How ‘Bartell’s Backroads’ finds California travel scoops

How 'Bartell's Backroads' finds California travel scoops

John Bartell starts at the gas station. Without fail, gas attendants have the best intel. “I put on the old Bartell charm,” he says. Ask questions. Find common ground. Make people laugh.

The next thing you know, Bartell and his crew are off to uncover California’s best kept secrets for “Bartell’s Backroads,” an ABC10 travel show that spans all 58 California counties, and locales from Modesto to Quincy. Bartell, an industry veteran and one of five reporters on the special projects team, has covered them all multiple times.

A passionate and charismatic storyteller, Bartell’s unrelenting curiosity and upbeat nature have paved the way for the success of his award-winning show.

During production, he averages six hours a day on the road in an effort to chronicle the various personalities and places of California, such as Modesto’s Jacob Gaddam and Placerville’s wood-powered cars. “I like to tell people I have the best job in California,” says Bartell.

His knowledge of the state is reputable — “John knows more about California than any other Californian,” says Gonzalo Magana, his executive producer on the special projects team — but Bartell grew up on an 80-acre cattle ranch in another state.

Outside the Bigfoot Museum in Willow Creek.

Courtesy of John Bartell

Imbler, Oregon, is, in Bartell’s words, in the “tip top corner of the state,” and it’s where his first brush with storytelling began. When he was 15 years old, his motorbike broke down beside a railroad track, in a canyon surrounded by forest. As he waited for it to cool down and start back up, he spotted a large, dark-haired creature waltzing down the hillside.

“We made eye contact,” he says. “It was the quintessential Bigfoot look.” Upon reaching his home turf, his mom became the first confidante to hear about the encounter. While she listened with an open ear, Bartell isn’t sure whether or not she believed him. Regardless, it hasn’t stopped him from covering other Bigfoot-related stories, such as Felton’s Bigfoot Discovery Museum.

The son of a nurse practitioner and a small business owner, Bartell refers to himself as a farm boy. “I come from a very simple background,” he says. “You’re not going to see us dressed up on our Sunday best.”

On the weekends, Bartell’s father, a traveler at heart, took their family on road trips throughout Oregon, Washington and Montana, instilling within Bartell a sense of exploration and curiosity. Back at home, Bartell and his friends made their own entertainment, believing themselves to be the next cast of “Jackass” as they filmed one another jumping on cows or pulling a surplus parachute behind catching a four-wheeler to see how much air they could . “I was always making movies as a kid,” Bartell says.

Fascinated by history, he once cast his classmates for a historical film he was making on Lewis and Clark. But with a graduating class of 18, he was ready to break free from his hometown.

“'Bartell's Backroads' is a history lesson disguised as a travel story,

“’Bartell’s Backroads’ is a history lesson disguised as a travel story,” a colleague says.

Courtesy of John Bartell

Bartell chose to attend Southern Oregon University, which was the farthest he could get away from home while still qualifying for in-state tuition. Aspiring to be a movie director, he studied video production.

He gravitated toward captivating visuals over writing because of his dyslexia and found himself guided by the work of Steven Spielberg and Mike Rowe. Bartell’s first weekly TV show, “John Bartell’s Half Hour of Power,” which he describes as “a late-night show with sketch comedy,” allowed him to hone his skills through interviewing individuals such as the school janitor or the star football player.

“I think I figured out how to get people’s emotions and let them know that I’m actually interested in what they’re talking about,” Bartell says. It was then that he realized his real passion wasn’t rooted in Hollywood, but rather, in television.

Since his “Half Hour of Power” days, Bartell has reported on a wide variety of issues. He started his career in Medford, Oregon, as a camera operator on a fishing segment and went on to write features at Blue Ridge Cable in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. He later landed an investigative reporting job in McCallen, Texas, where he mainly covered border issues. While there, he won an Emmy for his investigation into the corruption of the Progreso Police Department.

Although the work was meaningful, investigative reporting took a toll on Bartell. “It showed me a new confidence in myself, but it also gave me a sort of bitterness towards humanity,” he says.

With Bartell’s contract coming to an end in Texas and his partner, another journalist, finding work in California, he applied to various stations and was given the thumbs up by Channel 10 in 2016. He found himself in luck.

John Bartell enduring the elements while reporting on gold-mining ghost town Bodie State Historic Park in 2019.

John Bartell enduring the elements while reporting on gold-mining ghost town Bodie State Historic Park in 2019.

Courtesy of John Bartell

“If you’re a person who can take charge, throw out ideas and be self-sufficient, they will let you do that,” Bartell says. Although he was initially assigned to cover events such as fires, shootings or accidents, Bartell was always going the extra mile to pitch feature stories as well. The promotions department took note of Bartell’s hard work and eventually coined the name “Bartell’s Backroads.”

“’Bartell’s Backroads’ is a history lesson disguised as a travel story,” Magana says. “Bartell has a deep passion for highlighting small communities that you normally don’t see on the news.”

For example, Bartell has made an effort to cover Native American cultures and reported on the Hoopa Tribe’s White Deer Skin Dance after many months of building trust and correspondence. Photojournalists and colleagues Rory Ward and Tyler Horst describe him as extremely dedicated and one of the most outgoing reporters at ABC10. When he’s not on the road, Bartell can be found at his desk writing scripts or zooming into Google Maps to find areas of California that he hasn’t yet covered.

The bones of a good story, according to Bartell: “It’s an element of my curiosity, the visuals and finding the right character,” he says. “I love oddities. People who do their own thing or have gone through a lot of adversity.” But sometimes, he admits, the story isn’t there right away.

“It’s the most mundane thing you must do as a TV reporter to tell people it’s snowing. Here you go. Look at the snow,” Bartell says. But it’s the “what else?” that allows him to strike gold.

The Point Reyes shipwreck in Inverness on Tomales Bay, 2019.

The Point Reyes shipwreck in Inverness on Tomales Bay, 2019.

Courtesy of John Bartell

What one person regards as a boring place in which they’ve lived their entire life, Bartell finds fascinating. He recalls a time in Soda Springs when, after some digging, a local told him about an ice cave down the street.

“Long story short, I went out there and it ended up being the Donner Summit Train Tunnels, a historic tunnel that was abandoned. They made the most spectacular icicles, giant ones. At the end of it, there were a bunch of backcountry snowboarders doing flips.”

“Bartell’s Backroads” has already covered an impressive amount of ground, as evidenced by its interactive map. So where to next? Bartell’s longtime goal of touching down in every corner of California is near completion after having filmed a segment at 93-year-old Jacques-André Istel’s Center of the World in Felicity. Stories from the other corners await post-production and will be completed this year.

Aside from that, Bartell plans to return to counties that he feels “need more love,” such as Tehama, Solano and Plumas counties. “California is the most diverse state I’ve ever experienced,” he says, adding that the redwoods and the Eastern Sierra stand out as favorites. “There’s a lot of room for everyone to find their own little corner.”

Travel newsman John Bartell joined ABC Channel 10 Sacramento in 2016.

Travel newsman John Bartell joined ABC Channel 10 Sacramento in 2016.

Courtesy of John Bartell

Cayla Mihalovich is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Airbnb Magazine, Flaunt Magazine and PSFK.

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