Exploring the Padre Trail – Part V: On the Ground with Joe Calizzo

Exploring the Padre Trail

Joe Calizzo and I started by visiting the home of Charlie Cooke, who had given us permission to walk the part of his land where it was crossed by the Padre Trail, which was a Spanish trail (and likely Native American before that) that ran from the Napa Valley to the Sonoma Valley. It gets its name from the belief that the Catholic padre used it to get back and forth between the two, but it was a well used trail in its time.

Cooke had just given his 190 acres to the county as a conservation easement. It was his share of a larger piece of property that his father Admiral Cooke had purchased in 1936 at a time of hope of early retirement several years later from the Navy. But then Pearl Harbor was bombed and he became head of naval planning for FDR and had to wait a few years for that retirement. Charlie had grown up in Sonoma during that time and then gone on to a Naval career of his own, becoming an expert on Communist China and teaching at the Air Force Academy. He had returned to Sonoma in 1976 when his parents passed away and planted Zinfandel grapes on the hillside above his house, partly obliterating a short section of the Padre Trail, for which he caught hell from Brother Henry, a Jesuit and history buff from the other end of the trail at Mount La Salle who often hiked over the ridge.

It was the first time I had met Joe, and we were here today to walk the Cooke section of the trail and connect up to a lower length of the trail that passed over the property of Bartholomew Park Winery, where it reached the Sonoma Valley floor. We visited a few minutes with Charlie who was in an electric scooter and breathing oxygen through tubes. But he talked on the phone fine and even seemed a bit hale amidst all the apparatus.

We left Cooke and drove back down his driveway to an open area and parked the truck. The trail headed downhill from the edge of the open area. All of it had been improved since the padre’s days, but was partially overgrown with small trees. bushes and grass.

Joe stops to check his maps.

Joe’s story

Joe Calizzo was now in his seventies and lived north near Clear Lake. He had been born and raised in Pope Valley and taken history classes in St. Helena from Ralph Ingols, who was himself now 102 years old and alive in Napa. For 27 years, Joe had had the dream job as caretaker of the Weintraub Wildlife Sanctuary in Pope Valley, a 730-acre preserve of the Land Trust of Napa County used for oak reforestation studies and graduate research. Now he had retired to Clear Lake as Napa Valley prices had leaked over the hills even into Pope Valley and he could not afford to buy anything there himself. He drove giant tan Ford pick-up truck—one of three of various sizes that he owned—and had a roughening voice and a slight hitch in his step. His reading glasses were missing one temple-piece and sometimes sat askew across the bridge of his nose as he looked over maps and made notes on the trail.

Trail used by the “Bear Flaggers”

From Ralph Ingols, Joe had become interested in local history and especially that of the “Bear Flaggers,” a ragtag group of Americans in Mexican California who saw the tide was turning toward American possession and wanted to hurry the process along, especially after the Mexican governor announced he would repossess any lands owned by Americans, who had been filtering in for decades. In June of 1846, they decided to take the Mexican garrison at Sonoma from the local general, Mariano Vallejo. A party of eight men had left the Sacramento area, and rather than take the main and public Spanish trail south to San Francisco Bay and then cross the northern edge of its wetlands to Sonoma, they took older and far-less-known Native American trails directly west. This took them through Pope Valley and Berryessa Valley (at one point getting very lost and doubling back). They spent the night in Pope Valley with Alexander Pope, who because he was a grantee of General Vallejo and married to the general’s daughter, decided he could not mix his loyalties and join them.

The next morning the Bear Flaggers left Pope and made it into the Napa Valley to the Bale Mill area, then headed south to George Yount’s ranch. Yount was not around, whether conveniently or not, being another Vallejo grantee. But Grigsby, a man who had purchased nearby land from Yount, did join them. The party, now grown (it would be 33 when it reached Sonoma), made note of a large wagon of grain that was headed from Yount’s for Sonoma to General Vallejo. The party then gathered under a still-standing oak tree with a gigantic horizontal branch (now supported by a 4-inch steel pole, image at the end of this article) near the western edge of the valley. How they got from this point to the next known point on the trail, is unrecorded anywhere that Joe and Warren Kubler and Ralph can find.

Most likely, in order to stay away from Vallejo’s brother Salvador’s adobe on Redwood Creek at the mouth of Redwood Canyon eight miles south, they climbed a low draw west of Yount’s ranch to the ridge and crossed over to Dry Creek. After that, they likely climbed over a low section of the next ridge east ridge and dropped into Redwood Creek, 10 miles upstream from Vallejo’s house. From there they would have continued on the Padre Trail sections we know of over the highest ridge east and down into Sonoma Valley, through what is now the Cooke property.

Starting down the trail

Joe parked the truck and we got out to get our bearings before heading down the old fire road that may have been built over the trail. There were several overgrown dirt roads that could have followed its path—and maybe none of them did. We were in the same draw and, while not exactly on the trail, we could see what it would have been like, if one removed the dirt road and made it a footpath. We crossed through a gate that took us onto the public trail of the winery property, and from here the going was easier.

