My dad grew up in early-20th Century Southern California. Nearly every summer, Dad, with his mom Grace, his dad Harvey, and older sister Liz, would drive whichever new-fangled automobile they happened to have at the time from Los Angeles to Bishop, a small town in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. My dad spent a lot of time up in the Sierra, and he enjoyed telling stories about his trips there while growing up. The stories in general were all pretty much the same; the drive up to the mountains was brutal, but the destination was sublime. It was the details that made the stories great.
The 300-mile trip went due north through the Owens Valley, which is the northern-most reach of the Mojave Desert. Summertime temperatures in the Mojave remain at well over 100º for weeks at a time. At night the desert may cool off to a balmy 90º or so. Instead of the four-or five-hour drive that it is today, it took them three days to make the trip. That 300-mile drive, undertaken before the roads were paved, and at a top speed of 20 miles-per-hour, couldn’t have been very pleasant.
Photo taken by Liz Duryee, June 1917
There’s a picture that was taken by my dad’s sister Liz of the family sitting in a vehicle on one of their trips up to the Eastern Sierra. My dad is in the back seat. I can feel the heat vibrating all around them, wafting through the open-air car. Dad always liked to point out that the vehicle in the picture was a brand-new, 1917 Dodge Brothers Touring Car with a split-glass windshield. If you look carefully at the photo, you can see the windshield is split into upper and lower halves. On the back of the photo is scrawled in pencil, “June 1917 Red Rock Canyon”.
Red Rock Canyon, now a much-visited California State Park, is about one-third of the way from Los Angeles to Bishop. Because I know the park pretty well, I know that in the picture the car is facing north. This meant that the travelers still had two days and 200 miles of 100º desert and dirt road remaining between them and the high elevations that were their goal.
I see my dad’s eyes looking straight at the camera. I can almost see the snow-capped 14,000 foot Sierra Nevada Mountains that he knew awaited them. I imagine that I can feel the icy creek water cascading down canyons, over boulders and under tall pine trees, teeming with native trout that he was envisioning. I see in his eyes that he knew that spot lay straight ahead through that split-glass windshield.
S I E R R A
Precisely 44 years and four months from when my aunt clicked that picture, my mother gave birth to me. I grew up with my dad’s stories of the two-month-long fishing trips he and his parents took to the Sierra in the summers. We also traveled up to Bishop as I grew, traversing the same route Dad’s parents had driven all those years ago. By then, however, the route was paved and our car was air-conditioned, but it was the same route Dad and his parents had driven so long ago. Dad always commented on how strange it was to remember a dirt road and then to see it transformed in such a short time into a high-speed four-lane highway. We didn’t stay in the Sierra as long as Dad did with his parents on our trips, but the place seeped into my life and soul exactly as it had his.
The Sierra is a beautiful, awe-inspiring place. John Muir wrote of a place very close to where we would travel on our trips: “But it is on the mountain tops, when they are laden with loose, dry snow and swept by a gale from the north, that the most magnificent storm scenery is displayed. The peaks along the axis of the Range are then decorated with resplendent [snow] banners, some of them more than a mile long, shining, streaming, waving with solemn exuberant enthusiasm as if celebrating some surpassingly glorious event.”
Muir was referring to the way deep, dry, powdery snow on the peaks is blown into long, streaming banners. Snow in the Sierra is usually heavy and dense due to the proximity of the Pacific Ocean - dry powdery snow is a rarity. On one occasion I saw those snow banners. And I saw so much more. I saw bear, deer, otters, waterfalls, meandering creeks, vicious storms, lightning clanging on towering peaks as thunder echoed through the canyons. Once a mountain lion crossed the road ahead of us as we explored up a remote canyon. Birds, so many birds. I began to learn them with Dad leading the way.
I loved our trips to the Sierra. I loved hearing the stories of Dad’s trips when he was my age. They laid solid, common ground between us. Sadly, that common ground would crumble away sooner than could be expected, but it was great to walk for a while in the very same footsteps he had. That has been an anchoring experience throughout my life.
