ponder how it can
be that this narrow road with its ag traffic (a few cars and a couple
of large trucks carrying rice to a grain elevator somewhere ahead)
feels more secure than Road 102 does with its wide shoulders. It’s the
speed differential, I think. As I rode out of Woodland headed toward
Knight’s Landing the speed of traffic seemed to pick up dramatically,
the parade of mini-vans, SUVs and trucks buffeted me even though I had
plenty of clearance. People seem to give more room on the smaller
roads, when they think about it. Most seem to although perhaps it’s a
“close to Davis” effect because by the time I’m nearing Chico the
rules seem to change.

The rice fields, dry now, stalks standing tall, invite great egrets to
hunt, almost all of them in pairs. They are very wary birds, even
separated by a deep channel and 15 yards, they take wing rather than
have me pass them while they are grounded: a deeply learned survival
message.

Just before I rejoin the Sacramento River at a pumping station, I pass
a very large field, a tractor pulling a disk-harrow is working perhaps
a half-mile back from the road. Sitting in the field, as widely spaced
as Iowa picnickers, are red-tailed hawks, maybe 20 of them, a generous
50 yards between each bird. They are sitting on large clods of earth.
Why? Are they waiting for a vole or mouse to pop up on this newly
tilled land? I’d think it was better to hunt on the wing. But here is
a field filled with sitting hawks all facing the same direction: south
and somewhat west. Another field ahead, this time on the left, is a
lone hawk sitting in the middle of a similar field. He has a different
tour guide? What’s his issue? I peddle on. None of the birds stir as I
pass although there is a sense of swiveling heads.

How can I not like a place like the Rough and Ready Pumping Station?
The first station’s name wasn’t readable but this one is. It’s good to
be alive on a morning like this! Then along an orchard on the right,
fields on the left, and as I approach a curve a large truck slows
behind me, lets me navigate the turn before he lumbers past me, his
trailers filled with . . . something. I wave. I wish I could see what
company he drives for. He was thoughtful and courteous. Remember that.
Pay it forward.

A jog west at Road 6 and then I’m headed north. The Sutter Buttes are
very vivid ahead. The day is clear, only a bit of smoke hanging up
along boundary of the temperature inversion to the north and west.
Details on the Buttes are quite visible. I have a long time to study
them as I ride the first of two long straight segments broken by a jog
to the west. Along that long first stretch I enter Colusa County and
the road surface abruptly changes, becoming much rougher. I am
continually surprised at how much difference in speed a smooth surface
means to a cyclist.

Toward the end of that westward jog a concrete bridge with wide
shoulders crosses a slough. I pause, trade fingerless gloves for the
full ones, take off the head warmer, take a few photos, have a banana
and rearrange water bottles. I have space for three. One hangs from
the frame behind the front wheel. One experience has taught me NOT to
drink directly from that one – so I swap a used bottle’s top for the
gritty one and I’m back on the road, a somewhat gusty wind pushing me
north again.

Pairs of great egrets rise from the muddy slough alongside the road.
Often their paths split apart only to rejoin after long sinuous arcs.
A lone egret, startled, croaks — the sound a baby Caterpillar tractor
would make as it pushes across the sandbox for the first time under a
parent’s watchful headlights.

These two long stretches are the most boring trip. Eight and maybe
five miles of straight, north pointing, highway. I finally meet the
Sacramento levee again and turn north and west toward the little town
of Grimes. If you need water or something from a small store it might
be a good place to stop. Church was letting out as I biked through
while a block away the grain elevator, “prairie cathedrals” a Texas
Panhandle friend names them, was handling truckload after truckload of
grain.

More farmland and then the junction with Highway 20. Twenty is very
busy and it has just been paved, but not striped. Traffic thunders by
not quite sure of where the side of the road is. The shoulder is also
paved one layer lower than the main roadbed, but it’s not been swept
so it’s covered with tar and debris from the paving. I try to stay on
the shoulder but sometimes I find myself up on the main road, where I
should have sufficient room but traffic wants to run close to the
edges and as soon as I can I’m down on the shoulder again risking a
flat or a fall rather than a close(er) encounter with an Ultimate
Behemoth or a truck on its way to I-5.

The airport marks the entrance to Colusa, and then the golf course.
We’ve decided that Rick’s (or Jeff’s) Freezette is the place where
I’ll meet Jan for lunch. As I turn onto Fremont Street I pass her
walking toward me with her camera. I’d made a little better time than
she had though so she didn’t catch me as I turned the corner from
20/45 onto Fremont. Soccer is happening in every open stretch of grass
big enough for a game.

Rick’s, or Jeff’s (perhaps the owner suffers from an MPD?), offers
inside or outside seating. I pulled my bike up next to a picnic table
and relaxed in the warm sun while I wait for Jan to hoof it back. And
I enjoy a small ice cream cone. A good thing I didn’t order a large
one – one young fellow did and I thought he’d need artificial help to
carry it! It almost towered over him! We dine on a BLT and french
fries. Their “small” fries was big enough for the two of us with some
left over. Then back on the bike and down a shady street to reconnect
with 45.

