The Invasion

James, you asked about the great grasshopper invasion of San Luis County. My mom took this photograph on the ranch. It’s Lester Falk holding a prize hopper, the one that didn’t get away. It was very difficult to hit them because they were jumped all over the place and you had to be very good at making a moving shot. You can see he used a 30-30, as a twenty-two slug wouldn’t do the job; the small slug couldn’t penetrate the exoskeleton of the grasshopper.


Exoskeleton, Lester would have laughed himself silly over that word. You see, he never went to school, at least not enough to read and write and words were like a foreign country to him. A very distant foreign country to boot.

His family was “Tractored Out” of Oklahoma in the thirties. They came out to California in ’37, everything they had on the back of a Model T flatbed truck, Grandma, husband, wife and three boys, Frank and the twins, Lester and Chester mixed in with the chairs, mattresses, and the detritus of a failed life. They were considered “no account” in Oklahoma and maybe worse in California. One of thousands of defeated families who would be the models for the Joads.

They were proud though, pride was all they had and they new the meaning of work. It was the only currency they had. That’s all my dad cared about; the work. People have forgotten that everyone was part of the depression. They were all in it up to their necks, particularly the farmers. My dad was no exception. He saw Lester, Lek as he was called, hanging around the Greyhound bus depot on Branch St in the summer of 1939. He was standing there, didn’t have a crown in his hat, broken down old shoes, pasteboard in the soles, his old shirt was torn. Dad needed hands that day and he asked him, “Done any farm work?” He said “Yeah, I have.” Dad asked, “could he drive a truck?” Lester said, “Well, I drove a truck over thar in Maricopa, in them oil fields.” “Well, you want to try and go out and help me?” He said he would. “Had any breakfast? “No” he said, “ain’t had no supper neither.” Dad took him over to Mutt’s cafe and told them to fix him up with breakfast and a lunch. He said that he had some overalls and maybe some old shoes he could wear and put him in the truck and took him out to the ranch. In a week he were showing the others a new way to go.

Skinny he was, couldn’t of weighed more than 150 pounds but he could work like a son-of-a-gun. Smart too, he could fix any kind of machinery, “make ’em go” as dad said. My dad had a university degree; an intelligent, educated man, he could do figures too, he used to figure out things like how many gallons of water it would take to cover all of California a foot deep. Really; he did, just pencil it out on the back of some old envelope he had in his desk. He wasn’t a mechanical man though. How physical things like machinery worked was beyond him. He could turn a nut ok, but the inner workings of a transmission were as mysterious as the mountains of the moon. A boy like Lester, he said, “just goes to show you that an education can’t teach you everything thats important.” “That boy couldn’t read or write but he could take a tractor apart and put it back together blindfolded.” he said, “he could invent ways to do things, just give him an acetylene tank and a couple bucks to spend at the junk yard and you would get a piece of machinery that would cut your work in half.”

I can understand that. I’m smart enough but I was always pretty indifferent in school, noodled my way through with the help of my mothers teacher friends Frankie Campbell, Gladys Loomis and Ruth Teague. Not to forget Gladys Otsugi either. But I can turn a wrench, and I can see every part of a house and how they go together without even closing my eyes. The stories about Lester always made sense to me. Even as a boy, I was always making something, a fort, a boat to put in Arroyo creek and dozens of projects that only farm boys can do.

So Lester worked for my dad for five years until ’42. He was just 21 when they called him up and sent him off. Remember, he was smart and when he told them he couldn’t read or write, he figured they’d just let him go. They didn’t though, they put him in school. He still figured they’d let him go if he wouldn’t learn; but they didn’t. They said, “riflemen don’t need to read and we know you can shoot.” Lester still thought he could figure a way out. He survived the battles for Sicily. He fought with the Texans up the spine of Italy. They told my dad that he tried eating soap on the way to the landings at Anzio hoping he wouldn’t have to go ashore in that awful place. He  just knew he could find a way home.

But he didn’t. They killed him in Normandy. He’s still there.

