After my initial foray through the Ventana wilderness near Big Sur, California, I returned to Pine Valley to lie again beneath those soughing pines that sound like they have a river running through the tops of them.
The week-long backpacking trip had been marked by endless crawling and clambering with full packs over the fallen trees that lined the switchbacks of the backcountry (“No money for trail maintenance” we were told. “It’s the war”), but no one complained. The practice was rich, accompanied by yucca sending up their yellow blooms like skyrockets, horny toads, owls hooting to one another across the river, and terrain which in a single day’s hike rose from shady redwoods at the valley floor to cactus chaparral at the crests of valleys, sparkling in the baking sun.
One of the features in the landscape that drew me back was Jack English, who we were introduced to by our trip leader. An octogenarian who lives in a simple cabin in the wilderness, Jack makes finely crafted bows for stringed instruments with fingers twisted like branches from arthritis. Like many oldsters, Jack tends to repeat himself, but I noticed whatever he says gets truer every time he says it.
Jack’s father was born during the Civil War, and Jack grew up during the Depression, walking to school in Santa Cruz in bare feet. “Seeing a car was a big deal back then,” he said. After surviving the war in the Pacific theater, he became a big game hunter in Alaska, and in the Ventana, where he hunted out the mountain lions.
“I don’t know what I was thinkin’ back then,” he said. “I wish all those animals were back now.” Reflecting on the condition of his garden, he said, “The ground squirrels come and eat all my tomatoes and beans. I see them popping up their little heads and it’d be no problem to shoot them, but they gotta eat too, so I guess I’ll just let ‘em.”
Jack and I had tea each day. I felt a telescoping of time, or a microscoping of the present, inside his cluttered cabin. “Everybody is talking about this religion and that religion, but I don’t need any religion but that one,” he declared, pointing a twisted finger toward the many beings lying outside his window.
My final morning Jack walked me part of the way out, commenting ruefully on the perilously low level of the streams we crossed. “Do you ever get lonely back here?” I asked him, remembering the morning I had found him returning from the meadow where the ashes of his brother and best friend are scattered, his eyes round and still teary, poised on the edge of the next terrain where much of him had already gone.
“You bet I get lonely,” he said. Then standing on one side of a little stream, he stood watching me hike out. I knew he would still be there before I disappeared around the last bend, and I turned to wave to him a last time. Sure enough, he was there, faithful to his time and place.