A Ranchland Scramble Comes Out Well Done
Words and photos by Will Ritchie.
I’d wondered about it for years. Even unsuccessfully tried it. Bumbled my way into a forced turnaround—a scolding that didn’t even last long enough for the scolding to begin. A bouncing square-bodied Chevy skidding to an exasperated stop, cutting us off. Dip can attired, walkie-talkie wielding, red-faced anger told us we weren’t allowed round these parts. Don’t care what the map shows, answer is NO.
It’s a lot easier when you’re not from there. A gentle naiveté, acceptance of foolishness—a misled greenhorn bumbling through a completely understandable set of unforeseen circumstances that are deemed ok by those observing—the misled tourist has simply lost his way. Please pat him on the back, tie his shoelaces, point him in the right direction, offer a smile, and let him know when the sun goes down.
But when it’s your backyard, you should know better. It’s like that toilet that can’t take so much TP, why’d you do it, AGAIN?
Over 55% of Marin County is protected land. Ranches forbidden from development spill over into a shouting match of jurisdictions where seven million people look with big eyes at what they’re sharply told to share. So when you spend your time nosing around the same twists and turns, hear eight different versions of the same disapproval on the same fire road that’s writhing with people where your usage is sentenced to exist—you start wondering just what else there might be.
Perhaps something without people. Maybe something you haven’t seen before. What if people aren’t even supposed to be there? How do you find the spot to get to, that people don’t get to? Access the inaccessible? More question marks?
The map makes it unavoidable, forces the issue, festers the itch. “You mean, somebody laid all this out, knows it’s back there, like this, even scored it on their legend, yet it’s just kinda, not supposed to be used?”
Crisscrossing and meandering through the northeastern part of the county are paved roads of neglect that don’t make sense. Broken blacktop that follows valleys, connects the connectors, shimmies its way shamelessly over hilltops, and veers around fence posts hogging otherwise public reservoirs. Inefficient travel. Not for the appointment-minded-schedule-packed-type. Perfect.
Ranches pepper the landscape, some heaped onto byways, others hidden beyond ranch roads. Ranch roads. Hmmm. Dirt roads with or without signs. Roads without people. Roads that may go somewhere.
Every time I unfolded my creased and crumpled maps looking for ride ideas, my eyes would invariably wander to that far upper right-hand corner. Different maps told me different stories—a sure bet, all roads connect—fragmented misunderstandings punctuated by the semblance of gates. Google Earth showed trees, valleys, surefire doubletrack, complete vanishings, and what looked to be close encounters of the trailer kind. There were also fences. Near invisible and impossible to zoom in on.
Perpendicular lines that caused my two-track musing to cease. When did they take this imagery?
With the hyper-abundance of Miracle Grow™ grade adventure saturating every marketing angle on, well, everything (buy a toothbrush, it’s designed for adventure) the time seemed right to try this mistake all over again. If anything, were I stopped, I could semi-truthfully inform a landowner that a mid-sized, reasonably priced, high-mileage sport utility vehicle commercial informed me to find my own adventure. I was purely abiding by the automaker’s wishes, no wrongdoing here.
Next came the ‘who’ part. Do you tell them this could lead to one of those not-easy-to-shake-off-your-record situations? Or do you just let them know you’ve got a ride idea planned and, unhunh, yep, get this, you haven’t done it before. Correct, I’m sure of it, you haven’t done it. Why? Oh, don’t worry about that part.
To put it poorly, it’s almost as though you have to find friends who don’t worry, don’t ask questions, or don’t know what they’re doing. Or, worse still, they don’t care it’s a bad idea. Maybe they even like bad ideas.
I pitched. They accepted. They almost got too excited about the prospect of demise. But, of course, anything that is truly a bad idea sneaks up on those when it comes to game time. One prospect allowed himself to send himself a little too hard on the mountain bike the day before, informing us of the quantity of painkillers currently needed to feel normal. The other, so frugal that he self-inflicted expired yogurt consumption—I kid not, stated: “I knew it was beyond the date and smelled a little funny, but I went for it anyway.” Slim pickin’s when it’s time to quickly assemble the bike bags.
But, one was wheedled kindly, gingerly, generously out of his sore state. He triumphed, and I will forever be thankful for that. We dropped the truck in a place we hoped to find again. Pedaling started. We were quiet.
The strangeness of it all was the stillness. Deafening, screaming, hollering, ominous, overbearing silence. Alarms were supposed to go off.
