“About history, when it dies.” He leaned back into the seat but regarded me. “Kind of like the tree that falls in the forest when nobody’s around? I mean, if nobody remembers history, did it still happen?”
ELLIE SIMPSON IS 94. She stands about four feet eight inches and carries a step stool in case she needs it so she can climb into my pickup. And she does. With my mother, we are on our way to lunch at a favorite spot in Magalia. “Left at the first intersection past the stoplight,” Ellie says. And she’s correct. “I always order a cup of chili because they don’t make chili where I live. Too many old people there. Most don’t like spicy food like I do.” The melted cheddar forms rubbery tendons like harp strings that stretch from the spoon to the cup. One snaps free and slaps against her faded, plaid blouse. “This is embarrassing,” she says.
“Good thing it isn’t a first date.”
ELLIE AND ZIBE SIMPSON moved from our neighborhood in 1978 to a mobile home in Paradise Pines: one at the end of a cul-de-sac with a view of Sawmill Peak. In 2003, the set up became too much for the octogenarians to care for so they relocated to a senior complex – a nice apartment with views from two windows of the forested hillsides. Always the hillsides. In 2004, Zibe died.
“Oh, I wish I hadn’t thrown out the camping pictures,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would ever care to see them.”
We had finished lunch and returned to the apartment. From a tiny closet, Ellie retrieved two small photo albums and a shoebox filled halfway with envelopes of photographs. The oldest of the albums stretched back to her childhood days in Canada. Beautiful crisp black and whites of the farmhouse in which she was raised by grandparents after her mother died in the pandemic of 1918. Each picture or pair of pictures was fastened perfectly to the black page and each was labeled in white cursive. I wondered if white ink pens might still be available. The cavalcade of pictures ranged from her toddlerhood through Zibe’s courting of her, included pictures of their only son, Eric and one shot of Jovanna the boxer. The last few photos were in color – faded color – of the new place in Paradise Pines. The volume spanned our annual trips to Simpson Camp, in the remote reaches of the Coast Ranges, but the album held no pictures.
The smaller book was exclusively of Eric. And the random pictures, those unfiled and in envelopes, were just that: random.
Ellie had lost a son and a husband over the course of her life. At least one of those events was out of presupposed order. Still, her effervescence made me ignore how bland the chili had been. She would caution me that she couldn’t remember things like she used to and then provide precise details about how something looked, how a spring morning felt high in the mountains just east of Mendocino Pass, and how she swelled when someone’s car would inch down the road to the old sheep camp. “Because that car was always you and your family.” The detail prompted me to think that Zibe and Ellie chose not to share this locale with others. I felt special all over again.
IN THE 60S, when our families visited Simpson Camp, tales of how the old sheep camp ran were ancient history to my twelve-year-old way of thinking. Summering before the war seemed pleasant in a manner I couldn’t get my mind around. Given that I was born well after the war, this whole bucolic life just as well could have been three centuries before, rather than just three decades.
Now we are in the 10s. Fifty years later for me, and I want to find the little spot before history of it dies. “It is actually now considered an historic archaeological site that is protected by the forest service,” writes the District Ranger in response to my query. “ That is not to say you can’t visit there, it is just that it is more important to preserve the surroundings.” Then she adds, “Township 22N, range 9W, somewhere west of Smith Camp. Check section 17.”
I’LL DO THAT. I have a new copy of the Mendocino Pass Quad. 7.5 minute.
I’ll plan to arrive mid-afternoon so I can enjoy Ellie’s delight as she sees me driving down the bumpy road into camp. What I will likely find will be a few rusted sixteen-penny nails hammered into the fir trees. Perhaps a couple of aged-to-black pieces of rough-hewn dimension lumber still fastened to stumps or trunks. Maybe there’ll be a campfire ring, or at least a scatter of rounded stones, sooted up on one side. There won’t be a place to sit, unless I bring something. And the Simpson Camp sign will be gone.
I’ll stay until dusk, gather those stones, build a little fire and listen again to Zibe Simpson’s voice tell stories of running the herd up Grindstone Canyon from the Black Butte area ranch west of Orland and how they used Model Ts to do it. And as his words fade with the light, I’ll hear again the whisper-soft pleaing of the lambs in the high mountain glade.
“YOU KNOW, they were done running sheep into that high country long before I ever met Zibe.” She looks at Mom and then to me with eyes still as bright as tomorrow’s dawn. “I’ll take a look for those other albums and if I find them, I’ll get them to your mother and she can mail ‘em to you.”
The apartment is small. There are no other closets or crannies.
“Thanks,” I say.
Church of the Open Road Press