Lester was just eighteen when the picture was taken.  My dad had the grasshopper stuffed then, and for many years it would turn up as a gag gift at house warming parties around Arroyo Grande. Kenny Talley and I used to play with it when his folks lived on McKinley Street. I think Oliver and Hazel gave it to John and Nancy Loomis when they moved out to the  house on the Tar Springs ranch. I last saw it on a shelf in Chris’s Saloon. Don’t know where it is now.

As the song said, “Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”


Alice Blue Gown and the man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan

I heard a story told, perhaps apocryphal, that at a dinner party Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, asked each person at the table to recount an encounter with some historical event or character within two generations of the present. She said “She wished to show how people are connected to well known events in history.”

alice-roosevelt-600x350 Alice Roosevelt about 1900

Her story illustrated the basic truth of the proposition. She said that an old gardener employed on her family’s estate “Oyster Bay” had been a rifleman in the Continental army and had rowed George Washington across the Delaware river to attack the Hessians in Trenton New Jersey on December 26, 1776. Her father knew the man when he was a youth and the old man recounted the tale of that cold and stormy night. So here you have a quite ordinary man participating in a historic event which Alice said went to prove her point.

In a personal example, one of my closest friends father was the roommate of Lt. Gerald R. Ford,  the future president. They served together on the carrier Monterey in the Pacific during WWII.

My grandfather Jack Shannon was raised in Arroyo Grande. As a teenager he ran away from home several times, finally making good his escape when he was 17. The stories he told of his journey across the country, riding the rails, working a cattle boat from New Orleans to Key West and his adventures as a roustabout in the circus delighted us kids when we were little. He could tell a great story too. Never having gone to high school, which was common for boys in the 1890’s and footloose as could be, he finally made it out of Arroyo Grande, taking the train across the country to New York city.


Jack Shannon at 18.

Both his mother and father’s family had relatives to introduce him to city life. This was in 1900 and New York was a rip roaring place, particularly to a boy from rural Arroyo Grande. At home, the streets weren’t paved, there were no street lights as electricity had not yet made its way here. Imagine how dark it was at night. The big city held wonders for a country boy that perhaps he couldn’t have imagined. That year the largest city in america had a population of over 3.4 million. Arroyo Grande township which included Nipomo to the Santa Maria river and Pismo, Halcyon and Oceano was just 3,319, why in New York entire tenements held more people than that.

ag 1900  bowery 1900

Arroyo Grande and The Bowery, New York, 1900

“The Gilded Age” it was called after a book by Mark Twain which satirized the period as a time of abject poverty gilded with a thin veneer of gold. New York. The majority of laborers families lived in tenements. Sections of the city were noted by the dominance of immigrant groups. Hells Kitchen on the lower west side and the old five points area of Manhattan where gangs such as the Bowery Boys, Whyo’s, and Five Points gang still ruled. Both heavily immigrant Irish. Upon arriving in New York City, most immigrants found themselves moving into the Lower East Side of the city. Most notably the East Village, Astor Place, Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), Alphabet City, the Five Points, Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Bowery. These neighborhoods were crammed together in the area bordered by Fourteenth Street on the north, Broadway and Pearl Street to the west, Fulton Street to the south, and the East River to the east. How different than Arroyo Grande could you get. Part of lower Manhattan was called the “Tenderloin” after a comment  by New York Police Department Captain Alexander S. “Clubber” Williams, who  gave the area its nickname in 1876, when he was transferred to a police precinct in the heart of “Hells hundred acres.”  Referring to the increased amount of bribes he would receive for police protection of both legitimate and illegitimate businesses there – especially the many brothels – Williams said, “Boys, I’ve been having the chuck steak ever since I’ve been on the force, and now I’m going to have a wee bit of the tenderloin.”

The name became a generic term for a red-light district in an American city; San Francisco, California is among the other cities having a well-known “Tenderloin District”.

