Introduction to my 1990s ECHO Articles

By Ken Fisher

When I was young the world was different. It’s a world long gone. Hitchhiking was common everywhere. Raised on what was then the west edge of middle class San Mateo, I could walk out my parents’ home and be on Skyline in not much longer than it takes to drive here today--because folks picked up hitchhikers quickly. Drivers had no fear of hitchhikers and vice versa. That world vaporized starting about the time of Charles Manson. But before that it was friendlier, wider open. I had already fallen in love with the Mountain because my parents brought me up periodically as a child.

Today if it snows heavily law enforcement will be at the pass and elsewhere to keep folks off the mountain who don’t live or work here. Back then they didn’t think they were supposed to waste money doing nonsense like that—if you went up there and got in trouble it was your own darned fault. In the 1950s’ heavy snows my folks loved to bring me and my brothers up. Some saw snow; I saw magic. In better weather some saw trees; I saw magic. And I had a thumb. There was Brock’s Kings Mountain Inn at the corner of Skyline and Tunitas Creek Rd—with a great burger and a view to the west forever (that isn’t there any longer—now suppressed by trees grown up). Getting there you passed Kelly’s (which earlier was the “Sierra Morena Tavern” and later was “Uncle Jon’s Cabin”--burned down in 1976). Today’s “Mountain House” was the “Kings Rendezvous”, later the “Red Pump”. Back then the place then called “The Mountain House” was down on the southwest corner of ‘92 and ’35 where the pullout is now. It had caged birds and a western view that fluctuated with the fog. I was too young to hitchhike to it, only there with my mom. She liked trout fishing in Pescadero and we would stop on the way. But all of it from the 1950s on was a magnet.

In the early 1960s even with a .22 you could catch a ride. And you could walk along with that .22 in plain site without anyone thinking twice about it. Different world completely. A boy and his .22 in the woods! Seemed natural then! I collected everything natural I could find. Pressed flowers, skulls, rocks, snakes, hives, you name it. I didn’t think then to collect things earlier people left behind—that came later—but I wish now I had started that collecting from the start. On the one hand there are still skulls, plants and rocks to collect. But the most interesting man made things are all gone.

The canyons had reclusive residual structures from earlier times. Their final wooden bones sometimes stood until the early 1970s when “barnwood” became popular briefly for interior residential and restaurant refurnishing—and for that market roust-abouts scoured the woods to scavenge every piece of old lumber they could truck-haul, demolishing all standing lumber. Much of that could be accessed via rough dirt roads. For example, older structures that stood back a ways from Purisima Creek Road for much as 100 years vanished completely from 1969-73. Same time as the hitchhiking.

But before it was all gone I was here just enough to feel the romance of a world that felt a bit like a ghost town, even as I didn’t understand one darned thing about it.

In 1966 I started 4-wheeling our Mountain back roads regularly in my 1942 Willys CJ-2A. Purisma Creek Road (today’s main truck-wide trail through the Open Space Park of similar name), was still (but only for a bit longer, a through road--until a flood took out the upper bridge which then wasn’t repaired for years (about when Brock’s King’s Mountain Inn, up-top, burned down). But even after Purisima wasn’t a through road you could access the core of Purisima Canyon from either side by car--for years.

I had a trapper’s cabin I found, long abandoned, with a potbellied stove and rotted wooden roof and two old glass windows that had long been protected when abandoned by rough-cut exterior wooden shutters. Sherri’s brother and I fixed it up and used it regularly. It was so romantic. We hauled in galvanized sheet metal—cross country—and pounded on a new roof at night via flashlight. I have over 500 pre-1920 bottles I’ve found all over the Mountain over the decades in a collection I love. But I wish I now had those few I first found under that cabin. I had no idea then they were special. They would have been emotionally special to me now and I never got them. I just took them for granted naively—part of the naïve times. Just left them laying there, not knowing what I was leaving behind. When I first found the cabin and went inside the newspapers laying about indicated it hadn’t been visited since the early 1930s. Rusted traps hung from spikes on the wall. There was a rusted spring bed frame built to the wall that hinged up to be out of the way. The door hand a lock latch and no lock (until I put one on). It all felt so exciting. It was only about 9 X 12. But it was a mansion to me.

With new stove pipes the heat stove worked perfectly. Mike and I only had fires in it carefully. We were actually very good woodsmen by then and good caretakers of it because we loved it. And being paranoid we only had fires when it was night or when the fog was in heavy enough no one could see the smoke and find us, and it, and hence do something to keep it from us. I wish Michael was still alive. I wish the cabin was still there and that I had the bottles that were underneath it when I found it. Those were special days that will never be repeated in the Bay Area.

Everything on Kings Mountain was pretty wide open then once you got a few feet off Skyline. What was not to love? For a young guy who felt invincible in the woods it was heaven. The smells, the sites, the feel! I wish I could have had the brain of an older, wiser person but then again, today it would a wish in vain to hope for the body of a young man while still having my grandfatherly body. You can’t put the two together. Isn’t supposed to happen, somehow! Age appropriate is grand!

