June 7-12, 2007

I just took a rather unusual vacation, perhaps not one that most people would take.  I just  went a couple thousand miles to visit a 99 year old lady in Carmel, California, and then went backpacking in some very daunting wilderness in northern California.

The flight to Sacramento was fine. My long time friend and hiking buddy, Bob, was there to meet me at the airport, and we got my luggage. We went to Bobís vehicle, and I saw Sara, Bobís wife, Megan, their two year old daughter, and I met Molly, their three month old baby. They had purchased a very nice three seat Toyota mini-van, so there was plenty room for all of us, and we headed south several hours toward Carmel.

Why was this my goal? I wanted to spend some time with Virginia Pope Evans, who is the daughter of Saxton Temple Pope, who was Ishiís physician. To give a little background, Ishi, the Last Stone Age Indian in North America, and Last of His Tribe, was "captured" in 1911, and lived at the University of California in San Francisco. Saxton Pope was his doctor until Ishiís death in 1916.

Ishi  had lived his entire life in hiding from the white man, and had no knowledge of "civilization". He used a bow and arrow, and knapped his own arrow points. He spoke a language no one else in the world spoke because he was, literally and figuratively, "The Last of His Tribe". 

He had lived in remote wilderness areas, hiding, for the last forty years. Theodora Kroeber, the wife of the anthropologist who befriended Ishi, wrote a popular book in the early 1960's entitled "Ishi in Two Worlds" about his life, his culture, and his adaptation to the world of the white man.

Bob wanted to have his family's picture taken with Virginia to have that direct link to history that I like so well.

Virginia Pope Evans is now 99 years old. She was born in March of 1908. She met Ishi as a child, and has remembrances of him. She also has a number of arrowheads that Ishi had made and given to her father, Saxton Pope as well as his old photo albums.

I could go on for hours about Ishi, the land in which he lived, and so on but that takes me away from why I would fly that distance to see Virginia Pope Evans. Ishi went to stay with the anthropologists in San Francisco. His doctor was Saxton Pope, who later became very famous as an archer, and is credited with making archery a popular sport in the United States. If you know of game records taken with a bow and arrow, the Pope and Young Trophy is awarded for this, and as a sideline, the organization is located in Minnesota, in a little town called Chatfield, down by Rochester. They have a wonderful museum of archery, and a number of artifacts of both Saxton Pope and Ishi. Saxton Pope, Ishiís doctor, had a daughter named Virginia. 

Virginia remembers actually meeting Ishi, and having dinner with Ishi and her family. I love that direct connection to history. Virginia is 99 but has a wonderful sparkle in her eye, and a wry wit. When I met her I told her she looked wonderful, and that she looked very pretty. There was this slight pause, and she said, "Keep going." Saxton Pope died quite young, at the age of 49 in 1927. At that time, a practice that was in the mode was to make a death mask of the person who had died. It was done with plaster, but Virginia has one of her father that was cast in bronze from the plaster cast. It is quite beautiful but slightly disturbing. I visited with Virginia for perhaps 45 minutes. 

 

 

Her caretaker/personal assistant took a picture of Virginia and me, and the best picture was the one where I asked if I could put my arm around her so I could make my wife jealous. She got a kick out of that. Her direct link to such an important part of American history, and my direct link with her is important to me. She met an American Indian who had lived a stone aged existence in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in California until 1911. Think of that. 

The next morning we headed north.  We stopped at Monterey and walked around on the waterfront, saw the seals and the shops, and had a delicious seafood lunch. Then north again through heavy Friday California freeway congestion traffic.

We stopped in a city called Antioch so I could have dinner with a long time pen-pal of mine. She and I met about 14 years ago on a website devoted to Christopher Lee, of Dracula fame, and weíve kept in touch ever since. I had seen her once before, seven years ago, and we ate at the same restaurant.

I stayed the night in Sacramento with Bob and Sara, and Bob and I headed out late morning to meet Richard in Chico. We met at a wonderful restaurant, The Sierra Nevada Brewery Restaurant, had a great meal, chatted, and planned what we were going to do. About ten years earlier, Bob and Richard had met someone who marked a topographic map with what he said was the location of a former gold mining operation and close to it, a giant cave. This was our quest. Bob and Richard looked over the topographic maps, and we headed once again toward the Ishi Wilderness.

