Life At Seventeen
There were more than one hundred fifty deer in the meadow before us as the sun sank slowly behind the timber covered ridge to the west. Quietly Joe and I eased out into the meadow just a bit as there were two giant rocks there that would hide us well. They were both about six feet by twelve feet (2m X 4m), square on the top and
sloped back away from the open meadow to where we hid in the brush at its edge. The near edge was about three feet (1m) high, so afforded a perfect spot from which to observe the multitude of deer feeding quietly in the natural pasture below us. Silently, we eased up onto the rocks without alerting any of the animals and spent the rest of the evening watching Nature’s Glory parade before us.
The herd was made up of bucks, does and fawns… deer of all ages and sizes. There were bucks that would be magnificent in the summer hunting season when their antlers completed their growth. Just now, in early June, they were well developed for the time, but showed great promise of what was to come. The fawns were tiny things yet, just barely up and about and staying close to their mothers as they jumped and gamboled and played in the manner of kids everywhere.
Just as daylight was fading into the purple of night, I pointed to a shape moving across the pasture near the creek that ran through it and Joe followed my finger to spot the object as well. “That’s a very nice bear,” he whispered to me and I had to agree in full, it was a nice bear.
Of course, at our ages, with our experience at that time, pretty much any bear that we spotted on our own in this wilderness would be, by definition, a nice bear!
As we watched the lone bruin disappear in the gloaming, I said at last, “Well, Joe, I guess that’s the show for tonight.”
“I suppose so,” he answered as he slipped quietly back from his rock towards the brush with me right on his trail, “I’d like to come back tomorrow night though.”
“Me too,” I answered enthusiastically as we made our way back up the trail to our camp on the lake further up the creek, “but I’ll bet we’ll have company tomorrow evening.”
My friend and I were part of an Explorer Scout Troop from a small town near where we attended high school. We had been sprung from incarceration in Sonoma Valley High School only the Friday before this Sunday evening excursion, but the trip had been in planning for weeks. In addition to Joe Ajax and I there were about six others in the group. Billy Fuller was my friend and neighbor. Bob Farone was a great guy. Young Tom was the one person we all wondered about. Would we have to rescue him? How many times would we have to rescue him? The last Trooper was another of those who was so important to me at the time, but who I have not seen since. Although I cannot recall his name, we did it all together. We double dated when we could. We raced our horses whenever we got the chance and all the other dumb stuff teen-agers do that cause their parents to age prematurely.
I can still recall the day that I had to explain to my mother and father how he and I had come to be stopped by the California Highway Patrol for horseracing through our tiny town of Glen Ellen… actually, it was simple, I was in the lead when we reached the end of the old, abandoned railroad grade that was our usual racetrack, but not by so much that I could slow without him passing me by and thus laying claim to the mythical title that came with being in the lead when the race was over. Since he was closer than he usually was, he wasn’t inclined to give up either, so down the hill we came at full speed, across the road and down into the pasture across the road from Diekman’s store… At the end of the pasture, he was waiting for us… lights flashing. What followed was not especially pleasant, with words like imbeciles, idiots and fools being quite prevalent in his description of our antic. They must have been important words for they seemed to recur when my father began to “discuss” the incident with me. Actually, it was not as dangerous as it seemed to them as both of our horses were well used to traveling rough ground at top speed and the place we chose to cross was chosen because we could see a long way in both directions and, had there been any traffic of any kind, a rarity at that time of day, we would have reined in and stopped. We really were adventurous, not really stupid. That was my friend!
Our leader, whose name also escapes me, was a retired Army Officer who had seen duty in both World War II and Korea. He told us that at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941, he had been caught in the open at Hickham Field during the attack and the way the Japanese planes were coming in, if he were on one side of the road, he was safe from the forward guns, but was exposed to the tail guns and on the other side, he was exposed to the front guns and safe from the tail guns, so he spent the whole time of the attack timing the approach of the planes and running from one side of the road to the other, and back again. It must have worked; he came through that Day of Infamy unscathed, though he did earn multiple Purple Hearts over the next four years. He also earned many awards for valor, but, probably, the valorous thing he ever did was take on this task of escorting seven teenage Explorer scouts on a week long excursion into the hinterlands of the Salmon-Trinity Alps Wilderness Area in far Northern California.