The traffic on 45/20 is heavy from Colusa north until Maxwell Road
where the majority of the cars and trucks go west to catch I-5. The
riding is good the Sacramento, behind its levee, only a field away and
Princeton is my next goal.

I like Princeton. Small neat homes, some behind wrought Iron fences.
It’s a tired town and feels like it’s staggering into the 21st
century. The center of town is deserted as I pedal through; the
restaurant I saw mentioned on Google Earth doesn’t appear to be open
any more. A few blocks up the road there are duck blinds for sale.
Only a few more weeks until duck season: I recall riding past the
Audubon Center on Putah Creek Road last Friday morning and hearing the
guys practicing their duck calls. Is this a contradiction, I wonder?
Is it like serving great seafood at the Monterey Bay Aquarium where
I’ve had images of walking past the Kelp Forest and saying “I’ll have
that one for lunch…” I suppose not. No inside information to be
gleaned from Audubon for their member duck hunters.

Princeton provides an unexpected delight – a short climb to the top of
the levee and now I’m looking down at fishermen along the bank and in
boats out on the river. The river curves away but then returns in a
great sweeping arc, vast gravel bars are revealed and already I’m
thinking about this ride in the spring time when the snows from the
Cascades and the Sierra and melting into this river system. No sand
bars to be seen then, I’m betting. Clearly this is a better ride
northward where the river is immediately to the right than looking at
it from across the road.

Maybe five miles further north Highway 162, the Butte City Highway,
comes in from the east and, for a while, joins with 45. Traffic grows
more dense and suddenly CHP are patrolling the road. Between 162 and
Ord Bend three pass me south-bound.

After another five miles 162 diverges to the west again where it will
meet I-5 at Willows. Then it’s much more pedaling to reach Ord Bend.
There’s no population to Ord Bend, but it has an altitude. And a large
set of buildings that seem deserted now or maybe just infrequently
used. I’m glad to reach Ord Bend. The wind has been turning from the
south to the east as I’ve been riding. The North Valley’s own air
currents have taken charge so when I turn east it’s into a gusty
headwind.

But there’s rest to be found at the Ord Ferry Park. It’s some grass,
some parking, a bathroom!!! and a boat ramp. Otherwise not much to be
said for it. I meet Jan and Jan’s brother’s wife Jo, take off my bike
shoes for a pair of birkies, and seek out the restroom. It’s the first
time I’ve wanted out of my shoes. The Element is parked in the shade,
I drop the tailgate, munch an apple and refill my water bottles and
talk for a bit. As we do I notice the wind is shifting subtly toward
the south. A good omen!

Then it’s back on the road for the last 18 miles. The Ord Ferry Road
does a bit of winding with some low spots delightfully marked with red
lines that run across the road to red-painted posts with signs that
warn not to cross the red lines if the water level is above them. I
make a note of this but mostly I’m trying to ride as far to the side
as I can because traffic is heavy and people aren’t willing to slide
over to the center even just a little bit. But after a spell the road
widens a bit and has been newly paved. This is good because the new
paving isn’t as wide as the old which still retains a great surface,
very smooth. Riding is great on this stretch although sometimes road
debris forces me up onto the primary pavement for short stretches.
Only a long narrow concrete bridge makes the riding interesting and
I’m fortunate to have no traffic as I cross it.

Dayton is the last of the little valley towns before Chico. It’s like
Princeton but without the river. Some homes are surrounded by black
wrought iron fences. A man mowing his lawn with a John Deere lawn
tractor that looks sufficient to do the whole job simply by lowering
the mower deck and then raising it again. Somewhere a skunk is very
unhappy and intent on making sure everyone else is also.

A half mile or so east of town Dayton Drive joins from the north at a
four way stop and then it’s a ride toward Chico. Local intelligence
sources, perhaps related in sophistication to those who gave the
United States proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, suggest
that taking Hagen Lane over to Midway Road and then to Park Avenue is
preferable to following Dayton Road up to 20th Street. This is a
mistake although there are no insurgents to deal with as a result. The
Hagen Lane part is a very pleasant ride. But Park Avenue across
Highway 99 is a bit of a nightmare. A bike path leads up to the
over-crossing complex and then just ends. Traffic is heavy and I think
no one has ever seen anyone on a bicycle before, not ever. So I
carefully make my way up and over 99, then down and finally make the
mile on Bruce Road where the shoulders are non-existent and Mommy
Dearest drives her Escalade or maybe mini-van with no regard to bikes
at all. It’s only a mile but I feel a huge relief as I turn into the
Doe Mill neighborhood and finally spot Jan on the porch waiting.

It’s a good ride. The new Oktoberfest at Sierra Nevada Brewing makes
for a great recovery. I averaged 16.7 MPH for the 103.39 miles in
6:11:54 and elapsed time of 7:45:18. My memory is filled with the
land, the fun people I met in Colusa at lunch, a field of hawks, and
the dignified flight of blue herons.

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