A Half Dome Parable

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My friend doctor Erlich is a big man with curly red hair and by sharp contrast, a black beard. He’s stolid, muscled, and speaks with a faint E. European Yiddish accent that adds a patina of culture and history to his persona.  A very organized man, he religiously leaves the Bay Area twice a month to make a weekend California mountain-top pilgrimage. He often goes alone; sometimes I accompany him. This time, however he plans to introduce his young son to mythic Yosemite Half Dome. He knows I had introduced all my children to the mountains at a very young age.  At best (or at worst) I led my four year old son by the hand on a long slow 22 mile three day hike into Emigrant Basin; now my sons return the favor.  In retrospect, maybe Dr. Erlich suspected that sort of challenge would be of a different order than simply dominating a resentful if inert mountain.  In any event, he called, and I agreed to go along.

 Eleven  year old Josh has been a gifted child since long before conception, and remains so today. No one, including Josh, has much doubt he will be a gifted man as well.  Like his father he is, and artful, sometimes deadly, intellectual, and fearfully energetic. Unlike Dr Erlich he is, at least for now, slender and rather delicate looking.


Not the least of the joys of hiking with a child or with friends is that time moves slowly, but uninterruptedly, allowing enjoyment of  an aspect of  that living seems scarce: idle conversation. Ordinarily there is no purpose to such talk, but of course, when an intellectual and ambitious father and son are together, that may change. So we often speak about B S: Big Stuff, like politics and government. Erlich suggests-

“In an ordered society, only government can freely act in ways illegal for the rest of us.” Josh responds:

“In wartime wouldn’t it better to flee to the enemy, so one can be accorded special privileges there as a dissenter?”  Erlich replies-or evades- Josh’s comment,

“That depends on what country and what war. But I think if one is a citizen of the country of God or of Time/Space, one’s duty is to survive as long as possible.” I risk weakly,

“To survive in WWII Poland it might have been necessary to abandon dogma and loyalty  by siding  with either Russians or the Germans  at different times.”  Erlich agrees:

“ Right. Josh’s grandfather was a skilled mechanic in Poland during The War. In the Soviet-German division of Poland, he was conscripted to work on Russian military motorized equipment. When Hitler took ‘the Soviet half’ of Poland he worked for them; and when suspected of being Jewish he escaped to Russia, was imprisoned in Siberia, but escaped the holocaust, and was allowed to emigrate to the US later.  That is why Josh and I are here today.”

“It’s  is almost mathematically impossible that any  one of us be collected from the dust  of  gazillions  of  dead stars, accrete here on earth,  and actually become a single survivor among   trillions of gametes.” I thought,

‘Eleven? It’s a lie.  When I was eleven I had an argument with a friend where I claimed women had cloacas  like birds; ( Josh would have said, ‘no, cloacae!’)’    So that’s how it went.  Erlich and I are very libertarian-conservative, if there is such a thing, and Josh is- well, from Berkeley; we avoid that sort of politics. In desperation I cleverly begin to point out different trees and shrubs and flowers, trying to make the presentation almost academic, with some success.


From the outset we make frequent rest stops, to the visible but unspoken dismay of the Doctor. As the morning grows short our pace slows even more. Erlich becomes rather more disillusioned when an octogenarian grandmother hobbles by at one of our rest stops with a clutch of her descendents. We can’t be sure she will fail to reach the top of Half Dome but vaguely hope so; but she claims she has been climbing Half Dome every few years- forever. Bummer, Granny, as they say.


Ex-and-now-again-Governor Jerry Brown passes us at the million dollar half way toilet above the long  series of giant steps leading to NevadaFalls.  There solar panels fuel an underground pump that sucks noxious all -too-human fumes down past the seated guest and deposits them somewhere only Wiki-leaks knows.  Sitting or standing there with fresh mountain air whistling down the hole makes one suspect that occasionally an  ‘investment’ of taxes might be defensible;  even though the pipe could end in someone’s back yard. Preferably it would go to Yucca Mountain.


A few hours later, we are still quite a way from the long series of high rock steps that lead to the infamous metal cable on the face of Half Dome; many people are going by in the opposite direction: returning.  Maybe it is mainly because of our situation, but we notice and speak with a significant number of father-son pairs, who dejectedly confess they have not made the top of Half Dome, and are out of sorts with one another.  Usually the effort has failed because of exhaustion, or a plain and simple child’s deep seated fear of the steep open rock face and cable.


Erlich  himself now starts to complain frequently of the need to rest- which makes no sense to me, knowing him to be a man-mountain lion.  But I keep it to myself. It becomes very clear that we will not reach the top of Half Dome, so the Doctor suggests they eat lunch and I simply go on ahead, and meet them at the base of the cable, or somewhere else on the way down; he apologizes profusely for being too tired to continue.


In short order I reach the cable. There I proudly pass the grandma, rush up to the top, eat my snack, chat with the folks nearby,  walk the dome, survey the view, and descend. Late in the day, back at Happy Isles Nature Center, I find Josh and Dr. Erlich waiting. Both are energized, animated, and exhilarated. They are talking BS and planning other climbs.  The Dr. has completely recovered from his exhaustion. Josh relates the details of their day eagerly.