O C E A N
Dad was born in 1910, so he was seven-years-old in that picture taken in Red Rock Canyon. He graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Southern California in 1934. He then inherited a 100-acre ranch from his parents who had purchased the land in the late 1800s when they had first arrived in California. They had small orchards of pears and peaches as part of what would be known today as a hobby farm. Dad transformed those orchards into one of the largest turkey ranches in California. He also built and operated a feed mill that not only produced grain for his turkeys but feed for other livestock on most of the other ranches that dotted the desert where I grew up. He was a busy man, and times were changing fast all around him. One of the changes that came along a bit later, was me. He was 51 when I was born. Fifty-one years can be a vast ocean of time to exist between a father and son. As I grew he did his best to be a father to me.
T O G E T H E R
Until I was 13 or so, Dad and I did a lot of things together. Dad enjoyed shooting, so we would go to a nearby rifle range almost every weekend. He liked to set up a target for himself and one for me and compete to see who could make the most shots into the black center bullseye.
Dad also ran a second ranch up in the foothills above the desert floor where he sent his turkeys when they reached a certain age, clearing room at the home ranch for another load of turkey chicks. He would go up to check on things a few times a week, and he’d wait for me to get home from school before heading up. There was a café just up the road from the foothill ranch that he would take me to. He would have a beer and I would have a hamburger as we sat next to the crackling fireplace. I heard a lot of stories about the Sierra in front of that fireplace.
A N C H O R
I have my own Sierra Nevada story that has always held deep resonance with me. It’s a story of Mom, Dad, and myself on a fishing trip we took to June Lake in the summer of 1973 when I was 11-years-old. The first morning we were there, a Saturday, Mom fed us breakfast. Dad and I wolfed it down without tasting anything and then blasted out the door to start our first day of fishing. Mom shook her head in disbelief as we exited the camper, tripping over ourselves as we left.
We got to the marina and Dad went in to rent the boat and get things started. Meanwhile, I meandered down to the water’s edge and tossed stones into the lake, thinking of fish swimming beneath the surface. Soon enough, dad came out of the marina office with a friendly man who helped carry our fishing gear from the truck down the dock. He asked Dad if he needed any help starting the engine or suggestions about where to go. Dad smiled and said, “I think we’ve got it, thanks.” Before I knew it, we were on our way to Dad’s favorite fishing hole on June Lake.
We made our way slowly out of the small marina, then dad twisted the throttle on the Johnson outboard and the bow of the old plywood boat rose up. The water that had seeped inside the old boat flowed back into the stern, covering dad’s boots. Meanwhile, I sat in front and raised my head, closed my eyes, and let the fresh pine and granite-tinged air soak into my skin, my hair, my body. All of it soaked into my soul. I still feel the wind and smell the air from that day almost 50 years later.
We made good time and a good wake across the lake to a small cove under heavy cover of pine trees and away from almost everyone else on the lake. We drifted in toward shore, engine puttering, the granite boulders getting closer and becoming visible below us. Dad said, “Trade places with me, I have to throw the anchor.” We traded places, him in the bow and me on the seat in the middle of the boat. I actually plopped down in the middle of the boat so I could watch him throw the anchor, rather than where he had been sitting at the engine…this would have consequences.
He watched closely as we drifted under the trees. When the bow was almost in contact with the boulders on shore, he picked up the anchor and threw forward a little to start his momentum, and then let the weight take it into a backswing. There was a flash of light, and then a few seconds later the sound of a splash. That flash of light hurt my eyes. I put my head in my hands.
The next words I heard were “HOLY SHIT! What’s the matter with you?”
I raised my head from my hands and saw they were covered with blood. I could feel it running down my face and watched it pooling in the folds of my shirt. The water in the bottom of the boat was turning red.