I forget just what a long and rough ride it is. The road gets narrower and narrower, and rougher and rougher, and soon it is a one way trail, not a road at all. Think of a driveway in the wilderness, long neglected, with deep ruts and dried mud holes, leading on for 20 miles, and you will get some sense of the road.

 

Eventually, we came to a bridge that I recognized from previous visits, but this time we went past the bridge, on toward territory that we had never seen or explored before. After a few miles, there was a semblance of a campsite off to our right not far from Deer Creek. While this is called a creek, it is really a small river with a rapid current, and you could hear the dull roar of water over large rock boulders in the distance.

We stayed our first night here, close to Bobís truck, which made setting up camp quite easy.

Bob and I put up a tent while Richard prepared his area outside under the open stars. It was a beautiful day, warm, with a few high clouds, and a nice breeze.

 

That night, we studied the topographic maps again. I always defer to Bob when looking at the maps. He can read them like they are photographs. I can tell some things, like how steep it is because of the proximity of lines, but I am not good at recognizing land features. The one thing that the map could not tell us, of course, is of any large tracts of buck brush and manzanita may totally block the direction we wished we to go.

I did not sleep well.  The hard uneven ground, the slipperiness of the sleeping bag, the tiny pillow, all took away from a deep sleep.  

The next morning we packed up, got our backpacks ready, and headed out in the vehicle once more, looking for a point to park that was close to a rolling hill that led again down to Deer Creek and the place close to where the mining operation and the big cave were located.

It was about 10:30 A.M. when we began searching for the best route for our descent to the valley and Deer Creek. We hiked perhaps a mile before we had a view of a couple of alternative descents. Bob scouted ahead, and finally found what looked to be a smooth way with a slow descent. We decided this was our best chance, and so we headed down.

Because of previous trips, I realized that every step down would eventually mean a step we would have to take going back up hill, and that is the worst part of backpacking for me, going up relatively steep hills with poor footing.

Bobís scouting had paid off, and the descent was quite smooth. There were places every so often that the rock under foot was quite loose, and an occasional patch of brush that cut and scratched us as we forced our way through, but all in all, the descent was, as we started to call it, "a cake walk".

There was poison oak everywhere. The conditions in the Ishi Wilderness must be perfect for it, because it thrives. I tried my best to avoid it, but it is so prevalent that you just canít do it completely.

Soon, we came to an area that had a few caves in the large boulders, Bob and I headed over to check them out. While they were interesting geologically, there were no signs that they had ever been used as shelter by the Yahi Indians.

Lower and lower we went, and when we were about three fourths of the way down, I slipped with my back pack on, my right leg pretty much giving out. I turned awkwardly to try to catch myself and I felt this rather stabbing pain behind my knee, on the back of my leg. I had caught myself so that I didnít fall very hard, but I was in pain. I kept walking for a bit, but with every step, I could feel this sharp pain behind my leg.

After a bit, I just had to stop, and told Bob and Richard that I had hurt my leg, and I needed to rest a bit. I dropped my back pack, and walked around a bit. Without the weight of backpack, the knee joint did not hurt nearly as much. We talked about this a bit, and tried to figure out what to do. Richard said that he could carry my backpack the rest of the way down, but after some convincing by Bob that he could do it safer and better, Bob picked up my backpack and as well as his, and headed down.

 

I must admit I was worried for a while about the injury. This is not the place where you want to end up not being able to walk. A few rather ugly scenarios ran through my mind, but as I kept walking the pain did not get any worse, and it was quite tolerable without the weight of the backpack. I did feel guilty about not being able to do more, and felt I was shirking my responsibility but I also knew it would be more stupid to try to do more than I was capable, and by doing so injure myself worse.

We soon reached what turned out to be a very nice campsite. Bob found a perfect spot to take a dip in Deer Creek, and after we got a bit settled, all headed over to soak in the cool almost cold water. It was so refreshing. I made the mistake of wearing some moccasin slippers over to the swimming hole, and when I put them on to come back, they had gotten a little wet, and were slippery. I lost my footing on a large rock, and went down hard, bruising and removing skin from the left leg at my other knee and shin.

I limped back to camp, and cleaned my leg, and decided I would just lay around a while. Richard decided the same thing, but Bob was still curious about what lay around us, so he went exploring for a few hours. He has an amazing amount of strength and energy.

