From the Intensive Care Room to the Ishi Wilderness
by Roger Wm. Anderson
"I have studied many times the marble which was chiseled for me--
A boat with a furled sail at rest in the harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination but my life;
For love was offered to me but I shrank from its disillusionment;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances;
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must all lift the sails and catch
The winds of destiny wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in ones life may end in madness, but
Life without meaning is the torture of restlessness and vague desire.
It is a boat longing for the sea, and yet afraid."
-"George Grey", speaking from his grave.
-By Edgar Lee Masters in
Spoon River Anthology
It was May 5, 1996. I was on a plane flying from Sacramento, California to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I felt good. I felt darn good! I felt great! I had just completed a three day backpacking adventure into a remote area of the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Northern California, something that, three years earlier, I would have considered impossible. A relatively obscure California Indian, who had been dead for 79 years, helped me do it.
*In the spring of 1994, I purchased a small paperback book at a library book sale for $.25. I did not realize that this book would have a major impact on my life. It was called, "Ishi. Last of His Tribe", by Theodora Kroeber, and after I had read it, I wanted to know more about this fascinating fellow and fascinating subject. The book was a novelized version of a true story of the discovery of a stone age Indian in California in 1911. I found a book entitled "Ishi in Two Worlds", also by Theodora Kroeber, which is an account of the life of Ishi and the Yahi based on the notes of one of the anthropologists who worked with him.
But the journey to that airplane ride was a long and complex and circuitous one.
In the early spring of 1993, at the age of 48, I went in for a routine physical. The doctor, after reviewing my family history, cholesterol levels, and my general condition, thought I was a prime candidate for heart disease, and felt that I should have a stress test, just to make sure my heart was all right. It would also give a "baseline" for reference in the future. The doctor cut my stress test short when he noticed abnormalities not long after I had started on the treadmill.
He put me on a strict low fat/ low cholesterol diet, cholesterol lowering medication, and blood pressure medication. he also gave me a prescription for nitroglycerine, in case I should have any chest pains.
He also referred me to a cardiologist in Minneapolis. The cardiologist listened to my heart, reviewed my medical file, and suggested an angiogram. This is the procedure where a device is inserted in the groin area, and a tube fed up to the heart. Dye is then released into the heart, and it is observed via sophisticated monitoring techniques so that blood flow can be measured. The angiogram is a pretty invasive procedure, but can be done on an outpatient basis. The results of the angiogram showed significant blockage of arteries at about the 70% level in two places.
*Ishi was a member of a tribe called the Yahi, which was a part of a larger group of tribes called the Yana. No signs had been seen of the Yahi tribe since about 1870, and everyone thought the tribe to have been long extinct. He had been living with a small band of survivors, hidden for 40 years, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and was truly stone age in his abilities. He could flintknap an arrowhead beautifully, hunt with a bow and arrow, spear salmon with a homemade spear, and he lived without any of the amenities of the "modern" world. He truly was a "stone age" Indian. Most importantly, his language and culture were unadulterated by modern society, so we can see a glimpse of a civilization that existed for thousands of years.
About two weeks after the angiogram, I began to feel a tightness in my chest after even a minor amount of exertion. I didn't recognize the true cause, and felt it was more connected to my lungs than my heart. After a few episodes, I tried the nitroglycerine, and it did relieve the symptoms quite effectively. But any exertion, such as a walk, going up a flight of stairs, carrying a bag of groceries, could bring on this feeling in my chest.
I wondered whether this would be the way I would have to live for the rest of my life, and what would happen next.
One evening in early May, I had just finished the evening meal when this tight feeling in my chest occurred again. This time the nitroglycerine did not make the tightness go away. I took two more doses, and the feeling still did not subside. I told my wife that, although I didn't think it was anything, she should perhaps bring me to the emergency room and have it checked out. Better safe than sorry, as the saying goes.