In mid-town the mansions of the rich were built cheek by jowl along fifth avenue. The John D Rockefeller’s, J P Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, Jay Gould and the Cornelius Vanderbilts had enormous piles of stone along the exclusive area known then as “millionaires row.”

vanderbilt mansion

The Cornelius Vanderbilt home 5th Avenue and 72nd St, New York

My grandfather first took classes and then worked as a trainer at the MacLevy gymnasium on Henry St,  Brooklyn Heights in New York. The gymnasium was located in the old Saint George hotel, at the time advertised as the largest hotel in the world. Professor Levy as he called himself almost single-handedly invented the physical fitness culture as we know it today. He invented the first exercise machines and marketed them to the public. His rowing machines are still sold and the Mac Levy company survives today as a manufacturer of gymnasium equipment. At the time my grandfather worked there he had three locations, one in Manhattan, one on Long Islands north shore and the Saint George.

The hotel had a huge heated salt water pool in the basement. Mac Levy invented a machine to aid in teaching swimming which, at the time, was not a common skill for city people. Several ferry and ship disasters in the New York area were exacerbated because hundreds of people drowned who couldn’t swim or otherwise they might have been saved. Classes were always full.

Hotel St. George - Clark Street - Brooklyn New York

Hotel St. George – Clark Street – Brooklyn New York

Numbers of the wealthy and influential flocked to the gymnasium to learn the latest techniques in good physical and dietary health. Some of the most famous thespians, athletes and business owners of the day were customers. Consider that Charles Delmonico owner of Delmonico’s restaurant, at the time considered the best in New York and the place to be seen was a customer. He credited Mac Levy with saving his life. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer who owned the most influential newspapers in the world were habitués.


Hearst and Pulitzer

Former holder of both the world boxing championship and the last bare knuckle champion John L. Sullivan, “The Boston Strong Boy,” who had famously said “I can lick any son-of a-bitch in the house,” and proved it too, was often in the gym. Lillian Russell, the most famous actress of her day and her ” friend” Diamond Jim Brady were customers.

              Sullivan Somerville Library                 russell

                          John L Sullivan  and   Lillian Russell

By 1903, Jack was working at the gymnasium in Manhattan. He was an instructor in gymnastics and even as an old man could still do one handed pull and push ups. Jack sent these two pictures below to my future grandmother Annie Gray in Arroyo Grande who was still in high school and she pasted them in her memories book.


Jack was held in high esteem by Mac Levy and was featured in a book published by the entrepreneur in 1904.


By 1905 he was back on the west coast in San Francisco, living across the bay from my grandmother who was attending the University of California at Berkeley. They married in 1908, had two boys and later on three grand children who were always greeted by my grandfather with the phrase “there are my blessed boys” and you were invited to “shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of John L Sullivan.” No small thing when you consider that at the end of the 19th century John L was easily the most famous sportsman in America.  My grandfather loved to tell stories and this was one of his favorites and we loved it.  A family’s history is passed down the generations in oral form as it has always been. It’s the thread that connects John L Sullivan to me and mine.

john l

    John L Sullivan the last bare knuckle champion of the world.



My grandmother Hall insisted that her children write her once a week and I remember my mom sitting at the kitchen table with a freshly opened letter before her and penning a reply for the return post. There was nothing out of the ordinary in these letters, the cast of characters nearly always the same, the day to day things that people communicate to one another. The said nothing profound, just passed along the news of the family and friends they had in common.

My mom and dad were married in 1943. During the war people didn’t make much of a fuss about a wedding. For a young farmer and his bride there would’nt  be a fancy trip to an exotic location, ration cards and jam-packed troop trains would see to that. Being modest people that kind of difficulty didn’t bother them, they just took a little trip to visit relatives and friends.

mom and dad wed

Barbara and George Shannon on their wedding day

The following letter is from mom to her new mother-in-law Annie Shannon in Arroyo Grande. Writing from the Olympic Hotel on Eddy St, she described some of the sights and sounds of wartime San Francisco. San Francisco would have been familiar to my dad and his parents. My grandparents had both lived in the bay area from 1904 to 1918 and my dad had studied at Cal Berkeley in the early 30’s.

