Monday, January 5, 2015

Christian Burkhardt: Almost Amish

While weeding through an old suitcase full of my grandmother's yellowed newspaper clippings, I found an article on an old friend, a neighbor I used to know a long time ago. A dark clipping of Christian Burkhardt & his horse Brandy pulling a custom racing cart along the backroads of the San Geronimo Valley—a familiar sight during the 1970s.

Christian and I used to go on long trail rides over rough  fire roads starting out from Forest Knolls. One time we went all the way to Mt. Tamalpais along the San Geronimo Ridge, to Alpine Dam, via the the Meadow Club, in his two-wheeled racing sulky prototype made from a bicycle, wire mesh, and aluminum strips drilled out with big holes (to keep the cart light).

Or sometimes we'd go up the Lagunitas fire roads near Kent Lake along Bolinas Ridge, to Bolinas Mesa, and onto what is now called the Palomarin Trail. We'd trot past Double Point, Bass Lake, Olema, etc. The miles flew by, the open air stung our cheeks, we'd pack a lunch and take off down the open road, not knowing where we'd end up.

I taught Christian the English names of plants. I pointed out a primitive plant, Equus, I'd say, pointing to Brandy's tail, horsetail fern (Equisetum). He'd reply in German: wassercandlen. His father was a famous botanist, they were born in Germany, so it made sense that Christian would know the German names of plants. English was his second language.

Christian was super smart and had many odd notions. He was part eccentric, part geek, and almost Amish. He wanted to harken back to a simpler time that never was. Christian once built an entire Model A Ford from scratch, because he could. But he wouldn't drive it. He was somewhat steampunk'd decades before it was reinvented. But then the entire family was most original in thought and manner. The saying, They broke the mold when....applied to the Burkhardts—all of them. Like the Amish people he admired, Christian wanted to be simple, he wanted to be plain. In fact, he did eventually apprentice with the Pennsylvania Amish community.

Christian Burkhardt and Brandy with his prototype buggy made of bicycle parts.

Christian lived with his parents and grannie on a house on a knoll that his father Hans had designed, made of river stone, cement, and floors with radiant heat. Hans loved the trees, and managed to build his house around them without resorting to scorched earth practices. Christian built an elaborate treehouse in a Douglas fir, with cathedral windows, electricity, a record player and a telescope (much to the dismay of Stephanie Stone's parents). That gave Christian quite a reputation. The Stones invested in bedroom curtains.

I don't know what part of Germany the Burkhardts hailed from, but Christian's grannie didn't speak a word of English and she too was pretty eccentric. I remember being shocked when Christian told me that when she was a young girl, his grannie was an ardent fan of Hitler; when he came to their village, she broke her arm falling off a chair cheering for him. It probably saved her life. 

When I was a teenager, I'd found a Nazi dagger up our hill, buried in the dirt above our spring. Our neighbor, German Consul, Old Man Latendorf must've been hiding refugee Germans in the woods. The story goes, when things got too hot, and he too went into hiding, my Irish grandfather stepped in as acting German Consul. First, my high school math teacher, Archie Williams, shook Hitler's hand after he won the Olympics gold medal with Jesse Owens, and now Grannie Burkhardt?

When we were cleaning out my grandmother's house last month, my uncle found the old Nazi dagger, but it was so rusted, he threw it out. I should've saved it, the little black and white enamel swastica was still recognizable, but I didn't have the heart to keep it. It was tainted with too much history. I wasn't expecting it to resurrect and intersect itself here in this blog. But I digress...

Western view from Mt. Barnabe toward Camp Taylor. we grew up on the other side. —Wiki

Back to our backroad explorations. Christian Burkhardt and I discovered that we could cover amazing distances in the racing sulky, much farther than if we were riding astride our own horses. Brandy, a dark mahogany bay Morgan with black points, a white sock, and a star on his forehead, could trot for hours. My horse had died a few years before, so I was truly horseless, no longer riding for Rafter L Ranches, and I welcomed the chance to travel my favorite ridges again.

On the way home from the Mt. Tam ride, we bit off way more than we could chew: we were late leaving Mt. Tam, it was so glorious at the top. A friend of mine, Dale Walsh, was working at the fire lookout, he invited us up and we spent the afternoon gazing out over the ridges of the Bay Area.

Coming back around Alpine Lake to the Meadow Club, we crossed the Fairfax-Bolinas Road, to pick up our fire road home, but took a wrong turn, and ended up on the top of Pine Mountain at sunset. Fantastic views of Mt. Wittenberg, Elephant Mountain, Big Rock RIdge. But we were on the wrong ridge that divided the middle arm of Kent Lake like a peninsula.