*Ishi (pronounced, "Ee'-she") was probably about 48 when he was "captured" in 1911. He was the last surviving member of his tribe. The Yahi tribe had lived in this area of California for about 3,000 years, in harmony with nature. But the tale of their extinction began after the discovery of gold in California, and it is a tale of white men massacring women, children, and babies, of disease, and slavery, and of the annihilation of an entire culture. Except for Ishi.
I was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit in our local hospital in Cambridge, and all sorts of tests were run, including an EKG, or electrocardiogram. I was monitored closely that evening, and transferred by ambulance to Minneapolis in the morning for another angiogram. This angiogram showed that the 70% blockage had grown to about 98% blockage in just a couple weeks, and at that point, a balloon angioplasty was performed on two sites. This is the procedure where a small balloon-like device is inserted at the site of the blockage, and inflated to open the artery.
I spent four days in the intensive care unit, flat on my back, unable to even turn over or lay on my side due to the shunt in my thigh. The results of the angioplasty appeared successful, and I went home to contemplate my future. I did not like the feeling of uncertainty this episode had left with me and the feeling of mortality; I considered all the things left undone and unsaid in my life. It was, as many times of crisis are in one's life, a time for deep reflection and a consideration of one's existence.
*Here, in this small piece of land, in the desolate and isolated foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Northern California, a nation endured for about three thousand of year, and a rich and lasting culture thrived. But in the space of 50 years, the white man was able to fully wipe it off the face of the earth, except for one man who had stayed hidden since he was a child with a small group from his tribe.
I had led a life that could be considered pretty much of a Walter Mitty existence. I dreamed of a lot of things and thought of some grand ideas, but didn't follow through on many of them. I was that proverbial ship "longing for the sea, but yet afraid."
When I got home, I had a full week to recuperate and ponder my very existence, and I determined that I would do all I could to prolong my life, and to live it to the fullest...something that was both exciting and frightening at the same time. There were three things that I needed to do: go on a very low-fat/low-cholesterol diet, start a regimen of vigorous exercise, and start following through on some of the things I would really like to do in my life.
*Ishi, and the remaining Yahi, were first "discovered" in 1908. A group of surveyors, working in the Deer Creek Canyon area, came across his home in the hillside where he was hiding with three other people: his mother, probably his sister or cousin, and another older adult male. Ishi's mother was too sick to run, so she hid in the cave. His sister/cousin and the older male ran away, and were never seen by Ishi again. He guessed that they had fallen in the swollen river and drowned. Ishi was able to hide. The surveyors then did a surprising thing. They gave Ishi's mother some water, and took every single item of value in the cave as souvenirs. This included Ishi's bow and arrows, food, tools, baskets, fur robes, and everything they needed to see themselves through the coming winter. Then they left. Ishi's mother died a short time later, leaving him alone. As alone as anyone has ever been or could ever be.
My wife in particular, and my family in general, were very supportive of this major change in lifestyle, and adapted very well to no longer stopping at McDonald's or Burger King, or ordering pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. I determined to eat 15 grams or less of fat a day, and to do at least one-half hour of vigorous exercise every day. This was more than my doctor had required, but I felt it was something that I wanted to do...that I needed to do.
Living in the country has it advantages for walking. I have a beautiful trail that I could walk, and with some additions, I made it a mile long to a lake nearby. A mile there and a mile back gave me two miles a day to walk, and started to walk it religiously. Faster and faster, over the months, I soon began to trot a bit in some places, and run a bit in others. I timed myself every day, and made a game of trying to tie or exceed my "record" for the trek.
*For the next years, until the fall of 1911, Ishi lived by himself in his homeland, with no other soul knowing of his existence. Imagine the isolation! In September of 1911, Ishi decided to end his period of isolation and extreme loneliness and risk imminent death. He decided to leave the only home he had ever known, and wandered toward Oroville, California. Here he was discovered and put into the local jail, and became known as "The Wild Man of Oroville".
