The Southern Sierras of California by Charles Francis Saunders: A Second Look at a Forgotten, Outdoors Classic

The book's title is a misnomer:  The Southern Sierras of California, by regionally revered botanist, naturalist, and outdoorsman, Charles Francis Saunders, isn't referring to the majestic southern Sierra Nevadas encompassing Yosemite Valley and Kings Canyon National Park — rugged alpine terrain of gigantic granite domes, gargantuan Sequoias centuries old, and Tolkien-like, multi-tiered waterfalls, made famous by the writings of John Muir and photography of Ansel Adams — but to the less celebrated, less elevated, and lesser traveled trio of mountain ranges flanking the cities and suburbs of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Palm Springs.

First printing, 1923
These three ranges, the San Gabriels (or, "Sierra Madre," as they were called in Saunders' day at the dawn of the Twentieth Century), San Bernardinos, and San Jacintos, are instead the focus of The Southern Sierras of California.  What John Muir did for the Sierra Nevadas, promoting their conservation, Charles Francis Saunders did for the mountains of southern California. Both writers enjoyed relaying their adventures in exciting, sometimes melodramatic, prose.  Not long after the shelterless, sub-zero night of exposure John Muir survived on Mount Whitney (elev. 14,495 feet) by "dancing" all night on the summit to ward off hypothermia and to keep himself halfway warm, Saunders wrote about the harrowing time he barely survived on the summit of "Greyback" (a.k.a., "San Gorgonio Peak," the highest point in southern California, at 11,502 feet).  Greyback is a mountain I can see from my house on clear days.  I made it to the top of the peak during a fourteen hour day hike in 1995 that also happened to be the same day O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double-homicide. On what had been an otherwise uneventful hike to the summit of Greyback, in the "High Peaks" chapter of The Southern Sierras of California, Saunders described how the weather turned traitor on him:

"Suddenly there was a crash of thunder and a blinding flash.  The bolt stunned the guide, and sent him plumb crazy, so I had to hold him by force to the ground for half an hour, or he would have thrown himself off the mountain.  A second bolt that followed killed Wheeler instantly, ripping his clothes to shreds and leaving him almost naked.  Then a third bolt struck close to me while I was struggling with Dobbs, who cried like a baby and was calling for his mother.  I couldn't make him realize what had happened.  Other bolts followed striking here and there on neighboring buttes, and I was with a dead man and a lunatic on my hands, and no help so far as I knew within a dozen miles, and the mountain wild with storm."

While Saunders survived the ordeal, I wish the same could be said of his legacy.  For unless one is a botanist with an obsessive interest in the history of all botanists from yesteryear, or an intrepid hiker such as yours truly, obsessively interested in the history of his local mountains, the name, Charles Francis Saunders, will inevitably elicit blank stares.  And yet his naturalist's prose could be just as poetic, just as impressive (though rarely as reflective or philosophical), as John Muir's — that eccentric and wildly vivacious mountain man who danced barefoot all night long in the snow one night in order to stay alive, and to this day remains universally known.  Which as far as criticism goes, is like claiming Maxim Gorky wasn't as great or influential a writer as Tolstoy.  Yet as much as I identify with and respect the profound legacy of John Muir, I much prefer reading Charles Francis Saunders, because the mountains Saunders traveled, I too have traveled extensively.  What were known as "trail resorts" in Saunders' time —essentially backcountry bed-and-breakfasts run by hearty Mom-and-Pops, accessible only by hiking in or riding horseback, their rustic accommodations constructed from the sun bleached bones and exposed ligaments of weathered wilderness itself — are now the eroded foundations of stone cottages, fascinating ruins that I have set up camp upon numerous times for a night in the woods.  Fancy that — the exact spot where I've hammered tent spikes into the ground, Charles Francis Saunders lodged in cozy comfort, a century ago.

Consider forested Orchard Camp, the former "trail resort" in the hulking shadow of Mount Wilson, a mere three miles north of, by historic footpath, the encroaching mansions of Sierra Madre's, Arcadia's, and Glendora's arson-prone canyon cul-de-sacs; imagine a night there under oaks and alders and the spell of a sylvan stream, reading what Charles Francis Saunders wrote about Orchard Camp by candlelight, in the mosquitoey hologram of your flashlight. . . .

I have.

Orchard Camp: Then
Orchard Camp: Now


Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road by Neil Peart

Imagine sending your nineteen-year-old daughter, Selena, your only child, off to college in the morning, and that evening the police show up at your front door with some "bad news".  Imagine the officer suggesting to you and your wife, Jackie, whose eyes have presently "gone wide" and "her face turned white" (because she already knew), that "maybe you'd better sit down."  Imagine the officer telling you and your spouse it was a "single car accident," she "apparently lost control," she was "dead at the scene."

Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for RUSH, and one of the most literary and imaginative minds in the history of rock, didn't have to imagine it, having endured that agony the night of August 10th, 1997, when life as he'd known it abruptly and irrevocably ended.  His wife collapsed to the floor with the news.  Unfortunately, for her sake and for Neil Peart's, she never really got back up off the floor. Shattered by the sudden death of her daughter, Jackie was so inconsolable that not even Neil, her husband of almost twenty years, could comfort her, though he tried and tried.  Five months after their daughter was killed, Jackie was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Neil confessed in Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road, a memoir that has to be the most painful and yet ultimately the most hopeful memoir I've ever read, that Jackie absorbed the news of her terminal cancer "almost gratefully".  Three months later, she died.

Imagine being Neil Peart, losing your daughter and then your wife, your entire immediate family, your entire life, in the span of eight cursed months?  How could you survive something that hellish and unbearable?

Neil hopped on his motorcycle, a BMW R1100GS, and rode through almost every province in Canada, including the Yukon and Northwest Territories; through almost every state in the U.S.A., including Alaska; through almost every state in Mexico, traveling as far south as the Central American nation of Belize.  Thirteen months riding a motorcycle, rain or shine, 500 miles a day, not really running from his grief but moving along with it, perhaps living out Mark Strand's poetic maxim, "I move to keep things whole."

I've been doing a lot of "moving" myself these past three weeks since my own fifteen-year-old daughter, Megan, died suddenly from an unforeseen and unpredictable pulmonary embolism that took her life almost instantly.  It's weird and it's cruel: find myself walking through the house, pacing, stopping only long enough to straighten up and organize book shelves that are already perfectly straightened up and organized, or stopping to eat and to truly absorb and appreciate as much as I can, in every blessed moment I know I'll never take for granted again, the beloved company of my wife and two other children who are thankfully still alive and well. Neil Peart explained that all this "moving" in the aftermath of an unexpected loss is a normal part of the grief process known as the "search mode," a period of time in which your unconscious mind is "trying to find the lost one," or trying to create a sense of organized reality out of (in what for me in my recent experience), still seems unsettled, vaguely unreal when it's not so surreal sometimes, even though I know in my head, and can proclaim it aloud, "Megan's gone."

Having been a fan of RUSH since I was thirteen and first heard the songs "Subdivisions" and "New World Man" off their underrated Signals album (and then shortly thereafter, discovered their even more brilliant back catalog of classic records, stuff like 2112 and Permanent Waves), it's hard to love them anymore than I already have.  But I do!  And it's solely because of Neil Peart's experiences and perspectives, his willingness to write about, with great candor and wisdom, his personal pain that can, understandably, crush some people, that bonds me closer to the man and his music, helping me cope and offering hope for a new future.  As I've read and reread passages of his healing memoir, Ghost Rider, I've come to view Neil Peart as being much more than merely a genius drummer or lyricist or reclusive rock star, but like some ambassador from the country of Grief or capital of Commiseration, who's comforting and encouraging, helping me navigate this seemingly endless, merciless and incomprehensible maze of mourning.


When Classic Literature Became Rock Opera: William Roscoe's The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Hat, Re-imagined by Roger Glover and Ronnie James Dio

In 1973, Alan Aldridge and William Plomer collaborated on a picture book inspired by William Roscoe's children's poem, and published their version of The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast.

The following year, 1974, bassist Roger Glover, who'd just quit (or been fired from; I forget) Deep Purple, produced a rock opera based on Aldridge's and Plomer's picture book of The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast, and recruited various rock singers for each track.  Ronnie James Dio, whom Glover knew very well from having produced Dio's then little known hard rock band, Elf's, first three records (1972-1974), sang vocals on "Love is All", a song that didn't do all that much in the UK or USA, but went to #1 in The Netherlands, and became a hit again in France once the opera was made into an animated film.

Completing the circle, Dio and Deep Purple (w/Roger Glover back in the band on bass), played w/ the London Symphony Orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall in Sept., 1999, selections from The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast.

Today, the Swedish art-punk band, Love Is All***, enjoys warming up to the song that gave them their name (you guessed it!) -- Roger Glover's and Ronnie James Dio's, "Love is All".

[***thanks to slickdpdx, for alerting me to this obscure yet fascinating fact of contemporary music trivia]