Tuesday, February 07, 2012

RIP Sierra Phantom

Coverage from Blogging in Bishop

(Photo courtesy of Chris Morrison)
The Sierra Phantom 
KICK AROUND DOWNTOWN BISHOP and likely you’ll see a slender old man sporting a billowy white beard and pedaling a bike trimmed in faux-leopard fur. His embroidered Western regalia and his suitcase-pannier proclaim that he is: 
Now Bishop collects all kinds of knockabouts, interesting and otherwise, and for years I assumed “The Phantom” was a showy curiosity. Then one day in the mountains I ran into him, miles from the trailhead. He carried his spry skeleton down the track like he was right at home, and in tow he had a palefaced young couple with fish on their stringers and smiles across their cheeks. As he acknowl-edged me with a “Howdy,” I had to wonder if this ornamented geezer might have a real Sierra legacy. Back on Main Street, John P. Glover gave me his card and invited me over to hear his story.
The Phantom lives in a small studio, the walls covered with fading photographs and mounted trout and trout flies. On a bench sits a fly-tying jig. Sitting back on his bed, he looked gaunt, and not so much at home.
He began, “I used to have a chain of camps in the High Sierra, from South Lake all the way to Mosquito Flat. I had eight of them all together.” He told how at each site he built a shelter by digging into the ground, and then laying a roof of criss-crossed pine boughs. “I had to trap, hunt, fish, gather wild greens, and utilize what was in the area. Now, I did this for 51 years.” “Fifty-one years?” I almost choked. “For most of the year?”
“All year.”
“All year, three-hundred and sixty-five days?” I pressed. “Three hundred and sixty-five days. From 1946 until 1997.”
I sat back and heard my baloney detector beeping, trying to imagine all the trials of surviving year-round in the High Sierra. But he had me hooked, I couldn’t resist hearing more. “In all that time I survived avalanches, quicksand, bogs, whiteouts, electrical storms, hypothermia...There’s nothing in the area that I don’t know about.” 
Quicksand, bogs? Those aren’t part of the High Sierra I know. But other things he said had a ring of credibility. He named off remote places accurately, like Amphitheater Lake and Blackcap Basin. And he told why he had eight camps.
“Because if I stayed in one camp too long, I’d harm the ecology of the area. I had to rotate through one camp a year, to put as little pressure on the environment as possible. And after nine years when I got back to the first camp, the area would have re-propagated, you couldn’t tell anybody’d been there. Secondly, for my own safety, if one camp got destroyed or something, then I could always go to the next.
“I quit school in the eighth grade, we got very little education back then. But if you know how nature works, you learn how to survive, you learn how to be a jack-of-all-trades. I grew up in the woods in Oregon and Washington, and I learned how to fish, hunt, trap, and make all kinds of things. I’d make my own fishing pole with a willow stick, safety pins as eyelets, and an empty thread spool.” I was having a hard time swallowing 51 years, but I also couldn’t write off my sense of a genuine essence
“I traded porcupine quills and hides with the Indians for food…You learn the tricks of nature. You learn how to pre-predict the weather. And I’ve never been wrong in 51 years.”
“Did you ski?” I interrogated. “Very little, mostly I made my own snowshoes by bending green branches over a fire… “Did you ever come into town?”
“Yes, if food was scarce I would walk all the way into Bishop with two 5-gallon buckets and get my carbohydrates. Then I’d walk all the way back up...”
“Did you ever get harassed by the Forest Service?” “Sure, they were chasing after me for 30 years. Not once did they ever catch me or find my camps. And I told them I had the right to be up there because I’m a professional mountaineer, which I can prove, and I gave up four years of my life fighting the Japanese up in Alaska.
“And the other thing is that, except for a few groups like the Sierra Club, Americans never backpacked in the High Sierra until all this technology came up, not until 1960. And by 1970 there were 20,000 ding-a-lings running up and down the John Muir Trail, trying to climb Mt. Whitney, treating the Sierra like it was Prospect Park. That’s when I had to become a search and rescue agent. I came across families, Boy Scout groups, people who were injured, people with hypo-thermia, hyperventilation, bunions, bruises, the whole bit. I never worked for the sheriff or anything, I did it all on my own. It was just driving me nuts.”
