Exploring the Padre Trail – Part IV: A Jeep Ride with Warren Kubler

We reach the Padre Trail

After my encounter with “sudden oak death” syndrome, Warren Kubler and I descended a long steep hill that ended at a T with another jeep road. This was the Padre Trail. To the left led down to Carneros Creek and the Napa River, and to the right led down to the Sonoma Valley. We turned right and crawled down the level wooded trail. Back in Padre Altimira’s time this would have been a small foot trail, but over the years it had become an oxcart trail and then improved and maintained with bulldozers. We were cresting the small pass and starting down, but it was still a welcome relief from the steep grades. On both sides were tall Douglas fir interspersed by redwoods that had grown up since logging had ended a hundred years before.

“More sudden oak death,” Warren said, pointing with his gaze on other oaks as we passed.

Warren explaining the lay of the land as we head to the Padre Trail

We waded into a tall “lawn” of five-foot high small doug fir growing from the jeep trail. These trees were becoming a fire danger problem in Northern California, and here you could see why. This “lawn” was the kind of scene that made Warren wish he still had a bulldozer. As a former fire marshal he wanted these fire roads clean for protection’s sake.

A tree blocks the road

Then we came upon another fallen tree across the trail, not too big, about six inches in diameter, but it blocked our path. Warren stopped the Jeep and climbed out. He had a mid-sized chainsaw in the back and he pulled it out. He primed it and fired it up and went to work.

As you get older you meet more and more people you hope to emulate as you yourself get even older, and Warren was moving to the head of the line. Here he was, 87 years old and maneuvering a chainsaw with more than a little skill. You could tell he had been doing it for years, just as he had been driving the Jeep, popping the clutch, tapping the brake, and the muscle memory for these tasks would be two of the last things to go.

He started with the easy stuff to clarify the matter a bit, and I hauled those cuttings and threw them off the trail. He worked from one side to the next, taking manageable chunks off here and there, all of which I pulled out of the way as soon as I could. And soon, after one large chunk dropped, we had a good opening in the trail and the chainsaw was turned off. Warren hefted it into the back of the Jeep and we got back in. Warren started up the Jeep, put it in first gear, and we started off again.

We begin our decent into the Sonoma Valley

The trail started to dip down more and more, toward Sonoma, but we were still in woods and there was no context for this, no view out before to let us know that we were headed way down there. We could have been in any woods in a number of places.

Coming down into Sonoma Valley along the path of the Padre Trail.

We finally came suddenly out of the trees into sun and a small distant view of Sonoma Valley shown far below us. We could see vineyards and houses, nearby hills and Sonoma Mountain far off, and I understood what Lt. Joseph Revere had been talking about—how the views suddenly appeared. We hit a narrow, but paved, access road that led to a water tank, and everything smoothed out.

“Civilization,” Warren said.

Dropping out of the access road onto a truly nice driveway, we came upon a house. Warren knew the owners, but no one seemed to be home, we headed down the driveway, steeper now, heading toward the valley floor.

Meeting the neighbors

Soon we came to another home, off the driveway, with a gate and driveway of its own. Warren slowed and stopped. A man and a woman were burning leaves back behind the gate, staring at us in a cross between wonder and concern. They seemed to regard the Jeep as a UFO that had landed in their driveway. Since there was no real way for us to be being heading downhill without them first having seen us go uphill, we had come virtually out of nowhere. Warren backed up, drove up to the gate, and turned off the Jeep. The man and the woman approached us quizzically. We looked harmless, they seemed to think, but where the heck had we come from?

“Hello,” Warren boomed. ”I’m Warren Kubler.” He told them we had come over from Redwood Creek.

“You came from Napa?!” the man asked, and the surprise, even wonder, in his voice made me feel as if we had come from over the Alps, from another country that people had heard about from their parents, but never seen themselves.

“I didn’t know you could still do that even in a Jeep,” he said. They warmed up quickly, asking us questions. The man, Charles Fields, was the nephew of Charlie Cooke (for more on Charlie Cook, see Exploring the Padre Trail – Part V: On the Ground with Joe Calizzo) .

“I gave your mother a Jeep ride a long time ago,” Warren said, and then Charles remembered him. Charles told us that she was inside and invited us in to meet her.  On the way, Fields told us he had hiked many times himself up the Padres Trail, clear over to Hess Winery. “But not in years,” he said. In their kitchen, we waited while Fields got his mother Elizabeth, Charlie Cooke’s sister, who arrived with a walker and an attendant, frail but alert at seeing all these people in her small kitchen.

Fields introduced Warren and me. “Warren says he gave you a Jeep ride a long time ago.”

She looked up with a grin. “Well, let’s go again,” she said.

She sat down in a chair at a built-in counter next to the window that looked out on spreading oaks and rocks, with bits of view of the Sonoma Valley peeking through. Warren sat down near her. While Fields and I compared maps and I showed him where we had traveled that day, Warren chatted with Elizabeth. But after a few moments of chatting, it was clear she did not remember him or the ride, which had taken place 30 years before.

Even so, the visit made me think of how pioneers must have visited before phones. Someone would show up in their wagon or on horseback from over the hills, from another county, heading for town, and would stop in for a while to chat and drink a nice hot cup of coffee. We visited for about a half hour and toured the garden and sunny patio that Charles, who lived up in Sonora, had built so his mother could come outside and enjoy the air and still stay warm. He told about a spring in the trees below the house that was probably a watering hole along the Padre Trail.

As we drove off down the hill to Lovall Valley, we passed a small clearing, which Warren pointed out. “The trail heads down through there.” (As it turned out, I would be back there the next weekend with Joe Calizzo–see again Exploring the Padre Trail – Part V: On the Ground with Joe Calizzo.) With that we left the Padre Trail behind for the day and puttered back to Napa on the highway. We were two guys in an old Jeep that could barely do 45 mph, old farts of local color who apparently still lived in the past and would be charming to tourists if we weren’t holding them back from hitting another winery.

At Old Sonoma Road, we left the highway and head back to Warren’s house through the hills and back valleys.

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