When he returned, he told us that he could find no sign of a the large cave that was supposed to be in the area, but there were many signs of the mining operation. We had seen some of the signs of this walking in, some abandoned metal tubes and rocks piled in a unnatural way. The system of hunting for gold was with the use of a monitor, which literally used water pressure to wash entire hills away. There was not a lot of deep cuts in the area, so it could be that they were just looking at places to see if they could find signs of gold.

I took several pictures of various artifacts in the area for Richardís research into what the name of the mine might have been, though he thought the Jackson Mine was in this general area.

After a good supper of pasta and bread, we finished off the remaining wine we had brought, and chatted into the evening. It was another beautiful evening, deep in the valley, and the stars shone brightly that night.

 

It struck me as to the remoteness of this area. No wonder someone could hide in this country for forty years, and never be seen, as Ishi had done.  We had not seen another person the entire time we had been there, and for good reason. There was little to bring people to this remote of an area, and I wondered how many people had been here since the mine closed operation. A handful, I supposed.

After another fitful night of sleep on the hard ground, morning came. My knee felt better, but it still hurt or perhaps a better description would be that it ached. Luckily we had eaten a bunch of things the night before and for breakfast, so the load was lighter, so I packed my backpack with the lighter clothing and personal belongings and Bob fit the rest in his backpack, lightening my load considerably.

By about 8:30, the sun was high, and we knew it was going to be a hot day. We headed out of valley to try to miss the hottest part of the day.

As I mentioned, the path out was mainly up. We started out, and my knee had a bit of pain, but nothing that would prevent me from making the journey out. As we started out, I contemplated whether I ever wanted to do this again. What was the purpose? I most enjoyed spending time with Richard and Bob. They had been a major part of my first trip out in 1996, and they have both enriched my life in so many ways. I had done things I never realized I could do because of them. I had experienced adventures I never would have had, met people I never would have met. But Iím also very close to 62 years old.

I have never been a back packer. My only experiences in backpacking have occurred in the Ishi Wilderness. The additional weight on my back and knees may be just too much, and from now on, perhaps having a campsite close to a vehicle and walking to various sites is the best way to do it. The stress on the knees and back, the risks of injury, the distant remoteness, all lead me to logically say I should slow down bit, take it a bit easy on myself.

But on the other hand, the sense of accomplishment, the very fact that I am doing things I never thought I could do, the sense of adventure, keep leading me back to this.

 

But again I digress. The walk out was long and tiring, but we took our time, enjoyed the scenery, took periodic breaks to have drinks of water and to rest. Slowly but surely, we retraced the path of our descent, and eventually reached the top. I had brought my GPS along, and marked the way down, so we followed our way out pretty closely to that.

Eventually, we reached the vehicle, and we were pretty sure that no other vehicles had even driven by where we had parked.

The ride out was slow, but eventually we got back to Chico and Richardís car, and we got him unloaded and on his way, while Bob and I took off for his home near Sacramento.

We got back late in the afternoon, and I immediately took a shower and cleaned up. I took care of the baby, Molly, while the rest of the family and Saraís parents frolicked in the pool.

After a delicious meal prepared by Sara, I spent some time packing and getting ready to head out early in the morning. I just canít thank Bob and Sara enough for opening their home so warmly to me.

About six oíclock the next morning we were on the way to the airport. Bob dropped me off, and I headed toward the ticketing counter. I was soon on the plane headed back to Minneapolis, and home.

Afterward: As I look back on the trip, I accomplished what I wanted. I had a great visit with a wonderful 99 year old lady who has direct connections to the story of Ishi. I had a nice meal with a long time pen pal, and I got to hang out with my two very close California friends. As a bonus, I got to spend time with Bobís wonderful wife, Sara, and spend some time with their great kids.

Bob said a number of times that his priorities are his family right now, and he just doesnít think heíll be able to get away for the next few years. I would miss that companionship and spending time with such a marvelous individual, but I cannot disagree with his priorities. Richard has more work to do on the Ishi story. I just canít thank Richard enough for inviting me out in 1996 for my first trip to the Ishi Wilderness. It has led, as I said earlier, to enriching my life in so many ways, and has led me so many different directions.

 

Iím back in Minnesota now, happy and content that I did what I wanted to do.