Close Encounters of the High Sierra Retired Kind
PART I: GOING NATIVE
On a hot summer day in late August 1911, a desperate and bedraggled man left his hideout in the mountains of Northern California and passed through a time warp that would cast him 10,000 years into the future. Starving and mourning the death of his solitary compatriot, Ishi — the last living representative of the Yahi tribe, Stone-Age hunter-gatherers who for uncounted generations had roamed the woods of Mount Lassen — had decided to chuck it all in and throw himself on the tender mercy of the people who had worked so hard and so long to achieve his eradication.
The Ironic Muse was clearly minding the shop that day. The first building the exhausted aborigine happened by was a slaughterhouse, and it was here that his legs gave way and he toppled in a dead faint. Fortunately for Ishi, Injuns did not fall within the scope of professional butchery, and the startled workmen — who, like everyone else in the town of Oroville, had considered “wild Indians” an extinct species in these whereabouts — hauled the unconscious stranger off to the jailhouse. There was no particular reason to do that, except that the very surreality of the situation somehow smacked of danger.
If it wasn’t for an accidental alignment of interests, who knows what would have become of Ishi? He might have been strung up at the jailhouse; he might have assimilated after a fashion into town life, marrying a pox-marked dowager and eking out a quiet living selling carved wooden animals for children’s toys. But if the pioneering anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber hadn’t heard of the discovery and brought Ishi to the University of California, Berkeley, the last Yani would not have died of tuberculosis in 1915, wearing a city suit and stiff collar, looking off at San Francisco Bay and remembering tram rides down Market Street and visits to music halls. And I wouldn’t be writing about him today.
What’s most surprising to me about Ishi’s story is not that a “wild man” could have lived undetected for so long, but that there aren’t many, many more Ishis in our history. America is a big place, with an infinitude of isolated pockets that can conceal most any kind of person or activity. We have, to site just a few known examples, enclaves of religious zealots; of nudists; of painters; of polygamists; of separatist gun-nuts nursing strange and inchoate grievances; we have the state of Idaho.
All around us, countless tribes of elective affinities are marching slowly to the end of their line. My father, for instance, may have been the very last man in North America to have grown sideburns and a droopy mustache unironically. It was so late in the ‘70s that even Lindsey Buckingham was about to reach for his razor. But we never thought to title my father “The Last Man to Board the Love Train.” My mother and I just laughed. We weren’t anthropologists.
* * *
To reverse Ishi’s footsteps and ascend into certain regions of the Sierra Nevada and lower Cascade Mountains is still to step backward into time. You leave behind the big box stores that clutter the Reno-Tahoe International Airport and follow Route 395 into a featureless expanse of desert, substantially unchanged from the days of Conestoga wagons and the Donner Party. Across the California border you exit onto the 70, and dull yellow desert turns to orange scrub, which starts to give way to pines as the highway rises, thin at first, but growing until you are engulfed in a pleasant woodland. The few settlements of cowboy Victoriana you pass through become smaller and smaller. Once you pass the white clapboard shack that advertises Chinese and American food, you know that you have crossed the pale of civilization.
My destination that hot late August day I entered Ishi’s mountains was an isolated enclave of more recent vintage. Whitehawk Ranch is what the Census Bureau calls a CDP, a census-designated place, which is the bureau’s most lax and generic designation. The people of Whitehawk have no municipal government, they pay no city tax, and provide no social services for themselves. By the standards of Plato and Aristotle, they can hardly be considered human. They have no cable TV and almost no cell phone service. They do, however, have golf.
It’s the golf that brings residents to this isolated mountain retreat. It’s what brought my aunt and uncle, and they are what brought me. I hate golf, but I love them.
In the arid wasteland of my suburban childhood and adolescence, my aunt and uncle were a monsoon of glamour. My uncle, a veteran of the Second World War who earned a fancy Stanford MBA thanks to the GI Bill, is the success story of the family. A regional manager for a department store chain, my uncle knew how to drink and to glad-hand, but somehow always retained an aura of bookish aloofness that I took for benevolence. My uncle’s wife –his younger, second wife — always looked like a Virginia Slims ad. She kept her hair in a Joanna Lumley bowl cut and wore, sassy mannish blazers. She entered retail fashion at a time when ladies always wore white gloves out-of-doors. By the time she had risen to head buyer, women had ditched the gloves and were moving on to burning their bras. If my uncle’s wit remained dry no matter how wet he became, my aunt would easily grow florid and the cantankerous farm girl, never far from the surface, would come out bounding and grabbing at throats. As recently as 2008, my mother referred to her as a “women’s libber.”
