This is a wonderful country.
Two times in my life I have flown to California on blind faith after
meeting people on the internet. The
first was Richard Burrill fifteen years ago, and it's a friendship that I have
treasured over the years, and has led me to other close friends and many
The second is Mike Lawson, who
ran across my webpage and contacted me, and eventually invited me out.
He and Richard are close friends now, and it's great fun to be able to
see them every so often.
Each of the trips I've made has been very different from any of the others, and
this one was no exception. Mike
picked me up at the airport in Sacramento and we went to his house.
He and his wife Lauri have been just wonderful to me, making me feel so
at home, and I just can't thank them enough.
Mike and I stopped and had something to eat in downtown Sacramento and then went
and toured the California State Indian Museum.
The museum has a large display of artifacts about Ishi, the Last Yahi,
and so it was interesting to see that again.
I have the story of Ishi to thank for all that I have done on these trips
for the last twelve trips.
After the museum, we headed to Mike's little ranch tucked away in back of a
residential area. Garth, his mule,
was there to greet me, and I hauled all my gear into the guest room.
After getting settled a bit, Mike started digging out camping gear and
loading the back of his pickup. It
was hard to know exactly what to bring because all we really knew is that we
would be going to Pete Moak's ranch, and “sleeping in the barn.”
Mike pulled out his flintknapping materials later in the afternoon, and we
flintknapped for a while. I'm a real
novice, but Mike does absolutely beautiful work, and he has some points made of
antique glass that are just beautiful.
We had a great meal that night, and Mike, Lauri and I talked and had some wine.
Mike showed me his display cabinet with rocks, minerals and fossils, and
it's just beautiful with some wonderful specimens.
The next morning Mike and I were off to an area about 20 miles past Oroville to
the ranch of Pete and Peggy Moak. The
Moaks were pioneers in the area, and Pete is a direct descendent.
We picked up some groceries and wine along the way, and soon we arrived at the
ranch, and met Pete, his wife, Peggy, as well as other guests who were there to
learn more about the story of Ishi and more about the history of the land.
Andy Mark and Grayson Sorrells were the other two in our party, also guests of
the Moaks and invited by Richard. I
had known of Andy before and seen pictures of him hiking in the Ishi Wilderness,
and he had gone on a hike with Richard and Mike before.
Grayson had been a career firefighter, but had an interest in the story
of Ishi, and had become active in helping run an annual Ishi Seminar.
Pete and Peggy were most gracious hosts. They
immediately made us feel comfortable and welcome.
We talked for a while in the
morning, had some delicious breakfast, and then took off in two vehicles to look
for an historic location, the site of “Murder Rock”.
this picture: L to R: Andy Marks, Grayson Sorrels,
Roger Anderson, Richard Burrill, Mike Lawson, and Pete Moak (Kneeling).
The story behind Murder Rock
that Richard has researched, in a nutshell, is the location where Ishi’s
father may have been killed because several years earlier he had kidnapped a
nine year old Maidu girl who later became his wife.
When the couple returned to the Maidu village several years later, with
two small children in tow, one of them being Ishi, the tribe put him to death in
a rather violent way by laying him on the Murder Rock, and crushing his hands,
skull, and other body parts until he was dead.
The chances of finding the rock 150 years later were slim to none until a
picture was found that was taken in the 1960’s that showed a road and a
vehicle in the background. With some
information from a topographical map and this clue, Pete was able to pretty well
narrow in on a location.
The drive was beautiful through steep forested hills with deep canyons, and at
this time of year, everything was green and beautiful with wildflowers
interspersed. The roads kept getting
smaller and smaller and rougher and rougher.
Spring had just come to this part of the country, and many of the roads
hadn’t been used at all. This was
very obvious when we started to come across more and more small trees and big
limbs blocking the road.
Luckily for us, Pete is a lumberjack, and always carries a very large chainsaw
in the back of his pickup. He made
very short work of the limbs and trees, so we could keep going.
This entire area of the country had been inhabited for many centuries by the
Native Americans, and there were still signs of it.
The most obvious signs were the many mortar holes that had been ground
into the flatter pieces of basalt. They
were ubiquitous. (I love that word,
so I try to use it every now and then in something I’m writing!).
Anyway, they were everywhere, even deep in the thickest forest.
On the road to our destination
we stopped periodically to look at certain sights, and Pete would explain the
significance. One location was where
an Indian family had lived for many years, right next to Cattle Creek.
We had our lunch here, which turned out to be great!
Peggy had fixed sandwiches for all of us, and had drinks of V-8 or beer
if you preferred, all kept nicely cold in a cooler.
Soon we headed off toward where Pete figured Murder Rock would be located.
We got out and pretty well split up looking for a large flat rock that
could be identified from the photo. We
had searched for perhaps a half an hour to forty five minutes when we found it.
