Damsel in distress … doggone … Purgatorio


After 20 years of riding, I finally got my big chance: Traveller and I rescued a lady on a runaway horse. He’s fast, and the way was not too wide, so we ran past and slowed gradually, and she was able to keep hers lined up behind him so hers had to slow too. Names will not be named.

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            Down a dirt road that crosses the bicycle path we use for midweek exercise rides, Jean was challenged by a cranky householder, a McMansionite whose pile had laid waste to half an oak grove. Jean was giving her backtalk, so the lady turned lose her two dogs. Jean let Margareta work off some her of usual short-ride hyperactivity chasing the dogs around with pounding front feet, then had a change of heart and the four of them ran off for an expedition down the trail to the water treatment plant. Jean decided it would be unkind to the dogs to be separated from their meal ticket, though, so after a while she brought them back and let Margareta graze until they wandered back up the big curving driveway.

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            The Natomas basin on the northwest edge of Sacramento is the most jangled mashup of greed, folly, and ruination on the scrimmage line between hubris and outraged nature – one of my ugliest rides. Naturally, I liked it a lot.
            The basin is a natural depression on the northwest front of the shockwave of Sacramento sprawl. Its only protection from the big river’s 300 to one ratio of spring flood  stage to fall drought trickle is a crumbly, gopher-riddled gold rush era levee. The developers have been going at it now for years, unrolling a carpet of subdivisions out towards the river from the freeway that not so long ago circumscribed the city. After years of mutterings in the peanut gallery, the feds finally formally announced that the levee is so flimsy that the basin is officially inside the 30-year flood zone. A moratorium on development will go into effect Dec. 31, as soon as bureacratically possible. In the meantime the federal recommendation to homeowners is to move valuables to the second floor, if they have one, and try to find flood insurance. The city’s response is to rush through as many permits and annexations as possible before the end of the year.
            Our tour of this fresh hell began by the freeway, the noise and clutter jacking Traveller into a hard gait along the rain-softened gravel berm alongside the West Drainage Canal, down which the floodwaters will roll once every 30 years. We looped around one of last year’s subdivisions and back up through the middle of it on a trash-strewn gully, left to the weeds and me out of grudging deference to the annual winter deluge. We ran along between back yards, the fences on both sides already staggering and swaying. Places like this are always fun to ride because Traveller finds them quite stimulating and moves with a very collected, animated 4-4.
            This shot us back to the canal, which here marks the western limit of next year’s subdivision, now in progress. Beyond it, waterfowl make do in compensatory wetlands, sanctimoniously self-congulatory signs wired to their fences, chain links painted a self-deluded green. To the right a languidly curving asphalt roadway separates fake lakes and ersatz-picturesque community landscaping from new, unsold houses arrayed like tombstones in an exclusive cemetery. Here and there one is laid open like a surgical patient, attended by a handful of white pickup trucks. Hammers pound and saws screech as developers with one foot in the subprime grave keep a few workers running on fumes, paid by loans that are already contractually committed but doomed to default.
            Beyond the last of the imitation lakes with their wood chip shores, the anti-erosion burlap tubes and the earthmoving equipment parked among piles of construction material, we emerged into fields next on the menu, but today tilled for spring crops. Even now they are under assault by a squadron of surveyors, planting pointless stakes around the tomato fields, ignoring the mushrooming glut of for sale signs on the other side of the road, or just cashing the checks before they can be stopped. Or maybe it’s just that none of the investors, banks, and contractors wants to be the first to mention the emperor’s nakedness. In better days they would end up by driving up the price of the little plastic condiment packets of the bright red goop that the new occupants would be getting on their fingers at McDonald’s.
            The gaiting was pleasant on the nice soft dirt footing of a canal running north up the edge of the tomato fields, then at a small copse zagging due east up to a little heap of rusted-out appliances at the rear of another of last year’s subdivisions. On the other side of the low cement wall separating the frogs and hawks and mice from the last row of houses a spandexed jogger chugged past the for sale signs, some footnoted with announcements of bank foreclosure auctions or chirruping “New Price”.
            Between the built and the cultivated lies a muddy no-man’s-land unclaimed by carpenter or tiller, repository of piles of broken cement, construction debris, opportunistic dumping and squatters. A chunky blonde with a pug-dog face came out of a huge RV on blocks and pretended to look under its permanently raised hood so as to give us the once-over. Across the mud a heap of debris included a yurt of plastic tarp, topped with an American flag – either the crazy militaristic patriotism of poor white trash or a maybe just an attempt to placate the authorities when they come to clear the junk. Or maybe irony – I hope.
            I led Traveller up a lonely overpass over the ceaseless freeway and came down between the back of the airport and a giant open rectangle of bare land. A big sign offered development opportunities in Sacramento Metro Air Park. Next to it an equally large sign warned visitors that before coming onto the site they should contact professional biohazard specialists, 800 number herewith. At each of the four corners of the vast site were what appeared to be empty waste ponds.
            We proceeded up the east side of this lunatic fantasy, the airport and highway 99 each a mile away to our left and right. We were going along a waist-high cement block fence running due north for miles, capped with cast concrete panels oriented to address refugees from the hazardous waste park with the repeating legend “NO TRESPASSING WILDLIFE SANCTUARY”. Traveller gaited steadily up this preserve, which consisted of a ditch and the dirt track underfoot, separating the toxic zone to our left from the furrowed fields that spread to the right all the way to 99.
            On the north edge of this absurd park and refuge it was time to turn back, so we turned towards the airport. Midway we came upon a wheelchair in the ditch beside the road. I pulled it out and unfolded it and left it standing alone, surrounded by miles of empty open fields.
            Back south along Powerline Road, the toxic field too soggy for gaiting, the best footing was the mowed turf under the airport’s barbed-wire-topped chain link fence. Waterfowl squabbled and milled in the ponds protected from human depredation by the security fence on the road side and the runways on the terminal side.
            Back across the freeway, I paused  to sit on some half-rotted bales in a disorderly stack that formed a comfortable seat with a backrest, until Traveller started grabbing bites of the moldy hay in preference to the lush green winter grass. Then back through the death watch tomato field past the orange-tagged survey stakes left by the zombie surveyors, leaving them alone because the coveted subdivision is probably only imaginary now.
            At the edge of the field a Mexican-looking young man passing the time spinning brodies on a four-wheeler stopped when he saw us and said in native English that he didn’t want to spook the horse. Traveller noted his presence. We went by him to the canal alongside the partially-constructed subdivision, this time on the away side. The footing was fine, a packed dirt track, much of it with a fur of new grass, just what Traveller likes most to go on. The waterway here was broad, half-covered with water plants, herons stalking and ducks and ducklings motoring, and on this side were the winter-fallow rice paddies and the wildlife sancturies with their prim fences and keep out signs with pretty logos. With the cloudy winter sky above it was the only moment of the day when I could forget the ubiquitous roar of freeways and jets and relax into the expansive enjoyment of place. But still the rest of the ride suited me just fine, the anomie and alienation, finding a momentary place for myself and horse in the no-man’s-line between the developers and the farmers, temporary and vanishing like us.

A few pictures, including the Iwo Jima of trash, at January 2008 slideshow.