We met Friday afternoon, soon after we escaped custody of the school to load our gear into the three trucks we had commandeered from reluctant parents for this trip. That he had been able to convince two other fathers to allow us to use their prides and joys for a week would qualify our Colonel as having a prime future in politics! It took us a good three hours to get our packs prepared and all the community gear divided among us so that on arrival, it would be just a matter of swinging our packs onto our backs and heading up the ancient road into the wilderness.
At six am on the first Saturday morning in June of 1960, the caravan rolled out on what we figured to be a five hour trip to the trail head. From our home base we made our way to the Central Valley and I-5. We followed I-5 to Redding, CA, where we turned west into the mountains. From Redding, we followed Highway 299 west to Whiskeytown where we turned north on Highway 3 and proceeded up the bottom of what would soon be Clair Engle Lake. It was interesting seeing the hills cleared of growth to the level that would be the water level of the lake. Somewhere just north of Etna, we reached our goal and parked the three trucks, retrieved out gear, and came to the first reality of our young lives… backpacks gain weight while in the back of pick up trucks.
Our plan was to hike about half of the ten miles or so to a place where a creek crossed our path and camp there for the night, finishing our hike in on Sunday morning. That way we would arrive at the lake we planned to call home late in the morning, giving us time to check out the willingness of the native population of trout to give themselves up to our gear.
Our trail was actually an ancient haul road left from the days when there were working gold mines in these hills. It was no longer used and was pretty rough, but easy enough to walk and, as such was not too steep of a climb. It must be remembered that this was before the days of lightweight pack frames and thistle down sleeping bags. All of our camp gear was surplus Army gear. Out packboards were wooden frames with a heavy duty canvas bag attached for carrying gear. It only took about three of these pack frames to hold up a Sherman Tank when crossing a river! My pack weighed in at Seventy-Eight lbs. with the two-man pup tent on top of it. Needless to say, such a load made the hike into the mountains quite a chore and our arrival at our midway camp was met with a good deal of celebration and rejoicing.
As we set up our camp the conversation was lively and spirits were high. Bill Fuller and I being tentmates and experienced campers, had our tent set up and had a small fire going far ahead of the others. No sooner had we finished this task than Bill started in on little Tom. It was nothing vicious, but Bill carefully explained that there were many, many raccoons in this area and that they loved salt. Since all our gear, especially our clothes, had salt in them, they were subject to raiding by the masked bandits. Tom, for his part, was most attentive to Bill’s narrative and asked with all due concern how to forestall this tragic outcome. Bill put is arm around the youngster and with all the concern of an aged Padre counseling his favorite parishioner in affairs of the heart went on to explain that the trail we had hiked in on was, in fact, an old haul road and that as such, had a lingering aroma and taint of oil and gasoline.
“Tom,” he counseled, “you know how timid wild animals are around people’s vehicles don’t you?” And he peered intently into little Tom’s eyes with the deepest of concern until
he saw a glint of agreement there then he continued… “Well, that comes from having to smell the gas and oil from our vehicles, so the way to confound them is to pile all your gear directly in the middle of the road where the smell of that oil will repel them like some kind of bug spray.”
Bill then returned to a position next to our fire and we cooked our dinner while watching young Tom take all the gear and equipment he’d carefully stowed in his pup tent and stack in directly in the middle of the road exactly as Bill had advised him. I have no idea why it never occurred to Tom to wonder why only he, of the entire complement of the camp, had gone to the effort to so dispose his gear. It should have been suspicious, I would think, that not even the one who had served as his mentor had followed his own advice and stacked his gear in the road… but there it was… one neat pile of gear and clothes piled neatly in the middle of the road while all others had their gear stowed inside their tents.
