S1 E12: Bartell’s Backroads

California has long been a place with great scenery, diversity and creativity. Even with a challenging 2020, there are great places and interesting people hard at work.

John Bartell, a reporter for ABC 10-TV in Sacramento, has spent years chronicling the hidden gems of our state in Bartell’s Backroads, where he “uncovers unique sights and interesting people you might not find in the typical tour book.”

Some of the topics John has covered include harvesting Sea Monkeys (brine shrimp in Mono Lake), Bigfoot aficionados in the Gold Country (John says he has seen the legendary creature), Banana Slugs in Santa Cruz, carnivorous plants, tarantula mating season, Corning’s Giant Olive and many more. 

“California is just amazing!” John remarked. “It’s such a huge state. We have so many different regions. So many different backgrounds with people, where it’s farming, the city. There is just really an immense amount of backroads. There are hidden little gems and people stories wherever you go.”

John grew up on a farm in Oregon and has a fascination for agriculture, something that is conveyed in his reports. His travels include covering rice seeding in the Sacramento Valley, which features fast-moving, GPS-guided airplanes.

“Northern California, the Sacramento Valley specifically, is an agricultural mecca,” he said.

“It’s so fun. I did a half-hour special just on some of what we grow in our state. It’s very fascinating to see!”

John’s work is similar to legendary PBS reporter Huell Howser, who left a major impression on many in his television reports. Howser passed in 2013, but his travel legacy lives on. 

Here’s a link to find out more about Bartell’s Backroads, including an interactive map where you can plan your post-pandemic road trip. John said he welcomes story ideas.

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Episode Transcript

Jim Morris: Dinosaurs in California? You bet!

John Bartell on video clip: The Cabazon Dinosaurs. From Interstate 10 in Riverside County, the two concrete beasts dominate the skyline.

Jim Morris: Are you a fan of banana slugs? This is for you.

Speaker on video clip: And then it’s got a mouth which has more teeth in it than a great white shark.

John Bartell on video clip: That’s a lot of teeth.

Speaker on video clip: Thousands and thousands of little tiny, tiny teeth.

John Bartell on video clip: Yeah. Now we’re talking.

Jim Morris: Harvesting sea monkeys. Absolutely.

John Bartell on video clip: On the salty waters of Mono Lake, sea monkeys serve a much different purpose. John Bartell here on Mono Lake where we’re doing a little brine shrimp fishing. You may know them as sea monkeys, but these guys are not just some obscure pets. They’re actually fish food.

Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California rice podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. Proud to have spent more than 30 years helping farmers and ranchers tell their stories. And today I’m thrilled to visit with someone bringing an alternative to the breakneck modern news cycle. John Bartell’s career in news began in 2008 in Medford, Oregon. His multiple award winning career has taking him to Pennsylvania and Texas before where he currently works at ABC10 TV in Sacramento. And John, before we get into Bartell’s Backroads, you have been doing some breaking news recently. So tell me a little bit about that. And you have to really work on the fly on these things. How about the Zinger Ranch shoot that you did in Vacaville recently?

John Bartell: Yeah, so you know it is fire season. Fire season is getting longer and longer in California now. And oftentimes, fire season takes me off of my normal path, which is Bartell’s Backroads. And I get pulled into doing fire coverage. It’s an animal sanctuary. I believe there’s around 40 to 80 different types of just livestock that lives on this ranch there. And this was just one of these crazy moments where it’s kind of settled in a canyon just outside of Vacaville, and a fire was coming on from the east and the west, down this canyon, right towards one of the livestock pens in there. This fire is rapidly moving down the hill. Oh my gosh, it is just moving here. Everyone around here is doing what they can to save these 40 animals. All right, the gate is open here. Ducks, I wish you well. The reason they can’t remove these animals right now is because, one, it is extremely hard to get any large vehicles up here. Two, we are surrounded by flames. You can’t just open up and let these animals out at this point. There’s nowhere for them to go. Luckily, those fire crews, they did, what’s called a backburn. A backburn is essentially you set the grass on fire, hoping to get it burn up all of the fuel before the major fire hits your area. And luckily, it worked.

