John O.

My friend, John Olmsted, died this morning. He has been diminishing since Autumn, his cancer spreading into his organs and pain invading his body. He is, at last at peace. I will always remember John as he was when we hiked up Mount Lola a couple of years ago, a strong, tireless walker working up the roof of Nevada County on that long trail in the back of the Sierra, or John at our wedding, leading our guests up the pygmy forest staircase of centuries into our geologic past. John has been a part of my life for over thirty years and I’ll miss him. Oh John, you have been an inspiration and a challenge, you always expand my perspective and remind me of the gifts of Gaia. You had a true and beautiful understanding of the wild, and the precious and fragile balance of wilderness, on this teeming planet, and on our psyche.

I see John so clearly, sitting next to me as I drive up the old Stonyford road north of Bear Valley. Lines of black tar connect like spiderwebs on the cracked pavement and in all directions the owl clover, poppies and lupines cascade in bloom. John’s eyes are closed and he tells me about his grandfather, how he made his fortune subdividing Encino, California and bought the Garden of Allah hotel, how he survived the depression by renting rooms to faded movie stars and how John’s inheritance (along with every penny that he could beg or borrow) was going into undividing California, the stories of land saved and land lost, the first $400 downpayment on the Ponderosa ranch (now Bridgeport State Park), the unprecedented snow that stopped the bulldozers at the Jughandle headland. I remember camping at Addington Springs, where good clear water comes out of the red fuschia. John making a dinner of day-old bagels and Jo-Jo potatoes from the quick-stop in Colusa, John thrusting his bare hand into the ground and yanking up an invasive thistle, or John tranquil, under the Mother Sugar Pine, her great trunk miraculously preserved from the devastation of the Fork fire which burned up the rest of Goat Mountain.

John loved the world so much. I know he wasn’t ready to leave. Even three weeks ago, when I told him I was heading for a vacation to Baja California, and despite barely being able to lift a cup, with the water running out of him as quickly as it ran in, John told me about his trips to Baja. He told me to look out for the pygmy Buckeye trees and the southernmost range of Ponderosa pine in the Sierra San Pedro Martir. We have always shared our love of trees and botany and geography and the Earth; our orientation in the cardinal directions, and the daily transect of the sun and the moon. John appreciated my talents and sensibilities and we worked together often.

Thank you for your gifts, John. Thank you for the chain of linked natural sites across the State, so many of which we have hiked; the jewels on your necklace, Jughandle Farm, Observatory, Hull Mountain, Goat Mountain, Cache Creek, Colusa, Dry Creek, Bridgeport, Shady Creek, Jones Bar, Excelsior, Independence Trail, Fall Creek, Devil’s Peak, Mt. Lola; the bright afternoon sun as we swim the “miracle mile.” Thank you for sharing your ceremonial, left-over dinner after talking to the angels in room 3 1/2 at the Outside Inn. Thank you for blessing my wedding and introducing me to the women who have loved you, suffered for you, left you and cared for you. Thank you for allowing me to play the part of Saint Peter in your production of “John Muir in Heaven”. Thank you for selling me books at Christmas, introducing me to Edward Curtis and James Balog and John Marsh, pioneer. Thank you for trusting me and for the pictures you left and for your never diminished faith in the perfection of our glorious world.