Red meat, fatty foods, dairy products, were dropped from my diet and replaced with low fat or non-fat substitutes. Chicken was the meat of choice, with an occasional "buffalo burger" thrown in to satisfy my family's desire for red meat. Many cows have been saved. Pastas, vegetarian dishes, rices, etc. were added to the repertoire of meals.
Pounds began to come off, I began to feel better, and more fit, and it did not take long before the benefits of the diet and exercise were paying off. Over the course of the months and year that followed, about 30 pounds were dropped, and some of the "fat pounds" were replaced with "muscle pounds". My physical endurance increased dramatically, and I felt more relaxed, more at peace with the world.
* By sheer luck or fate, the field of anthropology had become a new profession, and two anthropologists from the University of California in Berkeley saw the news articles. One of them, thinking this could perhaps be a remnant from a tribe thought to be extinct, went and visited Ishi in the jail, and eventually was able to identify him as a Yahi, a tribe thought to have been annihilated 40 years earlier. Ishi was about to start his second life.
Winter in Minnesota is a problem for consistent exercise, but I solved this by purchasing a Nordic Track. It is an expensive piece of exercise equipment, but worth it if it's used enough. I used it pretty much daily through the winter months, and set it for 35 minutes. About five minutes of that is just warming up and getting up to speed, and about 30 minutes of vigorous work. I found that the trick to using the Nordic Track for me was to start gradually and slowly, and build up my tolerance to using it. I kept the time the same, 35 minutes, but I was very slow at first...no use of the arms, and mainly walking. And then I gradually got faster and put more motion in it as I needed to keep my pulse rate up.
*The two anthropologists were named Alfred Kroeber ( It would be Kroeber's wife, Theodora, who would eventually write the story of Ishi, based on her husband's knowledge and notes.) and Thomas Waterman, realized the importance of this "wild Indian", and brought him to San Francisco to live at the University of Southern California. Here, they studied Ishi, his culture, his way of life, his language, and documented it for posterity.
Of course, the "trouble" with exercise is that you have to keep working harder and harder to get the same results! It becomes harder and harder to get that pulse rate up. I had to exercise pretty darn hard, and travel rapidly to get my pulse rate up to where I want it...after my trek to the lake I am soaking wet upon my return, and I am as wet after finishing my time on the Nordic Track. I want to give my cardiovascular system a good workout, and keep improving it.
*Waterman and Kroeber, took Ishi to live at the University Museum, amidst some relics of his own people. He recognized a basket at the museum as one his relatives, a cousin, had made. Ishi adapted amazingly well to modern life, and living with his former enemies. He dressed in a suit and tie, and had his own living quarters. He learned some English, and was able to communicate through words and signs.
The internet is also an interest of mine, and the capability of searching for information on various subjects is very useful and entertaining. After reading the book by Theodora Kroeber, I wanted to know more about this amazing Indian, and began a search for it. One of my internet searches found an author named Richard Burrill who had written a small book about Ishi. I wrote an e-mail to him regarding his book, and inquired as to whether he would send me more information. Richard Burrill wrote back to me that his book was indeed for sale, I began exchanging letters with him approximately once a week. In my asking about the specific land in which Ishi lived, Richard said that I should visit the area sometime, and he's give me directions.
*Ishi taught the anthropologists about his people, the Yahi, their language and their customs, and he was recorded on the Edison phonograph and movie film. From the stone age to the modern age he came, and with such grace and charm that he was the talk of San Francisco. Thousands flocked to the museum on weekends to see the "stone age" Indian and shake his hand. He could never get used to big crowds, but small wonder. Imagine the adaptations he had to make in his way of thinking.
If you knew me, you'd realize that this suggestion was preposterous and ridiculous, and something that I just couldn't do. Maybe later, when my wife could come along, and the kids were out of college, and there was money....
I wrote back and told Richard that I appreciated his suggestion, but there were many reasons why this just wasn't possible. He wrote back that he was going to backpack into the Ishi Territory the first week in May, and that I should fly in and join him. The words I most remember are that he said, "If you really want something to happen, there probably is a way to make it happen".
