A  George R. Stewart-inspired Perspective on Fire, From the Front Line

fire first cover

John and Angela Lucia have Ranger backgrounds and a GRS connection.  Both those things were revealed when John went into the Caldor Fire as a Fire Volunteer, providing courageous support in Kyburz, on US 50, with Angela offering critical home base support by forwarding his messages and providing R & R – including excellent meals – when he was finally able to take a break last weekend.

John and I met at Thornton State Beach on my first day as a Ranger, .   We met Angela when we all worked at Half Moon Bay State Beach near Angela’s  family home.  Over the years we’ve shared many meals and many tales of adventure. John’s tales of the Caldor fire are especially gripping, worthy of inclusion in a library like the Bancroft.

I’m including three of his posts, and a link to a news story about John.  The first post is John’s general report (forwarded by Angela) about his efforts in the fire.  The second contains his reflections on the fire from the viewpoint of someone well versed in  the novels of George R. Stewart – as if John had stepped into Fire and Earth Abides for a time.  The third is joyful – as a friendly rain falls from Carson City Nevada to Half Moon Bay, and over the Caldor Fire!

John and Angela and I have gone on to different careers; but as the story shows we’re always Rangers, and always thinking in the ecological way that George R. Stewart taught us.

1

CALDOR FIRE

John Lucia

Mostly this is to all our neighbors who have friends and family along the highway 50 corridor between Riverton and Tract 35, but I encourage the rest of you to want to read along. The Wednesday before last (8/25) I was called out to repair and operate the DB4 drafting pumps near station 16 in Kyburz. Arriving just before the fire hit, and only able to return late last night when the electric power was restored to the area. Station 16 is the only high-volume water source between Fresh Pond and Camp Sacramento. I can tell you many stories of the last 10 days, but the fact is the fire crews did a great job! They all work shifts that exceeded 25 hours, travel up to 45 minutes to their hotel, clean up, eat, rest and to return an hour or so before their shift begins. They receive a briefing, do another 25 hours and repeat. It is grueling! This is a job for the young, District chiefs that I saw, were in their early fifties or younger. The firefighters were all younger than my two sons, and I met over hundreds of them. They were friendly and were always concerned about my well-being always asking if I needed anything. Water, food, masks, etc. “I love those line lunches”!  As I filled their tanker, they would tell me about their families, how they long they have been away, and the towns they come from. Yreka, Humboldt to Murietta, Encinitas, Oak Harbor, Washington and Yuma Arizona. And even Sky Walker Ranch for you Star Wars fans. If you have a cabin in the area of Riverton and Milestone 35 I can tell you first hand it is exactly as you remember it. As I was able to view them personally. Most of this area shows very little fire damage. There was a very well-orchestrated down burn on the south side of the American River which was still consuming ground fuel as I drove through late last night. During the fire, there was either an engine with four fire fighters posted in front of your home or in front of your next door neighbor. Hose upon hose stretched in every direction anticipating the approaching inferno. They stayed, stood their ground and not a single structure was lost, period. All night and day you could hear them shouting, chain saws whining, and burnt trees falling to the ground. For those of you in Sacramento that think that AQI index of 120 was high, it was well over 500, days on end. Visibility at best was 500 – 800 ft max. At the end of their 24-hour shift, they would convoy down HWY 50 in their dirty tired engines. Most of them waving as they passed the drafting station. The lucky crews would be returning to their families after some of them being away for weeks. The point and the fact that I want to make is when you make your home or cabin a defensible space, you are proving to the firefighters that you care about their safety which ensures that they will even fight harder to protect your home. It would be very easy to go on but in closing I would say, it was an honor to work with and meet all these young heroes.

Sincerely,

John Lucia

91PMvVHUlgL._AC_UY218_ML3_

2.  The Caldor fire has been burning now for 4 weeks and seems as it may finally be slowing down. For the first three weeks I felt as I was living and breathing “Fire” there was a constant pressure, with a foreboding sense of the unknown .  Everyone was vital and we all had our place in this battle, those going without nearly enough rest to the front lines and those returning dirty and exhausted. I was fortunately in a very safe place able to aid but more importantly from my standpoint  able to observe. Making a point to speak to as many firefighters as possible and engaging  them in conversation of things other than what was on everyone’s  mind. After asking about their families the one question I ask most of these guys was “have you read Fire?”  You both would be impressed how many responded with a yes!  They agreed it was the best account of the real thing  they had read;  I told the ones that hadn’t it was a must read.

The fire passed has through here now, the pumps have been shut down for almost a week ,the hundreds of hoses laid out everywhere have been collected and most all resources are in the Tahoe basin. For the last few days it feels a little bit like Earth Abides, there is heavy traffic for a couple of hours in the early morning due to the shift change and then a quiet which I have never experienced here before, highway 50 is  almost deserted, all of the homes in Silverfork and Kyburz are vacant, the water lines are empty and the electric is on although most everyone evacuated during the day so hardly any lights are on, at night there is darkness were there was previously lights . I can not recall ever see so much wildlife, in just these few short days there seems to be a lot more activity on the ground and in the air close to the houses, also bird species I hadn’t made note of ,maybe with no one here there is less to fear. Because it has been three days since I spoke with anyone face to face I think I have a small window as to what Ish must have sensed, although unlike Ish I am pretty much staying in one place and he traveled about. I know I am living a capsule version only, but that is still more than I ever thought possible.

As  sidenote Earth Abides was published the year I was born and the house we live in here in Kyburz was built by a Stewart ,Bernie Stewart. Our complete Stewart  library, thanks almost entirely to Don Scott, is normally housed here but when we were evacuated we brought down to Sacramento for safe keeping.  I am looking forward to those days in the near future and  beyond with the sound of children on vacation, and friends and family relaxing take center stage. A time when we all get to enjoy Angela’s wonderful cooking!

Sincerely John

9-10-21:

stewart.1-2021 STORM cover

3.  Good morning     Big news is it rained early this morning. A little after midnight I awoke to very load thunder claps sans lightning, a few minutes later a gentle rain started to fall.  To my surprise  within a few minutes my sinus was irritated and my eyes started to water.  I believe the accumulation of ash everywhere, especially on the roof in this case was the culprit . this morning visibility is very good   and the AQI is 39  but it is still difficult to breath , I believe we are experiencing a form of acid rain . It is now 10 am and the air quality  has improved only slightly .

  This morning saw fewer engines and law enforcement.     Groups of PG&E equipment were headed east early  this morning, yesterday afternoon I noted PG&E dump trucks coming down filled with burnt transformers wire etc. restoration of power on top is a priority.

 . I am curious about the effect of the rain on the hot spots and how that will affect the opening of the road which for 20 out of 24 hours is deserted .

John

Here’s a link to Channel 13’s interview with John, in Kyburz. (It is copyrighted; used here under Fair Use Law)

The Case of George R. Stewart and the Lore of STORM

This is indeed the summer – and the week – of George R. Stewart.

A film, currently planned to be a documentary about one of Stewart’s non-fiction books, is under development.  STORM is being republished by the New York Review of Books Press and offered as the NYRB Classics Book Club selection for August. The Dixie Fire is burning almost exactly where Stewart placed his fire, “the spitcat,” in FIRE‘s fictional “Ponderosa National Forest.” And a slice of Lore about the writing of STORM  has resurfaced.

A message has come from old friend and Bookman Roger, announcing a tour of 2706 Virginia by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.  It’s a remarkable coincidence, because the description of the property’s provenance says that George R. Stewart once owned the house, and that STORM was written there.  That’s almost certainly Lore; but since it’s connected to STORM, it may have some truth to it. So as a Holmes or Watson of things Stewartian, I must take the case on.

gallery_image_5974_2261_1627410266

2706 Virginia Street, Berkeley, from the entrance pathway                                               Photo used by permission of Norah Brower

The source for the story is an article published a few years ago in American Bungalow Magazine, an excellent publication about Arts and Crafts architecture, in Issue 55. The article by John Ribovich  profiles the house and its provenance.  It mentions that GRS wrote STORM in the house.

In 2017, when the article was published, I contacted Mr. Ribovich to find out who his source was for the GRS comment.  During a pleasant conversation he directed me to someone (whose name I’ve since forgotten) who gave him that information.  I contacted that person, we discussed it, and – as I recall – she said she heard the story from a member of the Taylor-Lange Family.

Yesterday, Daniella Thompson, the Website Editor for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, sent an email which pretty much clears up the mystery about this bit of Lore about the Storm —  and also adds significant information to the GRS story.   She writes “…Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange never owned 2706 Virginia Street. They rented it in 1935 and remained until 1940, when they moved to 1163 Euclid Avenue, which they did own. As for George R. Stewart, he was listed at 2706 Virginia Street in the 1934 city directory, meaning that he lived there before the Taylors.”

campanile at dusk

Campanile, University of California, Berkeley, and Bay Area from 2706 Virginia Street.     Photo used by permission of Norah Brower

 

Daniella Thompson’s information helps everything fall into place.

The Stewarts rented 2706 Virginia for less than a year.  Daughter Jill recalled the “House on Virginia Street”  as the place of some trauma:

…Jill Stewart was old enough to remember life in “the house at the top of  Virginia Street” as particularly unsettling. One day she heard “a terrifying  noise” from the flats of Berkeley—a house leaking natural gas had blown up.  Not long after, she heard a crash near the Stewart home and ran out to see a car teetering over the drop-off at the edge of the street. The passengers were sitting in the car, afraid to move. The car was eventually righted without injury to its passengers, but for a long time Jill was afraid to travel in cars. Jill’s third memory of the house was the most traumatic: she fell through a glass door.  She still carries a small facial scar from the fall. ..

