Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-21


I did a lot of climbing and steep trails around Tassajara. Nothing at all risky. Some of it for fun, some on searches day and night for people who didn’t come back from hikes. Did the steep climb up to Flag Rock a few times. It’s not easy at all. I wouldn’t want to try it now. Especially toward the top. But it’s not perilous as long as one goes up from the road and not from the more sheer side facing the creek and lower garden like my son Clay in his teens did by himself almost falling to his maybe death and coming late to dinner all scuffed up. I'd already told him that in the first year we were there some students came back all shook up with frightening descriptions of their close calls trying to get up and then trying to get down that way.


The rock up top is flat and one can sit on it and enjoy the view from there which is terrific – Tassajara reduced to a tiny toy settlement in a deep bending valley surrounded by steep, mountainous terrain. There was a short flag pole at the top sporting various flags through the decades including Tibetan prayer flags. One can exit the back way to the Horse Pasture trail, an easy way to get back to camp. Dianne and I climbed up there once in the sixties and ate our day off bag lunches. One can lie on the rock as well.


Hiking down from the Horse Pasture to Tassajara Creek the trail follows that other little creek of phone line fame and skirts around a waterfall that dries up in the summer. It’s a narrow trail carved into the side of a steep dry, rocky incline with sharp swords of yucca to slip around. Like entering a bit of desert biologist Sterling Bunnell pointed out to me at that spot, one of three ecological zones that mesh in those parts. When I take that trail I'm careful not to miss a step where I've seen Niels and Dan Welch scamper down its loose sandy steepness whooping with delight. Niels especially had the mountain goat gene.


One time as Niels and I came to this spot from above I remarked on this difference in our approaches to that stretch and he said, 'You are right. It’s too dangerous to go that way. I will take the waterfall." I looked over. There was a trickle of water still falling down about forty feet onto the stony creek below. I suggested it would be more prudent for Niels to come with me on the trail which really wasn’t dangerous at all. But he feigned terror at the trail as he stepped into the creek bed above the falls.


“Oh come on Niels – please, please, please don’t,” I begged which only encouraged him to mock me more. As I walked sheepishly around, he started climbing down the face of the drop-off next to the falls. He called out how safe he felt now that he wasn’t on the trail. It seemed only I who stood on solid ground was squeamish. He got to a spot where he couldn't go any further - I'd say he was over two stones up there. I assumed he was going to give up and climb back up but suddenly he leaped out to catch the branch of a tree that grew below on his descent. I about feinted. He caught it, swung down and up and it held. We met below where he congratulated me on conquering the harrowing trail.


My mother was visiting from Texas. John Steiner offered to let her stay in a nice apartment he or someone in his family had in downtown San Francisco. It was forty floors or so up. My sister Susan was staying there too even though she lived in San Francisco. Niels and Bob came with me to visit. We sat out on the balcony and chatted. I mentioned that I can't feel completely comfortable being that close to that many feet down. The talk gravitated to them telling height stories. I had other minor height stories from my teen years but couldn't brag about them before these guys.

Niels said when he was a teenager in Denmark that he was eating lunch with his fellow workers on the roof of a two story building and they'd mentioned they’d notice he didn't mind working on the edge and asked him wasn't he ever afraid of falling and he said he wasn't even afraid of jumping or even diving  from there. So they dared him to dive. He said there were substantial bushes below and he dove into them, climbed up with some scratches showing, and continued eating. One of them said he was crazy to do that, that he was lucky he didn't get killed. It was nothing he said and dove off again.

Bob was doing high-rise work while living in the city in one of the apartments across from Sokoji. He and a few other he-men students were iron workers. He actually liked being up there walking on the iron beams balancing another one on his shoulder, the city far below. Lot of macho stories like about the foreman barking at someone who’d fallen down though not off while carrying a beam to get back up and quit goofing off. Bob said when he was in high school he'd go to the Minneapolis Public Library, take it's spiral staircase to the top floor, climb on the outside of the railing, lower himself down, hang by one arm like four floors up and stay there as people below began to notice, gather, stare, get concerned till finally a librarian  would go up and ask him please not to do that.

We stood at the railing of the balcony. What a view of the city, the Bay, Berkley and Richmond beyond. I didn't like getting too close to the railing, get the feeling I’m being sucked down. Bob on the other hand climbed over it and Niels followed. Mother, Susan and I gasped and asked them please come back. They just smiled leaning back. "Please, please, please," I begged again. "Come back. Come back." Then Bob let go and fell back. - screams- and grabbed the railing with outstretched arms at the last second - then they were both doing it-letting go- falling back-then grabbing the railing at the last second. We couldn’t take it, retreated into the apartment protestations continuing. I went out into the hall outside the apartment. Finally it was over. We went out to dinner. None of us recovered completely from the trauma of their extreme behavior until at least after dessert. Years after Niels told me he couldn't sleep that night flinching and recoiling from the realization of how close he’d let it get.