The subtext of the letter revolves around the events unfolding in the city and in the family in 1943. Mom mentions leaving the car in the garage. Rationing of gasoline had taken effect  in December of 1940 and though my grandparents dairy and my dad’s military deferment  as a farmer gave them access to more rationed items than usual, gasoline and rubber for the cars and milk trucks were in short supply. You could only own 5 tires per car or truck, having extras was not allowed. Dad said they would drive the tires until there was no rubber left, just the fabric cord or the inner liner was left. You had to take in the old tire in order to buy a new one. The first nonfood item rationed was rubber. The Japanese had seized plantations in the Dutch East Indies that produced 90% of America’s raw rubber. President Roosevelt called on citizens to help by contributing scrap rubber to be recycled, old tires, old rubber raincoats, garden hose, rubber shoes and bathing caps. A person or business was issued a ration card and sticker for the car which allowed a specific amount of a given item to be purchased. The green ‘B’ sticker was for driving deemed essential to the war effort; farmers, for example, could purchase eight gallons a week.


In movies taken at their wedding, the car, a 1936 Chevy coupe has the sticker plainly visible on the windshield. They drove from Arroyo Grande to San Francisco,  across the  Bay Bridge to Berkeley and my great aunt Sadies home, then up to Watt’s Valley to see Mariel and Ray, and finally,  home, a distance of over 600 miles today and longer then, before our modern roads. They must have used about four weeks of gasoline, a great indulgence, but of course, such is the course of true love.


The newlyweds at Mariel and Rays’ in Watts Valley, March 1943

This was the first time that dad met both of them. Dad immediately recognized a kindred spirit in Ray and began a friendship that lasted all their lives. Mariel, though, was enormously pregnant with their first child, Bruce, and had what we might say was the proclivity to pass enormous amounts of gas at any time. What an introduction to new family that must have been. I wish she was around so I could ask her about it. I can just hear her laugh, haw haw haw.

Both my folks mention the crowding. Photos of the city at the time show the sidewalks jammed with sailors and Marines. There is a March photo of the Palace hotel dance floor so crowded that it is a wonder anyone can move. In March 1943, the battle for Guadalcanal had just ended in February and the buildup for the Marine invasion of Tarawa was underway and San Francisco, indeed, the entire bay area was fantastically crowded with men and ships. Add to the population the workers at the wartime shipyards of the East Bay, the naval bases packed around various cities in San Francisco bay and it is easy to understand why the sidewalks were so crowded. It’s a wonder they could get a hotel room at all.


Ships at anchor San Francisco Bay in early 1943

Though unstated, worry about family members and friends serving overseas was certainly a concern. Two of my dad’s cousins were serving in the Pacific as well as one of his closest friends. My mom’s uncle Marion, cousin Donald and her brother Robert were also in the military. Her cousin Donald Polhemus was to be lost at sea in December of 1944. Arroyo Grande was a very small town in 1943 and most young men of draft age were already in the service or soon would be.   My grandmother Shannon saved an old Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder newspaper from 1943 and in it there is a list of local service men and women that runs four full pages. It would have been impossible not to know someone in the service. In fact, a local boy, Jack Scruggs died on the Arizona. I went to school with a boy whose father was trapped on the capsized Utah.

The image that opens this story is V-Mail from my dad’s friend Jim Moore who he grew up with. It’s just the kind of folksy newsy letter the family received from the many young men they knew serving overseas. Jim was a Navy Lieutenant serving on a LST in the western Pacific and though the ship had and would continue to serve in extremely hostile waters, the mail itself was just as casual as it would be if he was writing home from college. The truth of his life at war was something best kept secret, not only because it was but because Jim’s thoughts were at home, a place he could not be. Every V-Mail we haves like that. Home life, a place the couldn’t be.

 The passing of the art of letter writing, I think is a kind of tragedy. Instant communication is just that, instant, but its gone just as quickly. Much is lost. Here then is the text of mom’s honeymoon letter.

                                                                                                                        March 21, 1943

Hello Everybody,

George says “You write,” so here goes. We’re having a wonderful time. We’ve left the car in the hotel garage so haven’t used any gasoline.


The Emporium Department Store. Now Bloomingdales.

Yesterday we walked one end of Market Street to the other. We went through The Emporium, looked at everything and didn’t spend a cent. Then we were so tired we went back to the hotel and took a nap. It wasn’t a Sunday afternoon but we took one anyway.