Thanks to Daniella Thompson, we know now that the “house at the top of Virginia Street” is the legendary 2706 Virginia.  (It is a remarkable house, by the way, now for sale.)

In 1934, the Stewarts moved to the first house they could afford to buy, nearby in the Berkeley Hills.  Since the Stewarts knew the Taylors, Thompson’s guess is that George (or Ted) Stewart told them the house on Virginia Street was available for rental and Taylor and Lange moved in.

But was STORM written there?

Stewart was researching the book in the winter of 1940-41.  We know that because Ted Stewart told a story about GRS’s ride on a steam engine’s cowcatcher over Donner Summit in a major winter Sierra storm to get a sense of the storm, which is included in the biography:

Years later, Ted remembered how much she worried over the chances George took to do his research. To get the feeling of a Sierra storm, for example, he rode a locomotive cowcatcher through a snow flurry to the top of Donner Pass. Ted, who had driven to the Pass to meet him, found him almost frozen.  

STORM was published in late 1941.  During the time of research and writing the Stewarts were living in the house they had owned for several years, so the novel wouldn’t have been written on Virginia Street. The Stewarts had been long gone from the house on Virginia Street when STORM was being written.

To verify that, I asked Jack Stewart if he remembered his father writing at their friends’ house.  “No, I don’t.  And I don’t think he would do that.  It’s not like my father.”

Since GRS had an excellent “monk’s cell” in their house which was filled with resources a writer needs and the volumes of research material he needed while writing the novel Jack’s expert intuition was certainly correct.

So:  is there any truth to the story?  Or is it simply STORM  Lore?

Here are some possibilities:

Since the Stewarts and Taylors were friends, we can assume that the Stewarts visited them regularly.  If they visited while GRS was writing his novel, they may well have discussed it and those discussions may have influenced the writing.

There is a possible chance GRS was asked to watch the house for a short time when the Taylors had to leave for a family emergency or vacation. If so, it would be likely that he worked on it while in the house.

Or perhaps the two bits of Data – “The Stewarts lived in this house in the early 1930s; and, his friends Taylor and Lange lived here while GRS was writing STORM, ” mingled and were transmuted into Lore:  “George R. Stewart wrote STORM in this house.”

We’ll never know.  But this is the type of interesting scholarly mystery that needs to be investigated as far as we can go with it if our books are to be true, believable, and interesting.

Thanks to Bookman Roger and Daniella Thompson, we know now much more about the lives of GRS and his family than when the biography was written.  I find it of great interest to know the Stewarts lived in that exceptional, iconic house on Virginia Street just as GRS was beginning to change the world’s vision of human-Earth relationships; and that the remarkable Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor moved into the house when the Stewarts left.

Many of you may not know Lange and Taylor, but they were perfect friends for the Stewarts, and like GRS worked to change the world.  Lange immortalized the common folk of the time, creating one of the greatest and best-known photographic portraits  of the era;  Taylor, like GRS, a professor at UC Berkeley, integrated social concerns of workers and other common people with photography, and hired Lange to take the photos (then married her); GRS was a great admirer of the uncommon common people that the Taylors worked, and used similar characters in his novels.

The friendship of the Lange and Taylor, and the Stewarts, and their sequential sharing of that house is worth a book in itself. In fact, I believe the house is worthy of National Historic Landmark status.

At least the mystery has been more or less cleared up, and we can turn our gleanings over to future scholars.

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, once a resident of the House on Upper Virginia Street.

After FIRE, STORM

stewart.1-2021 STORM cover

George R. Stewart’s STORM is getting stop-the-presses-treament.

This month, the New York Review of Books Press is re-publishing Stewart’s classic novel – the first ecological novel – and offering it as the August selection for those in the NYRB Classics Book Club.  It’s available for purchase from their site (or your local bookseller). 

The book has a new introduction, written by novelist and historian Nathaniel Rich.  Rich joins a small, distinguished company of those who’ve written introductions for earlier editions of the novel – Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner and Ernest Callenbach

It is as timely a read as Stewart’s FIRE, profiled here recently.  Already, flash flood warnings are going up in areas still burning as recent rains rush over the now-burned-bare ground.  Those dangerous conditions will continue for some time, until new ground cover and trees grow large enough to slow the speed of rain water hitting the ground.  So mudslides, floods, avalanches, and debris flows will be the norm in those areas. 

Stewart’s book, his first ecological novel – in fact THE first ecological novel –  is the autobiography of a massive winter storm that sweeps across the central section of California, bringing floods, blizzards, massive banks of snow in the mountains – and death.  As in FIRE, GRS writes in the best STEAM manner – weaving science, technology, engineering, art, and math together in a compelling manner to create a book which is still a page-turner, and still accurate, even after the 80 years since it was published.  He is so successful that the book can be found on sites or in other books about weather science, literature, or history.  It is a true interdisciplinary work. 

Stewart’s novel was a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, read by millions, It was referenced in literature (James Jones “Some Came Running”) and the movies (Disney filmed a version for his TV show which had about 35,000,000 viewers per week). In addition to giving readers a fine literary adventure, it educated them.  Anyone who reads the book learns the details as well as the drama and sacrifices of humans in the vast community we share, to keep the roads open, the towns dry, the airplanes or trains safe and running, the phone lines connected. 

Stewart teaches readers about the incredible web of life all lifeforms share on this Earth.  He also ntroduces  the science and the vision of ecology.  Beginning with STORM and continuing with FIRE, EARTH ABIDES, and SHEEP ROCK, he would give tens of millions – or maybe hundreds of millions – an eco-epiphany, and teach them the knowledge that underlies it. 

By 1948, in a reply to a publicist, Stewart realized,  or at least admitted, what he was doing:  he wrote that he was “might be called an ecologist.”

One of the results of STORM probably came from a decision to distribute a portable pocket version to US soldiers during WW II.  At least GRS thought so.  He assumed thousands of troops read the novel.  When they returned to peacetime America,some of them became meteorologists, and they thought Stewart’s idea to name his storm made sense.

There are human characters; but most  are unnamed, only known by the titles Stewart gives them:  The Young Meteorologist, The Pilot, The General.  The primary name is reserved for the storm itself:  Maria (“pronounced in the old-fashioned way” as Mariah).  The result, which has spread around Earth, is that storms are now named. 

Few people today alive know Stewart’s work  (although that is changing) but almost everyone knows we name the storms.  And most of us know that the wind is named Mariah.

Storm with dj, military

“She was a wild Woman On The Loose!”  The military version with tantalizing cover art.  What young soldier could resist?

rare army storm

A more sedate version that could be taken home to share with the folks

(Much harder to find now!)

Stewart’s novel also shaped the life of a young Californian who would become a pioneer of the Space Age.  James D. Burke spent some of his formative years living with his family in a cabin near Big Bear Lake in the Transverse Ranges of Southern California.  While there, he read STORM.  Stewart’s ability to teach another lesson – about how humans work together to solve problems or explore new worlds – led Dr. Burke to NASA_JPL.  There, he became the first program manager for the Ranger program, then worked on many other projects as well. And he gained another distinction which GRS, place name expert that he was,  would have found most satisfactory – Dr. Burke has an asteroid named for him: 4874 Burke

STORM is still a wonderful read, teaches the reader about ecology using the techniques of STEAM, and as the book gives us the practice of naming storms is well worth a read.  The NYRB re-issues of Stewart’s novels have excellent introductions and are bound ruggedly.  I’m anxious to read the new Introduction by Rich.  And, although I have many editions of the novel in my collection this edition’s rugged cover will make it perfect to carry in the Toyota Chinook micro-camper for camp reading.

Highly recommended to all.

 

  

It is the Season of Fire

Just now, the huge Dixie Fire is burning through the up-and-down country south and west of Lassen Volcanic National Park.  The Bootleg Fire is creating its own weather in Southern Oregon.  Lightening has sparked several new fires in California and Oregon.  British Columbia is burning, and one town has disappeared from the Earth. Fire season still has months to go.  It’s a good time to write about George R. Stewart’s classic novel about fire, humans, and fire ecology:  FIRE.

fire first cover

Available in many editions.  This is the dust jacket-wrapped first edition of 1949

 The novel is a “biography” of an ecological character – a fire named “Spitcat.” 

There are also other characters, human and non-human, who bring drama into the 11-day life of the fire.  Judith Godoy is a young woman working a summer as a watcher in a mountain fire lookout tower.  Dave Halliday is a meteorologist. (There is a secret about these two characters, which Stewart fans who’ve read his other novels will easily discover; so it’s good to see them meet here.) The Supervising Ranger – whose name is “Ranger” – is a new type of US Forest employee, college-educated and ecological in his thinking.  Bart is the old-style Ranger educated in the way Thomas Jefferson described Meriwether Lewis:“…He is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves here…”  Bart loves the forest, especially a retreat he’s named the Glen. 

As always in a Stewart ecological novel  a major character is the land itself:  in this case the Forest. 

Stewart generally preferred to use real places, sometimes lightly fictionalized, as the settings for his eco-works – US 40 and Donner Summit in STORM, the Berkeley Hills in EARTH ABIDES, for example.  But here he creates a fictional forest, the Ponderosa, so brilliantly and thoroughly described that for years tourists drove north from the Tahoe National Forest looking for the Ponderosa National Forest.

One reason the Ponderosa is so realistic is that GRS used experts to help “design” it and visualize it.  His son Jack, who was studying to be a geologist, helped with the lay of the land, using nearby landforms as models.  Once the landscape was fully developed, GRS asked a Berkeley colleague, the distinguished painter David Park, to create a model of the landscape, and paint it.  Then, as always, GRS added appropriate names to the landforms. 