When we clanked open the gate, clumsily slid the rusted chain noisily through its guide, red laser lines were supposed to appear in the air. Bomb sirens were supposed to trumpet. An arrow needed to wiz past my ear. And where the hell was James Bond is his tuxedo? Not to mention his evil lady counterpart?
I couldn’t get over the serene thud of it all. I could hear my tires softly crunching nice, unused dirt, politely scampering across a cattle guard, then sawing over dried, yellow, forgotten grass. Everything was experienced too deeply, yet in a detached dream of a videogame manner. We just kept moving forward.
We were overwhelmingly getting thrust into these thickets of bushes swallowing a creek that even had water. We went over the water, were tunneled by the bushes. Every turn, I kept rehearsing the name of my supposed, fictitious farmer buddy who, oh yeah, you must know him, he’s right over the ridge. But the turns led to clearings, the clearings to more fences with gates and we became practiced assessors in the ‘Is It Rusted Shut?’ chain link determination club. It’s kind of an important club.
We hoisted, scrambled, and tipped our way further. Then the line ended on the GPS. Apparently there was nothing. A makeshift, prefabricated rectangular low annoyance of a building protruded into the path in front of a big, ailing barn. Did the path even go past the house thing? Was that pickup next to it operable? Somebody inside? A window was open—in the house thingy, but there was mold. Should we go?
We didn’t stop and it didn’t look like what had been a doubletrack continued, but we continued anyway past the rectangular establishment. A completely trackless hill ensued. It was steep. We were hot. Blue sky, wispy clouds, wrong gearing, hurling ourselves upward. “Sure don’t want somebody to be in that prefab square.” At the ridge top was a gate. We were over the gate.
We skittered over loose pebbles that dumped onto trodden, hoof-marked wash out powder dirt. Puffs of our front tire selflessly poofed left and right. The road cut continued downward.
Black SUVs and at least one red sports car lined a different establishment, well-built, open-topped, with some sort of massive sculpture past where the parking was occurring. We cut left and made a point to not look, clattered painfully loudly over an established metal fence with a clang.
We belched out onto our broken blacktop—50% through, 50% safe, 100% elated. Section 1, Success. I was almost in disbelief in what had happened, had truly happened. The monotonously safe blacktop pocked and puttered onward.
The next jaunt involved a known, rideable entry, then blatant ignorance of smattering upon smattering of No Trespassing, Death to All Ye Who Cometh Forward, and Trespassing—Really? You Ugly… type signage. Public access, cows (like children) to be seen, not to be petted, and a quaint, narrow reservoir tempted us to our next fence hop.
This one was tricky—not the hop part, we had that down, but the get-far-enough-to-feel-therefore-deep-enough-and-safe part while still choosing the appropriate turns part. That’s a lot of part. It wasn’t easy.
We passed multiple house-like establishments—another embarrassment of an angular make-do-throw-together semblance of residence, then something that looked real. Something with a pitched roof, fresh paint, satellite dish, and reasonably priced automobile parked outside. Something where someone should not be lollygagging.
We skirted around the side of it, taking an upper road that was more cow trail than road, then promptly lost what was supposed to be our fire road to redemption. Nothing. Empty landscape, blank screen again. We went further in the direction we had been going. There was a dip, almost a wash. On the other side, a former road overgrown with tall grasses. Beyond that, a split. We went left.
It almost felt like the great Yogi Berra’s déjà vu all over again going up steep, sweating, frumping, hoisting, huffing, descending, but it happened with near methodical certainty. This time we almost bulldozed into some sort of ranch helping with not one, but three full-sized pickup trucks. We didn’t even slow down, just coasted onto the fork of least resistance.
Then I realized it. We were soft-pedaling past the faux winery (whinery) of former yelling and red-faced gesticulation. Blaow. Sure enough we were passing the scene of the crime years ago, no purposeful pickup to slow us down now—one last lean and then my tires touched smooth, undulating Highway 1 tarmac, mission success. “What dirt roads? We’re touring Highway One, sir.”
A seemingly superfluous campout in my gluttonously favorite spot perched above the Pacific Ocean and we had one for the books. “Yep, like for sure, get this, it’s a ride I don’t think you’ve done, dude.”
Here’s to backyard adventure, hackneyed as the term may be, bantered about for soulless sense of purpose, there’s forever something just beyond the familiar that can give you goose bumps, even if it’s in your own county, even if you should know better.