I had been bush whacking through thick undergrowth, up and down ridge after ridge.Finally, after three hours of heat, sweat, scratches, and obscenities, the glimpse of sun off metal had drawn me down off the ridge, and to the edge of what I later learned was Stump Ranch.
As I drew closer to the source of the glint, a small A-frame house materialized from the trees. I circled the open yard, behind the thin cover of branches, warily keeping a look out for yard dogs. In the south, I had often stumbled across these rangy canines stretched out in dusty yards, waiting for their cue to explode from the ground with angry barks and fierce snarls – protecting their small piece of territory. All was quiet as I circled around to the front of the small house.
I stood on the dirt road out front of the house, studying it closely. Glancing over to my left, I did a double take as I read “If you can read this, you are in range.” Immediately next to this sign was a small yellow yield sign that read “Cowgirl Crossing.” The conflicting messages had me shifting from foot to foot as my fight or flight instincts battled with uncertainty. I struggled to conjure up the image of a sharp shooting cowgirl lying in wait. Surely, she would empathize with another female and reconsider pulling the trigger. Just the presence of signs indicated she was at least willing to warn me…right?
I moved slowly towards the house, noting the brand new Cadillac parked in the middle of the front yard. The car was parked at the base of what appeared to be a long handicap ramp, stretching over a small, rapidly flowing stream that crossed directly in front of the
meth lab home. The open, covered porch was tightly packed with furniture, tools, dishes, and an ancient electric washing machine (the kind with actual rollers on top) that appeared it may still be in working order. Though crowded, everything was stacked neatly and there was a sense of tidiness to the porch.
I glanced through a large window to the right of a faded, wooden door. Pausing, I saw an elderly, balding man sitting on what appeared to be a single bed at the back of a small living room. I immediately stepped back to the left and knocked lightly on the door, below the mounted iron horseshoe.
“Come in,” I heard. The voice was muffled, and appeared to be that of a female.
“You don’t know me,” I yelled back. She probably received few visitors and assumed I was someone she knew. She lived on a one way dirt road, so anyone coming out here was clearly coming to visit the only home at the end.
I heard a thumping, dragging sound moving towards the door. That must be a heavy rifle I thought..
The door opened to a small, wiry, white haired woman, peering up at me from behind her walker. I watched as she flipped up the sun glass clip-ons over her thick glasses – piercing blue eyes that did not waiver as she peered up at me.
“You are lost,” she stated matter of factly. “Hikers haven’t come through here for years, since they moved the trail.”
“My name is Ellie,” I said as I offered her my hand.
I was startled as she placed a set of keys in my hand, and turned back into the house.
“Put your pack in the trunk. We are riding in to town.”
“What town?” I said.
“Chester. Are you that lost?” she said.
I stood their grinning. It was my lucky day. It appeared I would get in to town today after all. Now, I just needed to pay attention so I could find my way back out here tomorrow.
“I am Barbara Frost, and this is Stump Ranch,” I heard the woman say as she slowly moved across the room towards the bed I had seen through the window. The old man was nowhere to be seen.
Mrs. Frost turned slowly to look at me. “See that chest-o-drawers over there. Take the photo album out of the bottom drawer,” she said.
In the bottom of the old wooden chest-o-drawer was an old brown photo album. I sat down on Mrs. Frost’s worn sofa and began paging through pictures of PCT hikers. I sat staring at glimpses back in time. Hikers with long hair, braids, short shorts, thick leather boots, and large external packs stared back at me. I pulled out several of the pictures and flipped them over. There were names scrawled across the back of several, and dates from the 70’s.
She made her way back over to me, and slowly sat down next to me on the sofa. She leaned over and looked down at the album for a few moments, studying the pictures as I flipped the pages.
“The trail used to pass through here,” she said. “I also have a box of postcards from those hikers. They would ask for water, and sometimes camp near the house,” she said almost wistfully.
I studied these ghosts from the past. They were a tougher more rugged version of me, with their fifty plus pound packs and heavy leather boots. I paged through the plastic sheaths, noting the relaxed easy postures and, confident grins that gazed back at me.
“I often wonder where those hikers are now,” I heard her murmur quietly.
A sad expression flashed briefly across her face. Suddenly, she shook her head a little and began to pull herself up with the walker.
“Let’s go. Bring that book with you,” she said abruptly.