The Olympic Hotel still stands today. Its near the  the city center, three blocks from Union Square.

Last night we made reservations at The Palace for dinner and dined with the best of the, maybe I should  say, the rest of the upper crust. We had a lovely dinner. Steak. We watched the floor show and danced and everything. The show was on ice. You know, skaters. They were pretty good too.

palace dine

The dining room in the Palace Hotel.

What I liked best, tho, besides the food, was just watching the people. 

There are more people here on the streets at night than I’ve ever seen before, even in Los Angeles.

George called Sadie yesterday, and we’re going there for dinner at one. It’s 11:30 now, so we’d better get going.

We’re leaving the big city tomorrow, and going to Fresno. Home on Wednesday. It’s nice here, but Arroyo Grande is so much better. 

We haven’t had time to write to anyone else, so say hello.

We’ll see you Wednesday or Thursday. Thank you for being so nice to me.

Lots of love,

Barbara and George

                       (Mr and Mrs George Shannon)

                                             Looks nice, huh? 

PS  (This is in dad’s hand)  

Tell little Jug (Dad’s Brother Jackie) to run our farm the way I told him or I will demote him when we return. This is the busiest place I have ever seen. You can hardly walk down Market St either day or night. We are getting ready to leave for Sadie’s for dinner so must go.

Love, George  

The phrase “Thank you for being so nice to me,” resonates. Mom grew up as an oilfield brat, never settled for long in one place and to be folded into a family and community that had deep roots must have seemed a miracle to her. She now had, as small towns do, friends by the score and a family that would cherish her all of her life. My grandparents adored her for who she was and she would be the only daughter-in-law they would ever have.




My father had a farm in the fertile and lovely valley for over forty years. There was no better place for boys to grow up. For we had a family heritage that few other children enjoy. Our grandparents and great-grandparents spent their lives in this part of California and we were firmly rooted in the ground we farmed and the society that surrounded us. Kids wandered the hills and valleys unattended by adults other than the occasional wave from a passing pickup window. We lived a life that no city kid ever could.

We had a thousand things to do, a thousand places to explore, forts to be built, forts of bean poles, forts made of the  wooden boxes used to ship vegetables, forts dug into the ground, a fort on top of the old tank house behind our home. Vast engineering projects to design and build in the mud of an irrigation ditch. And always our dogs at our heels, helping us to dig and sniff out the elusive gopher, keeping an eye out for us. Beyond the admonition from our mother Barbara “To be careful,” we received no other instruction or advice. Little boys were not considered  to be particularly breakable. We played with the knives used to cut cauliflower and lettuce. We learned about Poison Oak in the creek by getting into it, Horse Nettles by touching the leaves in the wrong place, lessons learned the hard way but not likely forgotten. Our parents were mostly content to let us find our own way in life. Best of all, we had a mom and dad who loved us, and each other deeply.


George and Barbara Shannon 1943

After each school day we would ride home in  the back of the Branch School bus, a 1949 Chevrolet pickup with a brown canvas top driven by Evelyn Fernamburg, unhooking the chain at the back and jumping to the ground by our mailbox, crossing Branch Mill Rd to be greeted by our dogs galloping from the house, wiggling all over and jumping up and down as dogs do to show their delight. If dad was in the front fields he got a wave and a hello, if he was close enough to the road he got a hug and a kiss too. We took the long walk to the house and went in the screen door to the kitchen where our mom was, for in our family the kitchen was the heart and soul of the home.

There were two things always present in that room, a pot of endlessly perking coffee; and my mother. For if our father was the head of the family, and indeed he was, it was in the kitchen that my mother reigned. It was in that little room that our family’s life was lived.

