Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Youthful Wanderings & a Studebaker

What causes us to look up at a certain moment
or to travel in a particular direction?
Does our perception determine our trajectory and our fate?

When my college-aged son visits the Dipper Ranch, he first sleeps, or as he calls it, mandatory recharging. He was home in June after completing his sophomore year. With forty winks under his belt, he started wandering about the ranch.

One evening, he joined me on a hike to the lower end of the property to check on the cow-calf pairs. With his help, I was able to pry open the stubborn lid on the lower springbox and found it nearly dry, although both water troughs connected to it were still full. Not seeing many people on this far end of the ranch, the bulky cows pushed their mingling calves into the brush at the sight of us. Satisfied they were healthy and wily California cows, I asked my son if he wanted to continue westward to see the calf carcass that served as a plush rattlesnake throne last year. That got a definite 'yes'.

---leather on the hoof ---

We crossed a creek and ran into the cattle again. They snorted their disapproval as they trotted ahead of us on the old dirt road. Around a bend, my son asked about a wrecked car in the nearby trees that I had always ignored. We decided to investigate. It was a rusty, stripped-down sedan. The pair of 'suicide' doors on the passenger side was bent back on themselves as if the jaws-of-life had been used to pry out the occupants. We scrambled about the wreck, speculating on how it got there.

I noticed the glove compartment was marked "Land Cruiser" in raised silver lettering, but this car was too old to be a Toyota. Later that evening after an Internet search, I found that Studebaker made a Land Cruiser from 1934 to 1954 and the remnants of this vehicle look somewhat like the late 1940s models. In the mid 1800's, various Studebaker brothers built wagons in Indiana for farmers, the army and western settlers, and another brother made big money building wheelbarrows in California for gold diggers. The California brother returned to Indiana after a family religious dispute and invested his gold-derived money into the family business. Eventually the Indiana wagon factory turned to automobile production until the company went out of business in the 1960s.

---chrome and twigs ---

Post-WW II Land Cruisers had a reputation as luxury vehicles, and although most parts had been salvaged off this wreck, remnants covering the interior door panels appear to be leather with a crocodile-like texture. What is the story behind this car? I remembered a tidbit Paul Ortega, former ranch caretaker, reported in a currently unpublished interview with the South Skyline Association. He said thousands of men would congregate at the Shriners' summer retreat along Pescadero Creek, "[A] big shindig", he called it, "No women allowed". The Islam Temple Shrine of San Francisco owned land adjacent to the Dipper Ranch from 1924 to 1945 before they sold it to the state for what eventually became Portola State Park.

--- leather and twigs ---

Were a couple of Shriner boys driving back from a celebratory evening at the camp in their well-appointed automobile and didn't see a curve on the country road? Present-day drivers still occasionally miss a curve on Alpine Road and fly over the Dipper Ranch. The last vehicle left drag marks on the hillside where the tow truck had to haul it up twice (cable broke the first time). And what decays near the foot of this same hillside? The Studebaker wreck and the carcass mentioned above where a calf appeared to fall to his death last year. The dates and the geology sorta line up.

--- leather shortly after death ---

We continued down the road to the final resting place of calf-2008. By now, fifteen months later, the bones and bits of hide are widely scattered by the ranch scavengers. Some were cracked and split by coyotes, bobcats and vultures, and others have delicate scrapings on their edges from rodents reclaiming the calcium.

---bones dissolving in stomachs and soil ---

Twilight had arrived and we decided to leave this haunted place and hike home for a barbecue dinner. As we traveled homeward, we watched the ranch's changing of the guard. Deer were coming out of hiding to browse in the open pastures. Several of the does had one or two fawns following them. When a doe is steadily moving towards a destination, her fawns follow exactly behind her, sometimes falling behind but nevertheless tracking her same route. While her shoulders and rump clear the grasstops when she bounds, their ear tips are just visible at the apogee of their tiny leaps. When she stops to browse, the newest fawns tuck in tight by her side and select whatever looks like what she is eating. The older but still spotted fawns will wander a bit farther in their nibbling. If they are twins, they tend to stick together or maybe one is the leader.

When the ambulatory fawns hear or see something new, they stand stock still and stare. If the object of their obsession is loud or moves quickly, they bolt, seemingly any direction, and take cover, sometimes becoming separated from the rest of the family. A fawn came out of the willows towards me last week as I was closing the gate near the house. I had flushed a doe earlier as I drove down the driveway. I guess the fawn thought my subsequent quiet walk back up to the gate sounded more like animal than noisy human. As he cleared the tall grass and abandoned farm implements at the road edge, he gave me a few seconds of stunned stare, then bolted back into the willows when I murmured "Good evening." On my way back to the house, I heard a large deer crashing hurriedly through the orchard with two small silhouettes bouncing behind her, the family reunited.

While watching deer, I never see them give each other a warning when danger or a disturbance is suspected. One deer may look up from browsing, scan the view shed, swivel its ears, determine a threat and then bound away without a stomp or any gesture I can detect as a warning to its fellows. Any panicked motion by one deer sets the rest instantly in flight, often scattering several directions. No discussion, no evaluation, just departure. The fawns have to flee-fend for themselves at these times. I can't make sense of it, but I need more deer observation time to figure out what deer see and why they head one direction or another. With eyes in the center of my head, instead of the side, maybe I will never figure it out.

I spend a lot of time wandering the ranch and interpreting the stories behind the natural phenomena. I am curious about the human history, but too dull-minded to notice it. Ranch visitors tend to look and travel in different directions than I do, and so we get a chance to be history and landscape detectives.

With all my wild speculation about the Studebaker wreck, I do need to address one other possibility. A former long-term tenant of the property made his living by grading and other work-for-hire with his large collection of earth-moving equipment. He also made money grazing various properties and probably in many other ways as is typical of country folk. He could have acquired the Studebaker wreck, stripped its finery for resale, and left the carcass in this shady remote spot. Nevertheless, I see what I see, it's still haunted to me.

--- not my fate . . . today ---
See Also:

For information on the Studebaker business:
  • More Than They Promised, Thomas E. Bonsall, 2002, Stanford University Press.
  • Studebaker Museum


  1. What a great entry, Cindy! Really feel like I'm there, hiking with you and Reed. Keep up the great posts!


  2. I love the pic of you. Interesting, there is an ancient, decrepit car on Arastradero Preserve, as well, slowly being reclaimed by forces of nature. It's so odd to find it amongst the YST and the Elymus - an emissary from another time with an uncertain end.

    Could deer communicate by smell? Feral cats certainly do, and they are masters at remaining hidden and unseen. I tamed feral cats for several years, and over time with humans, they learn to use their voices, and not emit such loud 'fear' and 'anger' smells, which really irritate the housecats...Or else could deer be seeing slight movement out of their peripheral vision?


  3. I like your first-person entries like this, far more than the "lecture-type" entry about mowing. Could that have been from notes on a talk you gave? I like your tales of roaming.

  4. The educational posts are to answer the 'why' questions I get from other people. The first person posts are to answer my own 'why?'. Thanks for your feedback. Still trying to find my voice for sharing this amazing land.

  5. Hmm, had seen an answer post about deer communication, but can't find it now. Anyways, this is incomplete, and published by a hunting org., but still fascinating.



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