Jim Morris: I believe you were responding to people almost real-time on Facebook, which was fascinating to me. And you were also saving the animals, in a way, with some of the steps you were doing. So how do you juggle all that in the field?

John Bartell: I have been in news since 2008, and it has just changed dramatically. We’re doing these Facebook Lives. Everything is live now when you’re going on there. So it’s just me, my cell phone, and you’re just telling what’s happening at that very moment. And it is tough because you’re working off a phone. And it is amazing in a sense because viewers can ask me questions as it’s happening, and I can see what’s going on. And it is a juggling act.

Jim Morris: So, Bartell’s Backroads is described as the unique sites and interesting people you may not find in the typical tour book.

John Bartell: It’s easy to take the same route. There’s over 50,000 miles of California state highway. And it only takes you to well-known destinations. But, if you veer off the highway system, I mean really off it, away from the city streets, far from your neighborhood boulevard, you may just find yourself on one Bartell’s Backroads.

Jim Morris: So, why is California such an ideal place for these kinds of stories?

John Bartell: I am not a Californian, a native one, anyways. I consider myself one now. I’m from Oregon, Northeastern Oregon. And I have discovered that California is just this amazing place. It is such a huge state. We have so many different regions, so many different backgrounds with people, whether it’s farming, the city. There is really just an immense amount of backroads. And there’s hidden little gems. There’s people stories everywhere you go. And that’s what Bartell’s Backroads is. It’s my discoveries along with my, “Hey, I’m going to pull off on this road and see what’s down it.” And a lot of it is just my discovery of California, being here, living here about four and a half years now.

Jim Morris: COVID-19, how has that affected what you do?

John Bartell: When COVID hit in March, about mid-March, the station, ABC10, decided that maybe it’s not the best time to promote traveling at this time until everyone gets a handle on COVID. So for about two, two and a half months, almost three months, we did not run Bartell’s Backroads. So that was a huge impact on there. But, before COVID hit, I was actually on a weeklong tour down in southern California. We had banked about 28 stories while we were down in Southern California. And then when the station decided, and the state of California, “Okay, you can socially distance, do these small travels to these remote areas,” we decided, “Okay, it’s time to start Bartell’s Backroads up.” So what you’re seeing on broadcast and what you’re seeing on the internet now was shot before March. We are still not currently recording any new Backroads at this moment. That is still to be announced when we will start filming new episodes.

Jim Morris: So when you do get back to that regular travel schedule, how many miles do you put in? How many hours? You may find the perfect subject, but it could be five-hours or more from Sacramento, right?

John Bartell: This show was really more of… It was a regional, as in we would cover 16 counties, our 16 county viewing area. That’s what it started out at. Then it was northern California, and now it spans all of California. So I’ve had this goal of hitting all 58 counties in California. We are almost there. We’ve just got two, three counties left to finish up here. But yeah, it’s not uncommon for us to travel 300-miles in a day to get some of these stories. And a lot of times, we’ll pick up multiple stories throughout the day.

Jim Morris: When I see you, I think of Huell Howser. I suspect you may have heard that once or twice. And Huell, he’s still on TV, and he’s going to be on long past our time, I think. But how do you liken your work to Huell Howser, the similarities and perhaps the differences?

John Bartell: I have watched so many episodes of Huell Howser right now. I’m not going to lie. I do take a lot of ideas from Huell. He is a California expert. He’s also someone that is not a California native. He’s from Tennessee. And, so, I really look up to him. And he does have a different style than I did. He’s very cheery. It’s almost like a live style. What he does is it’s basically one shot the whole time. It’s funny that you actually brought that up. So, before COVID, I was working on a tribute piece to Huell Howser and had plans to interview Luis Fuentes, his photographer, who has a book out. And basically, I wanted to do this tribute piece, Five Corners of California. And, Huell Howser did this before, too. So he visited all the survey markers on all five corners of California. Now I say five. Remember, there’s a little dogleg in, in California there, which lands right in Lake Tahoe. As soon as COVID is, we got a handle on this, we’re going to get right back on that.