As alluringly exotic as they appeared to me as a child, it turns out that my aunt and uncle are fairly typical residents of their new community. At the last census, the median age at Whitehawk was 61. The demographics are 99 percent white and one percent Asian. Eighty-five percent of the community is over 45, and just four percent are under 18. I imagine that the adolescents here must feel like protagonists in a John Hughes film — growing up alienated and misunderstood, surrounded by retired golf enthusiasts, with nothing but that one Japanese guy for comic relief.
But, as I learned in the course of a long weekend, if Whitehawk were a movie, its director would not be John Hughes but Werner Hertzog, the anatomist of obsession. The people here can walk out of their backdoors and onto a 7,000 yard, par-71, championship golf course; but they have to drive twenty minutes to pick up their mail and go 60 miles to get their groceries.
The golf links are the heart of civic life in Whitehawk — the agora, the forum, the mall, the place where neighbors meet and contend for prestige. The rhythm of life follows a cycle hallowed by nature and custom — the April thaw, the November snows, and in between the Mountain Hardware Tournament, the Club Championship, and an alternating succession of low-stakes men’s and women’s competitions with such colorful and utterly opaque names as “Three Blind Mice, “Sucker in the Bucket,” and “Cha Cha Cha.”
Some residents, like the nomadic hunter-gatherers who once ranged the mountains, leave for the winter to seek warmer pastures near Sacramento or farther south in Palm Desert where the golf never ceases, but for the most part people stay. They’ve done their time in the outside world, laboring and deferring their dreams. Now they can retreat into the mountains to shut themselves in and devote the remainder of their years to doing exactly what they please. They chose to settle in this reverse Shangri-La. Here the cloistered inmates might remain eternally old, but golf provides the portal to each person’s past. The ingrained movements and ageless verities of the sport connect them to the selves they remember, and in playing round after round, they make time vanish and keep their own mortality at bay.
It took some time for me to find my bearings among this strange tribe. The palpable weight of stasis made me feel cramped and edgy, and I longed for the bustle and the forward thrust of time once more. And there were strange customs. The men, for example, were fastidious enough to shave for dinner, but no one objected to the short pants they wore at the table, which flaunted their hairy legs. When I helped clear away the dishes, it caused a frisson of delight among the women and faint grousing among the men.
And, of course, there was golf, that sanctum sanctorum from which I remained an unrepentant heretic.
And yet, I surprised myself at how quickly I submitted to the diurnal flow of Whitehawk. It’s true that I could only fitfully follow the action of the women’s Solheim Cup, that came on at dawn and played all day on the flat screen TV, but three daily papers (which my uncle picked up from his post office box at the nearest town) meant that there were three crossword puzzles that needed doing. Follow that up with a leisurely stroll through the grounds, and I had the makings of a full and rewarding day. So it was with the clearest of conscience that I could settle down near sunset on the back porch and enjoy a few martinis and a little confab with the locals.
Life on the golf course, where everyone shares the same schedule and the same handful of intense preoccupations, struck me as remarkably like dorm life. This was my doorway into the foreign way of living I was encountering. I felt like an early naturalist on a mysterious jungle expedition expecting to encounter primitive savagery, but finding instead the Romantic ideal of a pristine form of existence unspoiled by the abundant woes of modern life.
I savored long, warm evenings that smelled of cedar bark and pine sap; conversations in which parties exchanged stories leavened with gentle wit, not snarky one-liners; cocktails sipped but never seeming to lose their chill — all luxurious elements of a precocious retirement. I even began to speculate that golf might actually contain an idyllic potential that had heretofore eluded me.
That’s when I should have known something was terribly wrong. But I couldn’t see it at the time, because I had been seduced by these misappropriated pleasures. Like many an explorer before me, I had started out in good faith but ended up in conceited affectation, aping the mannerisms of my newly discovered race of people, whose virtues could only be fully appreciated by an enlightened observer, such as myself. But I could hold no claim to any of what I saw. This pantomime would never really be my future, because I had never had these people’s past.
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