Joe stopped every now and then, pulled out his glasses, and made notes on a map he was drawing on a clipboard. Its simple markings were reminiscent of the hand-drawn rancho maps of the Mexicans. He already had such maps of the upper reaches of the trail all the way over the ridges to Mount La Salle, maps he had photocopied and given to me earlier. He put his glasses back in his pocket and moved on ahead of me.

Joe heads down part of the Padre Trail toward the Sonoma Valley floor.

I asked him about his limp.

He did not slow, speaking ahead of himself into the trees. “I had a tumor in my large bowel removed recently.”

I stopped walking.

He kept moving, watching the trail ahead. “I’m pretty stoical,” he said, “but it was starting to bother me, so I had the operation. This is really the first time I have been outside since.”

He was walking along at a healthy clip, but I asked him if he was sure that he could walk as far as he wanted today.

“We got to go now because we have the chance to do it—we must make sacrifices.”

I fell back in behind him, keeping an eye on him, and we descended, leaving the old road and becoming a footpath like it would have been back in Bear Flagger days.

“This is looking better all the time,” Joe said.

Branches hung low over the trail, ones that would have had to have been swept aside by anyone on horseback. “Imagine thirty-three guys on horseback going down this trail in the early morning in the dark, and they would have had to keep their mouths shut.”

Most of the Bear Flaggers had worked on ranches, and some even for General Vallejo himself. A few had likely been on the Padre Trail before. A few had worked as professional deer hunters at Sutter’s Fort. They hunted deer for food to feed the employees of the fort.

“That would have been a good job for me,” Joe said. “You get to go hunting and get paid for it.”

The trail continues

Through oaks along the side of the ridge above the creek, the trail rounded the lower brow of hill to emerge into a more open and rocky area and then T’ed into another trail. We took a right to head toward the winery.

A jogger came up the hill, hair immaculately trimmed, clean running shoes and shorts, chest perfectly tanned. Joe looked up and saw him. “Which way to the valley floor?” Joe asked, and the jogger nearly stopped, quizzical, looking us over like he was wondering how we could not know that. But, then seeing me grin at the question, the jogger smiled, thumbed back down the trail behind him and then jogged past us. We followed the small canyon downstream to emerge onto the grounds of the winery—the end of our exploration—near a large area of lawn and talked over our walk. Joe did not want to walk back up to the truck, which I thought was a very good idea, so I left him as he tried to find a place where the Bear Flaggers could have forded the creek. I hiked back up the hill, got in the truck and drove the long way around on roads back to the winery to find him resting on a beautiful stone bridge.

More on the Bear Flaggers

“They could have crossed the creek anywhere down there,” he said pointing to a low spot in the creek below, where horses could have descended one side and climbed the other to continue on to Sonoma.

It would have been around 3 a.m. on June 14 when the Bear Flaggers arrived at the Mexican garrison to find only two soldiers on duty, the rest having been pulled out months before by the Mexican government unable to defend its empire. The Bear Flaggers then proceeded to General Vallejo’s house.

“General Vallejo said something like. ‘What’s going on, boys?’” Joe said. The party told Vallejo they were taking Sonoma, so he told them “‘Come on in and let’s talk about this,’” and he opened up a keg of brandy. “The Bear Flaggers all got so snockered,” said Joe, “that they could not write the text of the capitulation. General Vallejo had to do most of the writing himself.”

Eventually some of them crossed back over the Padre Trail to bring back that wagon of wheat they had seen at Yount’s to feed themselves, and they founded the Republic of California, which existed for 21 days in waiting for the American naval forces. The bear flag was sown as a symbol of the revolt and flown until the American flag was hoisted over the square. The original bear flag was burned while in a museum in San Francisco in the fire after the 1906 earthquake. A copy was made, and it is in the small museum in the reproduction barracks that stand today on the square in Sonoma. After the smoke and cleared and the Americans had won the war—having taken all of northern Mexico and Mexico City—President James Polk sent an emissary to Mexico to give the Spanish $15 million to repair war damages and pay off $3.25 million in Mexican debt. Polk kept Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Joe and I stopped by the winery tasting room to try to find more information on the trail, or a better map, but the staff had neither because a separate foundation managed the trails. Joe didn’t buy it. He was getting cranky and tired, and thought he was getting the runaround. Once outside the front door, he said, “There’s more baloney for sale in there than anywhere in Sonoma.”

Joe goes over his notes at the Vineburg Deli patio after the hike.

We left and got sandwiches (not baloney) at the nearby Vineburg Deli and, drinking V-8’s, compared notes, then drove back to Napa by the long way of highways. He took me up to Yountville to show me the tree (below) where the Bear Flaggers had rested. It had been a long day, and I was very glad to hear he was going to spend the night in Napa with Ralph Ingols (who had told me, “Joe is like a son to me”) rather than drive all the way back to Lower Lake. He took me back to my car parked hear a grocery store. We said goodbye and he walked toward the store to shop for food to take to Ralph’s.

Joe shows off the Bear Flagger Tree near Yountville. The horizontal branch goes left and behind the tree toward the vineyard. Left of the trunk, you can see the vertical piece of galvanized pipe that supports the branch.

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