Stewart believed the most enduring human connection with the Earth’s geography was with its place-names. In both STORM and FIRE, Stewart inserted what might be called “landform litanies” to his work.  STORM has several – litanies of “the cities of the plain,” of the Sierra Peaks, of the Points and headlands and their lighthouses.  In FIRE, he includes a litany of the creeks and rivers.  In this case they’re all fictional but several are named for people he wished to honor, like “Hart” or “Jack” or “Potter.”  

Stewart also went into the event to fully research it and understand a wildfire and the relationship with the humans involved, either as fire fighters, residents, or victims.  He went missing for a time which worried the Fire Bosses for a while, until he wandered in and reassured them that he’d been on the front lines observing the fire.  In another incident, he slipped while trying to jump a muddy creek and so missed a burning widow-maker that dropped on the trail where he would have been if he’d not slipped.

As usual, Stewart was a brilliant prophet, and there are many similarities between the Spitcat Fire and current wildfires.  For one thing, as happened on the recent Tamarack Fire, fire crews believed that this one had been extinguished.  But it flared up like the Tamarack to demand massive increases in equipment and fire fighters. For another, the underfunding of the Forest Service meant that a critical bit of fire prevention infrastructure, a lookout tower and access road in an important part of the forest, was not built because funding was denied. 

In STORM and FIRE GRS uses technique that might be called “STEAM writing.”  That is, like a modern person wandering the Web in order to understand all dimensions of an event, he beautifully integrates , science, technology,  art, engineering, and the mathematics of fire and fire-fighting in an extraordinary way.  When a reader is finished with the novel he or she have a “Whole Earth” understanding of the ecological event and its human dimensions.

Stewart’s ecological perspective comes through most completely in two passages.  The first is a conversation on horseback between the Supervising Ranger, a college-educated man, and the old, school-of-the-forest Ranger Bart.  They have ridden a muddy trail seeking to discover where the fire began and what started it. Bart is mourning the loss of his beloved forest and the Super tries to encourage him:

“Don’t take it too hard, Bart.  It’s just part of the way things are!”…

“Yes,” the Supervisor went on, “where there are pine trees, there’s also going to be fire, because if there’s no dry season, you’ll have a hardwood forest.  You might say if there weren’t fires, there wouldn’t be pines.”

“I’m thinking of some of the places I used to like to go.”

“It’s hard to tell about it all, Bart.  The way a rabbit thinks, a brush-field must be the Garden of Eden, compared to a pine forest.  In nature–whatever that means–a raw gullied canyon-side may be just as good as a fine slope of trees. The difference is in our minds.

“That’s a big difference to me,” said Bart. 

(That debate goes on even today, as armchair quarterbacks who mostly have NO experience with wildfire, criticize the wildland firefighting heroes – and probably oppose any more spending for the public lands agencies.) 

The other ecological wisdom is in the last sentence in the book.  You’ll need to read FIRE to learn what GRS writes there.

FIRE was a best-seller, Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was filmed twice.  Once by Paramount, so changed that it has little to do with Stewart’s fine novel.  The second time, in a low-budget manner for television by Walt Disney, with the ecological message intact.  That second version was seen by millions, helping to educate them about fire and fire ecology.

 

This book is highly recommended – especially now, in our season of fire.

 

A quick Post about Dutch Flat

Deborah Bruce, whose parents were introduced to each other by George and Ted Stewart, has fond memories of the Stewarts.  The Stewart family had a cabin in Dutch Flat, the old gold mining town in the western Sierra Nevada foothills on historic US 40.  The family, and friends like Deborah Bruce’s Dad when he was a boy, loved their visits to the cabin.  It was also a perfect spot for GRS, because he was working on his classic book about the Donner Party, Ordeal By Hunger, and he could easily explore portions of the Donner Trail from the cabin.  The location of what GRS  called his “scholar’s tent” is still visible near the cabin.

At the request of Deborah Bruce, I’ll post a photo of the cabin taken in the days of the Stewarts’ residence.  May you all enjoy this.

Dutch Flat

From the Anna Evenson Stewart Family Photo Collection.  Used with permission.

The cabin is still there, now owned by the family of one of Stewart’s students.

If you’ve not yet read Ordeal By Hunger, it is highly recommended. Many editions are available, most of them used, some collectible, on the ABE site, Amazon, or others. Always try your local bookstore first!

Earth Day and the author of Earth Abides

Forty years before the first Earth Day, George R. Stewart saw his greatest novel published. Like any powerful classic, the novel goes on and on, helping its readers deal with one of the greatest changes in vision of the last 100 years – the Earth-centered environmental view of things.  Readers of the novel receive an education in practical ecology, often without realizing they’re getting educated, since the work is so masterfully written. 

Stewart knew what he was doing, though.  As he was working on Earth Abides, he defined himself as “what might be called an ecologist” in a letter to a publisher. 

The novel has just been reprinted by Mariner Press with an excellent introduction by award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson.  Even if you’ve read Stewart’s novel before, it’s worth buying for the introduction – and the price is more than reasonable.

The world moves on – on this Earth Day NASA produced the first oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and flew the extraordinary Ingenuity helicopter for a second time on Mars – higher, and farther.  All of this so that when humans leave our ecosystem to explore other worlds’ ecosystems, we will be prepared. 

And thanks to Stewart and his great classic, we will go with the Ranger’s ecological view of our new worlds.

Let us now celebrate this exceptional man and his classroom-in-a-novel on this Earth Day 2021.

George R. Stewart listens to a Ranger read from Earth Abides

Stories about Stewart I

Due to an error in the design of WordPress, yesterday’s post about Steve Williams Journal of his quest for Stewart has vanished.  With apologies, I post here as much as can be found and will work on restoring it completely in the next couple of days.

IN SEARCH OF GRS

Steve Williams

© 1985, 2004

Photos ©  Donald M. Scott 2020

Everyone in their lifetime should have a quest; one thing of greatness, an achievement to enhance the pageant of life.

Then there was a kind of double bump as the runway shocked the wheels of the Boeing 747at 172 mph. Reverse thrust from the four giant engines howled defiance at the airliners speed, and in what seemed seconds, we were coasting off the main runway and following the well skidded track toward the TWA terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

There was an eager atmosphere in the long-compartmented cabin and the captain’s voice, thanking us for flying TWA, was all but drowned out by the whine of the engines and the anticipating, relieved chatter of the 380 passengers; we had all been cocooned for the last 10½ hours, since we had left London Heathrow, and we were eager for open space and solid ground.

As I looked out on the wide, bright concrete vista of the airport, I took in a deep breath and let it out as a long nasal sigh. My eyes squinted out at the brilliant California afternoon, and I couldn’t help smiling at my achievement. The captain was saying things about customs and immigration, and as we rolled over what seemed an endless sea of concrete, I thought back over what had brought me here, halfway around the world from England.

My mind leapt back into time and mentally hopped the years back to my teens. I’m thirty-eight, so that’s quite some hopping and leaping. My thoughts probed the mists of memory and surfaced in Liverpool in 1964. There was a voice saying, “If you like science fiction, you should read Earth Abides; you can borrow mine if you like”.

The voice belonged to Bob Griffiths, who is now my brother-in-law. I could see myself taking the offered book, and in a metal instant, giving it back some weeks later. I didn’t remember much about it, except that it was all right. The mist closed in again; then there were more voices, and mingled with the voices was the memory of smells.

There was the voice of Mr Jones, saying that a good painter has beautiful wrist movements, and the aromatic smell of alkyd oil and phenolic resin pervaded the moment. Then there was Mr Moore. Of all the teachers in the Liverpool College of Art around 1962, big, old white haired, white moustached Mr Moore was everyone’s favourite. He gave all of us green students the confidence to go for goal with the City & Guilds exams.

Then there was Mr Heyworth and his stories of shooting black puddings as they flew south for the winter; Mr Hallam, Mr Whitely and all of the others. Most of these teachers had tried to instruct the then un-famous John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I had started at the Art School as that mischievous duo was leaving to make their fortune; a lovely comment from one of the teachers was “They’ll never make decent painters”. Their voices faded in and out of my mind in a mosaic of memories.

Then there was another voice saying; “If you like science fiction, you should read Earth Abides”. Mike Cunningham was probably my closest friend at the Art School, and together with Fred Walsh, we made a formidable trio. I’ve lost touch with Fred, but Mike and his wife, Phil, are still close friends. I could see myself taking the offered book again, and this time I remembered reading the story.

I was working at that time as a painter and decorator with a firm of builders at Penny Lane in Liverpool. I recall spending breaks and dinner times buried in the book which Mike had lent to me; it was the same novel that Bob Griffiths had lent to me a few years before. Then, it hadn’t meant much to me, but now it hit me right between the eyes.

I was absolutely fascinated by the story and couldn’t wait for my next ten-minute break or half hour dinner when I could carry on where I had left off. I couldn’t wait to get back to my book.

The bright California sunshine brought me briefly back to the present, and now the distant TWA terminal was getting closer. My eyes fixed on the red and white logo on the building, and as I stared at it, my mind wandered back again.

I went back to a brief memory of sitting on a gallon paint tin in a brick doorway somewhere near Garston, Liverpool, eating ham and mustard sandwiches out of my lunch box, sipping a cup of steaming tea, and avidly following the rebirth of Man through the adventures of Ish in my book.

I had recalled once or twice wondering if George Stewart had written any other books in addition to Earth Abides, and my tentative questions at the local library on Picton Road, near where I had lived in Liverpool (and where my mother still lives). I could only assume that he didn’t write any more books, and was quite happy to bury myself regularly in the book.

