Freedom of the Hills

by | Nov 30, 2021

The organizing principle in my father’s life was to avoid responsibility. When I was a teenager, I didn’t fully appreciate that, although it should have been clear, especially the day I came home from high school—or tried to come home—only to find there was no home to come home to. It was early in my sophomore year, and I was living with my father on a 125-acre ranch in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. My parents had bought the ranch two years before, and my father had planned with my mother for her and my brother, who was four years younger than me, to stay behind at our one-acre ranchette in rural Southern California where we had lived for several years, while my father and I moved to the larger ranch to get it ready for them to join us. At least that was the story I was told.

My mother kept her job at the aircraft factory where she had worked her entire adult life while my father, at the new ranch, went from one job to another, a logger for a few weeks, working in a limestone mine for a few more. There were other indicators I should have heeded: how he spent most of his time between his short-lived jobs sitting in a bar sharing off-color jokes with his barfly buddies; how there was nothing happening on the 125-acre ranch in the way of getting it ready.

It wasn’t that I hated my father. Far from it. When I was a small boy, he became one of California’s early scuba divers, and I bragged to my friends about his prowess catching lobster and spearing fish. He had also held a job for several years at the same aircraft company where my mother worked, designing optical navigation systems for supersonic jets, including the rocket-powered X-15, for me another source of pride. He also had some good father-son instincts: when we moved to the ranch in Northern California, he bought me a Winchester 30-30 and taught me how to safely handle a high-powered rifle. When I shot my first deer, he showed me how to dress it, and it provided much of our food that first winter, and he complimented my prowess each time we had venison steak for dinner. It was rather that I yearned for him to stop drinking and start working and get our family back together.

It was a twenty-mile bus ride from high school to home, and I was sitting near the back as we crested a small hill just before the ranch. What I remember is not the remains of the house still smoldering in a heap around the brick chimney, but rather how as the bus slowed and then stopped, everyone turned to look at me. That included the bus driver, whose face asked the question he didn’t need to voice.

I was sitting next to my best friend, Doug Merrill. We were on the football team together, and we spent most weekends at his parents’ place where they ran the village grocery store, and his grandparents, who ran the village hardware store.

“Can I go home with you?”


“Bob”—we called our bus driver by his first name—“take me to Doug’s house.”

I was fifteen years old. I didn’t see my father again for two years. The next I heard from him was a postcard from the South Seas with a picture of a bare-breasted woman with a red hibiscus in her hair, and a short message telling me that once he got back on his feet, he would send for me. I learned years later he had burned the house down hoping to get the insurance money, but at the time I took him at his word. As for my mother—bless her now-departed soul—she had sold the one-acre ranchette in Orange County and moved into a cheap tract house with my younger brother, Jim, who was still in fourth grade. She also gave me permission to stay with Doug and his family for the rest of the school year, something I didn’t fully appreciate until I became a parent of teenage children.

I am now old enough to look back and see those forks where one choice—or in this case, my mother’s decision to allow me the choice—put me on the path I followed, while another might have led me to an entirely different life. When I joined the Merrill family there was insufficient space in Doug’s bedroom for both of us, so we were allowed to move into the family’s Airstream trailer. I worked in the grocery, stocking shelves, and operating the cash register. I had my own “house” and my own job, earning my own keep, even though truth be told, my mother folded a twenty-dollar bill in the letters she wrote me each month. In my mind, my independence was probably greater than it actually was, but it gave me an abiding satisfaction.

Things of course weren’t entirely bucolic. Doug cut off the end of his thumb in the salami slicer, but once the blood was cleaned up and his parents recovered, they continued to give us more responsibility. The bigger setback was the letter I got from my mother saying that she was divorcing my father. I sat on a log next to the Airstream and cried while Doug held his arm around me. Once more, against all the evidence, I had allowed myself to believe that once my father had completed whatever “self-recovery” he was making on that island in the South Seas, my parents would get back together.