When I think of her, it always there that I see her, not in the new house built for retirement, but the old house on the ranch, built before electricity or indoor plumbing, a hodgepodge of mismatched cabinets the International Harvester ‘fridge we we had for thirty years and the big “picture” window that looked out on our fields. She would have pots and pans boiling and bubbling on the stove, dishes being washed, clothes on the ironing board, shoes being tied, homework on the table and thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being made for three hungry little boys to eat. In that place, questions were answered, family stories told, broken little hearts mended, bandaids applied and kisses and hugs distributed from an endless supply. Mom always told us that there was enough love in a mothers heart for all of her children and I have found this to be true.

mom and dad wed

                     Wedding day, 1943

It may seem strange to consider these seemingly small things as a tribute to her, but it is the countless small acts of loving kindness that made life sweet for those little boys. For us, on that farm, in that small red farmhouse, life was sweet indeed.

My parents wanted more than anything for their boys to grow up to be honorable men. They taught us manners, we had, as all Irish families did, the crocheted formal table cloth, designed to punish the elbows of any child who put his elbows on the table. We learned respect for our elders, integrity and honesty. They taught us, by example, the value of hard work, of thrift, to be gentle, kind, helpful and above all, honorable. Mom told us countless times, “Remember who you are and who you belong to for you have a good family name, a name to be proud of.”

Mom worked for twenty years at Baxter’s Clothing store. In a day when you could conduct all your business in a three block stretch of Branch St, she could keep her fingers on the pulse of the community. If there was anything going on in town, she knew about it. Now, you might call it gossip, but if it was, it was the good kind, for she had a sincere concern for her friends and anyone she met was soon was her friend. People understood that she cared about them.

She dressed a generation of boys and men. There were few that came into that shop she didn’t care about. It didn’t matter if you were high or low born. She didn’t care about the color of your skin or what church you went to. If you needed Levis, a pair of socks, a shirt and tie that matched, you got them. She sewed the AG on your letterman’s sweater, the number on your Boy Scout uniform, fitted you for your prom suit, she could even find a pair of “bachelor buttons” if you needed them. And if you needed a compliment or sympathy, some attention, a hug, you got that too, always served with a smile.

My dad had his own particular style, but knew nothing about women’s clothes and he would take us to Louise Ralph’s dress shop to buy mom her birthday or Christmas present. Louise would fuss over my dad like he was a little boy because of course she remembered him that way. She took him around the store and suggested what to buy for mom and she was always right in her choice. Of course it didn’t really matter to mom what the gift was, it only mattered that dad had given it to her. A scarf carried the same cache as the Hope diamond.

mom and dad cayces wedding

Barbara and George

“Life is but a breath,” the Good Book says, and that is surely true. In the end if you count money, houses and land, then she was poor. But if you count wealth as the love and affection of your family and friends then she was rich beyond counting.

She loved her husband, she loved her sons, she loved her sons wives as the daughters she never had, and her grandchildren were the crown she wore in her old age.

Suddenly one day, she was used up and worn out and just as suddenly gone from our lives. Mom was not born in this valley, but for over fifty years this is where she lived and moved and had her being and here is where she died.

It is not such a sad thing really, to contemplate her laid to rest in our green and peaceful cemetary in the midst of her friends, neighbors and family whom she loved and who loved her. It is not such a sad thing, perhaps, to think of her lying in the shadows of the everlasting hills of this green and golden valley that we love so well.

The first time dad went to see her in the hospital, she was in a coma and was terribly ravaged by that awful disease. When he walked in the room and saw her he said, “No, thats not my wife. Barbara is beautiful. I don’t want to remember her like this. Please take me home son.”

Now dad lies beside her, as one day, her sons will too.

Note: The cover photo is a self portrait she drew when she was 19 years old.


… And a River Runs Through It.

On Norman MacLean’s beautiful written canvas, life is viewed through a lens focused on contemplation and life related to fly fishing on the rivers that flow down from the eastern Rocky mountains. MacLean’s father was a minister. He spoke of all Christ’s disciples being fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and left his boy’s to assume that the disciples were all fly fisherman and the favorite, John, a dry-fly fisherman.