It was obvious that, even under the debris that had fallen on it, leaves
and needles, and the small tree that had fallen over it, that this was the right
Pete went and got his chainsaw, and we cleared debris around the rock.
From the photo, this was obviously the rock we were looking for.
After it had been cleaned up, we took more photos, and I took a group
shot of the whole gang with the rock in front of us.
We had also planned to go visit an Indian village site which was thought to be
the home of Ishi’s mother, but Pete had checked it out earlier, and it was
still covered in snow, and it would have been very muddy to get there, so we
crossed that off our “to do” list.
It was getting late in the afternoon, so we soon headed back toward the Moak
ranch. It really is beautiful
country, and it means even more when you are with people who know the history of
land so well, and can pretty well name any plant or tree in the area.
We were soon back at the Moak place, with snacks and beverages available until
the meal was ready. Pete had made, earlier in the day, venison stew, so with
some bread, that was the main course. After
a day of hiking around, and a glass of wine, it was
very nice evening. In a
while, a campfire was going, and a circle of folding chairs surrounded it with
lots of talk about the day, and more about the history of the area, and some of
the adventures with rattlesnakes, wildcats, and other creatures of the area.
After we had talked for quite a while, homemade pie was brought down to campfire
as a late dessert. Camping had
seldom been like this before. “It’s
a hard life”, I jokingly said.
I was curious about sleeping “in the barn” and what that would entail, and
as the evening got a little later,
Peggy took us down to show us the accommodations.
What a pleasant surprise!
The “barn” was finished into separate rooms; we had electricity,
indoor plumbing, and the works! We
threw our sleeping bags on the mattresses, and we were ready for a good
Grayson, Mike and I slept in the “barn”, while Andy slept outside on his
cot. It was a beautiful evening with
a nip in the air. Richard had come
the night before, and had accommodations in the house.
Morning came, and I rose early as is my habit.
I waited a while before meandering up the house.
Richard and Pete were already up, coffee brewed, and it tasted oh, so
good. Soon, other folks started
arriving and the group grew larger. Peggy,
bless her heart, made a wonderful serve yourself breakfast.
Around mid-morning, the group, slightly larger now with the addition of Ron, an
acquaintance of Richard’s and Wyatt, Pete’s son, took off to see a few
Our first stop was an old Indian cemetery that belongs to the Gramps family.
It isn’t very easy to access. We
had to cross a fence, and climb a hill to get to it.
There are no formal gravestones in the cemetery; the grave sites are
marked with rocks laid out in a circle.
From there we drove a while to the site of another old village site.
This one was a hike up a very steep wooded hill covered with Manzanita,
poison oak, and other brush, so it was a bit of a challenge.
In all of my trips to the wilderness in California, I have never gotten
poison oak. I really try to avoid
it, but it is impossible in some situations.
I have been directly exposed to it a number of times, I know that for
sure, but it seems my luck held this trip again.
The weather was beautiful again and sometimes getting deep in the shade felt
very good. The site was pretty thick
with brush and small trees, but where there was an outcropping of large flat
rock, we could easily find the mortars that had been used for grinding acorns
into powder to be used for mush.
There were probably lots of pestles hidden around too, since they are usually
kept close to the site.
After exploring for a while, we headed back down toward the highway and had a
great sandwich lunch again with cold beverages.
From here, we headed to some property that the Moak family has leased for cattle
for many years that has a small stream on it where Pete has panned for gold.
While I am a novice at this activity, everyone else but Richard was very
skilled and adept. I found it hard
on my back and my knees after a while, but it was fun to try, and it is exciting
to think you might actually find a chunk of gold or several flakes.
We stayed at this place for a couple hours, and everyone, I think, found some
gold except me, but I gave up early in the game. Grayson was not a gold panner
either, and chose to read a book instead.
From the gold panning experience we headed back for the evening meal.
Snacks and beverages were available, and an early fire started the
evening off nicely. Soon, the meal was ready and it was tri-tip steaks,
delicious garlic bread, fresh salad and more.
Oh my. While much of what I
ate on this trip is not my usual fare. I
watch carefully the amount of fat and cholesterol I eat, and though I ate some
things I usually don’t I kept it in moderation.
More salad, less steak, in other words.
And was it good!
A few more guests joined us later in the evening, a couple of Indian elders from
the area. Most of the conversations
this night were smaller groups between two or three people.
I talked to Andy Mark quite a
bit, and got to know him a little better. I
definitely will keep in touch with him, and hope to see him again soon.
He is a rock and mineral collector and quite the hiker also, and he’s
very familiar with the Ishi Wilderness.
The knowledge, as I said earlier of the area by these folks is just tremendous,
and too much for me to soak in, but a good story about killing a grizzly bear
just a few feet way by Pete’s dad, and similar experiences I find enthralling.
He killed the grizzly in 1948, about 25 years after there were officially
no grizzlies in the state. It was so
big that three guys couldn’t even turn it over.