I told Christian we needed to veer to the right, and take what looked like a chaparral-lined goat track, but he wanted to stick to the main fire road. He said it made more sense. There was no arguing with him. He held the reins, we trotted to the west. Then towards the south. Wrong way. I threw a fit and got us to turn back towards San Geronimo. But we discovered that there was a fence in the way. We lost valuable time searching for a way back though the fence as we didn't want to backtrack all the way to the Meadow Club. We were also running out of daylight.

We needed to get onto the right fire road that followed the crest of San Geronimo Ridge paralleling Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad bed). I found a portugee gate of sorts, a mend in the fence; we were able to lift the sulky over the barbed wire, and sneak Brandy through a gap in the fence. I laid my vest over the lower wires so he could see in order to step over the treacherous wire. Good thing it was a full harvest moon to light our way. Otherwise we would've had to spend the entire night on the ridge.

After the second summit, I was never so glad to see the first sure landmark, the pygmy sargent cypress forest, and the ghostly serpentine outcroppings. (The San Geronimo Ridge was either Marin Municipal Water District watershed, or privately held ranch lands in those days, now the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve is accessible via the Bay Area Ridge Trail. See photos at the Bay Area Hiker's blog. A recent post is on Trailhiker's blog.)

To download this PDF of San Geronimo Ridge, go to MCPOS
I can't remember where we came down off the ridge, but I think it was by De La Montanya's place—we called it the deer camp road (there was an old deer camp on the ridge overlooking the lake, it ran into East Sylvestris fire road and dead ended at Meadow Way in San Geronimo. Of course none of us ever knew that the names of fire roads, or that they even had names. Google hindsight is a wondrous thing.

It was far too dark to follow the ridge to Forest Knolls even under a full moon. To come down off the ridge down Tamarack, or by the Nielsen's place on Resaca Road would have been positively suicidal in the dark. By the time we reached Arroyo Road, it was well after midnight. I was so cold, I wanted to trot alongside the sulky, but I had such painful chillblains, I could barely walk. I was never so glad to get home.

We didn't know it at the time, but when we didn't return home by darkfall, the families began to worry. Christian's father, Hans had sent the sheriff out looking for us, we were gone so long. Even my grandmother was worried, and she never worried much about me coming home after dark. The horse always brought me home. Christian caught hell for being out so late—they thought we'd been injured or killed. No cellphones or GPS back in those days, let alone, access to topo maps, we really were miles from civilization.

Poor Christian was socially gauche (as most adolescent boys are). He was always the little kid who lived down the road. He used to tag along after us when we went out riding. About the only thing we had in common was a love of horses.

I used to give him rides to SF State when we were attending college there during 1974-75. He helped to pay for gas and bridge fare so I was glad for his company as it was a long commute from Forest Knolls to Stonestown.

Christian didn't know his own strength. One time he twisted the door handle right off my old '58 Volvo panel van, not realizing it was locked. But he was also a mechanical genius, so he welded on a new shank and fixed it, not quite as good as new. But close. The handle drooped a bit. I offered to teach him to drive but he steadfastly refused. He didn't want to have anything to do with combustion engines whereas I was always under the hood trying to keep the damned car running.

Christian's father Hans, a botanist, was a pioneer in the process of cloning orchids. He'd hybridize and divide the orchid buds with a scalpel and put them in test tubes filled with coconut water. The orchid clones had to be constantly agitated in order to grow. There was a riot of rare orchids blooming all throughout their house. Christian's mother, Hannah, a quiet dark-haired woman of otherworldly charm, was his lab assistant. She was probably a doctor as well. There was much I didn't know about the Burkhardts.

The Burkhardts left the San Geronimo Valley and moved to a remote valley along the Noyo River during the late 1970s or early 80s. Their nearest address was Sanctuary Station, an unscheduled freight stop on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad freight line, now California Western Railroad line. The Skunk Train took them 20 miles to Willits or to Fort Bragg for provisions, but they were self-sufficient. The fire road into Sanctuary Station and Camp Nine was impassable during the wet season. I visited Christian a few times, as an activist poet friend of mine, Mary Norbert Korte, a former Dominican nun, was their nearest neighbor, and we held several rather wild California Poets in the Schools conferences at Mary's place.