One particular day, sometime in 1977, I remember phoning Picton Library in William Brown Street, Liverpool City Centre, and asking if there was anything by George R Stewart; and to my amazement and joy, the girl, after a moments search came back with five titles; Ordeal by Hunger, Storm, Fire, The Opening of the California Trail, The California Trail.

When, a few days later, I went down to that library, I could find only one of the books; The Opening of the California Trail, and a brief glance through it revealed it as an account of the Stevens Party under a man named Moses Schallenberger, and their attempt to cross the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada.

Secretly, I had been hoping there would be other science fiction books, as that had been my favourite reading. Never mind, I thought, I’ve still got my Earth Abides, but it still made me think about the other titles, and now I did know there were another five titles in addition to my favourite book. But like the security blanket of childhood, I kept going back to re-read…

It was a great tonic when I was going through a bad patch or if there was nothing much happening. I knew that I could reach for my book and feel comfortable in that superb story.

The warm, comfortable sensation carried me forward again through the hazy, smiling memories, and when the time machine of my mind stopped, it was 1979.

In my sphere of mind, I could smell the sea, and I was walking along a narrow, stone shopped street. There was an arm linking mine and Carol, my wife, was saying “I do love Conway. There can’t be many nicer places, and its Welsh!”.

I remember the smile in her voice and I pulled her arm closer to me in the warm memory. We had been married for eleven years then, and our two children, Steven and Jennifer, were loping ahead of us, weaving in and out through the people and occasionally glancing back to make sure we were still following them. Steven was nine and Jennifer was nearly six.

Wherever we go as a family or on my business trips throughout England, I have always been attracted to the antique shops, sometimes picking up some fanciable item, and the second-hand bookshops. Outside the antique shop in the narrow Conway street, there was an old wicker chair, not antique, but old, as were most of the shop’s contents; probably house clearances. There was also a box of paperback books on the hot pavement near the old, orange wicker chair, to the left of a small doorway.

It was a tiny shop with too many things in it; an old couch, well-worn on the canvas covered arms, a cardboard box with old maps held together by elastic bands, a small table made from some almost black wood. In the middle of the floor and on the table were trays containing an assortment of cheap jewellery and other trinkets. The window was crammed full with blue and white pots, horse brasses, figurines, an old brass fireplace fender and a large pottery dog. In the corner near the window was one small bookshelf. It was upon this shelf that I found Storm by George R Stewart.

I remember almost destroying the little table as I lunged for the book, greedily snatching it from the shelf and paying the startled woman the pencilled in price of 30 pence. For the rest of the week, I was in a state of euphoria, much to the displeasure of Carol and the children (they had to put up with me for the rest of the holiday buried in the book).

The memory made me smile, and I thought of them, ten thousand miles away, and though it was mid-afternoon where I was, they would be tucked up in bed in the early, cold hours of the English spring morning.

Brought back to the bright afternoon, hot and cloudless, I observed the giant airliner was just closing into the docking bay, and the steady whine of the engines now droned down as the four great fans were stilled. The telescopic tunnel was linked to the nose door of the plane and in a few minutes, we were filing out into the terminal building and onto American soil. The captain had told us that the continuation of flight 761 would be made on a Lockheed 1011 which would fly the 500 miles or so of coastline northward from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where I was to realize one of my greatest ambitions.

Everyone in their lifetime should have a quest; one thing of greatness, an achievement to enhance the pageant of life. There is a quest for everyone, lying locked below the surface of their lives, yet needing only the key of destiny.

Destiny had led me to California, and William Wordsworth had summed it up for me very nicely in his poem, Stepping Westward;

 …And stepping westward seemed to be

A kind of heavenly destiny…

I was soon cleared at the immigration desk after trying to explain why I had nothing but four bottles of 12-year-old Single Malt Scotch whisky in my flight bag. Lawfully, I paid the duty on the Tam Dhu scotch, then followed the crowd to the outside world.

There was just less than an hour before my connection so I strolled about and saw a little of the surrounding buildings. The concrete spider-like shape of the control building reminded me of something out of Thunderbirds or Stingray. Bright, vibrant green palms stood out freshly against the stark concrete, and the central reservations of the roadways were neatly carpeted with close cropped grass. As I glanced about at the modern, often futuristic structures, I realised with a start that Los Angeles was only about 200 years old; it was founded in 1781. The Californians certainly hadn’t stood around twiddling their thumbs!

Then I was airborne again, with the Lockheed 1011 banking steeply over the Pacific shoreline and heading north to San Francisco. Compared with my previous flight, this 60 minute hop was exactly that. As we touched down at San Francisco Airport, I felt a tremendous sense of achievement. I had never flown before and had not known what to expect; it was a new and marvellous experience.

As I walked up the long gentle slope which led into the arrivals lounge, I recognized Bob Lyon immediately, standing near the back of a small wedge of people which had formed at the top of the wide, upward sloping passage. It was now about 5:10 Pacific Time, but I was still working to GMT. Between getting up on Tuesday morning and arriving in San Francisco, 28 hours had elapsed without my getting a wink of sleep.

I had the advantage of recognition over Bob as he had sent to me a coloured Polaroid photograph, but all he had to go on from me was a newspaper cutting, featuring a passport photograph of myself. It had appeared in the St Helens Reporter a few weeks prior to my trip and was headed; Trip to favourite writer’s home.

I walked directly to Bob and we shook hands. After a moment, he laughed and said that I looked terrible, and not to sit down as there was a danger that I might fall asleep!

Bob was a big, jolly man; grey haired and fresh faced. His constant chuckling was infectious and I felt immediately at home and at ease with him. Bob told me that Don Scott would also be meeting us and that he would get us to the nearest BART Station; the Bay Area Rapid Transit train similar to our underground in England.

Don was smaller in build than Bob, but again that infectious American grin. Don was fairly average build and walked with the easy grace of a frontiersman out of his time. We spent 20 minutes looking for Don’s Car (he was sure that he’d left it by one of those concrete pillars) in the massive underground parking garage, then we were on our way.

We soon slipped into the rush hour traffic, and in a few minutes, I found myself outside Wider Focus on Serramonte Boulevard, near Daly City, at the wide, squat building where Don had his photography workshop. Here, he proudly displayed his letter of thanks from NASA, acknowledging receipt of his directed composite photograph of the space shuttle [Discovery – first landing]. It was a superb composition, catching the shuttle gliding in, and also on the same plate, the vehicle standing, almost silhouetted against an impressive desert sunset. The composition showed both power and poetry. The framed letter had been countersigned by each of the astronauts who had made the flight.

After showing Bob and I some of the other exhibits in his museum / workshop, Don drove us to the Pacific Coast, and Thornton Beach State Park. The dark Pacific night was drawing in and the street lights left their blurred rushing in my over-tired mind.

If one word had to describe Don Scott, it would be enthusiastic. He was proud of his city, and exuded love and enthusiasm for it; “Let’s just have a little look at the George R Stewart Trail before I drop you at the station!”

When we arrived at Thornton Beach, it was dark and little could be seen, but Don’s grinning enthusiasm drew me from the car and over to the mesh fencing, over which we could look down toward the beach. Following his pointing finger, I could just make out a well-worn trail running down toward the beach. Even through my jet-lagged eyes I felt a sense of awe as I looked over the Pacific, until then, just so many letters on the page of an atlas.

A few minutes later Bob Lyon and I said our goodbye’s to Don at Daly City BART station. Bob and I changed trains at Oakland West for Ashby, the closest station to Ward Street, where I was to stay.

Tiredness was really beginning to take its toll now that I was sitting down on the smooth BART train. Whilst we travelled, we got down to the “Booze for Books” exchange. During a recent trip to England, Bob and his wife, Sandra, had discovered Tam Dhu at the distillery in Knockando on Scotland’s Whisky Trail. Although they had taken a couple of bottles back with them, they hadn’t been able to replenish their stocks back in America. So, the “Booze for Books” deal was struck. I had obtained four bottles of Tam Dhu from a tiny pub named The Duke of Devonshire, in Belper, Derbyshire, and in exchange Bob had gathered together a number of GRS books, and flown with them from Seattle to San Francisco.

Bob was particularly proud of his invitation by George Stewart to join the American Names Society, and a beautiful personal touch by Bob to my newfound GRS collection was tucked away in the Random House copy of Names on the Land. It was the printed invitation to join ANS, signed by George R Stewart.

We alighted at Ashby BART station, and I was swaying as I tried to use the push button phone at the station to inform my landlady, Sue Huestis, that I had arrived. My coordination was sadly lacking between fingers and eyes, so Bob made the call for me and Sue Huestis kindly drove to collect me from the station, Bob returned to San Francisco, on the train, where he was to stay for a few days with Joe Thorn, an old friend of his.

The deep seats in Sue Huestis’s car tried to swallow me into much needed sleep, but I fought to stay awake. My landlady was a charming lady of around forty, with a deep and rich Californian accent. Her daughter had spent some time in England and so, through her daughter, she knew much of the geography of our “little islands.” Her face crinkled easily into smiles and she was a mine of information regarding the Berkeley area. When we arrived at the house, it was almost 8pm, and quite dark.

There were a few steps leading up to the wooded porch, complete with rocking chair, and once inside the hallway I was made immediately at home with the comfortable atmosphere and pictures of London adorning the walls.