Jim Morris: Oh, that’s awesome. And I think he was indeed a legend and really paved the way for a lot of great reports and was featured twice in the Simpsons. So that’s pretty cool too. You don’t see that every day. So in 2017, we met. You covered rice seeding in the Sacramento Valley. And for those who haven’t seen it, it’s a little unusual. so what were your takes from that?

John Bartell: That was my first experience. Didn’t know that you seeded rice with an airplane. It was just spectacular to see how that plane can so accurately drop the rice seed. I remember you had me stand right at the edge there, and it was only a couple of kernels would hit you off the edge. It was all right in the water in the rice fields out there. So, it’s an amazing sight. And really, California, I thought I came from an agriculture area up in Northeastern Oregon. But no, California, Northern California, Sacramento Valley specifically, agriculture mecca out here. And it is just so fun. I have done multiple stories on just harvest seasons. We did a whole half-hour special on just the different things that we grow in California. We’re a third of the country’s vegetables. And two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts come from California. Farming is a part of California heritage. So it’s been very fascinating to see this.

Jim Morris: You have an agricultural background, so tell me a little bit about how you grew up and how it maybe has influenced your understanding of farming and ranching.

John Bartell: So, Northeastern Oregon, La Grande area. So I’m from a little town called Imbler, which is… I grew up in a town of 300 people. My graduating class, 18 kids. We grew up on a 1,200 acre cattle ranch. We were hay, alfalfa, some oats and stuff like that, and had pigs, cows, emus. It was a little small little zoo was what I would say, the whole gamut there.

Jim Morris: Do you have any favorite subjects that you’ve done?

John Bartell: I really enjoy harvest season. So as I grew up, I worked on a cherry orchard for many years doing harvest there. I did a little combine when I was 15. So I’ve done several different types of harvest. But I do enjoy seeing the machinery that goes into picking California’s fruits, vegetables, grains. It is just fascinating the machinery that’s out there that it takes to pick these crops.

Jim Morris: It’s really high tech, and I need to get you in a rice harvester. They use GPS technology, air conditioning, very comfortable. And there’s a bankout wagon that comes by, takes the grain to the trailer, so that harvester is out all day. It’s an awesome process.

John Bartell: One story that I would love to do with rice harvest is the drying process. I drive by the dryers and the silos all the time, whether I’m on I-5 going up into the Chico area. There’s a large dryer that’s out in the Chico area, I believe.

Jim Morris: That’s true. There are rice dryers all over the Sacramento Valley. They’re very strategically put because that’s where the rice grows, more than 500,000 acres.

John Bartell: I love to go out there. It’s just fascinating to… I would love to see how that’s done. I grew up in an area where we grew mint. And so the whole processing of mint is fascinating. So I’d love to see how rice… So we’ll have to add that to the Backroads list.

Jim Morris: Absolutely, would love to have that happen. And so I’m going to take a detour from agriculture for a moment because I think we share a passion for bigfoot. Tell me about your passion for bigfoot and if you’ve done any pieces on this subject.

John Bartell: Ah, bigfoot. I have a personal story with bigfoot, and I’m going to keep it super short. Believe it or not, long story short, had a little motorcycle when I was kid. I was about 14, 15 years old. I was, in the backwoods in Northeastern Oregon. Motorcycle died, and bigfoot just kind of emerged from the woods, crossed over some railroad tracks, scared the dickens out of me. I was able to just get my little dirt bike started and going. I’ve had a fascination with bigfoot ever since 14, 15 years old.

Jim Morris: Wow! So do you have any shaky footage of that?