That night also began another routine that was to repeat itself each and every night of that entire trip. Bill was a devotee of MAD Magazine and committed much of it to memory. Had he ever dedicated even half the energy to his studies that he dedicated to MAD Magazine, he would have not had near the problems in school that he perennially suffered. Alas, thus was not the case, but he had memorized a poem from that periodical and he was convinced that I should memorize it too. To that end, he made me repeat it every night before he’d be quiet enough for the camp to go to sleep. Needless to say, as his tentmate, any noise he could make that would disturb the tent fartherest from ours would be more than ample to make sleep impossible to the guy on the other side of his own pup tent. Hence, I dutifully recited the poem every night… to the end that today, nearly fifty years later, I can still recite that bloody rhyme…
I was a strong child and considered quite manly…
I lived in the suburbs next to Stanley.
I planned to be a fireman, Stanley planned to be a Doctor…
His mother taught psychiatry… I really should have socked her…
For she taught Stanley to exert his mind over animal and friend…
And what he did to his pussycat was just about the end!
At first Stanley’s pussycat was like any other pussycat…
He’d purr and drink his milk.
Then that awful Stanley laid him on the couch and started psychoanalyzing and made the cat a grouch!
He’d sneak into the living room with steps as soft as satin…
Jump up on the cocktail bar and mix a strong Manhattan,
Gulp it down, lose all shame and fear, gulp another and spit the cherry at the mirror.
His drinking grew from bad to worse …
Which was really most disturbin’…
For he’d catch the mice in any bar in trade for a shot of bourbon!
Then he could no longer catch the mice
And he stole to purchase his liquor
Other pussycats would purr and drink their milk…
Stanley’s would hiccup and snicker!
But then one day, the mice struck back…
Such sorrow you never felt, Sir… When laughing with zest…
To the medicine chest… They stole his Alka Seltzer…!
Daylight found a perky crew on its way after a quick breakfast. On up the road we hiked until, about the eight mile post, the road turned up a brush choked canyon towards an abandoned mine and we continued on. Our path was now, truly, a path in the timber as we roughly paralleled a small creek into the depths of the wilderness. Shortly past the twelve mile post we passed the meadow described at the beginning of this narrative and seeing a number of deer in it, even at nearly mid day, Joe and I set our minds on getting back here before sundown to see if it kept the promise it seemed to hold for us.
The last mile, we knew from our study of the topographical maps we had of the area, was very steep with the trail very narrow and brushy. Just how tough it would be was yet to be seen. After nearly two hours of toil, we finally broke over the crest and dropped down a bit to where the trail rounded a point of rock and the view beyond came alive.
What lay beyond was a small mountain bowl, the center of which was a sizable lake of the most impossible blue I’d ever seen. Behind the lake, the mountain dropped nearly vertically from high peaks to the lake on the south and west sides. There was absolutely no access around that half of the shoreline of the lake as those cliffs dropped off directly into the lake’s depths. At the south end of the lake, up against the tall, sheer mountains, snow lay in deep drifts. It was only the beginning of the second week in June, but there was snow enough here to last until well into the summer, reminding us that we were, after all, at a fairly high elevation here. A small creek ran out of the north end of the lake and just beyond the creek was an area of sufficient size to accommodate our tents and the other gear that would be our camp. Along the east side of the lake from our campsite to the snowpack at the foot of the tors the terrain climbed from the lake to a rocky ridge that was quite brushy, especially near the top. Access along the lake was easy down this side, however, and this is where we spent most of the time devoted to fishing.
It was the work of but a few minutes to lay out a campsite, get our tents erected, our gear stowed and our fishing gear unlimbered. Even little Tom kept his gear stowed in his tent while in this camp. I suppose he thought he could do battle with the raccoons one-on-one if push came to shove and they tried to assault his gear. To say the fish were cooperative would be excessively generous, but with work and not a little coercion, we were able to supplement our food stores with fresh trout and they did go down a treat. The cutthroat trout that populated the lake were not huge, but they were tasty, especially when served with fried eggs and potatoes fried with ample supplies of sliced onions.
It was late afternoon when Joe and I decided to slip away on the outing described at the beginning of this narrative. The only person we told we were going was the Colonel himself, not wanting to worry him. Besides, we had few rules on this trip, but a primary rule was to keep someone informed of our whereabouts at all times. When we returned to camp after dark, we enjoyed a quick dinner and volunteered to take care of cleanup since we had missed out on cooking. While we were performing these tasks, we told of what we’d seen at the meadow, only to be disbelieved and scoffed at by those in the group who had no experience in such things. The outcome was that we would escort those who wanted to go on the following evening to prove we were not “seeing things” as had been suggested by one or two of the greener campers.
