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Tassajara Stories
ZC and Green Gulch Stories

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Two Stories from Willem Malten

Phone Line
I think it was in 1982 I came to Tassajara when everything was still spic and span. But sometimes there were little inklings, that somethings was afoot, and could go wrong. Of course there had already been a fire at Tassajara some 6 years earlier and though vegetation was   coming back, you could see how things were still fragile, and could go wrong again.

So one morning I was woken up by a noise and perhaps even some shaking. What was it? Was it an earthquake? I came outside of one of the cabins along the main road and everything seemed normal. But coming to the little plaza between the kitchen and the dining room, one of the large trees (was it an oak?) had uprooted and had fallen on to the building. Later that day after zazen meditation and breakfast, walking down along the river and going slightly outside of the Tassajara compound, it became clear that there had been a significant landslide. An usually green side of the canyon had let go, and turned vegetation and rocks upside down, leaving a brown streak, even re routing  the river itself by a few yards to the right.

Somehow the phone in Tassajara was also not functioning any longer. No connection, no nothing. This was a different time and things were more primitive then than they are now. The phone was located in a special little outhouse, and somehow you had to turn a crank in order to make a call. Voices on the other side sounded muffled and far away. And that was the only phone for making calls for about 40 peopler so. Things took time and the tenzo (head cook) also needed it to call in the food orders.

At the work meeting that morning Dan Howe and I got a special task. We should find out what was wrong with the phone line, and go fix it. The Tassajara phone was not digital; it was connected to the outside world though a substantial black wire that was strung over the ground for miles and miles.

So, with a backpack and some water and food, we set out along tiny trails and bear paths, to figure out where the wire was broken and fix it. Everything was so beautiful, and fresh, first, close to Tassajara, brutal squeaking Blue Jays and further out, there was a Golden Eagle observing us on a empty tree branch wondering what all our commotion was all about.

Anyhow, after many hours of walking and searching for a rip in the wire, we came to an enormous rock, maybe 11 feet round, that had sliced though the wire coming down —and that was our problem. We fixed it with extra wire and tape and we walked back in the twilight. Now that was a beautiful day.


It was early guest season. A little club of visitors had gone hiking with one of the Tassajara monks (name I forgot) and the dog who looked a little like a German shepherd but was a mud. They had gone berry hunting and the Zen guide had assured them, that he knew those that you could eat and those that were poison. But something had gone wrong, People had eaten the poisonous berries despite the advice, or maybe because of wrong advice, and people were getting more sick as they returned to the central Tassajara plaza. Not just a little bit. They were laying around crying, hands on their stomach. Most participants had changed color into pale green and they were whaling. Some of them vomited and needed to get out. But how? On the crank phone an emergency helicopter was called in, and people were strapped onto stretchers. On the far side of Tassajara there was a hill going up with a small path (seldom used, just for ceremonies), and on top of the ridge there was a platform that could be reached by a helicopter. The monks hauled the stretchers with  sickened guests up that hill, as a fairly large helicopter came down and careened onto the platform. So far so good. The victims were loaded up. Maybe as many as 6 deadly sick people were loaded, perhaps challenging the helicopter capacity. At least that thought crossed my mind. And sure enough, when the helicopter finally took off, it seemed to decent a little bit into the canyon below. “Oh no”, some of us shouted out, but then, the helicopter straightened and pulled back up and out of the Tassajara creek canyon. I think no one got hurt, but it was a close call all around.