In 1964 Harry James decided he was too old and retired the Trailfinders Camp for Boys. He didn’t retire from Trailfinders, he ended the franchise. He had no heir apparent. (He and his wife Grace had no kids of their own.) It was a one-man show from start to finish. And when Harry, at 70, couldn’t hike the Kaibab Trail with us from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, all 28 miles of it down and up with just the one spring midway for water, he decided to hang it up. Partly, he was genuinely tired. And partly, I think now, it was ego – that he couldn’t keep out in front of his boys. And if he couldn’t do that, that was the end of it.
I was bummed. I had hoped to come back for a third summer, as a junior counselor, at age 16. But it wasn’t to be. I did get some consolation, though, when a Trailfinders counselor, a young man of 20, invited me to hike a portion of the John Muir Trail with him. We covered about 100 miles along the Sierra crest in 10 days. My most vivid memories from that trip, besides the native golden trout in the creeks and the clouds of mosquitoes as we hustled through Evolution Valley, are of freeze-dried entrees, new-fangled then and dreadful (though neither the taste nor the texture mattered much when one was so hungry) – and the sound of Joan Baez’s voice. John played a Joan Baez record when we were back at his house. My 16-year-old heart, not to say libido, hadn’t known such ardent feminine sounds existed.
And so Harry James and Trailfinders faded from my life for a couple of years. Harry kept writing. At least one of his books, on the Cahuilla Indians of Southern California, was produced in those years. He fought for the San Gorgonio Wilderness, which became law, and against the abomination (I can hear him growling) that was the Palm Springs tram, which was built eventually on the eastern (back) side of Harry’s beloved home mountain, San Jacinto.
My teenage rebellion started late and ran to the mild side. My first girlfriend came along after high school graduation. I ignored the oil level in my ’59 VW bug and burned up the engine. I started smoking dope. My freshman roommate at Pomona College introduced himself (I’m not making this up) as Captain Trips. The music we listened to was revelatory but mostly pretty sweet: Frank Zappa, The Youngbloods, Joan Baez, Moby Grape. Daytime Frisbee on the quad. Nights trying to toot the first 20 notes of Beethoven’s Ninth on beer bottles variously drained to make the proper tones.
I had a lot going on, and, I admit, my studies suffered. But I wasn’t prepared for the letter I got from Harry James following first-semester exams.
We hadn’t been in touch; it came out of the blue. He said some of my professors were “disappointed” in me, and that I was in danger of “not matriculating.” He reiterated the importance of the correct path, of not deviating, and he hoped I was not so weak of spirit, or so ordinary, as to fall off.
I was livid. How dare he! What, did he have spies at Pomona? What right did he, or anyone other than my own father, have to be disappointed in me?
I wrote back telling him so. It was impudent of me. I’m sure I trembled a bit as I worked the pen. But, ironically, it was a burgeoning confidence talking, a confidence Harry James had worked to instill.
The letter was part of the reason I transferred from Pomona to UC Berkeley up north. I needed out from under the expectations of that small, safe, cloistered place where 17 relatives had preceded me and, it seemed, everybody was looking over my shoulder. Berkeley was a huge, impersonal, vibrant soup, in the throes of anti-war protests and Black Panther rallies, and as soon as I arrived I felt a great weight lifting, a light of new possibilities beyond what I’d known or what had been laid out for me.
Harry James lived a good while after he “retired.” He died in 1978, at 82, though I didn’t learn about it until many years later. He and Grace left Lolomi Lodge and the 35 acres that comprised the Trailfinders Camp to the University of California Natural Reserve System. It’s now the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve. Anyone can go there to study the pollywogs in Indian Creek or the nesting patterns of western bluebirds. There is a sophisticated weather station, and remote sensors and webcams. There are dorms in the meadow where we used to lay our sleeping bags.
I never saw Harry again. Those two letters were our last contact.
But I still carry in my wallet my Trailfinders Life-Member card, Ponderosa Council. Signed on the back in adolescent cursive. And, except for a year in New York City following graduation from Berkeley, I’ve been in the mountains ever since.