Nightfall brought with it the usual pranks against other tents in the camp until, finally, Rule Two was instituted, making the tents out of bounds for pranks and stunts, thereby allowing us to get some sleep… after my nightly recitation of “Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” one more time.
Daylight found us up and doing. I found that the Cutts were willing to take flies early in the morning and it was the business of but some minutes to provide a fat trout for my breakfast. After breakfast, we decided it was time to do some exploring of our area. Some of us wanted to climb to the peaks at the south end of the lake for no more reason than that they were there… the very reason mountaineers have scaled peaks the world over for century upon century. Most of our day was devoted to this lofty task and we got back to camp just in time to grab a bite to eat and plan our next venture.
Again this evening, Joe and I were going to the meadow. Joe was a bowhunter and I was a hunter, though, at this time, I hadn’t begun with a bow yet. I really think it was this trip that lit that fire within me although it would be another three years before I was able to pursue it further. At first, virtually everyone wanted to make the hike to the meadow, and we were not sure we could accommodate such a large group; after all we only had two flat rocks to view from. Time solved our problem for us because after lunch and a bit of time of relaxation after a strenuous day of mountain climbing, most decided they were going to pass on the trek. We ended up with, I believe, two others going with us that night. As luck would have it, the show was a near perfect rerun of the viewing from the previous night and our return to camp was definitely a triumph and apologies were graciously accepted… well… they were accepted… pretty much…
The strangest part of this portion of the trip occurred late at night. Almost every night of our week there, I would wait until the camp was quiet, then I would crawl out of my sleeping bag and take a walk to relieve myself… Once relieved, I liked to sit and listen to the night. I have done this for many years since this trek and still love it as much. It is beyond amazing what can be heard in the still of the night. The night has its own vibrations… its own ambiance… its own denizens. And, tonight was no different! I could hear something walking among the trees just back of our camp. It was neither a deer nor a bear for the steps sounded like ours would… I mean, they sounded like something with only two legs walking. It was so absolutely entrancing to sit there in the night and listen to whatever it was as it breathed and stepped from spot to spot. I’d like to say I was beyond brave and sought out whatever it was but the truth was, while not afraid, I was most content to just listen and wonder. I had no great desire to approach the sounds as I would today.
Of even more interest, although this did not occur every night, nor did it occur on this first night in camp, but it did happen on several nights… a very soft call could be heard
from somewhere that seemed so far away. It was faint … so faint that sometimes I wondered if I’d even heard it. Then, in the darkest moments of the night, it would come again… perhaps closer, perhaps farther away, but come it did! It didn’t matter that I didn’t hear it every night… just to hear it was enough. My initial attempt to tell my tent mate, Bill, about it proved the lack of wisdom in that move. He was determined to make the world’s largest joke out of it, and I, being only less than a year into my study of these beings, had nothing on which to draw, so determined the propriety of keeping it to myself. On the one occasion that I did hear the call while in the tent, it did not last long enough to waken Bill to share it… nor, truth told, did I really want to share it… Something that remains all to true today.
Next morning, relaxing around camp after an ample breakfast, I was looking at the Forest Service maps we had brought in with us. The general conversation was over what we were going to do that day and there was no clear consensus so, when I noticed that there was a mine shown on the map only a couple of ridges to the east, I suggested we go check that out. The suggestion was generally accepted so we made ready to depart. It was only a bit over a mile to the site of the mine as shown on the map. It was just a matter of crossing the ridge to the east of the lake and traversing the valley beyond… the mine was on the ridge east of that valley or just over the next ridge. The map was not sufficiently detailed for us to be sure. I had been to other mines and it is not usually any difficulty finding it with a tailings pile of some several million yards of rock shining like a beacon in the landscape.
