Everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we don’t see. Martin Luther King Jr.
Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’m on a Grandpa Quest!” That’s what I told the young man at Wuksachi Lodge when he asked what called my husband Cam and I up to Sequoia National Park on this misty forty-degree Friday afternoon in late January. That’s what I’ve been telling everybody. The words ring true to me, though I’m not exactly sure what I’m questing for. It started last summer, this quest of mine. Or maybe the roots of this longing started way before, when I was a little girl and my Grandpa was the art that decorated our walls and the stories our family told about someone we called Grandpa Haskell who was famous in his day for these etchings and watercolors and theater posters that he had created, someone who had died tragically — the tragedy is what was emphasized — in a car accident at the height of his career thirty-one years before I was born when my father and his twin were four. So what brought this quest to the forefront eight months ago? What compelled me to make it a one-hundred day project last autumn, a daily dose from the archives of original letters and articles and sketches and remembrances of this grandfather who was more myth than human, more framed etching of a mighty tree than flesh and bone?
I know some things. I know that it’s not healthy to hold someone, living or dead, as your family icon, someone you make larger than life, someone who overshadows the rest of you mere humans with your very human quirks and your own precious gifts. I know that I didn’t want to live in my grandfather’s shadow anymore, and perhaps there were ways that I still was doing so, and that was one reason for my quest, to untether myself from his massive root system and to discover more fully my own connection with Source. I wanted to see him as human, to get to know him as human. I also wanted to get to know his art again. I had stuck it in the closet and under the bed and into acid-free notebooks, the piles of etchings and watercolors that I had inherited. That was my rebellion — and also perhaps a part of my growing up — for years, to hang on the walls of my adult home the art of my contemporaries, art that spoke to me, art that had nothing to do with my grandfather. And during my one-hundred days of Grandpa this past autumn, I not only received a holy grail of information about his life, but also found myself transfixed with his art and his creative process.
So here I was in California over Super Bowl Weekend on the first day of an archeological-dig-of-a-road-trip with my husband who has also found himself drawn into the Grandpa Quest, visiting the places that Grandpa explored and etched and painted one hundred years ago. Here I was on this misty Friday afternoon an hour before sunset in the heart of Sequoia National Park on the first hike of our two-day adventure in this land of the giant trees. It was hard to see clearly these trees that surrounded us on this trail that wound its way up even higher in elevation than our lodge that sat at 7200 feet. The mist was thick and pink-toned and moist and the air was pine-scented and patches of hard-packed snow clung to the forty-degree ground. We were very much in the moment as we trudged up the trail, very much in the moment as we craned our necks skyward and gazed at the misty tips of these ghost-like trees. And I’m sure that Grandpa was on our mind. Had he hiked this very trail on his visit to the park in 1914?
I have an image of him, my grandpa, now that I’ve read through the archives. I know that he was a big man, tall and fit, with a large head and hands. I know from his own words, and from those who knew him both professionally as an artist and personally as a friend that he was exuberant, enthusiastic, that his voice boomed and bellowed and he laughed easily. I know that he was generous with other artists, and strived for excellence with his own artistic pursuits, that creating art was a lifelong passion, as was his sense of adventure, that he studied the masters in Paris for extensive periods of time, and traveled this country by train and Model-T, that he loved his property in Maine, the farmhouse, the barn with cow, the gardens and forest and the sea. I know that he loved the sea, and I know that he loved this land too, California, with its wide expanse of possibility, with San Francisco that stole his heart the summer he attended the World’s Fair, and Monterey and Big Sur, with the rolling hills and the mountains and this west coast ocean and these trees. I know that he loved these trees.
You can have an image of someone, a grandpa, for instance, and still not feel like you know him at his essence. I think it’s harder to know someone after he is no longer living in his body if you never knew him when he was present in that same body. Sometimes I feel my mother’s presence, and I am warm inside. I know its her. I know her touch and her smile, know what it is like to be in her midst. The same is true for my father — or countless others who have been near and dear to me in this lifetime and have made their transition back to nonphysical. So I count what happened next on the trail as a real gift, one that I want to etch into my mind the way that Grandpa etched these trees into his copper plates. I wasn’t trying to make anything happen. I was simply trudging up the mountain and gazing off into the misty forest, over at a faint foggy sketch of a tree, and that’s where he appeared to me, not a concrete-material vision with my body’s eyes, but in my mind’s eye as clear as a sunny day. He walked right out of the foggy space where that tree was standing. It felt like something different than imagination. I could see him in my mind’s eye wearing khaki pants, a wool shirt, his leather boots. I could hear his booming buoyant voice. And he bound with a vigor right over to the trail, this grandpa I had never known, and he joined us for the rest of that first-day hike. It sounds corny, I know. But I don’t care because I viscerally felt his essence that afternoon and I liked the Grandpa who I met.