I am reminded about a couple of guests when I was director at Tassajara in 1975, guests who had extreme fear of heights. Stan Greenberg was one. He wrote the screenplays for Soylent Green and Missiles of October  - two important award winning recent films I'd happen to have seen. I didn't get many films in back then.

I went down creek with Stan and his friends. He grilled me beforehand asking if there were any heights involved. I said that one has to be careful in a few places but almost anyone can do it. He was freaked out even before those few places. I was standing in front of him on a surface he could have hopped down to and he was clinging desperately to the canyon wall. There are situations I've been in with heights that scared me that didn't scare whom I was with all but at least in my case, a fall would seriously hurt or worse. But he went on and on that evening in the dining room about how I’d tried to kill him though he was still friendly with me.

There was another case of acrophobia that was more extreme - more than I would have imagined possible. Some regular guests at Tassajara who always had complaints had just arrived and already were complaining. Someone came from the office to the dining room where we were setting up and asked me to please go talk to them. I was happy to because the first thing they'd do would be to open up their portable bar. They were distressed about the behavior of the driver of a car behind them coming in, how he kept honking and honking and passed them going much too fast, almost forcing them off the road they felt where there was nowhere to go but down. I apologized, sympathized, and said yeah I'd heard a car coming in pretty fast a while ago and told them I’d chastise the driver.

I had met that guy in the parking lot when he arrived. Convertible sports car hissing steam from the radiator. I had to talk to him again because he'd be meeting up with his accusers in the dining room and they might recognize him. He said they were going so slow it was driving him crazy and they wouldn't pull over. He explained he'd driven so fast because he was terrified of going off the road and it is a scary road to many - especially the first time. And people have gone off and died. His solution was to drive as fast as he could to get through it as quickly as possible. Hmmm. That was the first inkling of a rather extreme condition. Anyway, he said he'd apologize to them.

We went together on a hike upstream. The walk with Greenberg was a short one during a break but this was to be a long hike on a day off which students got every fifth day, He also asked beforehand if there were any threatening heights involved and I assured him there weren't. We headed out from the office and he said, "See – see that, I wouldn't want to be up there," and he pointed to the nearby road above a five foot stone wall. And then I saw him having trouble with a two foot differential between us and the stone rooms. Palms out, backing away, going, “No, no, no.”

Went past the baths to Grasshopper Flats, he likes flats he said. Then we started up the trail that goes over the hogback and it’s a little steep but you couldn't hurt yourself if you fell down much more than falling down on level ground. It’s not a dangerous slope. You can scoot down it. I’ve stood on it and cleared fallen branches for fire safety.

He went, "No! What are you trying to do to me! No way man! Good lord!" and ran screaming to the bottom a good ten feet down the path. He still wanted to go up creek but he said he'd try just going in the creek. I like doing that in the summer so we walked and waded in the creek. But I worried about some places to come. We came to them and turned out there was no cause for worry. Where we had to go from rock to rock small or large he had no problem. I had trouble keeping up with him. He was jumping from boulder to boulder with ten foot drops in between. Much much more dangerous than taking the Hogback and trails which weren’t dangerous at all. We got way up creek, sat down and ate our bag lunches.

Went all the way to Church Creek Ranch. Took about four hours. Visited the cave with the Indian hands painted on the wall. He said he'd read a poem by Robinson Jeffers about hands like those at Tassajara and he'd like to see them too. I said that these are the ones Jeffers was writing about. I love Church Creek, so spacious and open. Beautiful big rock formations. We visited with a nice young couple running the place. We were each other's nearest neighbors and it was only the third time I'd met them. Tassajara and Church Creek residents were closer before cars and the road to Church Creek. They'd ride horses and trade and visit. They were of course much more isolated than we were being just the two of them and we had a hard time pulling away. Didn't have much time before it got dark.

We ran back miles on the rocks to Tassajara. I had to hustle to keep up with him who was stepping lightly. It was pretty dark by the time we got to Grasshopper Flats. The dining room crew had already taken back the food so we ate in the kitchen. At the baths, I tried to get him to explain the difference - why he was terrified beyond belief at one type of height and oblivious of  the other. He just said, “What are you talking about?! They have nothing in common!”


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