* * *

Mr. and Mrs. Merrill vacationed each summer in a rental cabin on an alpine lake higher in the Sierra. It would be my last summer in Northern California, and I was excited to join them. Across the lake there was a peak called Thunder Mountain with a steep-sided face. My mom had given me a subscription to National Geographic, and before my father had burned our house down, I had sat in our living room in front of the fire—the only heat in the house—and read in the October 1963 issue the cover article about the first American ascent of Mount Everest. Inside there was a photograph of Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, standing on the crest wearing a down jacket and down pants, holding his ice ax with the small flags of the United States and the National Geographic Society whipped by hurricane winds. I had said to myself, I want to be THAT guy.

I told Doug I wanted to climb Thunder Mountain up the steep-sided face. We knew better than to ask his parents for anything other than permission to go on a long hike, so we figured we just had enough time to climb it and get back before dark. We jogged along the trail that circled the lake, then followed game trails through the woods to the base of the peak, and started climbing. We made steady progress until just below the summit we encountered a ten-foot-high step of vertical rock.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said.

Doug squatted while I stood on his thigh and then stepped onto his shoulders. He stood and I grabbed the edge at the top of the vertical step.

“OK, now I’m going to hold on,” I told Doug, “and you climb up on my legs and arms.”

Doug was heavier than me, and it took everything I could muster to hold on. On the summit I was elated, but Doug was worried about getting back to the cabin before dark. We started down, pausing at the top of the ten-foot step.

“Let’s jump,” I suggested.

We each launched, taking care to land on our feet to avoid rolling down the rest of the precipice. We got back to the cabin before dark. Sitting on the porch with his parents, we looked at Thunder Mountain in the last light of the day.

That was a good hike,” I told Doug.

* * *

Back in Anaheim,I was shocked by the change the area had undergone in the brief three years I had lived in the northern part of the state. Our one-acre ranchette was gone, incorporated into a fenced compound for a building supply company. The town where I had gone to elementary school—a village named Olive that had a one-room bank, a small grocery, a drug store with a fountain that made Coke with mixing syrup, and a blacksmith shop—was also gone, subsumed into the two expanding cities of Orange and Anaheim.

I’d spent some of my pre-teen years in the chaparral bordering the Santa Ana River hunting quail and rabbits with my single-shot .22. The riverbed was now a concrete channel. I had a Honda 90 motor scooter, and as solace I started ditching school and riding into the San Gabriel Mountains above the Los Angeles Basin to hike to the top of Mount Baldy. At a little over 10,000 feet, it was the highest peak in the range, and there was one section called the Devil’s Backbone that was steep on both sides. Then I tried it in winter, when the Devil’s Backbone was coated in ice, and although I made it to the summit and back down, I realized I could easily have slipped and that the consequences could easily have been dire. What I needed was boots, crampons, and an ice ax, just like Jim Whittaker had in that photograph standing on top of Everest.

Our local sporting goods store did not have crampons and ice axes, but it did have copies of a magazine called Summit that had advertisements for stores that did have climbing gear. There was one called Highland Outfitters not far away, in Riverside. I was then a senior in high school, and I had upgraded my Honda scooter to a 1949 Chevy panel truck. With a couple of my school buddies, we drove out to Riverside and bought boots, crampons, and ice axes, along with a book called Freedom of the Hills—the only thing on the shelves with anything resembling a tutorial on how to use our new equipment.

We drove to the trailhead leading to 11,500-foot Mount San Gorgonio. It was a slow slog through wet snow, and we camped halfway to the summit, the first time any of us had slept on snow. I used the last hours of sunlight to climb a slope above our army-surplus tent, and after reading the appropriate section in Freedom of the Hills, made several mock slides down the slope, arresting my “fall” with my ice ax. My friends, complaining of the cold, stayed in camp the next day as I went on and climbed by myself to the top of the highest peak in Southern California.