On that backswing, the anchor had hit me in the face. There was a large gash on my forehead and as with any facial wound, the blood was running freely. Dad thought I was in the back of the boat by the engine where he had told me to sit.
Dad’s face paled. I hoped I wasn’t going to lose him. We didn’t have anything to use as a bandage, so dad took off his shirt and wadded it up. “Here, hold this against your forehead,” he said. I held the shirt against my forehead, but could feel the warm blood soaking through the light knit of the snap-up cowboy shirt; it began dripping down my arm. Dad hauled the anchor back into the boat, and within minutes we were back at the marina. The helpful man saw us returning, my face and shirt blood-covered, and Dad obviously upset. He rushed down to the dock and helped us up to the truck. I don’t remember our interaction with the man or the ride back to the campground, but I imagine I did a good job of bloodying up the cab of the pickup.
We made it back to camp and dad laid on the horn, much to the consternation of our fellow campers. Mom opened the camper door and peered out.
“Help me gawddammit!” He hollered. Mom came out and saw my blood-covered face and shrank. “What the hell, Mel?”
“I swung the anchor back and hit him in the head.”
Mom had been a nurse in World War II so she knew exactly what to do. She gently pulled me out of the truck and brought me into the camper. “Get those frozen peas out of the freezer and some paper towels,” she said to dad. She put the paper towels on the gash and the frozen bag of peas over the towels. The cold felt good against my forehead. She had me lie in her lap while she held positive pressure on my wound and kept it iced for what seemed an eternity. It was probably about half an hour. The bleeding stopped.
“Get the first aid kit out of the closet,” she told Dad, who had just come back in, probably after cleaning up the cab of the truck. She selected three small butterfly bandages from the kit and placed them over the gash on my forehead while holding the edges of the wound together. She covered those with a layer of gauze, and then rolled a strip of gauze into a cylinder, laid that over the wound, and applied tape over the whole structure. That stabilized the wound.
“What happened!?” my mom asked Dad when she felt that she had finally stabilized her family.
“Oh my God, I swung the anchor back to throw it and nailed the poor kid in the face. I could kill myself.”
“Do you remember everything that happened, honey?” she asked me.
“Yeah”, I said.
“So, you didn’t get knocked out?”
“I don’t think so”, I said.
“Did you see him unconscious?” she asked my dad.
“No, he was awake and talking the whole time.”
“Well, it’s all OK now, just relax. I need to call my brother.” My uncle was a pediatrician and mom wanted to talk with him about me. She sat me up, looked closely at each eye to make sure the pupils were equal-sized, and then asked dad for all the change in his pocket. She quietly left and walked up to the campground office where there was a payphone and spoke with her brother.
Dad hovered over me in her absence. He kept apologizing to me. I didn’t know why at the time, so I said something dismissive like, “Oh don’t worry, it’s fine.” Had I known the trauma he was experiencing I would have been more understanding and spent more time with him.
If I had realized that it was essentially my fault because I sat in the middle of the boat so I could watch him throw the anchor, instead of in the back by the engine where he asked me to sit, I would have apologized to him.
Walking back into the camper, Mom said “Let’s see how it goes tonight. If there are any issues we’ll need to go back to Bishop. The clinic in Bridgeport is closed down, and the one in Mammoth doesn’t open until Monday.”
Mom cooked dinner, and at one point dad brought me a mixed drink to “help me over the bump”, he said. I took a sip of the bourbon and soda he offered and it wasn’t bad, dosed with a heavy hand of fresh-squeezed lemon, so I sucked the rest of it down.
Nothing happened that night. My dad’s caring and patient presence under pressure, and my mom’s calm bedside manner and skillful bandaging got me through what could have been a horrible experience. Far from horrible, in retrospect it was one of the better experiences of my life, cementing for me the fact that I had strong parents and that we all loved each other. I have learned how rare and tentative that can be in this world and I feel blessed. The bourbon helped a little bit, too.