“Is your husband coming?” I said, glancing around the room.
“He is my third one. He will be fine,” she said, almost as if being later in the list meant he required less attention than the two before him.
Once outside, she paused at the driver’s door of the car. The windows were down, and I bent down to look through my window, as I heard Mrs. Frost call out to me.
“Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” she said.
I realized my ride might depend on the answer during this election year. I had always thought of O’Bama as a sure bet in the land of the “Fruits and the Nuts,” but I was in rural California, and was quickly learning that rural California might be even more conservative than the rural south.
“I’m a republican,” I said.
She stood staring at me a moment. “Get in,” she said.
“I don’t believe you,” she said as she slid in behind the wheel, “but you are young and don’t know any better.”
Mrs. Frost grasped the steering wheel with her left hand, and peered at her flip phone with the other, drawing it closer to her face. I glanced at the phone screen to see one number. I watched as she slowly punched in another number. I had no idea the font on a phone could even be that big. We weaved slightly on the sandy, dirt road, but remained fairly centered as she peered at her phone. I suspect she probably could have driven that road in her sleep. Hopefully, nothing crossed our path during the drive.
“That is the Feather River,” she said…wheel in one hand and phone in the other. “My hikers used to cross the river, but then they built that damn wasteful Red Wood Bridge. They spent all that money so the hikers would not have to walk through the water. Isn’t that what hiking is all about, the challenge? What a waste of my tax money – liberals.”
I smiled and listened to her diatribe on politics and presidential candidates for the next half hour. She was clearly a very bright woman, with very strong opinions on the state of our country and it’s demise at the hands of an “entitled” generation.
I had been excited about getting into town early to get chores completed, but quickly realized Mrs. Frost had other plans. We stopped at the grocery store and hardware store. I was handed a list at each location, along with some cash, and Barbara waited in the car. Each time I returned, there would be someone talking to her at the driver’s window. She would sit there quietly listening, and when I arrived she would tell the person she had to leave. Once we pulled away, I would get a complete bio of that person, along with their relation to events and people in the town. Barbara had lived on Stump Ranch since 1941, and appeared to know everyone in Chester.
After stopping by the post office, we headed for a local diner. Barbara sat with me while I ate, nibbling on her Tuna melt. We talked about her three husbands, and the advantages and disadvantages of marriage. She was a very practical woman, having loved one man, and married the other two out of necessity or convenience.
“I saw the bear pelt on the floor in your home. Did your husband shoot him?” I said.
“I was 82 when I shot him a few years ago. He broke through my picture window, and did 11k in damages to my home,” she said.
I was not sure if I was more shocked by her age or the fact that she had shot the bear breaking into her home. I just sat in silence – at a loss for words.
“I’m 86 now. I was a better shot when I was younger,” she said – the smirk now having stretched into a grin.
I just stared, before blurting out “What kind of gun?”
“I used my SKS Assault rifle before our idiot governor banned them. Who is he to tell me what kind of gun I keep in my own home.”
“Isn’t it illegal to shoot black bears?”
Barbara just gave me one of her poor young idiot looks. I was becoming accustomed to the expression.
“We follow the 3S rule,” she said. I just stared blankly.
“Shoot, shovel, and shut up,” she said in exasperation. “No harm, no foul. Nobody is gonna miss that bear, and he broke into my house.”
I just nodded. I mean, how was I even going to argue with her logic. Besides, I was still trying to get my mind around the image of this 80 something year old woman shooting a large black bear with an assault rifle at what had to have been pretty much point blank range. I knew nothing about guns, but could this tiny woman even lift an assault rifle, much less manage any type of recoil without toppling over? I knew better than to question her.
My motel was next door, so I walked Mrs. Frost to her car, and put her walker in the back seat. I thanked her and turned to walk away.
“Hey,” she said softly through the open window.
I turned back to her and smiled.
“You listen to me,” she said.
“I should have left that ranch and gone out into the world, but I got swept up in life. Go where you want, and see what you will. Those are memories you will carry your whole life. They will remind you of the good places when you need to forget the bad.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. I stood watching her reverse and drive away.
I’ve always hiked because of the challenge and growth provided, but I’ve often found my hikes impacted and changed by the people I meet along the way. As my focus and purpose sometimes begin to fade, it never fails that I meet someone who manages to adjust my perspective, and make me reevaluate my direction.