*Ishi, the anthropologists, and a doctor named Saxon Pope who had become a close friend of Ishi's because of his interest in archery, went back with Ishi for a number of weeks to stay in his homeland with him, and learn how and where he lived. What a bittersweet journey that must have been for Ishi. He could finally roam his homeland with no fear of being killed, but all of his people and all that he had known was gone...gone forever.
Here I was, reading all I could find about this amazing man and this incredible chapter in the history of our country, and I actually had a chance to visit the very country, the very sites that Ishi had lived. I thought about it. I thought about it a lot! I told my wife about his offer, and I said it was something I'd really like to do, but I know it would be expensive, and she said, bless her heart, "Well, you could check into how expensive it is, and maybe it's not that bad." With that mild affirmation, I started thinking about the real possibility. Could I really make this thing happen if I wanted to?
*From living hidden in the caves in a stone age existence and total isolation to living with his enemies who had tried to kill him his whole life, who spoke a totally different language and had totally different customs, and who had miraculous inventions, such as the automobile, the airplane, the phonograph, and electricity. But somehow his culture and his background had prepared him for this. Can we say as much about our culture? Ishi showed no bitterness toward the white people, or to the farmers and ranchers who over the years had tried to kill him and his people. He was gracious and shy, but became depressed and sullen when pressed too much to talk about his life in the wilderness.
Maybe it was possible to make it reality rather than just a dream. Isn't it amazing how few of us do follow through on our dreams, small and large. We get into a daily routine, comfortable in our habits, and seldom veer from the worn path. I decided to take a chance, follow the dream, take the risk, and all the other cliché's that meant I was going to put some meanings in my life, and have something wonderful to plan over a looooong Minnesota winter.
*The last survivor of a lost race. Sounds like the plot of an unbelievable story, but this one is true. He was "the last of his tribe", and it is everyone's loss. Of course, Ishi's story only dramatizes events that have occurred repeatedly throughout the nation since the landing of the Pilgrims.
I told my wife that I'd really like to take this trip to California, and backpack into the Ishi Territory, and she was wonderful. She began to help me consider all the things that would need to be done...getting to and from the airport, baggage, backpacking supplies, and other odds and ends that make planning the trip part of the fun. We went to various sporting stores shopping for backpacks, supplies, literature on the area, food, etc. I wrote to Richard that, yes, indeed, it sounded wonderful and I was going to do it. How exciting to follow a dream and prepare for it to happen!
*If killing Indians outright did a large share of damage to the civilizations, disease did even worse. And this is what happened to Ishi with the onset of tuberculosis. Having no resistance to the disease, he was unable to recover, and died on March 25, 1916. He was cremated along with his bow and arrows, and other personal belongings. His ashes are in a cemetery in San Francisco.
Getting into "backpacking shape" was another concern of mine. I bought my backpack in early spring, and started walking two miles a day with it packed with books. It was quite a bit different from walking without it, and I'm glad I did the preparation. May was approaching, and I was feeling ready. I really cannot explain how extraordinary this behavior was for me. It just was not like me to go on an adventure like this. Read about it, yes; live it, no. As my wife drove me to the airport, my adrenaline was flowing, my anxiety was rising, my mouth was dry, and I was embarking on "Roger's Great Adventure", as I had started calling it.
I boarded the plane for Sacramento, and off the plane flew toward the unknown. I had been invited to stay at Richard's house, and he had been gracious enough to offer to meet me at the airport, so that part of the trip was simplified. He would be holding his book on Ishi, so I could recognize him.
It was a smooth flight, and smooth landing, and as I departed the plane, I spotted Richard in the crowd, Ishi book in hand. After a warm welcome, and a cup of coffee, I stepped into the wonderful California climate. It had been cold and raining when I had left Minnesota, with no signs of spring, and I entered into a world of green and warmth and sun and flowers.