I was shown upstairs to my room – the biggest in the house – and left to unpack for my stay. I t was a big square room with two large windows on adjacent walls, the bed being placed under one of these. There was a large closet – the wardrobe – and a tall three-drawer dresser, an electric fire, a dressing table and next to it, a small portable TV. I unpacked, washed and then between cool, white sheets allowed sleep to…

Thursday 21st March 1985

 After a refreshing sleep and a good breakfast, I walked the ¾ mile down to Ashby BART, where at 10am, I met Bob and Joe Thorn; they had driven over from San Francisco. Joe bore an uncanny resemblance to a friend of mine in Bury, England – Gordon Pilkington – and carried the same slim build and eager, searching eyes, and again, that infectious American smile.

Joe drove us north along Highway 17 which hugs the bay and crosses to San Raphael via the Richmond / San Raphael Bridge over San Pablo Bay. It was a beautiful morning and the sun lit the land with striking brightness. As we crossed the bridge, Joe pointed out San Quentin Prison; up to then, it had just been a name on a Johnny Cash record.

Once over the bridge, we turned south onto Highway 101. Joe had planned a detour to Muir Woods Redwood Park, which we reached by means of a winding, climbing road. Everywhere around here were eucalyptus trees, looking always as if they were about to shed their leaves. Muir Woods was magnificent, its redwoods rising straight to almost 200 feet. The place seemed close to Joe’s heart as he explained its history with great delight.

We were soon back on Highway 101, on course for the Golden Gate Bridge, probably the most famous bridge in the world. Its high, red towers loomed and went as we drove from Marin County into San Francisco. Bob and Joe pointed out some of the local sights as we went on a short sightseeing drive through the streets of San Francisco. On one street corner was a female, seemingly dressed in a purple net curtain and little else, with wild make-up to match. They explained that she was just one of the sights of the city.

Then we were leaving the city and driving across the Bay Bridge, which so notably figures at the end of Earth Abides. The bridge ricochets off Treasure Island and buries itself firmly into Oakland. We picked up Highway 17 once more and Joe dropped us off at University Avenue in Berkeley City Centre. Here, after saying our thank-you’s and goodbyes to Joe, Bob and I caught the Humphrey Go BART, a Mercedes bus which ferries students and visitors up to UC Berkeley University Campus.

We walked down a long flight of steps toward the Bancroft Library, a magnificent white building of Classic style. As we entered the Shrine of Shrines, I felt a sudden nearness to George Stewart. He must have walked every inch of these floors. At the Reception, where a student duly registered us for reading in the Reference Library, Bob introduced me to Irene Moran, a tall, slim brunette who was to assist us greatly in sorting out which work of GRS we should isolate for research. I had originally thought of putting together something of a biography of George Stewart, but when Irene told me there were over 60 boxes, each crammed with 10 – 15 folders, each in turn filled with papers, manuscripts and other documents, I was almost overawed!

Bob made the suggestion that I should look at the Earth Abides file as that was, after all, my introduction to his writing. We spent a couple of hours which I found emotionally exhausting, going through that file. One of the first papers I looked at was a working manuscript of the last page of Earth Abides. It took my breath away!

Bob tore me away from the Library and led me up to the Oral History Department, where we met Willa Baum, who had been most helpful to me with much information concerning the arrangements with the Bancroft many weeks before my trip. She was a small, dark lady who oozed enthusiasm (again!) with her department. Willa showed us briefly about the offices, crammed with tapes and transcripts in their familiar blue bindings. She tried to fix an appointment for me to meet James D. Hart, the Director of the Library, but his diary was understandably, already overfull.

The time was now around 4.30pm and Bob arranged for us to spend a little time at the Anacapa Book Store in Berkeley, an important source for Bob’s collection. We hailed a bright yellow taxi in Berkeley Town Centre, which took us to Claremont Avenue. The Anacapa Book Store was a veritable Goldmine, run by David Wirshup and his assistant, Jane Willsea. I think they had closed the shop early that afternoon and, unknown to me, had invited a few GRS people; I was in my element!

What a fine party we had! There were limes, cucumbers crackers, cheese, and white wine. The guests included Ferol Egan and Don Foley. Both of these men had been obviously close to GRS and they had many stories to tell. What a welcome to California!

I taped much of the conversation, and this cassette along with others I recorded during my visit will eventually find their way to Willa Baum at Berkeley, for her Oral History Department.

David Wirshup made an unforgettable gesture by offering me a limited-edition copy of A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harte (signed by George R Stewart Jr) listed at $45 for a mere $25!

Further to this, on my day of departure, he sent to me as a gift, Recollections of Old Times in California. On top of all this, he made sure that I got back safely to Ward Street after a fantastic first day.

Friday 22nd March 1985

 After breakfast, I walked from Ward Street, along and Telegraph Avenue to the UC Campus and Bancroft Library. I had just registered when Bob Lyon walked in, so we went into the Reference Area together and retrieved the Earth Abides File. We spent two hours making many notes from the flood of information in the files.

At 11.30am, Bob and I walked to Berkeley BART and took the one stop to Ashby, where we met Don Scott. Don had brought along his good friend Mikel Reser, and her twin 16-year-old sons; Bill and Scott.

We left Bob at Ashby and the five of us drove the US 17 north and onto the almost immortal US 40 – George’s road! Later, we picked up Interstate 80, which was to take us over Donner Pass. After bypassing Sacramento, the road began to rise toward the Sierra Nevada’s. I was surprised to see snow along this highway as California, to me, has always suggested a semi-tropical climate. However, more snow appeared with the increasing altitude. The height in feet above sea level was established with road side markers. The air became cooler and the snow more abundant. Strangely, although we drove to around 7,000 feet, nowhere did the road incline more steeply than 6%; an amazing feat of engineering.

As we drove, Don pointed out familiar names which I had read in Ordeal by Hunger; Dutch Flat, Emigrant Gap, Truckee and, of course, Donner Pass. Unbelievable is much too mild a term for the track taken by those people of the pioneer stock.

Interstate 80 snaked north-westward, almost sandwiched between the Bear River and the North Fork of the American River. Wooded flumes meandered above the course of the rivers and torrents of water which had run through it had frozen into graceful spills of ice as if the camera’s eye of winter had stopped the water in a real-life photograph. The road levelled at Meadow Vista, with breath taking mountain views. It was interesting to see the Highway Stations on the road, which brought me a little closer to the men in Storm. As we drew further up the incline, then the snow sheds became more frequent. Stout surface tunnels would be the best way to describe these invaluable guards against avalanche and rock fall along the mountain sides in high-risk areas.

Drawing closer to Emigrant Gap, Don explained that we were now in Gold country, where the precious metal is still mined. We left Interstate 80 at Soda Springs and followed Georges Road, the US 40, until it became impassable because of snow. Here, Mikel and the twins – the twins eager for skiing at Incline Village – headed for headed for the nearby slopes for the feel of snow beneath their feet, whilst Don and I walked the half mile or so to Donner Pass. Here, beneath the George R Stewart Peak, Don and I recorded some feelings experienced at this beautiful, haunting place. Fittingly, recreating a scene out of Storm, a snow plough with tyre chains clanked past, whilst a little further, over toward the lake, there was a snow blower sending out its arching plumes as it slowly bored its way through the deep spring snow.GRS Peak-SW copy

Steve at Donner Pass on old US 40. 

The mountain in the background is now George R. Stewart Peak

After the unforgettable experience at Donner Pass, we drove alongside Donner Lake and stopped briefly at the Memorial Park which, unfortunately, was closed. However, photographed me below the bronze cast memorial of a man, woman and child, and a baby carried by the woman. They stood atop their 30-foot granite plinth, showing the depth of snow encountered during that winter of 1846. There was a hushed sadness in the air, yet a tremendous pride. I’ll take that moment to my deathbed.P1060597

Descendants of the Donner Party stand at the base of the “30 foot granite plinth” of the Pioneer Monument

As I stood there, I was reminded that the words of George R Stewart had brought me to this haunting place. The sun was almost set as we left the lake and headed east once more on Interstate 80. Truckee came and went, and so we crossed into Nevada.

We came upon Reno in the blackness of night, and the land glittered and sparkled with a myriad neon diamonds; reds, oranges, yellows, green, blues – they stabbed their glittering fingers into the night sky. This was “The Biggest Little City in the World”, and everything proclaimed the “anything goes” attitude of the Silver State, Nevada.

We branched off Highway 395, which was to take us to Carson City, our home for the night. Carson City was a lot friendlier and less plastic than Reno, and although the neon was still there, it had the air of a frontier town. Indeed, the town is names after Kit Carson, who lived there around the 1840’s. The Main Street was lined with low buildings, brightly coloured saloons, eating houses and gambling casinos, but also there was the City Hall and Museum to keep its frontier earthiness. After stopping for a delicious Mexican meal at the El Charro Avitia on Carson Street, washed down with a couple of Margaritas, we checked in at our Best Western hotel.

Mikel was suffering from a little Altitude Sickness so Don, the twins and I launched ourselves at the [Cactus Jack] Casino. Don and I managed to relieve the place of around $80 between us on the slot machines. Don certainly had a knack with those one-armed bandits.

Around midnight we walked back to our Hardeman House hotel, stopping on the way to look at the replica of the Liberty Bell. In the foyer of our hotel, we met a Texan who told us that he was trying to lose himself as there was some ungodly citizen after his hide! I didn’t bother to ask why.

Saturday 23rd March 1985

 9 am found us leaving Carson City, after a junk food breakfast at a MacDonald’s type place. We drove south from Carson City and joined US 50 to Lake Tahoe. Spooner Summit took us to 7,140 ft, with superb views of Lake Tahoe on the decent, west of the summit.