The California Western Railroad, a Mendocino County heritage railroad that parallels the convoluted narrow Highway 20 (Fort Bragg-Willits Road). The CWR runs 40 miles along the Noyo River and Pudding Creek, crossing 30 bridges and trestles, and two tunnels. Northspur, 11 miles north of Comptche, on the confluence of the North Fork of the Noyo River, is the only watering hole, about half-way from Willits. Otherwise there's not much by the way of civilization in the canyon.—Wiki

Dr. Hans Burkhardt was an environmental analyst for Mendocino County, which was in the midst of clearcutting wars, disastrous for the Noyo River canyon. Hans' efforts led to the formation of the Mendocino County Forest Advisory Committee. He wrote a booklet, “Maximizing Forest Productivity” that outlined sound forest practices to sustain a healthy vibrant industry, but corporate forest owners branded him an extremist, along with marbled murrelets, northern spotted owls, EarthFirsters and Judi Bari.

The steam and diesel-powered Skunk Train, on the California Western Railroad.   —Wiki
When I was visiting the Burkhardts, poor Hans was nearly felled by a redtail hawk who mistook his shiny bald pate for dinner. Hans managed to live to a ripe old age of 75, fighting the good fight against big lumber. He's been gone ten years now. The Mendocino woods have lost a champion.

I heard that Brandy was killed by a car...but I'm not sure if that's true or not. I imagine it happened while Christian was driving one of his custom buggies. It would've utterly devastated Christian as he absolutely doted on that horse. I envision Christian living on that homestead deep in the Noyo forest, inventing all sorts of useful and harebrained contraptions. But our madcap buggy rides was surely the stuff of dreams.
I Googled Christian and Hans, and decided to post the links all in one place, especially as the short piece I wrote has suddenly morphed out of control. This is the extended revised version of the original post, and it seems to want a life of its own.)

Who remembers seeing Christian Burkhardt & Brandy tooling through the San Geronimo in the 1970s? We used to go on crazy long trail rides on the fire roads from Forest Knolls to Mt. Tamalpais along the San Geronimo Ridge, and up Kent Lake along Bolinas Ridge, to Bolinas, to the Palomarin Trail, Double Point, Bass Lake, Olema, etc., in his two-wheeled racing sulky prototype made from a bicycle and drilled strips of aluminum (to keep it light). Christian marched to his own drum, was super smart and had many odd notions, he was part eccentric and almost Amish. On the Mt. Tam ride we bit off way more than we could chew coming back around Alpine Lake, we took a wrong turn somewhere near the pygmy forest and got stuck on the top of Pine Hill at midnight looking for a way though the fence to get to the fireroad that ran along the crest of the San Geronimo Ridge. I found a portugee gate of sorts in the barbed wire fence, and we were able to lift the sulky over the fence, and sneak Brandy through the gap. Good thing it was a full harvest moon. The sheriff was out looking for us, we were gone so long.

You Fine-Haired Sons of Bitches
By Bruce Anderson - Anderson Valley Advertiser, January 31, 1990.
(Bruce and I worked together at the West Sonoma County Paper. We knew Judi Bari, of course. Earth First! was in the news and we were covering the stories.)

By Steve Ongerth - From the book, Redwood Uprising: Book 1Indeed, whenever somebody did try to do their job, it was usually the result of pressure from Earth First! and other radicals that made this possible. On May 14, 1990, Mendocino County’s Forest Advisory Committee, by a vote of 11 to 6, resolved to send a series of emergency recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. [63] The FAC was an idea conceived of by Hans Burkhardt (among others) who was one of the first Mendocino County resident to identify the problems associated with the depletion of local timberlands. Burkhardt and others  approached the County Supervisors with the idea of establishing the committee, and the latter agreed, most likely because they saw it as a way to pass the buck. Evidently they had never expected the FAC to actually function. The persistent attendance and advocacy of local residents, such as Naomi Wagner and David Drell, helped push the FAC to take such a proactive stance...

Orchid lovers might recognize Hans Burkhardt's name

Re: The Orchid Hothouse - for Orchid lovers and those who appreciate them.
Post by: A**** on May 14, 2007, 10:17:22 AM

Hans Burkardt lived along the skunk railroad west of Willits, CA.  He did a lot of Paph hybridizing and had the pet project of trying to create tetraploids of every Paph species.  For several years we collaborated(?) on making P. sanderianum crosses with a very small plant that I bloomed several years (from Ray Rands, $600!).  Hans did have other sources of sanderianum pollen but the cost of trades for it was I imagine quite high.  At one time I was creating a traveling multi-media Paph show and wanted a picture of the latest and greatest which was the P. Kevin Porter (micranthum x bellatulum).  I asked him if I could name it after myself and he agreed! 

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