Friday, May 11

Remembering Jeff Breckenridge

We weren’t sure where the small church in Prather is located. I tried putting its address into my Garmin Nüvi GPS gizmo, but it refused to cooperate. We ventured on anyway, Karla thinking she kind of knew where it was. As we ascended into the foothills, we suddenly ran into a mob of parked cars along the highway and everywhere there was a flat place. Holy cow. We had heard that maybe 250 people would be attending this memorial, but were surprised that the California Highway Patrol had a car stationed on the road to make sure people didn’t clog the highway.

We were directed to a sort of flat place way up the hill where we could park. Right behind us was a Corvette, a car that couldn’t follow us (we needed four-wheel drive to make it). That car tried to park on the side of the highway but the officer in the cop car used his loudspeaker to tell him that’s a no-no.

Our intention was to arrive early. After seeing the mass of cars, “early” probably started an hour before we arrived. We walked down the hill to the small church and were amazed at the crowd surrounding it. Many people were already inside, so we worked our way in and found the last two folding chairs against the back wall and sat down. Loudspeakers were set up outside for the people who couldn’t fit inside. Many folks lined the back wall and both side walls; it was standing room only. The six or eight ceiling fans worked hard to keep us supplied with oxygen. This was way over the carrying capacity of the little church.

We sat next to John, a man who for many years worked for the local propane company and kept us supplied at both Florence Lake and the ranch. He was a good friend of Jeff’s and had a lot of tales to tell about their trips into the High Sierra. As we looked around at the crowd, we couldn’t find anyone else we recognized.

The pastor opened with the story that Jeff wasn’t a church-goer. But that was all right because he was a good and honest soul who helped many people during his life. The speakers who followed with their tales of Jeff’s impact on their lives made the certain impression that his entry to Heaven was assured.

Karla knew Jeff from the time he was in high school. I knew him for a short time, then occasionally met him at parties we attended. When I first met him, I was impressed with his sense of fun and his playfulness. Only later did I find out that his body was ravaged by disease. He was at the Muir Trail Ranch at the behest of his father, who had asked Karl and Adeline Smith if Jeff could be there for the summer. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had been given heavy doses of radiation, had only a short time to live, and he loved horses. This would be a good place for his life to come to an end. Jeff was 14 years old.

Jeff at Muir Trail Ranch, 1973
He worked summers at the ranch for many years thereafter. Then he got a job with the Ponderosa Telephone Company and worked his way up to foreman of the construction crew, after mastering the operation of every piece of construction equipment they had. He even won them a national award for safety by putting in a half million miles of heavy equipment operation without a single accident.

But Jeff’s real love was the High Sierra. He lived in the foothills. On one occasion he had a trip to the back country all planned out. To get his horses to the trailhead in the high mountains he needed a horse trailer. He didn’t have a horse trailer. So he packed his animals and took off from his house. From doorstep to high mountains and back to doorstep. One of the speakers told a tale of being with Jeff when their party ran across an avalanche and tree fall that completely closed the trail. They moved rocks aside until they ran into hundreds of trees that blocked the trail completely. Jeff hacked at the branches with his machete till it became apparent that they couldn’t go any farther. He decided they were in a place big enough to turn the horses around and head back the way they had come. Around that time one of the horses slipped and fell on him. He was fine, though (the horse, that is). His companions recognized the signs that Jeff had suffered a concussion. Jeff insisted on continuing, and someone had to actually sit on him to keep him down. The word “impossible” didn’t mean much to him.

On several occasions the horses would simply go home without the packers, usually at night. Jeff would hike the dozen or more miles back to the ranch to gather them up and return. You’d think he was built like a mountain man, but his Indian friends dubbed him Skinny Horse.

Two of his daughters spoke of him, relating many funny stories. One said that Jeff had always wanted a son, but had only girls. So she said she took on the role of son by joining the Army and going to war in Afghanistan.

A highlight of the memorial was when one of his Mono friends sang what he called a traveling song in his native language. His resonant voice reverberated in the little church and brought tears to many an eye.

On closing the ceremonies, the pastor told of Jeff’s association with Stanford University where he was first treated for his disease. He participated in a study, returning to Stanford every year for the rest of his life, and as a result the doctors there now have some far more effective treatments for Hodgkin’s.

The lessons we learned from him: Don’t give up. Nothing is impossible. And don’t take life so seriously.

Jeff made it all the way to 59 years of age.


HHhorses said...

I wish I had been able to know Jeff better. Thank you for the good story of his life. Does Mom know who the horse in the picture is?

Daffy said...

I had no Idea; he was 2 years my senior in high school; and knew him by name only; lost track of most sierra alumni decades ago...what a loss.My thoughts are with his family.