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31st Oct 2021 in

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 on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From there they would go up into the Sierra along Bishop Creek and set up camp for a couple of months. 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.

Their 300-mile trip went due north from Los Angeles and then through the Owens Valley, which is the northernmost 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 80º 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 about 20 miles per hour, couldn’t have been very pleasant.

I have 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. On the back of the photo is scrawled in pencil, “June 1917 Red Rock Canyon”. 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.

My grandparents and dad headed to Bishop, CA, 1917
Red Rock Canyon, 2019 and 1917 - changes every 5 seconds

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, even at 7 years old, that spot lay dead ahead through that split-glass windshield.

 

S I E R R A

Precisely 44 years and four months from when my aunt snapped 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 and beyond as I grew, traveling 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. 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 about the peaks surrounding Yosemite, which is very close to where we traveled 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, however, I saw those snow banners.

I loved our trips to the Sierra and I have continued them all my life. 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 have been 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 on the Mojave Desert from his parents who had purchased the land in the late 1800s when they had first arrived in California from New York. 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 livestock on most of the other ranches that dotted the desert for miles and miles around. 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. He also walked me through the National Rifle Association's Junior Program. I shot paper targets from 50 feet away until I thought I'd explode if I saw another target set up for me. Today I'm not a supporter of the NRA. At all. However, I still have all of the medals I earned. They are solid memories of Dad. I'll never let them go.

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 often wait for me to get home from school before heading up. There was a café just up the road from the ranch that he would take me to. He would have a beer and I would have a chocolate malt 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 a 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. We drove up from the ranch near Palmdale in a newer Chevrolet pick-up hauling our Airstream trailer behind. The trip did not take three days, only about five hours. We always stayed at Pine Cliff Resort on the northwest shore of June Lake when we went there. The first morning we were there on that trip, 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 trailer, tripping over ourselves as we left. Hey, we were in a hurry.

 

June Lake - photo by Kent Duryée, April 2015 - Click/Tap the image

We got to the marina and Dad went in to rent a boat and get things started. Meanwhile, 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 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 the bow 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 choice would have consequences.

He watched closely as we drifted under the trees. When he felt the time was right, 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. His face paled. I remember hoping that he wouldn't pass out.

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 soon began running down my arm as though there wasn't anything holding it back. 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 goddammit!” 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 trailer. “Get those frozen peas out of the freezer,” she said to Dad. She ripped off a few paper towels, folded them, and covered the long gash with them, then held the frozen bag of peas tightly over the towels. The cold felt good against my forehead. She had me lie my head in her lap while she held positive pressure on the 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. From the kit, she selected four small butterfly bandages and placed them evenly over the two-inch-long gash on my forehead while holding the edges of the wound together. She covered those with a layer of gauze, then rolled another strip of gauze into a cylinder and laid that over the top of the wound, then applied tape tightly and neatly over the whole structure; the wound was stabilized without the use of sutures.

“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.” Her 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.

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. Had I realized that it was all essentially my fault because I sat in the middle of the boat instead of in the back by the engine where he asked me to sit, I would have apologized profusely to him. I apologize now. Every day.

Walking back into the trailer, 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 is closed 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 and very little bourbon, 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 medical skills got me through what could have been a horrible experience. Far from horrible, in retrospect, I remember it as 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 since learned how rare and tentative that can be in this world and I feel blessed.

The thimbleful of bourbon may have 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, which spiraled him into depression. The strain and depression 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 statement stayed with me for some reason. In retrospect and with a small bit of medical training under my belt, any doctor today would have treated the underlying depression, not just the outward symptom of anxiety. It was what it was at the time, though.

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.

A D O L E S C E N C E

As I became firmly anchored in adolescence, a new family moved onto the ranch. The family's father worked in the feed mill 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. Bryan and I did a ton of things together. We went fishing at the local reservoir. We hunted birds and squirrels on the ranch, which my dad paid a bounty on.

We did so much more than that.

Bryan 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 20 years). I originally attended a Catholic high school but was kicked out the first semester of my sophomore year when they found a baggie full of weed in my locker during one of their random searches. 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 grasp 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 me 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 teen culture and angst 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 70s 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.

However, 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 heart. 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.

 


Interesting things...

Fishin’ With Dad

(Written about another fishing trip to June Lake)

Water slaps against the sides of a plywood boat.
He lays athwartships, legs crossed on one rail,
Head in arms on the other.
He picks his fingernail.
Fishing pole yawns over the water,
Salmon eggs bounce in the wet-bottomed boat.
Noon sun slips high over-head;
We eat wax-paper sandwiches,
While snow blows in banners from still-winter peaks.
No shade from pine trees on the shore,
Sun glints from mirrors in the ripples of the lake.
You can make kaleidoscopes from them
If you squint just right.

 

Original un-cropped 1917 photo

I can hear my aunt in her late 1910’s, 13-year-old, post-Edwardian, Flapper-influenced tone saying, “That’s such a handsome outcropping. Shall I take a photo of everyone?” Click the image to make it bigger
.

 

Google Street View, California Hwy 14, Red Rock Canyon State Park

Photo taken May 2019, 102 years later. 
Bishop Creek on the same trip, Summer 1917. The rock spire on the right side of the canyon is Cardinal Spire. It stands above the site of a gold mine that was begun in 1890 and eventually became known as the Cardinal Mine.

 

A cabin on Bishop creek, close to where Dad and his family's camp was in 1917. Written on the back of the photo: "Ches Keough's Camp up in Bishop Creek - we camped to the right in the aspen trees. Alt. 8450' - 1917." They are hard to see, but there are a man and a woman on the porch. This was in all likelihood George Chester "Ches" Keough and his wife Gertrude (Crough). Ches was the oldest son of Phillip Keough, an Eastern Sierra Pioneer and the owner of the City Market in Bishop. Two years later, in 1919, Phillip Keough would purchase property south of Bishop that holds natural hot springs and start a health and leisure resort still known as Keough's Hot Springs today:

http://www.keoughshotsprings.com/history.php

Notes

1. Ancestry entry for George Chester "Ches" Keough

2. Ancestry entry for Gertrude (Crough) Keough


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