Uncle Jackie Shannon, 1924

And so it was in our house. My father George and his older brother Jack were raised in a time when boys had the free run of the country and fishing the creeks of the Arroyo Grande, Stoney Creek, The Lopez and such elegantly named spots as Huff’s hole was their delight. We grew up on tales of the Rainbow,  Golden, Cutthroat and Brown trout, coaxed from their cold lair beneath the riffles of the San Joaquin, Kaweah, and Kern rivers. We heard stories about how it was camping and fishing around the meadows of Dinkey Creek, named for a dog  who bit and held on to the hind leg of a charging  Grizzly, giving time for the ranchers to grab their rifles and kill the rampaging beast. The creek and the area around what is now McKinley Grove were named in honor of the bravery of this little dog, “No bigger than a rabbit.

The Holy Grail, though, was the mighty Kings River and particularly the deep, dark gorge of the middle fork. The middle fork rushes down a 37 mile long, very deep and narrow  canyon to its confluence with the South fork to form the main stem of the Kings.


Confluence of the South Fork and the Middle Fork, Kings River.

My dad and uncle started going there in the early 30’s and were still doing so when I was a boy. The tales they told of fording the river, bone chilling cold even in the early fall when the water was sometimes low enough to ford seemed to me to be akin to the adventures of the bravos who roamed the west before it was tamed. My dad told of tying a rope around his waist and swimming across, being swept downstream for a hundred yards before making the far bank. Up the canyon, beneath the 1800 foot cliff known as Valhalla, which my dad always called the Waldorf after the hotel in New York, they would make camp under the willows on a nice sandbank shaded by huge granite boulders. In the darkness before dawn, coffee brewed in a can on a small fire woke you enough to get on the river before the sun was on the water. As the fly hatch began in the warming sun, providing breakfast for the trout, they  fished up the river toward the Gorge of Despair below Tehipite Dome.

kings canyon

The Canyon of the Middle Fork.

This was before the time of fancy camping rigs. They each took a simple rucksack stuffed with some loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly, one frying pan, a jar of butter for frying fish and salt and pepper. Tie on a sleeping bag, battered old tin canteen from WWI and what else did you need?  Rubberized waders, nope, too heavy. Hiking boots, not likely, Old high top tennis shoes gripped the wet rocks better. Creels, maybe, but it was cloth, not wicker. You just needed a small round tin to put your flies in, some extra leader and a pocket knife. The only expensive and cherished item was the pole. Incredibly slim and tapered to a fine point, the silk wound bamboo fly pole was and is one of mans most beautiful creations and in the hands of a master fisherman, a thing to behold. My father was such. Even after a lifetime of farming, working with hands scarred and thickened by heavy work in all kinds of conditions he could make his fly rod sing in a ballet seldom equalled.

I made my first trip at thirteen. The Model T was long gone of course, but not much else had changed. The gear and the provisions remained the same and I have to say that peanut butter and jelly are hard to beat after a long day in the sun hiking, first down to the river from the road at Cherry Gap, crossing the South fork of the King’s to get to the trail head where you begin the long trek up the middle fork, walking old miners trails along cliffs 500 feet above the river below. In the late fifties none of the trails were maintained by the forest service and could be really rough and treacherous after a long winter covered in snow and ice.


On the King’s

I made my bones on this river, learning to roll cast under the willows that lined the river, never letting my shadow show on the water, always working upstream so as to leave no scent for the fish waiting patiently in the deep water under the massive boulders where the river eddied, sweeping a fishes dinner right to his doorstep. You had to make the dry fly dance, skip and hop along the surface to fool these fish, they were the ultimate quarry, native, raised on the river, never having been fished before. Some years there was absolutely no evidence of any other human being having been up this canyon.  In all the years I fished with my dad and uncle Jack,  we never saw another human being.

up tp the lakes 2

Mike  and George Shannon, September, 1967

We made our last trip together in 1967. My father and my uncle grew too old and I, I went off to new adventures in other places. Looking back on those times I can’t help but think of what I have lost. It seems to me that all of the best memories of family deal with some kind of loss, don’t they?

We lay half under the willows a night sheltered and warmed by the gigantic granite boulders radiating the heat of the day, looking up at a sky with no hint of light other than the billions of stars visible between the soaring granite peaks above. There, there in the center, the Milky Way, the great crossing over bridge to journeys end where my father has gone.

Sometimes it’s as if life has been made and not happened.