Tassajara Stories


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last edit 3-1-18


The phone line was out. I was the go-to guy and grateful for that role. After work meeting I got a backpack with a few tools and the portable crank phone. Followed it from the office downstream looking for a break or a ground. The creek had to be crossed four times to get to the narrows. There had been rains. It was high. It could always be crossed somehow. A sycamore had fallen and served as the last crossing for years. Balancing over it with a cold flowing creek below. Before the narrows there’s a small creek that comes down from the horse pasture. The line follows a trail that goes up there. Hooked up the phone with the line and cranked it. Got an answer in the office. I’d do that occasionally just to make sure and keep in touch even though I was close to positive the problem lay further on.

Went up another mile or so to the horse pasture trail, followed it to a wide expanse, distant mountains visible, the path curving around the mountainside, the line swaying unbroken across a couple hundred yards to the other side ahead. The problem lay somewhere in the eight or so miles forward. Returned to Tassajara to prepare for a longer haul. Usually at that point in the discovery process I’d load up the Trailblazer and drive to Fred’s Camp, test it there and hope it was our problem so I could stay away from the Tassajara schedule and be in the woods. If it was Pac Bell’s problem I’d let them know, forget it, and eat a bunch of food we didn’t have like a hamburger- and maybe drink a beer or two or three. If the problem was on our end, I’d drive to the Horse Bridge. After that , just walking and keeping the line in view, sometimes in rough terrain, but always wonderful in its remoteness from any hint of civilization.

I couldn’t drive to Fred’s Camp or the Horse Bridge this time as the road was out due to storms, slides, downed trees, deep snow on top. Had to walk it keeping my eye on the line. More than could be done in a day if the ground or break was far.

My Dane buddy Niels came along to carry the pack of gear to the creek crossing before the horse bridge. He had incredible balance and walked with heavy pack on the log crossing the creek.

Noah, the dirty blonde, medium build, slight frame Tassajara dog, came with us. The creek was too swift and rough there for him to cross so Niels carried him across that log next. Noah loved all people and dogs – never barked at a human or canine guest that came in. But Noah enthusiastically tried to kill anything else small or large. Once saw him take on a ten point buck at Grasshopper Flats. Nancy Lay had brought Noah in from Big Sur. Noah was sort of confused from not having one main person to relate to. He slept in my room with me for months and I loved it but one evening he didn’t show and that was the end of it. Went to someone else for a while. He was an orphan with too many parents.

We three stopped to rest and drink water. I only brought a small container as I’d fill it from the creek. Now days people aren’t supposed to drink from creeks because of Giardia. I hadn’t heard of it back then. Niels unloaded the heavy backpack and sighed. Noah was barking not far off. I looked up at the sun and figured it was about ten in the morning.

Niels opened the pack and started questioning the wisdom of bringing each item which I defended as necessary. “Bolt cutter?”

“Might need ‘em – and if I do there they are.”

He grunted and kept looking. Wire cutters, electricians pliers, pruning saw, hatchet, hammer, nails, screw driver, flashlight and extra batteries, snake bite kit, burner for heating water with a small pan, some rice, miso, and green tea, change of clothes, Basic H liquid soap, extra line and rope attached to the outside, trail mix. Oh yes - insulators. People collect old insulators. A guest in the summer had offered me money to take down our old ones and replace them with new ones. I said maybe next year.

“A goddamn come-along!” He held it up and looked at me in wonderment.

“I might have to tighten the line and there are other uses.”

“You could do them all without it. I can make a come-along with the rope that will do anything this will!”

I was going to question that but Noah‘s barking and an eerie cry got our attention.

“Look!” Niels called out in his urgent voice “Noah got a deer!”

I could see through the trees uphill Noah’s teeth and a small deer’s front legs. The deer cried out like a baby. Noah lunged for its neck. Pathetic cries continued. We yelled at Noah to stop and ran up but it was all over. A young doe. Some blood. Noah was panting, unconcerned with our objections. He lay down.

We stood there in silence finally broken by me. “What are we going to do with the deer?”

“What do you mean? We leave it here. Do you plan to have it for dinner?”

“Well someone should.”

“And how are you going to get it to them?”

“I’ll carry it.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

I kept insisting. He kept calling me stupid. We trudged on, Niels with the pack on his shoulders, me with the doe over mine.