Our caravan set out in search of the mine and, like most such enterprises, soon found the population divided into separate factions. In our case, Joe, Bill and I were one faction and the rest of the group was the other. First, they couldn’t keep up with us when hiking and we forever had to stop and wait for them. In addition, they wanted to argue with us over every decision on which way to go. As I said, we had both lived our lives in the woods. The others had not. The younger boys were, I think, actually afraid of getting lost and we tried to accommodate them. However, as time went along and the complaints more virulent and commonplace, it began to grow more and more onerous to carry on. When, at last, we reached the west side of
the canyon that separated us from the mine complex, visible on the hillside opposite us on the far side of that canyon, a break occurred. While it is true that the mine was in view, in this case, it was certain that a straight line was not the fastest distance between two points. The three of us tried to explain that while it was true that it would be shorter descend to the bottom of the canyon and cross it, it would not be the fastest not the easiest route available. That canyon bottom was very brushy. It had, at some time in the recent past been burned, leaving a jungle of dead brush and trees with new growth sprouting from the bases of the shrubs. I had experience with such places and wanted nothing to do with this one and proposed holding our elevation while walking the extra half mile or so to the head of the canyon, crossing over there and returning down the far side to the mine complex. The way was open and brush free, and while it was longer, it would be so much easier to traverse as to make it far the better choice. We were so loudly shouted down that we finally acquiesced and told them to follow their route and we would meet them at the mine. It was insisted upon that they take good compass fixes on the tailings pile and use that if they should
lose sight of the objective and we separated. It was with no small degree of trepidation that I watched them set out on that trek, knowing what it was going to be. When they were out of hearing, the three of us left set out up the canyon, made the crossing on a substantial game trail we found there and followed that same trail to the mine. We arrived there in time to watch them fighting across that charcoal jungle to which they had sentenced themselves. Twice we watched deer get out of a bed ahead of the oncoming juggernaut and circle them only to lay right back in their same beds… a lesson I learned well and remembered all my life, utilizing this trait on more than one occasion to find deer in areas where I was told it was impossible to locate animals as they were in thick brush. It was well over an hour later that that tired, sweaty, dirty crew crawled up the side of that tailings pile to join us there. They would not believe how long we had been there, but suffice it to say, no one ever crossed that hellhole of a canyon in any of the several times we made that trek over the rest of our time there. For some reason, our roundabout route to the head of the canyon and around the headwall held a much greater appeal from that time onward.
What we found here was a gold mine that had been utterly abandoned virtually overnight. In the 1930’s, when the country went off the gold standard, the price of gold dropped substantially and many, many mines were made unprofitable in the matter of hours. The mountains of Northern California are alive with many such mines. This one was a prime example. After a cursory inspection, we made our way to the bunk houses to look around. What we found was amazing. There were tools there, there were articles of clothing on the hooks by the bunks, but the real gems here were the magazines we found. There were “True Romances” magazines from 1933 there that were in perfect condition. There were “Argosy” and several other such magazines. This crew had evidently gone home at the end of the week and had simply not returned. We saved a couple of those magazines that were in such good condition that they might well have just come off the rack that morning. It was so much fun reading the articles that were so out of date and out of style after some twenty-seven years of isolation in this mountain cabin.
Our curiosity was, by this time working overtime and we wanted to return to the mine. I was not thrilled about entering the shaft as it didn’t appear all that stable to me, but I wanted to really investigate the mill facilities. I felt there was something worth while here. How little I knew at that time.
On entering the mill, I was amazed to find the ore carts, fresh from the mine shaft, still full of ore. There was rock that was full of white quartz crystal that was laced with veins of gold. I carried one of these back with me and my mother still had it when she passed away. I don’t know what it would be valued at… certainly more of a curiosity than a monetary reward, but it was indicative of what we were to find.
The mill was on several levels. The ore came from the mine at the uppermost level in carts that ran on a kind of railway. The first thing that
happened was that the ore carts were emptied into a crusher that pulverized everything into a fine powder. The coarse rock that had no quartz veins was hauled out and dumped on the tailings pile and the enriched, pulverized ore was shunted down to the next level where this material was then run across huge tables that shook steadily and over which a steady flow of water was run. This table had regular grooves in the top. These grooves with the water running steadily over them trapped the much heavier gold as the slurry was shaken across them with the lighter rock material continuing on off the table and out to that same tailings pile. The material in these grooves was channeled into bins that were emptied regularly. It was from this material that the hi-grade came. This was material so rich in gold that it was kept safe until time to carry it to market. It was in these bins that we decided to try our hand. We had nothing with us with which to pan gold, so we searched around the cabins until we found some tightly woven sacks and, using a shovel from the cabin as well, we filled that sack with material from the bottom of those bins and we headed back to camp. It is unbelievable how heavy that sack became before we got back to camp. Even though we traded off regularly, we were all heartily tired of carrying that sack long before we got back with it. How much easier it would have been to have had two sacks and to have carried them on a pole across our shoulders that to try to carry that one sack… but, who knew then?
