Wednesday, May 12, 2010


IN THE LATE SIXTIES, back when I was in high school, every Memorial Day Weekend, we’d journey to a place in the Coast Ranges called Simpson Camp. Used as a high country sheep camp some thirty or forty years before, we found this place because Zibe Simpson, a neighbor across the creek and long-time hiking buddy of my dad, was of the Simpsons of Simpson Camp.

The drive to the old sheep summer pasture was a grueling three-and-a-half hours across the floor of the Sacramento Valley, into the Coast Ranges at about Willows or Orland and up a twisty and torturous Grindstone Canyon through Alder Springs and Plaskett Meadows.

“Follow the signs to Covelo, but stop before you get to the pass,” were Zibe’s directions. “I’ll hang a bandana on a tree at the spur.”

The rock-strewn, windy road was not a place to be placed in the back seat of the ‘63 Ford Ranchwagon, but being the little guy in the household, my calling dibs on the front seat – even the middle of the front seat – had no pull. More than once, family paid a price for me sitting in back as it took a month to air my vomit out of the seams, creases and breathable pores of the vinyl upholstery.

JUST THIS SIDE OF MENDOCINO PASS, Simpson Camp was a place no one really knew about but Zibe and his wife Ellie, their kid, Eric, Jovanna their boxer dog, and us. Around a campfire Zibe would tell us stories of running sheep up the glade, herding them with Model T Fords that had to be driven in reverse up toward the steep summits because, in those days, fuel traveled from the tank to the engine using only gravity. No pumps. When the grades got too steep, the gasoline wouldn’t drain into the fuel line. “The damn things’d die and start coasting down backwards. I’ll tell you what! Helluva circumstance.” I have a picture in my mind.

I also have a picture of Jovanna, lazing in the mid-day sun curled amidst a clump of skunk cabbage as if God had provided this dog bed and this sun just for her. We had a slide somewhere.

We also had a slide of the stand of oaks, naked in the alpenglow just after sunset. The oaks, dad said, looked like a Greek chorus. Brother and I’d agree although, at the time, we had no idea what a Greek chorus was.

We had pictures of the campsite, cooking on the derelict cast iron stove that was left from the sheep-camp days, and of the cluster of cabins at Smith Camp, nearby, where each little house had its own intact iron stove – for a time. Last time we visited, the stoves had been “salvaged.”

SIMPSON CAMP can no longer be located on the Mendocino National Forest Map. I contacted the ranger who shared that the site is of archeological value and by removing the signs and taking it off the map, the Forest Service could be better assured that the artifacts there would be left alone. Terrific idea. I am grateful.

I told her of my frequent visits to the site and let her know that Ellie Simpson is still living and that she may have both pictures and stories to share. I’d try to arrange something. In exchange, I received very general directions to the site.

TODAY, I AM GOING THROUGH RACKS OF SLIDES – some racks from our family and some from the Simpsons. It turns out that when Zibe died five or six years ago, Ellie, whose vision was in decline, threw out all the family photographs and slides. Son Eric was dead, also, so there seemed no reason to hang on to flickers of those family times. She gave the empty trays to my mother who filled them with images of our earliest years. Mislabeled, or not labeled at all, each new tray is an adventure. No telling what image or memory will come up next. Me as a three-year-old. My brother at five. Both of us on the old Ford Ferguson tractor with a girl named Molly. The tree fort we built out back. Trip upon trip to the Ishi Wilderness in the foothills west of Lassen.

But no pictures of Simpson Camp. None of the oaks or the old stove or how we set our tents or the nearby cabins at Smith Camp. And none of that gorgeous boxer named Jovanna.

ELLIE’S APPROACHING 100, but I am hoping to visit with her soon. Mom’s going to arrange it. I want to get a little history that I can report back to the ranger. I’m also going to continue to search these thousand-and-a-half slides for an image. And I’m going to take a trip up to Mendocino Pass as soon as the snow clears so I can find the playground of so many Memorial Days so many years ago. I’d really like to go there again. Maybe take some pictures to go along with the ones I have lodged in my head.

Hopefully, someone’s hung a red bandana at the spur.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

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