Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Road Noise I: Unchanging Waters

Earlier this year I moved to an idyllic rural neighborhood close to Lake Oroville. From my desk I see out onto a big pond and cow pastures through the branches of a big blue oak. A few weeks ago I looked up to see a Swainson’s Hawk perched on a jagged branch, 20 feet away, looking around for dinner. All other birds scattered fast, except for the industrious Black Phoebes nesting on my front porch. They kept a watchful eye, of course. That hawk would just as eagerly eat other birds as go after field mice, and birds know it. The phoebes seemed to feel protected, perhaps counting on time and tradition being on their side. They have hatched their young here for years now. They stood their ground.


Just a few miles away is the lake itself and the four-lane Highway 70 bridge that spans what used to be a river, the West Branch of the Feather River. When I was a kid growing up in Chico my brothers and I could always count on a road trip to Oroville whenever relatives came to town, so we could show off our upcoming dam–the nation’s largest earth-filled dam, the grownups bragged. Once it was finished it would collect water from all branches of the Feather River and hold it for recreational use until it came time to ship it downstream. As I recall we kids were unimpressed. “It’s just dirt,” we’d whisper, out of adult earshot. “Who hasn’t seen dirt?”


But we were impressed by most of Northern California, the only place we’d ever known. Luckily for me, there were lots of road trips to gather those impressions.


In the 1950s, when my parents arrived in Chico, the city was still a close-knit town and the locals took their sweet time making newcomers feel welcome. If you really wanted to live here, though, waiting for acceptance was worth it. My dad was a newly minted dentist from University of the Pacific’s dentistry school in San Francisco, but people who wanted one already had a family dentist. So he started his practice gradually, building from a dire dental emergency here and a flu-stricken dentist there. To pay the bills and to fill generous free time he distributed Falstaff beer all around Northern California. Before we started school we kids got to go along.
1962 west branch bridge
Construction of the Highway 70 bridge


I feel fairly certain that an early childhood spent washboarding down backroads, scaring up deer, jackrabbits, and quail, started me up the road to travel writing. What could be better, really, than just roaming around? Which is what travel writing is if you don’t count the ridiculous amount of work.


I’m equally certain that back then I didn’t worry about a possible future in which the streams and rivers I waded in and the amazing landscapes they made possible might all be sucked dry by a giant Southern California straw.


But that was then, this is now, and in the interim a lot of water has flowed under bridges spanning the West Branch of the Feather River.


The original Yankee Hill bridge–shown here in 1962 during construction of the Highway 70 bridge overhead, a black-and-white photograph published a year later in Bill Talbitzer’s book Lost Under the Feather–was two lanes wide if you had a vivid imagination, just like the two meandering ribbons of Nelson Bar Road that it tied together. That’s me in the middle in the second photo, standing on the same bridge in 1956 with my brothers while on a Falstaff beer run. Already I seem to be commenting on the scenery.
Kim at Yankee Hill
The editor, age 3


It’s all under water now–the rubble that once supported that old bridge, part of the tiny road near Yankee Hill that led up to it, and landscapes of memory stretching back to long before the California Gold Rush. All that remains unchanged is water from the West Branch of the Weather River, though where it goes has changed forever.


And so we introduce the first big topic Up the Road will tackle: the future of California water, examined from a very Northern California perspective.


In this week’s issue we offer “What Water Means to a Rancher,” an essay by Butte County cattle rancher JoEllen Hall, and my own “We Know the Worth of Water When Wells and Rivers Run Dry,” the first part of an introduction to our upcoming series on California’s water crisis. The series itself won’t start until fall, but here’s the first sip. Accompanying that essay are two wonderful poems, published here courtesy of Bear Star Press: “One Lesson” by Albert Garcia and “Apple-Cheeked Fish” by Maya Khosla. Enjoy:



Kim Weir


P.S. There’s more to Up the Road, both as a publication and non-profit educational effort, than we can demonstrate here. Look for basic information on our “starter website.” We’ll say more as we roll along.