Richard said we had a bit of time, so we went to see "Old Sacramento", much of what had been restored to look like it did in pioneer days. Having my camera in hand, we asked a lady passerby to take our picture together, and she remarked, "You look so much alike, you must be brothers". I responded that we were not brothers, but that we were kindred spirits.
Richard and Sharon were gracious enough to offer me great meals and a place to sleep for the evening. The next morning a party of five took off for the Ishi territory. There were a school teacher named Milt, and Aaron, his 14 year old son, who were an experienced boy scout and a boy scout leader, and a former park ranger named Bob Price, Richard, and me.
The drive to our departure site was exciting in and of itself. The roads kept getting narrower and narrower and rougher and rougher as we left Sacramento and headed north past the Oroville area. After many miles of rough road, with few signs of civilization, we found our departing point into the Ishi Territory, in the National Forest area.
As we disembarked, and got our backpacks ready, I had some misgivings about really being in shape for this trek. Exactly three years earlier, I had been in an intensive care unit, with major blockages in my arteries. Here I was, backpacking the rugged country of northern California. I had purposely chosen not to inform anyone of my former medical problems.
I had passed my physical, and I had mentioned backpacking to my doctor, and all he really encouraged me to do is to carry the nitroglycerin tablets in case of pain. I wanted to make this journey on my own merits, and not be given any special consideration. This was important to me.
And the first 1/2 mile or so was pretty much uphill. I was about to have some real second thoughts when it levelled out for a while, and I felt I would survive! The walk in by immense volcanic pillars and bizarre formations, intermixed with beautiful scenes of thick woods, beautiful fragile wild flowers, butterflies flitting from flower to flower, amid large patches of poison oak, made for a great walk. No other souls had been in sight for many hours, as we marched further and further into the Ishi Territory.
Uphill and down, over meadow and through forest, we marched for a long time. I'm always deceived by how little area I've covered on a trip into a rough territory. I would estimate it to have been about 5 miles, but it may have been considerably less. We came to a large open meadow, and in the distance I could hear the flowing waters of Deer Creek, flowing with crystal clear water from the freshly melted snows of Mount Lassen. This was called Graham's Cabin site, and there were some remains of a very small cabin. According to the history of the area, Mr. Graham has set poison grain out on his front porch in the hope that the Indians would steal it and use it. There was a stone foundation visible, but all wood had either decayed to nothingness or had been burned by the campers in the area.
*A gentle, unassuming man, shy of large crowds, polite to extremes, modest, with a gracious smile, Ishi has entered the realm of immortality with a life truly more strange than fiction. He was a symbol of so many that had gone before him. I think of him as a person I would very much like to have known.
We looked for a campsite close to the Deer Creek, and not far from the Graham Cabin. We found an ideal spot that some folks had used earlier so there was a fire pit, a felled tree that could be used for sitting, and a level area for sleeping. It was close to the rushing icy waters of Deer Creek, so the rushing water made a soothing background to the beautiful but eery site.
We were deep in a valley, surrounded by massive hills and as the sun set, the changing hues were beautiful to watch. As we cooked our evening meal, and settled in, the darkness settled in also, and a full moon rose. I walked down to the stream, away from the others, and let my imagination take me on a short ride. Ishi and his tribe could so easily still be hiding in the brush or behind any of the rocks, and the scenery looked exactly like it did for the thousands of years that the Yahi lived there.
*Saxton Pope wrote a book many years after Ishi had died called "Legends of the Longbow", and in it, he devoted the first three chapters to Ishi. He considered him a very close friend, and a craftsman beyond compare. He considered that Ishi made the most perfect bows in existence, including those in museums throughout the country. His abilities were beyond the ordinary and at least extraordinary.
The night was cool yet not so cool it was uncomfortable. Compared to Minnesota, it was great! In the morning we had a good breakfast and some great tasting coffee, and headed off to explore more of the Ishi Territory. There was so much to see, I didn't know where to look. If I looked off in the distance, I saw massive lava formations, shaped and misshaped by time, tree covered hills, and a changing terrain. But then I would miss the tiny beautiful wild flowers all around, or the flitting lizard or butterfly. I also did not want to forget to watch where I was walking, since some of the trails had a pretty steep drop off.