Lake Tahoe was the most spectacular stretch of water I had ever seen. It was the most vivid blue and where the sand lay below the water near the water’s edge, there was the most strikingly beautiful turquoise. This was most notable near Crystal Bay as we drove north along the lakeside toward the skiing resort of Incline Village, where we were to leave Bill and Scott for a day’s skiing. After setting up the twin’s equipment from Don’s estate car, Don, Mikel and me drove away from Tahoe northward toward Reno. Don had arranged with Ken Carpenter, who had also known George Stewart, to meet us at the UN Reno Library, of which he used to be Director. In addition, he owned the Blue Pitcher so vividly described in Sheep Rock.

Reno was totally different in daylight. All around was the desert, or so it seemed to me. When we left Carson City, the State Capital of Nevada, we had driven into a desert of low peaks and sagebrush. The appearance was as if someone had turned down the colour control on a giant TV set, and we were seeing the picture of the land almost in monochrome, with just a hint of colour.

The earth around Reno was dry and red – almost Martian – and as we drove north, bypassing Virginia City, I saw the placards inviting me to visit the Bonanza Ranch.

We parked near the university and walked over to a modern dome shaped building, which turned out to be the Planetarium, connected with UN Reno. With a couple of hours to spare before we were to meet Ken Carpenter, we were fortunately just in time for the next showing at the Planetarium, which included a mind-blowing compilation of film from various Space Shuttle flights, on the 180˚ domed screen; I’ll swear I was actually there in space with them. It was absolutely incredible.

After the show, Don, Mikel and I walked the few hundred yards across the campus to the University Library. There was some superb architecture in the surrounding buildings and Don photographed many aspects of them.

Ken Carpenter met us in the Print Room at the library. He was a tall leathery man, with the kind of weather lined face that seemed right for a man who was close to the desert. He was literally this; both he and George Stewart had spent much time in the Black Rock Desert around the huge bulk of the black volcanic core from which the desert takes its name. Sheep Rock is Black Rock in Stewartonian legend, and as we sat around the great table in the Print Room, Ken spoke of many reminiscences into my recorder. Afterwards, he showed us some of the equipment and exhibits in his Print Room, including a working, antique Columbian Printing Press. He presented each of us with a copy of “Of Time and Space” , the poem which meanders through Sheep Rock. My souvenir had been printed on handmade paper and was one of a limited edition run of 50 copies, printed on the Columbian Press for the Friends of George R Stewart.

Later, Ken took us down to the Main Library and showed us their collection of GRS books, many of them signed first editions which the Carpenters – Ken and Patricia, had bought from the Stewarts when they moved from San Luis Road, to The Sequoias, in San Francisco. I have since received, from the UN Reno Library, a computer printout listing every GRS work which they hold.

We left Ken at around 3pm, and as we drove south to pick up the twins, we felt very contented. 4.45pm saw us at Incline Village retrieving two tired, yet equally contented boys. We stopped for an Italian Meal on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe before leaving for San Francisco on Highway 267, via Truckee, and we were soon crossing the State Line into California, on our way over Donner Pass and back to Berkeley.

Sunday 24th March 1985

 Just after breakfast, I received a call from Bob Lyon to say that he and a friend would meet me at The Sequoias on Geary Boulevard at around 1pm; this was the day I would be meeting Mrs Theodosia Stewart. Bob suggested that I arrive at around 12.30pm, so that I would have a few minutes alone with her,

I left Ward Street at 10am, and took the BART to Powell Street in San Francisco, after changing at McArthur in Oakland. It had been grey and raining when I left but the sun was shining when I climbed out at Powell Street BART. A cable car was being turned around for its return journey up the steep gradient of Powell Street, and after loading, it moved off slowly up the hill. I decided to walk from the BART station to The Sequoias to get something of a feel for the city, and the cable car soon left me behind.

I turned into Geary Boulevard, then strode off toward the crown of the hill where The Sequoias dominated the skyline. I stopped at a few bookshops on Geary Boulevard and was surprised to learn that many of the book sellers had not heard of George Stewart. I pointed out Earth Abides, Storm, Fire and Ordeal by Hunger and explained that the author had lived but a stone’s throw away.

When I reached The Sequoias, it was still a little early. It was a huge white and grey apartment block, and Mrs Stewart lived on the top floor. I had learned this from the account preceding the interviews by Suzanne Reiss in A Little of Myself.

 Being early, I wandered around the block and into the Japanese Cultural Centre; a kind of concourse of Japanese arts, shops and restaurants. There I ate an excellent meal of Miso Soup, Beef Teriyaki, Green Tea at the Sapporo-Ya. In keeping with my surroundings and to the delight of the waitress, I refused the knife and fork, and used chop sticks. After leaving the Japan Centre, I walked back to The Sequoias and announced myself at the Reception Desk. The lift took me quickly to the 25th Floor, and then I was standing at #2509. I hesitated, and then knocked.

I couldn’t believe that I was here – at the very apartment of Mrs George R Stewart. Suddenly I was back in England, in that September of 1980 reading that letter from Nancy Lewis, in reply to mine to George Stewart, telling me of his death…

The door opened and I was right back in 1985. I was confronted by a lovely lady, who later admitted that she would be 84 years old on her next birthday, on August 4th. Mrs Stewart was a tall, slight lady and a rebel if ever I saw one.

I was as close now to George Stewart as I would ever be. She laughed easily and I felt quite at home with this lovely lady. She chatted as she showed me around her apartment. Suzanne Reiss was right; the view from the apartment was breath taking, showing the wide sweep of the bay from the Golden Gate, in an arc of 180˚ round past Berkeley. Mrs Stewart pointed out the bookcase which George had made, together with the typewriter table and the stool in his study.

As we sat on the massive settee and talked, she invited me to take Ish’s Hammer and hold it on my lap. George’s description of it was accurate; the four-pound head “about as much as a man could swing” and there was a crack in the handle. There were many books in the apartment lounge, all dedicated by George. I spoke to Jill Evenson, Mrs Stewart’s daughter, on the phone shortly after I had arrived at the apartment, and she promised to come around later that evening.

Bob Lyon arrived a little later with Larry Halperstein, a friend of Joe Thorn, who had brought Bob to The Sequoias; Bob had arranged for me to see Frank Sloss, who owned a replica of “The Hammer”.

We left the apartment and Larry drove us, together with Mrs Stewart, south from San Francisco along the Bayshore Freeway onto El Camino Boulevard and so to Atherton, at the base of the thumb of the peninsula. Atherton seemed to be very exclusive and the Sloss’s house with its long, half-moon drive certainly kept up with the Jones’s.

The Sloss’s were a charming couple, around their late 60’s, who made us all welcome. Mrs Sloss had prepared some crackers and cheese with mussel’s and white wine. Frank showed us his GRS collection and the sculptured hammer. After an invigorating discussion, during which Mrs Stewart recorded some reminiscences and experiences when George was researching for Storm, we said our goodbyes. As a souvenir of the day, Frank Sloss presented me with a copy of Only on Monday, a compilation of talks and events encountered in the Chit Chat Club, to which Frank had introduced George Stewart.

We had made our farewells around mid-afternoon, and on our way back, dropped Bob Lyon off at the airport, for his flight home to Seattle. I would be eternally grateful to Bob as it had been he who has coalesced this fragmented few days into an unforgettable experience. We said goodbye to Bob, who had acquired some souvenirs of the San Francisco 49ers for me to take home.

Mrs Stewart and I returned to The Sequoias, said goodbye to Larry, and went up to her apartment. There in the apartment, she invited me to look through her many fascinating photograph albums, which stretched back to their grandparents’ time. An interesting point contained within the albums was George’s passion for photographing state line markers. There were many pictures from their honeymoon drive across America, photos of their two Red Setters, Joby and Lady (Lady came first!). These two dogs may have made, together, Princess in Earth Abides.

Later in the early evening, Jill Stewart-Evenson, their daughter to whom Earth Abides is dedicated, came by with her husband Morrie, a rough, kind man without much thought for the Arts but obviously devoted to his family.

I had brought with me my original, much dog-eared paperback copy of Earth Abides, dedicated to Jill; to my great pleasure, she inscribed the book for me.

Jill, Morrie and I talked much of George as Father and Author. A little later, the four of us went down to the elegantly spacious dining room on the lower ground floor of The Sequoias, where we had a most unusual tea of jellied greens, potato salad, chop suey, rice, beef. This was washed down with a bottle of fine California Red Wine.

After tea (the Americans call it Supper), we looked into The Sequoias Library, on the same level as the Dining Room, and here was a good collection of GRS books. Shortly after our return to Mrs Stewart’s apartment, Don and Mikel turned up; I had left my camera at the Sloss’s and Don was returning it. At the end of a tiring yet exciting day, Don and Mikel dropped me off at Ward Street. What a day I’d had!

Monday 25th March 1985

 A beautiful start to the week; the sunshine was glorious. I breakfasted, and then walked along Telegraph Avenue to the University. There were lots of bookshops along the avenue many of them dealing in second hand books, and I toured some of these on my way to the Bancroft. I went into one bookshop near the university and asked the lady if she had any George R Stewart books. She laughed and said that I was the second with a few days to ask for that author. She explained that the other person had been David Wirshup of Anacapa Books. He’d been looking for GRS books, as someone had come all the way from England to discover more about that particular author. I told her that I was that Englishman.

In the Bancroft Library, I said hello again to Irene Moran, then I asked once more for the Earth Abides file and went through a proposed film script. Parts of it were very good, especially the opening scenes, but I thought that it didn’t portray Ish very well. It showed him as a user of slang – Shit, Jesus, etc. – which made the character totally wrong. However, I copied down the gist of the script.