When we got back to camp, we got out a couple of pie tins and began panning out our treasure. Oh, one could never imagine how wonderful it was to see the gleam from that pan as we washed out the gold from the trash with it… all evening until it was too dark to see we worked on that sack of material. We couldn’t wash it as clean as a gold pan would wash it, but we could enrich it enough so that what we kept actually looked like a golden sand. There were no large nuggets in the material, just that yellow dust but we were so thrilled to find even this much.
We returned to the mine two or three more times in the days we were there to get more of this material and each and every night we panned more and more until we had about a quart and a half of our concentrated ore. When it was time, early Saturday morning to pack up and head home, we divided the ore between the several of us so no one had to carry too much. I had a couple of the rocks from the ore cart as well as did most of the others and we felt like we were millionaires.
We caught more fish, watched more deer and even a couple more bears and, in general, had a wonderful week in the wilderness, but, far and away, the highlight of our trip was that hi-grade ore in our packs. Our agreement was that any money coming from that ore belonged to our Explorer Post. The rocks we carried were our own, but the yellow dust belonged to the Post. I cannot recall now if I ever did hear if there was any monetary value to all our work, but that was really unimportant… we had done it… that was the important part.
The trip home was uneventful… the hike out was a matter of just a few hours as it was all downhill and our food supplies were greatly depleted, thereby lightening our packs considerably. We stopped in Redding for gas and grabbed a hamburger there as I remember and motored on the last three hours home.
On entering my house I was amazed that so many people were there. The house was full and the road we lived on was lined with cars. I knew that this was not in response to my return. Other than my own parents, I doubt anyone there would have cared that I was gone or home. As I entered the house, having left my pack in the carport until I could find out what was happening and I could fumigate its contents, my Mother called to me and asked me to attend her in the kitchen. When I made my way through the dressed up crowd of family and friends I had a feeling of dread climb my spine. That walk through the house rapidly deteriorated into something resembling what the Bataan Death March must have felt like. At last, about a month later, I got to the kitchen and she motioned me to follow her outside into the back yard. When we were alone there, she explained to me that while we were gone, my Grandfather, George, had passed and his funeral had been today.
I felt like had been kicked in the stomach. I was instantly deflated from the nearly euphoric high that I had brought home with me to his low of all lows. My Grandfather was so very important in my life. I spent most of my growing up life with him. I grew up on his ranch. I followed him everywhere, all day long every day until I started school. In fact, when I was told I had to go to school every day of the week, I was aghast. I couldn’t do that; I had a ranch to run! George needed me! He was there for me all my life. Whenever I had problems, I knew I could talk to George and I would feel better. To lose him now devastated me. And I had missed out on even his funeral.
After everyone left, except my oldest sister and her husband and a couple of others, we all sat down and talked. I was told that George had passed on Monday and they had thought of trying to get word to me, but had dismissed the idea due to the sheer logistics involved. At the very least, it would have involved getting the Highway Patrol and the US Forest Service involved just to find me, then even more to get me back to civilization. With this in mind, and knowing that there was really nothing I could do, they decided to just let me enjoy my week and take this up on my return. At the time I wasn’t sure I agreed with it… but today it makes proper sense.
The rest of that day was passed in a sort of a fog. I made my obligations to my family and those friends who had attended. I then retired to stow my gear and clean up from the trip, but next morning, bright and early, I was sitting in my ‘special’ place watching a small band of Blacktail Deer feeding in the dawning. Somehow, this morning it had become important to be here alone to see what the deer and jays had to say of George’s passing and to chart a course for the future without him…