*Why did we want or need the country that Ishi lived in so badly? As late as 1908 men were willing to saddle up and pursue the "savages", as is proven by the fact that a group went of search of Ishi and his small band after they had been discovered by the surveyors. To what purpose?
The beautiful isolation and complete solitude of the area could be disturbing to some people. There are no amenities here, just beautiful isolated nature as it has been for thousands of years. We looked, we walked, we wandered, and we wondered. I would examine the terrain, and imagine what the Yahi would have been doing in this area and that, and wondered if we would find any signs of their encampments. But it really didn't matter; I was here for the experience of being here, not for any other purpose, so my goals were not lofty. "Carpe diem", I said to myself.
The time in the Ishi Territory, though it is less than a year ago that I visited, seems a blur. We walked, we hiked, we climbed, we took a dip in the icy waters of Deer Creek, we explored through the trees, the shrubs, the meadows, the massive areas of Poison Oak. (SEE PICTURE AT RIGHT) I brushed against it many times....it could not be helped...and somehow miraculously did not get it. We walked more, looking for possible village sites, looking at the beautiful flowers and foliage, admiring the tenacity of the land, and the amazing saga of Ishi and his tribe, who had survived so long in this very place.
It was the third day in the Ishi Territory, and time to leave. I dreaded it, but also knew that we had a long walk out, and a couple more interesting sites to visit. The day was warm, but remember, I had come from the brown and barren and cold Minnesota spring, and though it was quite warm, I was enjoying it. I was enjoying the wonderful experience, the great company, the unparalleled scenery, and the fact that, a couple years ago, I would never had thought of such a thing. I was proud of myself for the work I had done getting my body into the condition it was in so that I had no trouble with the exertion it took to fully appreciate the experience.
On way back., we stopped at Oroville, visited the site of the slaughterhouse where Ishi was "captured", which is now pretty much just some cement slabs. It is now located in a residential area, while in Ishi's day, it was in the country.
*The story of Ishi, and the Yahi, is a fascinating and compelling story, and I never tire of telling people about it. I went to a party a while ago, and a friend was there. We saw a mutual acquaintance of ours, and my friend said, "You should ask Roger about his "Ishi" adventure". Our acquaintance said, "Why would I want to hear about an ishy adventure?" Well, maybe you had to be there.
We went to the Oroville Train Depot, which is now a very nice restaurant, and while we had a meal, we also explored the place where Ishi boarded the train for the trip to the museum in San Francisco. I also called home and talked to my wife. I told her briefly of the adventure, and it was so good to hear her voice. It was cold and rainy in Minnesota, while sunny and warm where I was. But in the morning I was off for the airport, and the end to my adventure.
A few weeks later, while I was back in my "normal" routine, I tried to put some perspective to it all. In a way, this was as big an adventure for me as I had ever experienced, and I was a changed person. Not just because of the Ishi Territory, but because of people like my wonderful wife, for being so understanding and supportive, and Richard Burrill who encouraged me just enough to take that giant leap of faith. And Ishi. His courage and uniqueness really led to it all.
My son and some of his friends met me at the airport because Joan was still working. I felt so good to get off the plane and greet them, and tell them about my trip. I brought back a few souvenirs, but the best part I brought home was the memories, and the proud feeling I had for having been able to make the most of the experience.
1990 Ishi: America's Last Stone Age Indian, The Anthro Company
-A short introductory book to the fascinating story
1976 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America.
University of California Press, Berkley.
- A very readable account of Ishi's life and times. A well referenced and illustrated book.
Heizer, Robert F. and Theodora Kroeber
1979 Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- A fascinating collection of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles written written about
Ishi during his life.
1964 Ishi: Last of his Tribe. Parnassus Press, California.
- The novelized story of Ishi's life by the wife of the anthropologist who befriended him.