* * *

The next year I had to select a college or university. My SAT scores weren’t that high, and we couldn’t afford much, so the elite schools were out of reach. Meanwhile, my father was in Hawai‘i working fora military contractor on optical systems to track downrange ICBMs. I missed my dad, but he had burned our house down and abandoned me and left my mother. By then I had a drawer full of postcards from the South Pacific of bare-breasted women, all with messages hoping I was doing well, that he was looking forward to seeing me again. And then there was Hawai‘i. “The Islands,” as my father referred to them in his postcards, sounded like a fantasy in all ways except they lacked mountains I could climb. Still, the Islands were surrounded by the ocean.

As a young boy, I had accompanied my father many times to Catalina Island, where I would snorkel while he scuba-dove to spearfish and to pry abalone off the rocks. The memory of sunlight streaming through clear water, illuminating forests of gold kelp, had imprinted on my cerebral cortex. After I had returned to Southern California, I had also taken up surfing with my friends, including a weeklong trip to Baja in my Chevy panel truck that included backing into the loading dock at the Tecate brewery in Tijuana to buy several cases of beer, and then camping on the beach and surfing all day and drinking beer around the fire into the night.

I applied to only one college, the University of Hawai‘i, and when I think about it now, I can see how it was a kind of perverse strategy, like rolling the dice whether or not I would go back and live with my father. When the letter came from the university, I slowly opened it and then looked directly at the first sentence. “Congratulations,” it said.

* * *

It was the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love. As a graduation present,my mother enrolled me in Outward Bound, which she hoped would provide more mountaineeringguidance than I was getting from my dog-eared copy of Freedom of the Hills. With about thirty other boys my age, we loaded into a bus and drove from Eugene, Oregon, to the Three Sisters Wilderness area. Our lead instructor, who introduced himself as Walt—and who we would soon learn was a drill sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves—ordered us to choose a tentmate for the one month we would be together. Everyone looked around at everyone else. I had my ice ax and crampons tied to the outside of my Kelty. I was the only kid with his own pack, and his own climbing gear. One of the kids walked over to me and confidently offered his hand.

“Rory Sheridan.” 

“Rick. Rick Ridgeway.” 

“Want to be tentmates?”

Rory became my best friend. Like me, Rory was there to learn how to climb. Like me, he lived with his mother and brother in Southern California. Unlike me, his father was dead; a movie stuntman, he’d been killed on a filming location while doing a horse stunt when Rory was ten years old. Waltwoke us every morning before dawn with his drill-sergeant’s bark to get up and get out of our tents. Dressed only in running shorts, we had to jog to a nearby river and jump in the icy water. Then we jogged back, the dust rising off the road coating our wet bodies with a film of mud that remained until the next morning’s run and dunk.

There was another instructor who was a university student who didn’t yell and had been hired to be our climbing teacher. He was a good climber, and his hair was a little long, and I sensed that Walt didn’t like him. I also sensed that he might be a guy who smoked marijuana and he might even be a hippie, challenging my idea that none of the hippies I had seen were in good enough shape to climb mountains. He also told me that he was opposed to the war in Vietnam and had joined anti-war protests.

All of this compounded my confusion. Should I become a hippie? Should I join the protests against the war? My father and mother were both Democrats—some of the only Democrats in Orange County—but my father had been a merchant marine in World War II and a sergeant in the Air Force during the Korean War, and as a kid I had sat with him on the sofa watching his favorite TV show called Victory at Sea, with black-and-white footage of the Navy battles against the Japanese. He supported the war in Vietnam. He subscribed to the domino theory: if Vietnam fell, he told me, all the countries would start falling until our country too would be under Communist control.

At the end of the Outward Bound course, one thing I did know for certain was that I loved climbing. But that increased my uncertainty that I had made the right decision to go the University of Hawai‘i. Rory and I drove my panel truck back to Los Angeles, going down the east side of the Sierra and stopping frequently to identify all the peaks we would someday climb. I dropped him off at his mother’s house in Encino, and continued to my mother’s house in Anaheim, where I sold my beloved truck and packed my belongings in an army surplus duffel.