“David Chadwick you are a completely crazy man.”

“I couldn’t leave it ,“ I said.

“You know how many how many animals are dying all the time everywhere all over the woods? You want to carry them too? Huh? “

‘This one is our responsibility” I said.

“Noah kills every day. Noah is not a Buddhist. Noah’s religion is killing. You should follow Noah into the woods every day and carry back all the animals he kills.”

We went on another half hour then, “Here’s Tassajara Creek,” Niels said.

I corrected him “No, it’s called Willow Creek from where they join just above here.

“Now you’ve got to carry your new friend across,” he said as I lay the deer down.”

The creek in winter after strong rains could kill you where it’s narrow but downstream near the horse bridge where the trail meets the creek its wide and can be crossed with some effort. And no matter how easy it is to maneuver, in winter it’s cold as heck. Earlier that practice period a bunch of students came in that way in January because the road was out. The water was much lower at that time as it was before the early spring rains.

Niels had done the heavy lifting up to now. The dead doe I’d carried that far didn’t count. I put my clothes on a rock next to my Red Wing boots, handed one end of the rope to Niels, walked the bank upstream for as far as it would let me - about 120 feet. I stepped naked into the creek and gasped, then up to my knees and gasped again. The next step sank me in above the waist and I screamed involuntarily.

“You sound like you’re having an orgasm!” he called out.

I couldn’t make a snappy retort as I was hyperventilating. I struggled and stumbled but didn’t fall down, Trying to go straight across got to the other bank opposite where Niels stood. We secured each side and I went back holding the rope which made it a lot easier.

“And it's tight thanks to your masterful trucker’s hitch," I praised.

"It was for ships long before trucks. It's a Viking knot." He pronounced that with a W sound for the V.

Niels took off his clothes, lifted the pack over his head, stepped in the water on the upcreek side of the rope so it would push him toward it. He was taller than I so it hit him hip level. “You call this cold? This is like a hot bath compared to a creek in a Danish winter!”

“Niels It can only get so cold before it’s ice,” I said.

“No! In Denmark the water is so used to the cold that it takes another ten degrees to freeze it!”

He carried on and without screaming or exhibiting any difficulty. I followed him with my clothes over my head. Noah jumped in and was swept downstream. We didn’t worry. By the time we were both on the other side, Noah came running up to us. I stepped back in.

”Why are you going back?” Niels asked.

‘To get the doe”

“That s complete crazy”

I ignored him and got the deer which I struggled to get across.

“Now you are on your own to carry the 90 pound pack and the dead deer,” Niels said. “And any other dead animals you find. There are probably a lot of dead insects in the bushes you could get!”

I realized I couldn’t go any further with the deer. The Willow Creek trail was just above the embankment. He brought the pack and I the deer up there.

“I’ll leave it here and tell the rangers” I said. “Maybe someone will eat it.

“It will be eaten for sure” he said “But I bet it’s not by people”

“OK, guess I’d better get going,” I said.

“No! – first we must have a coffee break!”

"No coffee. Mid morning tea."

He was less excited about that but settled for second best. We got the burner going, heated some creek water and shared a cup of bancha.

On more than one day off after breakfast in the zendo, we went to his tiny room in the dorm where he made ridiculously strong instant coffee in small cups. There was good drip coffee available by the kitchen but he had some special instant he said was closer to the spirit of espresso. When he tried to put two teaspoons of sugar in mine like his. I overruled him. We’d get such a buzz, roll and smoke one cigarette after another, and talk constantly with a second heavy hit of the dark brown powder along the way. Our bodies were so rarified from the vegetarian food and demanding schedule that it felt a lot like taking a couple of lines of cocaine and jabbering away. Same sort of elevated state and then the crash and he’d kick me out of his room. “I’m tired of you now David Chadowick. Go away,”

Back to the creek, both still naked. As he crossed he held on to Noah so he wouldn't be carried away again. We stood on opposing banks yelling insults at each other while we got our clothes and boots back on. Noah stood by Niels’ side shaking off the water.

“You’re complete fucking crazy” he called out.

“You’re complete fucking Viking!” I yelled back, pronouncing it like he did.

We left the rope there for posterity which might well include us.