There was no way a kid like me could fathom the sociological forces then building pressure on the Mountain in one way or another, whether it was home construction, the start of Skyline County Water, the open space acquisition, the institutionalization of the Art Fair as a community funding device, the rising residential real estate prices or so much more. But by the time I came back from college and began life as a worker-bee I knew I could shed all urbanization daily as I climbed the elevation and hit the trees at day’s end—and that living on the Mountain was far more suitable to my psyche than elsewhere in the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan region. I’ve lived and worked here a long time now. Sherri and I moved here permanently right out of college. Going to college I’d wanted to be a forest ranger, largely driven from my love of the woods, a fascination which had grown so nicely at part here on Kings Mountain. It didn’t take long once at forestry school to decide that was a lousy career (for me).

Since then I’ve always been career focused on an urban, global, and concrete-under-your-feet finance world while lifestyle and hobby focused on a redwood-based one. It’s taken me decades to unravel some of the many mysteries I’ve observed here.

My Echo articles were written in the early 1990s when I had more energy for that and first had solidified macro-perceptions of the Mountain’s history and evolution. I’ve been building Mountain history ever since but there are few short stories I would write today I hadn’t written then. Today I’d just write longer, with more details, with added pictures found since, and some slightly more nuanced explanations.

Maybe before long I’ll write the few I know now I knew little or nothing about then—so hadn’t written. But the fact is most of you aren’t very interested in tremendous detail about what happened to the descendants of some long past Mountain family, now long removed—or exactly how their front door, barn, and outhouse were related physically to each other. Nor should you be. I’ve taken an interest in all that history and more. For some reason it has all felt romantic to me in many ways.

Lately I’ve become a roads scholar—not a Rhodes Scholar, but a roads scholar, focused on the history of how our rural Mountain roads were built. It’s not a very fascinating story to most and shouldn’t be--and inherently intertwined with how rural roads were built elsewhere in the west in the same period. I’ve been fascinated with a few new mill sites I’ve found that I hadn’t found earlier—but they aren’t the most important ones or uniquely fascinating ones. The thrill is in the hunt. A couple of later discoveries of former cabin sites have led to things that interest me but likely wouldn’t you—like an early site with marbles--increasing the likelihood the residents were Germans (all early marbles were German, largely until World War I and completely so pre-1900). I’ve discovered things like pictures of George Harkins at various stages of his life. But I don’t know why you care once you get the basic story of him and have seen one picture. For me it has all been kind of like the thrill of the squirrel hunt with a .22 as a boy—then an age and socially appropriate thing to do—and later the history hunt in the woods became that same age and an age and socially appropriate activity.

Probably the most fascinating story never widely displayed before is that of the original Pharis School on Swett Road, with pictures from inside the school house and pictures outside at different vintages--and I will write up that story sometime. It has contemporary romance to it.

You can’t find stuff in the woods like you could when I was young. You can’t find the bottles. Don and Phil Kreiss hauled off 25,000 of them and after them I got another 500. (As I write I’m meeting Phil Kreiss this afternoon to walk an antique bottle show in Antioch—and as we visit we’ll be thinking and talking Mountain history).

The bottles Don and Phil found, and mine, (and those found by others) mean the only ones out there are ones we couldn’t find. Hence they’re darned hard to find. You can’t find the interesting metal mill gear and tools I found because I hauled them off (and happily have them—what Sherri calls my rusty metal collection). But even before I started collecting metal the early and mid-1970s scrap metal re-sale craze (paralleling the barnwood craze), stripped away the big, easy metal from the woods.

I have thousands of metal artifacts but most of what I found that was truly interesting was done after that via metal detector. Today you would have to look harder, elsewhere, dig deeper if you’re to find anything (or the few pieces of metal too big to haul off which will sit out there forever in very hard to access places). There are still remains, things I left behind, was too lazy for. But in hard to access spots or what I missed! I’m still in the woods regularly, when I can, now a grandfather flailing at holding on to a once youthful vision, going cross country on less sturdy legs over turf in slightly different ways, if I can--yet still and very much feeling the romance of these woods. I’m too old and lazy to collect, to dig, etc..

But many of those sites are alive in my emotions tied to their history as I’ve learned it. Every once in a while I’ll cris-cross by some site I know and a tan oak will have recently felled via windfall. And underneath where its root was I’ll find an old bottle or rusty relic. And I’ll feel like Purdy Pharis or Nathan Comstock was just there walking by ahead of me—just ahead. I can almost smell him and hear his stride in the breeze. I will always love the Mountain and the emotions I’ve felt here for so long and the way its history has now become not only a living part of my life but a part of my evolution. And I will always love that so many Mountain folk seem now, decades after these articles were written—to still like them and the romance of Mountain history. I hope you like them too and that for your sake you feel the Mountain’s magic.