[written April 22, 2007]
This afternoon I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Anne DeBusk. She and her husband Lee had often hiked the North Fork high country, had carved their names into the trunks of ancient aspens, and it was by that strange chance I had met them. I saw those names, and Googled them, and found them to live scarcely a crow's mile away, in that merest dot of a town, Alta.
So I called, and visited, and listened to many a story of Snow Mountain, and the Royal Gorge, and the Lost Emigrant Mine, which last Lee's family had owned for several decades. This gold mine stands high on the ridge dividing Wabena Canyon from Wildcat Canyon, a ridge which falls away in sheer cliffs full three thousand feet to the North Fork. I heard of Lee's walk, as a seventeen-year-old, from Weimar to Ely, Nevada; and from Weimar, to Oregon. I had hoped to interview him at length, and record these extraordinary memories for posterity.
But Lee died last year, about this time. And Anne began sorting through his piles of books and papers. For decades he had told her of a certain green box, full of letters from his service in the Army, during the Korean War. They had searched and searched, and they gave the thing up for lost. Only a few days ago, Anne finally found the box. It was blue. I heard she wanted me to see the old letters, and thus it followed that today I drove up to her old old house amid a pounding shower of sleet. Her living room had the same old many-pointed mule deer and bear heads staring down from all sides, the same glass cases full of chert and obsidian spear points, the same odd assortment of cute knicknacks which seemed equally out of keeping with the spirit of either Lee or Anne.
On her coffee table was a stack of photo albums. I slowly leafed through them, while listening to a panorama of her life and times, a constant commentary often diverging widely from the particular page in view. She was raised in a lumber camp, up towards Chester and Portola, where the Sierra insensibly merge into Mt. Lassen and the Cascades. She was the only child in the camp. How exciting it had been to listen to the radio dramas! The thudding footsteps, the creaking doors! In those days there were few enough people in the Sierra, so it was natural for people from Portola to know people in Auburn. In fact, when it was time for high school, she moved to Auburn. She did not meet Lee, at first; a long time would pass, even though they shared fifty friends, before they met, and fell in love.
Lee's brother, Wilbur, died fighting, in the Korean War, and what little was left of Wilbur was laid to rest in Colfax. Anne attributed Lee's survival of that same war to his expertise at driving. Lee's father died young, his mother was very sick, and it was left to Lee, the eldest of several children, to be the man of the house, although only a boy in years. These responsibilities meant Lee could not finish high school. When he was eleven years old he was already driving the family truck up to the Lost Emigrant Mine, fifty miles from Auburn. He drove vehicles of every stripe: bulldozers, big trucks, cars, little trucks, mules, wagons, whatever, Lee knew how to drive it.
Hence when his infantry company was on the move in the bitterly cold Korean winter, all packed into a huge truck, and the driver was shot dead, the word went out, could anyone drive this rig? Lee could, of course. It turned out he could drive anything and everything, and for that reason alone he was not one those sent to take Hill 2115, etc., from the Chinese, inch by bloody inch.
I saw many photos of their camping trips to Snow Mountain. I told Anne that there was, so regrettably I will always think, a house, now, at Huntley Mill Lake. The deep-pocketed owner had actually paved the road in from the railroad tracks, a distance of several miles. This triggered a memory.
"Do you know the creek which flows out of Huntley Mill Lake, and flows down into Big Granite Canyon?" she inquired, and I responded in the affirmative; Tom McGuire and I had followed that very creek for quite a distance, last May, during our expedition to the huge waterfalls in Big Ganite Canyon.
"Well, one time, Lee and I were camping near the lake, and I walked down the creek a ways. It was all waterfalls, all twisty and turny, and not much water, it being the hunting season, and we were up there after deer, as usual.
"So I was following the little creek down, well, you know, little, at that time of the year, in the fall, and I found these pools which were just swarming with huge trout! I mean, these trout were eighteen, twenty inches long!
"So I took off most of my clothes and jumped right into this pool, ... ."
I interrupted. "You jumped into the pool?" This seemed a bit strange.
"Yes, I jumped right into the pool, and it was soooo cold! And I caught quite a few of those trout, and threw them up on the bank, and finally when it got too cold I climbed out, and, ... ."
I had to interrupt again. "OK, hold it right there, Anne. Are you trying to tell me ... do you want me to believe ... that you stripped naked ... ."
"Not naked, I still had some things on!" Anne replied, mock-primly.
"OK, not quite naked, you jumped into the pool, and you caught those giant trout by hand?"
"Well, yes, of course, I didn't have any gear with me, and it's not that hard; you see, you reach under a rock, and if you feel a trout, you don't grab it all at once, you stroke it a little, and that calms it down, and *then* you grab it!"
Well. Anne is an amazing woman. Later she showed me the old blue trunk stuffed full of letters, and photo negatives, from Lee's time in the Korean War. Most were addressed to his mother. There were hundreds. He was a terrible speller, was Lee DeBusk, but a great writer of letters. I could not take the time to even begin sampling these hundreds of letters, and I was worried about disturbing their original ordering. In the stacks I did find a receipt from a Foresthill gas station, from 1948. The gas station's telephone number was simply F-50.
Before I left I had a crack at repairing Anne's old record player, but failed. We made plans for another get-together after she has sorted through more of her archives. Perhaps then I will take a look at that infinitude of letters. There is a body of material, somewhere, Anne tells me, about the Lost Emigrant Mine. I hope to see that.
Such was an afternoon with Anne DeBusk, a fellow lover of the North Fork. One of the many stories I heard was about a visit she made to Helester Point, up on Sawtooth Ridge. She had led some friends from the Bay Area in there, a long long dusty drive. From the Point they could see mile after mile up the North Fork, to Snow Mountain. Her friends were exclaiming about the beauty of the great canyon, the infinite wildness of the view; and Anne said, yes, yes, this is wonderful, but just you go up to Snow Mountain, and camp out, and you will know you have been touched by God Himself! And she tried to explain how, when the sun was about to set, and the sky flamed into gold, and you were leaning against some giant old pine, away up on Snow Mountain, well, there was really nothing better in this world.
She's so right.