There were many letters which I went through today, notably advice seeking letters from Stewart, with the replies giving expert views on what tyres would be like after 22 years; which animals and birds would survive; which insects would be susceptible. Each reply was from an expert of that particular field – research was certainly a key word in George Stewart’s work.

I had the chance also today to flip through the Sheep Rock file but only briefly. Around midday, I returned to Ward Street. I had found San Luis Road on the street map I’d bought and decided to walk the 2½ miles there. When I’d spoken to Mrs Stewart in The Sequoias, she had me that Indian Rock Park was the site of the Rock Formation not far from San Lupo Drive in Earth Abides.

The Year 64

The Stewart Family and Friends of George R. Stewart at Indian Rock Park

Shattuck Avenue took me through the centre of Downtown Berkeley. At University Avenue, I was sandwiched between two great sights; to my left, San Francisco Bay and to my right, nestled at the foot of the Berkeley Hills with Chaparral Rock in the background, UC Berkeley. The Sather Tower stood aloof from the campus, stretching an elegant finger toward the clear, blue California sky. There was a Humphrey GoBART waiting at the bus stop, with students strolling onto the little Mercedes bus.

As I continued to walk northward, my strides became more laboured as the ground rose toward the hilly landscape of North Berkeley. The road rose sharply when I reached Live Oak Park with its Art Gardens. From here, northward, the trees lining the narrow roads became much denser and the place was shady and cool yet colourful with many different kinds of sub-tropical trees, plants and blossoms. One of the most predominant plants here was the Ice Plant, larger than our English variety and much more closely packed.

Mrs Stewart had told me that when they had moved into the house on San Luis Road, George had ripped up all of the Ice Plants (he hated them) and put in Pine Trees. Palms were abundant here on the winding hilly roads. Then suddenly, I was confronted by the massive granite stones of Indian Rock Park. On these rocks I found parts worn into little smooth troughs, perhaps by squaws pounding…

I scrambled to the top of the rocks and faced toward San Francisco Bay. The view was breath taking! As I stood there, suddenly I was not Steve Williams, but Isherwood Williams; Ish. My camera became The Hammer dangling from my wrist and, for a brief instant, Man had gone.

The magic of the moment passed and I left the rocks to walk up Indian Rock Road and turned into San Luis Road. San Luis Road was gently rising, winding road and in parts the trees were so heavy with leaf that some of the houses were as if they had been built in a forest. I spoke to a man who was playing football with his son on the road and asked if he had known George Stewart, the author. The man had lived in the road for many years and had known the Stewarts’ by sight, yet not as neighbours. However, he pointed out Mrs Osmers house in San Diego Road, off San Luis Road.

I left him and walked down to Mrs Osmer’s. This house featured in Earth Abides when Ish discovers a goat calmly eating the Osmers’ hedge on “decorous” San Lupo Drive. Mrs Osmer was a charming lady and she invited me into her beautiful house; dark and mellow and a haven from the brilliant sunshine of the California afternoon. She showed me her own collection of GRS books, and then allowed me to photograph the house and the view from the back porch. Mr Osmer was sadly no longer there. We chatted and had coffee, then she showed me where the Hatfield’s house was, though they were no longer living there.

After our chatting, Mrs Osmer showed me where to find number 807 San Luis Road.

I said goodbye to Mrs Osmer and walked up the gradient to San Luis Road and quickly found No. 807, with its wooded stair flight up to the open porch at the front of the house.

I went in at the gate and savoured each and every footstep up to the long, narrow porch. Mrs Stewart had told me that Mrs Baldwin, a good friend of hers, now lived in the house, but I shouldn’t go in as the interior had been so extensively modernised that it bore no resemblance to the house in the book. I knocked and Mrs Baldwin, a tall refined looking lady opened the door. After I had explained who I was and why I was there, she kindly permitted me to photograph the view over Berkeley toward the Bay Bridges and the Golden Gate. And what a view it was! Again, I was Ish Williams, not Steve Williams.

As I walked down the steps and away from San Lupo Drive, I knew that I had left part of me there. Perhaps Tony Bennett was right.

It was dusk as I prepared to walk back to the house on Ward Street. On the way, I stopped at a little place on Shattuck Avenue which boasted English Fish and Chips; they were very good. By the time I got back to Ward Street, it was dark.

Tuesday 26th March 1985

 Mrs Stewart rang me just before breakfast, asking me to dinner that evening. She told me that Nancy Lewis would be there with Eric Evenson, Mrs Stewart’s Grandson. Don Scott also rang me to arrange a walk around Thornton Beach and the George R Stewart Nature Trail. As it was raining today, we would decide later whether to make it today or tomorrow.

I walked up to the Bancroft after breakfast to pick up some Xeroxed copies which I had ordered, and also to say goodbye to Willa Baum and Irene Moran. When I reached the library, there was a message for me to ring David Wirshup at Anacapa Books. I returned the call to find that he was offering to drive me to the airport tomorrow morning for my return flight to England.

Back at Ward Street, I confirmed my TWA flight, and then set off for San Francisco. Mikel Reser, Dons friend who had accompanied us to Nevada, had arranged to meet me for a meal in “the best Chinese restaurant in San Francisco” – the Yank Sing in Battery Street, just two blocks away from the famous TransAmerica Pyramid.

When I alighted at Montgomery Street BART, there was a little sightseeing to do around Union Square. From here, I strode across to the Embarcadero, a huge shopping and trade centre. I met Mikel at Carl’s Junior; a stylish little café situated at the entrance to Embarcadero #4. We walked, umbrella shielded, in the now lashing rain to Battery Street and dashed into the Yank Sing. This was a traditional Dim Sum restaurant. Dim Sum, in Chinese, means literally means “the hearts delight” and is a form of Chinese cuisine dating back to the Sung Dynasty, 1000 years ago. It’s a banquet of bite-sized delicacies served from carts continually pushed around the tables and offered to the clientele. The list of delicacies would be too much to list here, but suffice it to say that I had a truly delicious meal in the most pleasant company.

Outside, the rain was the heaviest I had ever seen, even by English standards. Mikel and I said our goodbyes and I walked to Embarcadero BART and took the train to Daly City where I was to meet Don Scott. From the station, where Don was an Emergency Vehicle driver, we went by car to the Ranger Station at Golden Gate Park. We drove up the west coast, past the Zoo and Lake Merced in the grey, driving rain. The storm was lashing the ocean into a frenzy of breakers against Seal Rocks as we drove under Cliff House and across to the Ranger Station at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Morrie Evenson was at the Ranger Station with Steve Gazzano, the Ranger responsible for naming the George R Stewart Nature Trail, and a good friend of Don, who was a former Ranger himself at the Park.

The weather was too bad to go to the trail, so we would try again in the morning. We sat in the Ranger Station and talked about the Park, the Beach and GRS for a while.

Around 5pm, I left with Morrie for The Sequoias, after arranging to see Don early next morning at Daly City. On the way to The Sequoias, Morrie and I stopped at an Irish Pub named Zhivago’s, a gloomy place crammed with atmosphere and characters. We had an Irish coffee and played Liars Dice, a game of bluff with two dice.

We arrived at The Sequoias at 5.30pm and left again almost immediately, with Mrs Stewart for McArthur Park, a very polished restaurant on Front Street, under the Embarcadero Freeway and opposite a small, neatly paved area. When Mrs Stewart, Morrie and I arrived, we were led across to a low table around which were sitting Jill, whom I had already met, and a young couple who were introduced to me as Nancy Jo Evenson, formerly Nancy Lewis, and Eric Evenson, her husband and Mrs Stewart’s Grandson. Jill was his mum, though truthfully, she didn’t look old enough.

Jill was quiet and reserved and, during our meeting at The Sequoias a couple of days ago, she gave me the impression that she was like her father in many ways. She seemed to have the ways of her father yet the beautiful silver hair of her mother. Eric was tall and slim and had been very close to his Grandfather, George Stewart.

He, like his mother, Jill, had a quiet and reserved nature. Nancy was a small vivacious girl and had been a friend of the family for a long time, and she had also been close to GRS.

When it came to drinks, I was advised that on this special night, I should have an Old Fashioned – a cocktail of rye whiskey and bitters, as this was a favourite of Georges. (Bob Lyon had made the later note to go easy on the soda, but plenty of whiskey).

We were shown through to our table and ate a superb meal of Orange Salad, Pork Rib – the Speciality of the house – washed down with a fine California Burgundy.

I finished off with a Mud Pie; chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce, and tea.

Mrs Stewart admonished Morrie for using a toothpick and went on to say that she would never allow George to use one.

Back at The Sequoias after a marvellous evening, we chatted and went through the photograph albums again. At the end of the evening, Morrie and Eric gave me a lift back to Ward Street. That night, it was with mixed feelings that I packed my cases for my return home the next day.

Wednesday 27th March 1985

 As arranged, David Wirshup had sent Jane Willsea along to Ward Street, and after settling my account, saying thank you and goodbye to Sue Huestis, Jane drove me across the Bay Bridge to the Daly City BART where I was to meet Don Scott for another try at the Nature Trail; the weather, though grey, was much better this morning. It was very windy still along the coast but Don, Jane and I managed to scramble down the land-slipped valley to the George R Stewart Nature Trail which was, along with much of Thornton Valley, being reconstructed following a landslide which had covered most of the valley with sand.

We discovered, half buried in sand beneath a ragged bush, the marker naming the trail. Don and I scooped away the sand and cleaned up the sign, a great piece of Redwood three feet across carrying the words; “The George R Stewart Nature Trail”. We three briefly hiked the trail under Don’s guidance; he was back in his Ranger role, pointing out features of interest. He showed us the table, now leaning at a crazy angle, where George and Theodosia (Ted) used to picnic with their chicken and white wine.

