Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-19


The first summer, ’67, I walked to Big Sur with Noah. It’s the hardest nine miles I ever did. Starts upstream from Tassajara past Grasshopper Flats, scouting round the waterfall, up over the Tony Trail which a ranger told me was the steepest in the whole huge national forest. Got down to Willow Creek on the other side at about ten in the morning. Sank to my knees and drank desperately from that and every creek crossed that day. Hadn’t brought water. Young idiot me. Noah lapped it up like crazy as well. Looked up. Struck by the experience of being in a place of such remoteness. Had only talked to a few people who'd gone this way.


Dick Price who was running Esalen Institute in Big Sur walked up to me at about one in the afternoon at Grasshopper Flats one day. He was lean, in good shape. Noshed on some trail mix. Went to the hot springs and headed back. I was hoping to do one way before dark.


Yvonne had hiked over alone on her first visit to Tassajara with an exploratory group in the fall of ’66. When they hiked to the Horse Pasture she got separated and went the wrong way – all the way to Willow Creek way down where it meets Tassajara Creek and back up that side to where I sat then smartly chose to go over the Tony Trail to miraculously make it back that night, meeting a search party on her way down.


Looked for signs of Indians. Had found an arrowhead on the other side of the Hogback at Tassajara. Did a double-take when I caught site of a heavy iron contraption. Remembered eccentric Putsy, the ranger who’d been tending to these trails for decades. Said he’d used mules to bring gear, that there used to be mule trains with supplies and gear for prospectors. They never found any gold to speak of. Told me if we ever do find gold in those parts to hide it, bury it, keep it a secret – “Unless you want the place overrun and torn up.”


Onward toward the Pacific through oak covered valleys and meadows and up and down. Just Noah and me. Got to the ridge looking down at the ocean as the sky was darkening. I couldn’t find the trail down. It got really dark. I found a bit of rope off the trail, tied it to Noah who led me down blind, through brush, down the steep hillsides skirting menacing drop-offs until gloriously coming to a road. Then down the road to the first light. Exhausted, parched, staggering to the door.


A tall, thin old man with a white beard answered my knocks. I knew him. It was Dryden Phelps whom I’d met at Tassajara. He was some sort of Buddhist scholar who’d lived for a long time in China. Went there as a Baptist missionary in the twenties. He was quite old. I stood there just trying not to collapse as he talked on and on to me. Eventually his wife appeared “ Who is it?” she asked and after a look at me, “Oh, you poor dear, come in. Have something to drink and eat and rest”. She gave Noah food and drink as well.


The happiest I saw Noah was when a big somewhat shaggy dog came wandering in from the woods one day. They got along so well we gave in and relaxed the one dog rule. Two dog rule is better`. Noah and that dog shared a passion: killing. They'd go running in to the woods and we could hear them barking in the distance and knew what that meant. Sometimes they came back smelling of skunk, sometimes painted in blood. This made us feel uncomfortable to varying degrees.


Some people wanted them fenced, felt responsible. A Buddhist monastery bringing a reign of terror to the realm. Sometimes they stayed out for days to come back and sleep and lie around for days. Then one day Noah came back sad and alone. He’d still go out now. And then and then one day Noah didn't come back. After some months a memorial was held.


I returned to Tassajara as Head Monk in ’74 and in '75 I was director. One day I drove over to Fred's Camp to check the phone line connection. I made a phone call from there to Niels who was married and living with his wife, Maggie Kress, in Muir Beach. He had a carpenter's shop in the city and was making exquisite furniture.


"Hey Niels," I said, "guess who I ran into?" It was Noah. I’d seen him behind a picket fence that went around a white wood slat home. Visited with him a while. “He's living with a family. He's happy"


"I bet he met a hiker and followed ‘em out," Niels said.


A few years later I went with my son Kelly, then about eight, to  the Arroyo Seco River and walked and swam upstream through the pools and narrow canyons, sometimes a couple of yards in between the walls – National Geographic quality. Got to the waterfall with the rope coming down on the side. Not a high falls – maybe fifteen feet but I never got further. As we rested in the circular concave confines of the pool below the falls, I told Kelly I’d discovered that place on an all day walk with his mother back in ‘67. Returned there later on a day off with Niels, Tim Buckley, Alan Marlowe, Tim Aston, and Jerry Fuller. We brought bag lunches, left at sunrise before breakfast in the zendo after a quick munch of gruel and soybeans on the deck outside the kitchen. We walked downstream all the way to the Arroyo Seco – what a trip – it takes longer that way - swimming through pools, jumping rocks. Walked and swam all the way up to that waterfall, stopping to leap off cliff-sides into deep pools. It was getting too late to try to go further but Niels showed us how easy it was by climbing to the top of the falls and jumping in. Wow.


When our group got back to the creek the sky was already getting dark. We went up creek fast as we could. There was a moon waxing near full but most its light was shielded by the trees and the steep rise on each side. Got so dark we could hardly see anything. Tim told about being at a get-together at Gary Snyder’s place in Nevada City where Snyder got everyone running in the woods in the dark, not colliding with trees by grace of subtle sensing. So we did the same – ran onward on the smooth creek stones sometimes leaping, zagging and zigging, bigger mind our copilot, arriving back to Tassajara too late for evening zazen. Soaked in the hot plunge till the fire watch with her clackers came in to turn off the kerosene lamps and kick us out. The next day none of us could understand how we’d done that with no one falling.


Back to Kelly and me around 1981. On the way out we stopped by Fred's Camp to say hello to Noah. A woman came out in the yard and told us what I’d expected, that Noah had died a couple of years back. "He was getting' old" she said. “Lay around a lot. One day he'd didn't get up then wouldn't eat and finally wouldn’t even drink. Looked up at me as if to say 'Let me go,’ and so we did.” He's buried in the yard here. I thanked her, gave a bow, and we drove back to the Bay Area.


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