I have never climbed a mountain without hearing its voice telling some unsuspected timeless truth.  On that day, on that mountain, beside the Merced  (Mercy) River, my strongest and fondest memory is of that father and that son, who acted together in a living parable about family values; about fathers and sons.

Musings of a Holden Mine Newsboy

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Googling Holden Village, one finds only a curious l52747271.IMG_4346copy 29424609 tailings pond stelprdb5315614_tn 52105517.PeaknearHolden 5521497ittle looping line in the Wenatchee National Forest in North central Washington. But the satellite view allows one to zoom down Copper peak to an abandoned mine, mill, and tailing pond. Holden village lies just across Railroad Creek and National Forest development road 8301. Much of the Village is visible. There is a one room school, and the former Company Store, and  two-story bunk houses where most miners lived- single men- attracted by unusually high 1940’s pay, of $1.25 daily.  Nearby are 8 or 10 administration family homes. Across the creek- above the tailings pond- are the remains of an abandoned mill; and farther up the side of Copper mountain is the mine entrance. A half mile up   Railroad Creek is the footprint of a family village where miners built their own homes. My father built our home there in off hours with mail ordered material from  Montgomery (‘monkey’) Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogs; the site is now marked only by the stub of an old street light and his faithful rhubarb plants.

In 1940 there was only one newspaper available in Holden, which I delivered after school to about 100 subscribers.  The early nightfall of winter often froze my wet corduroy pants into stiff icy clacking tubes. How sonorously important that made me!  On Sunday, when I had to deliver the heavier papers, I hired a schoolmate to carry the second double front and back newspaper bag. His pay was a 5 cent candy bar, purchased at the company store. Of course a nickel bought very large Hershey then. The profits were less than $10 monthly, in big Howe Sound company tin coins. Even so, the flimsy money worked as well as the stuff we use today, which also now is all base metal, as if our nation has become a company town, whose owners live in Washington, DC. My mother kept the coinage in a sock in her bedroom, and I never saw it again, there being little for a kid to buy there.

 Age 8-10 is often prime time for a boy. For me, Holden was freedom, to be,  to roam, to dream. At night I looked out my 12 x 12 inch Sears attic window at big soft drifting flakes of Pacific moisture,  made larger and brighter in the glow of the street light. On clear dark nights the Aurora Borealis and the moonglow spoke of Flash Gordon. I knew I would one day walk the face of the moon.

 The investment in time, money, sweat, and blood required to find, develop, and operate a mine is huge. It takes years,  scouring remote areas to discover where a mineral resource is likely, drilling hundreds of rock core samples, analyzing the cores. When mineral is found, that is only the beginning. The cost balloons: establishing access to the mine site through roads, conveyor belts, lift lines;  providing for housing, schooling for children, health care, entertainment-a  bowling alley, dance hall,  baseball diamond. Then one must invade the mountain, extract and  mill ore, deal with waste rock and tailings, ventilate the mine, control dust, toxic smoke, and deal with litigation,  or myriad known and unknown governmental  regulations; finally the product must be sold. Only then does the first penny of income appear.  Profit, if any, comes years later, but it can be so significant that the whole enterprise is worth the effort.

The life of a miner may be thought  hard, sad, or poor. Yet I suggest that the miner’s life is like most, and better than many. Miners are often poor by some measures; our Holden house- like  most all mining town housing-  would have been condemned by multiple layers of California government. My parents would have been considered neglectful or abusive to allow me and my sisters to roam old mines, caves, woods, and mountains unsupervised. Yet that freedom shapes responsible, resourceful independent adults; it is a priceless gift.

 Miner and mountain are as natural enemies as wolf and caribou. Both make sacrifices to the needs, or wants, of society for things like jewelry, and copper wire.  The miner attacks the mountain to remove its minerals. The mountain  resists passively, but always readying a cataclysm. Yet in time the mine and miner die, while the vast  bulk  of the mountain survives. When a  mountain is abandoned, snow melt percolates down through the wounded rock leaching out minerals, and the water leaks from the mine entrances.  The mountain bleeds.  But as a living organism it slowly heals.  As to the mine, a valuable mining  infrastructure remains, and is sometimes recuperated, as in  upscale resorts of Colorado and Arizona, or World Heritage Sites like El Teniente, and Chuquicamata, Chile. Holden, Baguio and Balatoc (Filipinas), Eureka and Manhattan, Nevada are all rehabilitated dead mining towns I lived in as a child. Holden is a year round operation of the Lutheran Church.

 Some may think that miners and their families are victims of mining, or mining companies, just as, in a sense, the mountain is. Yet most miners will deny that. My father became an expert in problems with underground water, and at age 88 still consulted with remote and soon to be bankrupt mine operators who agreed to fly him to places like Borneo to talk about their problem. They would pay him off with a big party and roasted suckling pig.  Like many miners, he  was always working, driving around in his decades old car, never wasting, never wanting, wearing his old clothes and acting like Thoreau. It is axiomatic that neither different generations nor the world’s different cultures understand one another any better than individuals understand ourselves.  As to Holden, while my dad sweated in the deeps of Copper Peak, I found it  paradise. But what else could anyone expect of an ignorant kid who is a child of every mountain, every miner, and every mine?