VIEW TO THE WEST
When Nature Is Nurture, Part 1
by Peter Shelton
Jun 28, 2012 | 1975 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Every time I splash cold water on my face I think of Trailfinders. And a Hopi lullaby. And how one man’s disappointment in me led, at least in part, to who I am.

Trailfinders was a camp in Southern California that I attended for a month each of two summers at age 14 and 15. The camp’s home base was a small, forested canyon half way up the west side of San Jacinto Peak, at 10,831 feet the second highest mountain in the surprisingly empty ranges that ring the Los Angeles Basin.

Every morning Harry James, the monarchical 70-year-old founder of the camp, would wake us with these words, boomed from the open-air kitchen, where he already had the oatmeal bubbling: “All Trailfinders awake! Open your eyes, arise. Become children of light, vigorous, active, and joyful! All hearts be glad another day is here.”

We’d crawl out of our bags – on the ground under the cedars; this was Southern California, it didn’t rain in July – and instead of getting dressed we’d put on swim trunks and shuffle down to a bitter cold pond fed by Indian Creek. Harry was busy cooking for 40, his wood fire banked beneath the heavy iron grate. So a counselor counted down, we’d steel ourselves and dash into the black, glassy water, then quickly out. It was a way to keep teenage boys reasonably clean. And it was a way for Harry to enforce his particular discipline right out of the sack.

Harry (he insisted we call him Harry, and not Mr. James) was a self-educated, self-certain man, a high-school dropout from Ottawa, who rode the rails to Los Angeles in 1913 as a seventeen-year-old in love with the movies and the writings of John Muir. He worked in Hollywood, on the set of a D.W. Griffith picture. (He flubbed his one screen test.) He started a hiking club in the Hollywood hills, and in the 1920s, with help from Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and other wealthy Angelinos he had cultivated, he started the Trailfinders School for Boys. 

It was a kind of pre-prep school, up to grade nine, in well-to-do Altadena. The academics were strong, and there was a big outdoor education component before outdoor ed was a common term. Boys were required to read the newspaper and listen to classical music. Harry expected his boys to excel, and they did: quite a few went on to become lawyers and surgeons and businessmen. In the summertime, he led them on extended camping trips to Yosemite, Zion and the Hopi mesas.

The school was already shut by the time I attended the summer camp for what turned out to be its final two sessions. My first year, we spent two weeks on San Jacinto and two weeks camped in Tuolumne Meadows, in Yosemite’s high country. The second year, we took what Harry called the Coconino Camping Trip, which climaxed on Second Mesa in Hopi-land. People there kept eagles tethered to their flat roofs. They chucked raw meat up to the birds, which would be sacrificed for their feathers. A dark-skinned, moon-faced woman cooked us paper-thin blue-corn flatbread on the hot rocks of her kitchen fire. We watched masked, supernatural Kachinas dance in a dusty courtyard. It was the Niman or “Home Dance,” the last dance of the year before the Kachinas returned to their homes underneath the San Francisco Peaks. We might as well have been on another planet.

I remember, before we arrived, Harry packed the back of our traveling school bus with industrial-sized boxes of Cheerios and other gifts. He had by that point already written half a dozen books on Hopi culture. He was, he told us, one of only two white men ever adopted into the Hopi tribe. They had a name for him that meant Walking Bear. Which did describe his lumbering gait.

At night, not every night, but certainly when we were in camp in California, after campfire, and after we were quiet in our sleeping bags, Harry would intone a Hopi lullaby: “All Trailfinders asleep. Close your eyes. Rest. Another day is gone, never to return. Lolomi. Lolomi.” Lolomi is the Hopi word for peace.

Harry James was not a peaceful man, though. Not with all he had had to overcome to reach his station in life, not with all the aspirations he had for his boys, the ones who were born to social standing and the ones, like him, who would have to claw their way up the class ladder. 

To make it, he believed, you had to cleave to a prescribed path. No deviation, no rebellion allowed. Rebellion for us at camp was making some poor kid laugh so hard the ice cream came out his nose. 

One of the boys was a piano prodigy. He did not come from money; he was a scholarship boy, one of Harry’s favorites, one of his projects. We’d occasionally be invited down to Harry’s house, on the road into camp, to hear this boy play. But at some point in my first year, this boy failed Harry in some way. I’m not sure I ever knew the details. Whatever it was (caught in a lie? caught cheating somehow?) wounded the mentor more than the transgressor.

Harry’s disappointment cut into everyone in camp. His response was to sulk, a child himself. It was astonishing: this potent, sure, bear-like man refusing to speak, deigning not to dispel the cloud he had himself created.

The cloud lifted eventually after a few days. My own betrayal of Harry James did not come until several years later.

To be continued . . .

pshelton@watchnewspapers.com

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