The Old Foss Road.
It could be the title of a cowboy song. And, while it isn't exactly the Old Chisholm Trail, it does evoke much of the romance and adventure of the Old West.
This stagecoach road from Knight's Valley to the Big Geysers bears the name of Clark Foss, the daredevil driver who guided a six-horse team to the Geysers canyon from the 1860s to the '80s.
Clark Foss stories are a substantial part of the history of the rugged eastern edge of Sonoma County. They have been told and retold in these parts for 150 years or more. And they are being told again as artifacts from those 19th century adventures turn up along the Old Foss Road.
It was a toll road Foss built in 1865 starting at Foss's tavern and hostelry in Knight's Valley, a place he called Fossville and hoped to see become a real town. It wound along McDonnell Creek (named for William McDonnell, the first settler in the area) to Schoolhouse Flat in the quicksilver mining boom town of Pine Flat, then over Geyser Peak and dangerously steep ridges known as the Hog's Back and the Rattlesnake, into the Geysers canyon.
The trip was expensive, even by today's standards — $50 round-trip. But business was brisk. The Geysers had been a tourist attraction, believe it or not, since the 1850s, and Foss hauled many distinguished guests to the remote Geysers Hotel, making two trips a day, getting rich.
Almost four miles of that route are now part of two important nature preserves — The Modini Ingalls Ecological Preserve and the Mayacamas Mountain Audubon Sanctuary. Both are managed by Audubon Canyon Ranch, a Marin-based nonprofit. Bands of dedicated volunteers flock to it like the birds they watch around these spectacular properties.
One of them is Dennis Fujita, a retired chemistry instructor from Santa Rosa Junior College, who volunteers with the Habitat Preservation and Restoration team.
He wanted to be outdoors when he retired, Fujita said, and expected to work hard at eradicating non-native species, like the stubborn star thistle. What he didn't expect was to become the latest teller of tales from the Old Foss Road.
WHEN the late Jim Modini showed him the sights on his ranch and told him the stories, pointing out the location of Foss Basin, where the driver had a stable and blacksmith shop, Fujita, who has a historian's interest laid on a scientist's curiosity, was hooked.
He and biologist and preserve manager Sherry Adams, while attacking the invasive star thistles at Foss Basin, found bricks with markings identifying them as made in Scotland and England (likely used as ship's ballast). They came back with a metal detector.
Close to the surface they found horseshoes, a chisel, square nails, pieces of porcelain, part of a stove and several large, unidentifiable metal objects. Their search, Fujita says, was cursory. There's a lot more, left for archeologists to find.
And he began to read what had been written about Foss and his road. The result of Fujita's research is a dozen pages of information about the early travelers. He tells stories gleaned from many written and oral sources, including Jim Modini, who died last November at 94, and his wife, Shirley, who still lives on the ranch.