John Bartell: This was unfortunately back before you carried… this had to been 2001. So, no cell phones back then. I wasn’t carrying anything. But I have done several bigfoot stories since then in my career. I’ve done a couple. Did some out in Pennsylvania. I’ve done them in Oregon. My career started in Oregon, went to Pennsylvania, Texas. I didn’t do any chupacabra stories down in Texas. But up in Oregon, there a bigfoot trap that’s in the Klamath area. And here, I’ve interviewed a bigfoot hunter in Tuolumne County, just outside of Jackson, which is bigfoot territory out there. I don’t know if you know that, but they actually have a little bigfoot store.

John Bartell on video clip: And there is one topic that customers at Willow Saloon take very seriously. Have you guys seen bigfoot around here?

Speaker 1 on video clip: Further up, sure.

Speaker 2 on video clip: It was definitely a bigfoot up there.

Speaker 3 on video clip: It’s in the newspaper clippings.

John Bartell on video clip: The bigfoot sightings are so common in this area that sasquatch has become sort of the unofficial mascot. I didn’t get to go to the big… Forgive me, is it Williams or Wilson?

Speaker on video clip: Oh, Willow Creek.

John Bartell on video clip: Willow Creek, yes. And there is a bigfoot festival up there. So that’s also on the list.

John Bartell: Yeah. Bigfoot, I have a fascination with him.

Jim Morris: That’s awesome. And yeah, there’s a Bigfoot Motel, so I couldn’t recommend Willow Creek enough. There’s also a bigfoot museum in Felton. I’ve not seen that yet, but might be something for you to think about. Will you ever run out of topics?

John Bartell: The more than I go and just see California, the more I’m like, “I got to go back to do this.” When I do these road trips, usually what I do is I’m gone for four to five days. And I’ve got this strategically mapped out, just really scheduled out. And when I pass these things on the road and I have to write them down, well, when I come back, when I do the next tour of Kings County, I got to go back and check this out or whatever. So I don’t know. I think you could spend a lifetime on California.

Jim Morris: How can people give you suggestions? Or do you take suggestions for potential story topics?

John Bartell: All the time. I love suggestions when they come in. Facebook is the best way to send me these. You can send them to my email, jbartell@abc10.com, or just look me up on Facebook, @JohnBartellTV. But yeah, I love it when people send me their old family pictures at weird roadside attractions. So I enjoy these tourist traps, just these oddball things that has. We have so many. Two weeks ago, went to the world’s tallest a flagpole. Technically, now it’s actually the second tallest, which is up in Dorris, way Northern California.

Jim Morris: I’ve been there.

John Bartell: Yeah. Yeah. I love things like that. So, yes, please send me your suggestions.

Jim Morris: Why is it important to see these aspects of California? 2020, by any account, has been really rough for people. So, how do your reports help?

John Bartell: The news cycle right now, it’s crazy. 2020 is just a… It’s a crazy, crazy year right now. Things are changing all of the time, whether it be COVID or whether it be fires. And a lot of it, sometimes it’s sad news. Sometimes it’s hard to take in. So these trips like this, getting to see the beauty of California, I just want to give people a break. And that’s what it is. And you may not be able to travel to some of these places, but you sure as heck can plan for a travel when this all ends.

Jim Morris: Thanks so much for your time, John. Where can we find more about Bartell’s Backroads?

John Bartell: So you’re going to go to abc10.com/backroads. And there is this super cool thing the Backroads team has been working on. It is our interactive map. Essentially, this map allows you to create your own road trip around some of the places that I have been. It is super fun. You can just browse around there and just take a look at all the places. There’s well over 200 different locations all throughout California, and that list is just growing.

Jim Morris: Oh, that’s awesome. And that’s one thing we can plan on. When we can travel more, we can have our travel plans in place. So that’s great, John. Thanks so much. That wraps up this episode of Ingrained. Thanks so much to John Bartell of ABC10 TV. And you can get more information at podcast.calrice.org, including past episodes. Please subscribe, and we sure welcome your comments and questions. Thanks for listening.