Photo taken by my aunt, June 1917
My dad grew up in early-20th Century Southern California. Nearly every summer, Dad and his mom, dad, and older sister would drive their new-fangled automobile from Los Angeles to Bishop, a small town in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. 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 over 100º for weeks at a time. At night the desert cools to around 85º or so. That 300-mile drive, all on dirt roads and no faster than 20 miles-per-hour, couldn’t have been very pleasant. Instead of the three-or four-hour drive that it is today; it took them three days. There’s a picture that was taken by my dad’s sister, my aunt, of the family sitting in a vehicle, my dad in the back seat looking at the camera. I can feel the heat vibrating all around them, wafting through the open-air car. My 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”. Having grown up on the Mojave Desert, I know that Red Rock is about one-third of the way from Los Angeles to Bishop. They still had 200 miles of 100º desert and dirt road remaining between them and the high altitudes 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 think 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 think that I can see in his eyes that he knew that that spot lay straight ahead through that split-glass windshield.
S I E R R A
Exactly 44 years and four months from when my aunt took that picture, my mother gave birth to me. I grew up hearing stories of the month-long fishing trips my dad 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 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 into a four-lane highway. Instead of a three-day journey up to the Sierra, it took us only a few hours. We didn’t stay as long as Dad did with his parents, but the place seeped into my life 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 banners, some of them more than a mile long, shining, streaming, waving with solemn exuberant enthusiasm as if celebrating some surpassingly glorious event.”
On one occasion, I saw those snow banners. And I saw so much more. I saw bears, deer, otters, waterfalls, meandering creeks, and vicious storms, lightning clanging on towering peaks as thunder echoed in 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 Nevada, and I loved hearing the stories of Dad’s trips when he was my age. They laid common ground between us.
Sadly, that common ground would crumble away sooner than could be expected, but it was great to walk in the very same footsteps he had. That’s been an anchoring experience over the entire course of my life.
O C E A N
Dad was born in 1910, so he was seven-years-old in that picture. 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. He graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Southern California. It might seem odd that he owned and operated one of the largest turkey ranches in California, and ran a feed mill that produced grain for his turkeys, as well as feed for other livestock on most of the other ranches that dotted the desert where I grew up. But he inherited the ranch from his parents who acquired it in the late 1800's. He was carrying on what had become a family tradition. He was a busy man to say the least, and times were changing fast all around him.
As I grew I eventually became able to understand some of the things that were happening in the family. I remember one night especially: Dad came home and said his doctor had prescribed him Valium for anxiety. In retrospect, I'm certain that any doctor today would have treated the underlying depression, and not just the outward symptom of anxiety.
As he aged he saw himself become less and less capable of maintaining the rigid pace he had set for himself, and it became noticeable in the deterioration of the buildings on the ranch before it became visible on his face. The ranch eroded significantly as I grew, while dad treated himself with Valium and high-octane Mexican tequila. He wasn’t an alcoholic. 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, and with growth always comes adolescence.
T O G E T H E R
Up until the time I was 13 or so, Dad and I did a lot of things together. Dad enjoyed shooting, so we would go to a nearby shooting 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. He 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 baby turkeys. 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. Dad would have a beer and I would have a hamburger as we sat next to the 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 for 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 12 years old. The first morning we were there Mom fed us breakfast, and Dad and I blasted out the door to start our first day of fishing.
We got to the marina and dad went in to rent the boat and get things started. I meandered down to the water’s edge and tossed stones into the lake. Soon enough, dad came out of the marina office with a helpful 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 getting out of the marina. Dad said, “I think I’ve got it, thanks.” Before I knew it, we were on our way to Dad’s favorite fishing hole on June Lake.
We slowly made our way out of the small marina, then dad twisted the handle on the Johnson outboard and the bow of the old plywood boat rose up. The water that had seeped inside the old boat flowed to the stern, covering dad’s boots, and 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. Dad had been here before. 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. It all soaked into my soul.
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.” I obeyed instantly and we traded places, him in the bow and me on the seat in the middle of the boat. I sat in the middle of the boat so I could watch him throw the anchor, rather than where he had been sitting at the engine.
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, then let it swing back. There was a flash of light, and then a few seconds later the sound of a splash. The 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. Blood was running down my face and pooling in the folds of my shirt and coloring the water in the bottom of the boat.
On his backswing, he had swung the anchor and hit me in the face because he thought I was in the back of the boat by the engine. There was a large gash on my forehead and as with any facial wound, the blood was running freely and wasn’t showing any symptoms of slowing down.
My 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 did and he pulled the anchor back into the boat and within minutes we were back at the marina. The helpful man saw us returning, my face blood-covered, and Dad obviously upset. He rushed down to the dock and helped us up to the truck. I don’t remember the ride back to the campground, but I imagine I must have bloodied up the cab of the pickup pretty well.
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!” Dad hollered. She came out and saw my blood-covered face and shrank. “What the hell, Mel?” My dad’s name was Mel.
“I swung the anchor back and hit him in the head.”
Mom had been a nurse in World War II so 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 my 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 asked, or rather told Dad, who was standing by the kitchen table wide-eyed and speechless. 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 the 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 the pediatrician.
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 see him throw the anchor, instead of in the back by the engine where he asked me to sit, I would have apologized to him. Nothing was ever mentioned about this fact, however.
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, 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 through the pain”, 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.
My dad’s presence under pressure, and my mom’s calm bedside manner and skillful bandaging got me through what could have been a nasty experience. The bourbon helped, too. I cherish the memory of this experience. In retrospect, it was one of the better experiences of my life. I had a mom and dad, and we all loved each other. I have learned how rare that can be in this world and I feel blessed.
A D R I F T
Once I was firmly anchored in adolescence, however, things changed. A family had moved onto the ranch with a boy my age, and he and I spent a lot of time together. He was not the best influence on me. By the time I was 14, only two years after the “anchor incident”, he triggered my adolescent rebellion against parental control. Dad was not able to cope with that and didn’t understand the current culture of the time well enough to know what I was going through. The ocean of those 51 years reared its head. That was when I lost grip on the anchor that had moored us together, and he was powerless to retrieve it for me. We drifted apart. Far, far apart.
We never made another trip to the Sierra together.
G R A S P
As I passed into adulthood the gaping fault between us had become impossible to repair because by that time Dad was approaching his 70th, and had descended so far into his depression that no one could reach him. For my part, I was still too young to fully grasp what he was going through. We rarely spoke when we saw each other and the chasm yawned and grew between us like an ocean.
Dad passed away when I was 29. He had just turned 80 a couple of weeks before. I stood by his hospital bed as he lay dying. He was completely unresponsive and his eyes remained closed, but he heard me talking to him about fishing in the Sierra.
He reached up and very strongly grasped my hand.
With that simple gesture, he restored my grasp on that anchor I had lost hold of all those years ago.