And so the night went until we retired to the “barn” again.
I just have to put that in quotation marks because it in so NOT a barn.
The next morning was cool and a bit cloudy.
After another wonderful breakfast, coffee, and conversation, Mike and I
headed out by the fire pit and set up his flintknapping tools and supplies.
I’ve mentioned earlier what beautiful knapping Mike can do.
I am a novice, starting only last year, and hadn’t done any all winter
of course. It is definitely an
outside activity because of all the tiny shards of glass and rock that are
chipped and flaked off.
After we’d gotten set up, I started chipping away on some obsidian, and Mike
was making smaller “blanks” out of a large chunk.
Pete came over and joined us, and a few people came around and just
I’m getting better, but I still have a hard time getting the pieces as thin as
they should be. I watched Mike for a
while, and every once in a while asked for advice on what to do next.
He made a beautiful “Ishi point” from a piece of antique bottle glass. It
ended up a bit smaller than he had hoped because the original tip broke off, but
it came out beautifully. He gave it
to the Moaks as a thank you present, and they were very appreciative.
Around noon, we started to pack up to take off back toward Citrus Heights, a
suburb of Sacramento where Mike lives.
We said our goodbyes to some new found friends, and headed off to grab a quick
bite in Chico, then to Mike’s.
I had called my good friend Bob Price on the way back to see if it would work
out maybe meet for coffee or a quick snack.
Bob’s so busy right now with so many things including work that I knew
it wouldn’t be for long he could get away, but I’ve known Bob for 15 years
now, and I consider him one of my closest friends, so I really wanted to see him
if possible. I also wanted to take
Mike and Lauri out for dinner, so it worked out that Bob could meet us at the
place we were going to eat.
He arrived while we were still waiting for a table and joined us.
He brought us some freshly picked strawberries and a bottle of wine.
I did manage to bring the wine home to Minnesota, and I look forward to
drinking it with friends soon. It is from Hangtown, in gold country, which is
now called Placerville.
We had a really fun visit, and I put my foot in my mouth by trying to say that
I’ve slept next to Bob second only to Joan in my life because we’ve shared a
tent on so many trips, but of course, that did lead to some double entendres.
Bob did say his kids are getting old enough now that he can probably get away
for few days in the future to come with us on another trip. Bob is very close to
the age now that I was when I made my first trip out in 1996. I’m sure
he looked upon me as an old guy then. He
hasn’t caught up to me in age though.
That was fun evening with Mike, Lauri and Bob.
We soon headed home, talked for a while, and headed off to bed.
I arose at my early usual hour, and sat quietly in the living room and did some
proofreading on a couple of chapters Richard had given me for the remaining part
of the Ishi story. We had a very
nice breakfast later, and then Mike and I took off toward Mercer Caverns close
to Angel’s Camp in gold country. Lauri
had a ballet lesson that afternoon, so was unable to come along.
The weather until this day had been wonderful.
The three days we spent with the Moaks couldn’t have been better.
That changed. It was cold and
raw with rain and wind and temps in the 40’s and 50’s.
It didn’t matter though, since we had no real outdoor activities
planned, mainly a visit to a cave up in a little mining area called Murphys,
California. On the way, we stopped
at a wonderful rock, mineral, and fossil store called “Stories in Stone” (http://www.storiesinstones.com/)
in Angel’s Camp. Angel’s Camp,
of course, is known from a Bret Harte story called, “Luck of Angel’s
Camp”, and since it’s Calaveras County, there are jumping frog contests each
Mike and I both bought a few things, and headed toward Mercer Caverns. (http://www.mercercaverns.com/)
They warn you before starting out that the cave goes down 16 stories, and
then you have to climb back out 16 stories with a couple of tight squeezes
thrown in. We headed down with a
guide and about half a dozen other people. The
cave was discovered in the late 1800’s and there’s been tours ever since,
and there were a number of interesting formations.
You had to stretch your imagination pretty far to see how they came up
with some of the names of the formations.
My legs definitely felt the climb out, but it was a fun trip.
We headed back toward Mike’s place in the later afternoon, and hit rain
and wind most of the way. That night
I was proud to learn that I was a part of history with Sacramento breaking the
all time low temperature, set in 1911, by a full five degrees.
We had a nice pizza meal for supper, talked for a bit, had a few wonderful
strawberries that Bob had given us, and I did my final packing.
I had to get up at 4:00 A.M. to head to the airport by 4:30 for a 6:30
I took some time to think back on the trip while I was flying back, and I
continue to be amazed and awed by how wonderful total strangers can be, and how
willing they are to share so much of themselves.
I saw things, learned things and met people I never would have had a
chance to do if a couple of strangers hadn’t taken a chance on inviting a
stranger into their lives. I hope I
am able to give just a little of that back.
It was a smooth return flight, I caught my little shuttle bus to my vehicle, and
home I went and got there about 2:30 in the afternoon