In 1979, Phantom says a fierce, late-summer storm hit, turned to snow, and over four days he had to rescue a whole canyon full of backpackers and fishermen. The ordeal gave him frostbite, and he was “hypothermiating the whole time.” “You know how to catch fish?” I prompted.
“I am the undisputed fishing master of the High Sierra. These pictures are just a scratch in the bucket...1956, a strange thing happened, I was trying to improve my fly family, and I saw this 12-inch golden trout, the sun at my back, it was shining like a spotlight, and wham! I thought, if you could take that shine and put it on a lure, you could sure amplify your catch…
And to perfect his World Famous Glitter Fly? 
“When you shoot your deer, you knock off the hooves and boil ‘em and scrape the film off the surface, and that’s the strongest epoxy anywhere. And so I had a fly that carries so much oil you can put it in the water for 20 years and it will never sink. And I tie little eyes on…This is 70 years of science that nobody in the history of fishing has ever thought of…
“In 1997, the frostbite and hypothermia from 1979 finally caught up with me. The Paiute chief, Dan Silverspoon, came up to check on me, and I couldn’t move. I told him, let me be, I’m ready to go. But he said, ‘you have knowledge that nobody else has, you have to come down and share that knowledge.’ And he carried me down.”
Glover is 83 now, and since 1997 he has lived in town, venturing into the mountains only on day trips, showing people how and where to catch fish, and helping others.
“Anybody who needs food or anything, that door is always open… I have a guy who takes me down to Pleasant Valley Reservoir, and I keep two fish for myself, and I find seniors or a family with kids… And Raymond’s Deli returns that karmic favor, giving him a table to troll for conversation and customers from, and an occasional sandwich.
I kept asking myself, could the Phantom really have lived in the Sierra for decades, a neo-Daniel Boone? Logic said, nah, no way. On the other hand, his tale stayed very consistent, and I couldn’t dismiss it outright. Maybe he wraps a few boasts, like glitter, around a very real core. I met him a second time. This time I drove us out to Pleasant Valley. With his lungs still hurting from a hit-and-run incident with a car, we strolled slowly toward the reservoir, and he was indeed frail compared to when I saw him striding the high country. But as he talked—never a problem with that—pieces began to come together. 
“I’m a loner. I want to be alone. And man, I had one nasty childhood. I was born in Hollywood but my parents were slaughtered when I was three years old. In 1929 they went back to Germany to try to retrieve their relatives, and Hitler slaughtered all of ‘em. He took their property to feed the army, who were starving. That’s how he came to power. So in the meantime the Depression hit and I was turned over as a ward of the court. I went through three families, five orphanages, and I was nothing but a damned slave to every one of‘em. Most of them were alcoholics, one father beat the #### out of me with a quarter-round, so this kind of turned me against the world and all.
“In World War II, I was a sniper up there in Alaska, at Dutch Harbor. It was declared the second Pearl Harbor. And after that I just got disgusted with people killin’ and beatin’ each other and everything. And so I decided to live in nature. Nature is a fantastic teacher.”
As he said that we reached the reservoir. His blue eyes promptly lit up, his head lifted, and his enthusiasm came back. And he declared, “This is my real home, this is the greatest country anywhere.” Phantom pulled out a paper and handed it to me. It was printed with his own poetry. I started to read,
Hiking the Sierra’s a mile a smile
I heard strange music and paused a while
It filled the air, it humbled me,
‘twas the magic of nature’s symphony…
And I realized that, one way or another, the Sierra Nevada has put the life into the Phantom’s heart, and that’s what really counts
J.P "Sierra Phantom" Glover

May he rest in peace

Thursday, February 02, 2012

For the love of winter

We have been spending our weekends up at Mammoth Mountain skiing.
After years of flailing around on light telemark gear, I bought some old beater downhill gear and made the switch back to the kind of skiing I did when I was a kid.
Holy hell, it's fun!
Six year old Babbo is kicking my ass, but it is as it should be.