And then the next morning, the sun rose over the Sierras and the air was crisp and high-altitude clear and that mind’s eye image of Grandpa as man in khakis walking beside me was no longer in sharp focus. It was Cam and I at breakfast at the lodge and Cam and I playing among the mighty ones, those giant Sequoias that Grandpa had etched during the summer of 1914, and Cam and I climbing to the top of Moro Rock and Cam and I traversing the side of a mountain on the High Sierra Trail in the late afternoon sunshine with a view of snow-capped Mt. Whitney in the distance. And sure, we thought of Grandpa, found the exact angle that he had etched the giant of the giants, the General Sherman tree that I knew so well from the etching-print that hung in my childhood home. And we wondered whether Grandpa, too, had climbed the knife-edge of Moro Rock, had explored the Crescent Meadow with its moss-covered trees, had hiked on this glorious trail that overlooked the high mountains. And where had he stayed in this national park that was new and even less developed one hundred years ago? We wondered these things as we played in the park, as we created our own present-day experience. And the next day, when we drove southwest on the windy roads back down to the coast, Grandpa was still very much on our minds. How could he not be when we were looking out at hillside after hillside dotted with California oak trees, snapshot images that could have been lifted right out of one of his west coast etchings?
All weekend long, our present-day plan was splashed with these Grandpa wonderings. As we traced the Pacific coastline from Cambria through Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz back up to San Francisco, with the mighty Pacific crashing into beaches and cliffs in great splashing waves, as we looked out at some of the most stunning scenery we’d ever seen, at five dolphins playing by a cove, at hundreds of sea lions fishing in the waters off a beach, at a sea otter floating on its back, at Cypress trees leaning windswept toward that blue blue sea, we could understand why Grandpa had fallen in love with this part of California in the summer of 1914, had returned the next year, and again a few years later for an extended period of time with his two small children after his beloved first wife had died in the flu epidemic of 1918. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t shown himself again in that clear wool-shirted way that had been such a gift during our first misty walk among the spruce trees and pines. We, my husband and I, were having a blast. And isn’t that what a grandpa wants for his grandkids? We were appreciating what he had once appreciated one hundred years earlier. We were looking though our own artist’s eyes while, at the same time — I would venture to say — also seeing the world through his.
And that clear wool-shirted Grandpa who hiked with Cam and I through the pink-misted dusk that first day of our adventure, I can close my eyes and conjure him up. I know him now in a way I didn’t before. And the evening that we returned home from San Francisco, we hauled out the notebooks filled with etchings, the piles that are still sitting on the floor, and we sifted through them all and we gasped. The cypress we saw along the windswept coast — we were sure that they were the same trees that Grandpa had painted and etched so long ago. And a California etching that had meant so little to us before — just another western hillside — was titled Moro Rock. He had been right there, one hundred-and-one years ago in the exact spot where Cam and I began our climb up this knife-edged mini-mountain just a few days earlier and he had documented it in a way that now so many years later is bringing us pleasure. In fact, all of his west coast etchings, the ones in my possession, seemed more alive to us, more pleasurable to examine.
And then, as we climbed into bed, jet-lagged and happy, I read to Cam from Grandpa’s oldest daughter’s journal. I had perused these pages scrawled in her backward-slanted penmanship many times before, but, now, they, too, took on new meaning. She had been four the summer that they traveled by train from the east coast to San Francisco, had been a part of this adventure to the thrumming big city, and then south, to Monterey and the glorious coastline. I knew that. I also knew that she mentions in her writings a camping trip to Yosemite, and an encounter with a mountain lion who runs off with their ham. But what I read next aloud to Cam that night sent thrill bumps up my spine. It wasn’t Yosemite after all. She just had stuck the wrong label on the right place. Our place. She describes the camp site that the mountain lion visits as being close to General Sherman — not a part of Yosemite after all, but a highpoint in Sequoia National Park. They had camped within walking distance to the lodge where Cam and I had stayed. And the mountain lion story, one of the childhood myths I knew about Grandpa, has now become real to me. I have a vivid image of where that tent was pitched and where the lion emerged from the woods. This all makes me feel happy inside. This all makes me feel as though I have, not just an inheritance of etchings and a family myth of someone who once was famous, but a grandpa, a grandpa who I’m getting to know and love.
Out of the Mist: Sequoia National Park, January 30, 2015
General Sherman: Ernest Haskell, 1914
Helen Haskell Remien and General Sherman: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015
Sequoia National Park: January 31, 2015
High Sierra Trail: Sequoia National Park; January 31, 2015
Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, 1914
Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015
By Big Sur, California; February 1, 2015
Windbent Cypress: MontereyErnest Haskel, circa l 1918 — 1919
Watercolor of Cypress Trees: Monterey, California; Ernest Haskell
Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 2, 2015
Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 2, 2015