Bowed a gassho to the poor little doe corpse and carried that heavy pack toward the Arroyo Seco maybe half a mile. There’s a camp with wooden buildings before the Horse Bridge. It was rented out by the Forest Service I guess. I’d seen it used by Scouts, a church group, and once by the Shire School whose spring outing there Alan Marlowe and I had once happened upon.


We were doing the annual spring cleaning of the line, going along it clearing branches that imposed on it, reattaching the line to insulators. Sometimes it would be running along on the ground for a ways and still be working as long as it wasn’t raining hard. The dryer the weather the better it worked. If it was going out when there was rain we knew to go walking along it till we found where it was down and get it back up. And that was my job for a few years. How wonderful it was.

Climbing trees I learned to smell ants and if I did I'd scoot down and leave that one alone. You can learn to smell rattlesnakes too though I wouldn’t trust my nose before my eyes. They aren’t aggressive, at least the ones around there, but you don’t want to surprise them. We had to climb some in steep places to follow the line and knew not to put a hand where I couldn’t see.

And then there are heights. I’ve never loved heights but somehow have ended up working at them more than I was comfortable with. I got vertigo way up in a tall tree one day and realized I was losing the distinction between gripping and letting go. Slid down that tree in a couple of seconds. I'd always wondered why boys who climb tall water tower ladders sometimes fall to their deaths and then I knew. Thus there would be places we’d skip. The line could be touching branches and leaves here and there without any noticeable interference.

I did the poison oak places. We had people at Tassajara like Sandy Watkins whom it seemed got poison oak blisters from the air. People got it from dogs too. Steve Brown had to be driven to a hospital one morning looking like he’d been stung by a thousand bees because the day before he’d handled leafless poison oak vines and roots while digging a ditch in the winter. I wasn’t real susceptible to poison oak but respected it, called it Tassajara enemy number one, and would warn people that you can lose your immunity through contact because it’s an allergy. The deer eat it and I learned that Indians used to eat homeopathic bits in the early spring to build up a tolerance and we’ve had students who did that without any bad results. Best not to mess with it. But I had to. I'd cover myself with liquid soap and go into a patch of poison oak sometimes taller than I am to get to the line, do the work, then go into the creek and wash my body and clothes in cold water. The soap cut the oil and the cold water didn't open up the pores. Oh – bees. That’s another critter that could keep me out of a tree – them and wasps. And to doctors and paramedics who advised us on medical emergencies , a bee sting for someone who was highly allergic was the most dangerous possibility. So we kept a syringe with adrenalin in the office first aid kit for such an emergency. It's been used more than once.

Alan was tall and strong and usually most talkative but not on this trip. Wasn’t enough energy left for that. For two days we worked our butts off from sunrise to sunset, cooked up some miso soup and brown rice. We'd sit zazen, go to sleep, awaken at the first sign of light, sit, eat the left over rice and miso and get to work. We were full of energy charging through a couple miles of line in a day. Then on the third day we arrived at the Horse Bridge where the line crossed the Arroyo Seco River. We could hear children's' voices and walked over to the camp.

There were people we knew there. The Shire School in San Francisco had rented the facility for their spring outing. The Shire School was the ultimate hippie dream school. Most people today would consider their policies criminal, actually most people back then too. Tony Johansen, an early student of Suzuki’s and husband of Toni, was a founder. He greeted us warmly with hugs. As soon as we put our packs down we were passed a joint. Time for a break. It was late afternoon. We'd earned it. At Tassajara there was no dope, no booze, no meat or fish. With the Shire School teachers, parents, and students including elementary level, we lay back and enjoyed the music then feasted on hamburger, cheese, beer, wine, pot, and a nap around the fire.

The next morning we got up late. No time for zazen. Ate bacon and eggs and pancakes, coffee instead of green tea. Then back to the line. There was a difference. We'd lost our buoyancy, faded like our batteries were running out. We trudged. Every small incline an effort, every tree an ordeal. The joy of hard work in the great outdoors had been extinguished. It was the most convincing lesson in the importance of living lightly and minimizing indulgences.

There was a movie Sylvester Stallone starred in where he went to the future via cryogenics and everyone was pure but also lacking in personal freedom, vitality, and happiness. He taught them how to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and eat rats because there was no beef. The audience is to sympathize with his returning people to the lifestyle he’d known before as the cure for what they were missing in the future. He wouldn't have been so sure about that particular approach I thought, if he had been with Alan and me on that phone line job.


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