A D R I F T
As I grew I eventually became able to understand some of the things that were happening in the family. As he aged, Dad saw himself become less and less capable of maintaining the rigid pace he had set for himself. The strain became noticeable in the deterioration of the buildings on the ranch before it became visible on his face. I remember one night especially: Dad came home and I overheard him tell Mom that his doctor had prescribed him Valium for anxiety. That stayed with me for some reason. But now, in retrospect, I’m certain that any doctor today would have treated the underlying depression, not just the outward symptom of anxiety.
The ranch eroded significantly as I grew, while dad treated his depression with Valium and high-octane Mexican tequila. He wasn’t a big drinker, though. He would limit himself, most nights, to have a drink at 5 p.m., another with dinner, and possibly one more before going to bed. Sometimes he overdid it, but not often. The Valium probably acted as a brake on that behavior.
The effect that all this had between us was that as I grew, Dad grew distant. With distance always comes a lack of communication, just as with a child’s growth always comes adolescence.
Just as I became firmly anchored in adolescence, a new family moved onto the ranch. The father worked for Dad, and one of their three children was a boy my age. He and I spent a lot of time together. Growing up I hadn’t had kids my age to hang out with except while at school, and I was not the coolest or most popular kid, so my friends were few. John and I did a lot together. We went fishing at the local reservoir, we hunted birds and squirrels which my dad paid a bounty on. We did a lot more than that.
John had grown up in the Compton suburb of Los Angeles and was much more worldly-wise than I was. He knew what kind of cigarettes he liked, what kind of beer was best, how to roll a joint, how to drop acid, and which bands were cool: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and the Grateful Dead.
I particularly grasped hold of rolling joints, dropping acid, and the Grateful Dead, (I followed them for almost 30 years). I originally attended a Catholic high school but was kicked out the first semester of my sophomore year for having a baggie full of weed in my pocket. That was when I was 15, only three years after the June Lake Anchor Incident. All told, I can’t imagine a maturing process more dissimilar from that of my dad’s.
G R A S P
While my teen angst was settling in, Dad didn’t understand the current culture of the time well enough to even begin to understand what was happening to me. For my part, I was too caught up in the current culture to care too much about what he thought. I was suddenly adrift and on my own, mostly by my own doing, and without a clue about what life had in store for me. The ocean of those 51 years that separated Dad and I suddenly stretched wider than ever. Dad was as powerless over my changes as he was that day in the boat to stop the bleeding on my forehead. I gave in to the teen culture and started hating parental involvement in my life. Un-anchored, we drifted far apart. We never made another trip to the Sierra together.
As I passed into adulthood the gaping rift between Dad and I was impossible to repair. By that time Dad was in his 70’s and he had descended so far into his untreated depression that no one could reach him. For my part, despite my experiences and what schooling I’d acquired, I was still too young and unaware to fully grasp what he was going through. He and I rarely spoke when we saw each other and the chasm yawned and continued to grow between us.
Dad passed away when I was 28. He had just turned 80 a couple of weeks before. I stood by his hospital bed as he lay dying. He was completely unresponsive. The IV dripped into his arm, not carrying any medication, only keeping a line open, “just in case”. The catheter bag held dark, blood-red fluid – kidneys failing. His eyes remained closed. I could see his chest rise and fall if I concentrated hard enough. There was no response to the nurses, doctors, or anything happening around him. He was essentially dead to the world.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt he heard me as I talked to him about fishing in the Sierra. To keep him company, I was reminiscing out loud about another trip we made to June Lake where an anchor did not play any part.
His hand reached up and started groping for mine, his wrist and fingers flailing. I took his hand, and he very strongly grasped mine and drew it close to his chest. In that instant, our ground at last became common once more. With that simple, silent gesture, he restored my grasp on that anchor we had both lost hold of all those years ago. I still hold on to that anchor. I’ll never let it go.