Don drove us back to Daly City BART where I said goodbye and thank you to Jane, and then Don drove me to The Sequoias, where we were to lunch with Mrs Stewart before leaving for the airport. Time was now getting short, so we hurried through a delicious lunch, and then squeezed in a few more minutes with the photograph albums. Don photographed me in Mrs Stewart’s apartment holding The Hammer.

Ted-sw-hammer copy

Steve Williams holds the Hammer of Ish, Ted Stewart by his side.

A few more minutes with the albums then it was time to go. I hugged Mrs Stewart and promised to return, the next time with my family.

Don parked on the roof car park at the airport and walked with me to the main hall, where we had two small bottles of Champagne each. I had crammed so much into such a short time during my brief stay that my head was still reeling.

I made my goodbye to Don Scott and he disappeared into the crowd.

I took the short hop to Los Angeles, and was soon sitting once more on the giant 747, bound for England, my family and home. It seemed only hours since I had arrived and yet I felt that I’d been here all the time.

I wanted to be home again with Carol, Steven and Jenny, yet I knew I had really left part of me in San Francisco.

I reflected that all of this adventure, this quest of mine, had been the outcome of someone saying “If you like science fiction, you should read Earth Abides”.

Unknown to me that had been the start of my quest to discover more about the great teacher, George R Stewart. He had taught me to look and learn, and through his writings, has set me on a voyage of self-discovery.

As the 747 winged its way eastward, and home, I was too excited and keyed up to sleep, and so I felt my mind wandering back again…

With a heavy jolt, the train began its journey. It lurched on its springs and rattled over points and joints. Outside, a cold dark night closed in around the little rattling oasis of light as the train rumbled its way toward Liverpool. I was on my way to San Francisco on the 22.14 from Garswood. Hardly material for the next Willy Nelson song.

The train was almost empty and seemed to shake and rattle all the more. Tired people drifted onto and off the train on its weary way to Liverpool Lime Street.

Starkly bright lights cast grotesque shapes in sharp shadow around the gloomy, still factories as we trundled through St Helens, and on toward Liverpool, where my overnight coach would be waiting. As the little four-unit train rhythmically rattled on, I turned over in my mind the reason for my journey; what kind of writer has the power, through mere words, to draw a man across the world to discover some trifles of his life?

I couldn’t answer the question, yet something deeper than words was pulling me, urging me on in my quest. Perhaps I was merely performing one of life’s little tasks?

I must have gone through my pockets a hundred times; Travellers cheques, wallet, was every pocket fastened, had anything fallen out, was I becoming neurotic?

My face was burning now. Carol had been so upset; she had just started a new job this evening, in the Cranberry Lodge Hotel not far from where we lived, and where we had time only for the briefest of goodbyes. I had picked her up at 9.45pm and the train was due out at 10.14pm; my cases were packed and stored in the car boot.

At the sight of his Mum so upset, our son, Steven had fought back the dampness in his eyes. Jenny, our daughter was stronger, and she had also come to Garswood station to see me off. The night air was cold and still, the passing of the train supplying the only movement in the leaning trees.

I was worried about Carol starting her new job at the Cranberry, and I knew that she would have preferred me to be around for the first week, yet she knew how much this journey meant to me and had shown my only encouragement. Once or twice as we three stood on the cold still platform, I had been ready to go back to our home and empty the cases; it hurt so much to see her as she was.

Grimy cuttings and litter strewn lines marked the way into Liverpool’s Lime Street Station, and soon I was hauling my cases over to the National Express bus station.

The city’s cold night air seeped in through my clothes despite a warm new overcoat, and a headache was burrowing somewhere behind my eyes. I hadn’t slept so well the previous night and I felt tired and hungry; I hadn’t felt like eating supper before leaving Garswood as the idea of being away from my family for several days had dulled my appetite. I felt terrible. Here I was, at the start of a journey of a lifetime and all I wanted to do was go home!

In spite of these feelings, the lure of George R Stewart held me. I sat in the small queue of people and slowly froze. Glamorous as the Pan Am Fly Drive labels looked on my luggage, I felt miserable. At a quarter to midnight, the single deck coach crawled in from Skelhorne Street and again I was travelling. Here I was on a trip which would take me half way around the world, yet in my mind’s eye I could see Carol at home with her lonely, wishing tears.

I was a rat!

After an uncomfortable ride on the coach, I made the effort to stretch my legs at the Blue Boar Services on the M1 Motorway. It hadn’t been possible to sleep on the coach as either my legs were too long or the seats were too close together.  At an earlier stop not far from Altringham, we had come across another National Express coach which had broken down, so the unfortunate stranded passengers only added to our already crowded misery.

I watched the dark velvet of the night being transformed into the grey canvas of a new dawn as we wormed our way south into the new morning. We swung into London Heathrow just after 6am, then after recovering my luggage, walked the slow, laden quarter mile to Terminal Three, for International Departures.

Using the well-worn cliché, the cold grey light of dawn was quite refreshing despite not having slept nor eaten much in the last 24 hours. Many of the checking in desks were deserted and there were surprisingly few people about. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I hadn’t flown before, but certainly not an empty hall in one of the busiest airports in the world. At one of the buffets, I bought a doughnut and a fresh orange drink. It was still early, and now my neck was aching because of the awkward coach seats and the lack of rest.

I didn’t feel particularly excited whilst I sat there; everything was new to me and I didn’t know what to expect. What I did feel was a sense of unreality that I was sitting here at Heathrow, about to realise a long-time ambition.

I had begun my search for GRS with a call to Gollancz in London who had published the first edition of Earth Abides and drew a blank, as their records didn’t go back to 1949. However, they were able to give me the name of his Literary Agents; A D Peters, in Buckingham Street. In the meantime, I’d discovered that the Picton Library in Liverpool’s William Brown Street had a list of five titles by my author;

 Ordeal by Hunger                                1936

Storm                                                  1941

Fire                                                      1948

The Opening of the California Trail     1953

The California Trail                              1962

 There was only one of the titles available, The Opening of the California Trail and that was in the Reference Section, so I couldn’t take it out of the library. In any case, I wanted the books for myself; just looking wasn’t enough. Still, I had expanded my list to six titles now.

Shortly after speaking to Gollancz I rang A D Peters and asked if they could help me in any way, and following their advice I looked to the second-hand bookshops.

As a Liverpudlian, I probably love London more than most Londoners; something to do with familiarity and contempt, so I booked a seat on the Inter-City Express and spent a day scouring the second-hand bookshops around the Tottenham Court Road but with little luck.

Few dealers had ever heard of Stewart, though I did find a paperback copy of Earth Abides so the day wasn’t completely wasted.

After the grandeur of London, I realised that I’d set my sights even higher; I wanted to write to the man and put down my feelings on paper, with the hope that I would receive a reply from him. With this plan in mind, I phoned A D Peters at nine sharp the next morning and naively asked if they could supply me with Stewarts address.

I got a polite “No”, as it was not company policy to give authors addresses, but if I wanted to write a letter, they would forward it to him. It was May, 1980.

After our holidays that year, in Conway, North Wales, where I found Storm, I received a letter postmarked San Francisco. I carefully opened the envelope and could see a hand written letter within and my heart leapt! The letter read;

Dear Mr Williams,

                                    As a friend of George Stewart and his family, I would like to thank you for your warm letter. It was the kind of letter he would have loved to have received and answered. Unfortunately, Mr Stewart passed away on August 22nd, 1980…

 The letter had been written by Nancy Lewis, who incidentally is now married to Eric Evenson, George Stewarts Grandson. She went on to say that there were 37 books published by him. At this time, there was no way of knowing if his home had been in San Francisco as there was no senders address on the letter. After reading it I was absolutely shattered that less than a month before my letter had arrived in California, he had died.

If only I’d written a few weeks earlier, I could have spoken to him through my letter and more importantly, he may have addressed me in the same way. This terrible news only set me more resolute in my search, and now I knew there were 37 books to look for. Some eighteen months later, I was working at Runcorn, Cheshire, with Johnson & Bloy, the Printing Ink Specialists. I found myself during one lunchtime in the multifloored library at Shopping City. One of the assistants had directed me to a Who’s who of American Writers and here I discovered a major breakthrough in my search; in the book, under “Stewart G R”, I found a list of 37 titles with dates and most important of all, an address in San Francisco!

At home that night, I wrote to that address, to Mrs Stewart – assuming there was one – expressing a wish to discover as much as possible about her husband and his work.

A little over two weeks later I received a hand written reply from Theodosia Stewart, his wife of some sixty years. In addition to this priceless letter, she sent me many cuttings from local newspapers and magazines concerning the life and death of this man. With the letter also were names and addresses of colleagues who were close to her husband.

All of the cuttings bore the same respect and admiration for this man. Many students of Berkeley, it has been said, passed through his classes without knowing that their professor was this great though unpretentious author.

Mrs Stewart also included George R Stewart: A Checklist. This was a very important document to me as it listed each and every edition of his books, and related works.

This list had been compiled by John Caldwell, Director of the Augustana College Library, Rock Island, Illinois and was the definitive list of Stewarts work.

Whether this letter changed my luck, or simply by good fortune, during the next few months, I managed to find copies of;

East of the Giants

Man, an Autobiography

Ordeal by Hunger

 During April, 1984, I received the first of the replies to the contacts Mrs Stewart had passed on through her letter; this was Robert C Lyon (Bob Lyon), who had often advised George Stewart on his work and had also assisted Robert Caldwell in the compilation of the Checklist.

I had also heard, for the first time, of the Friends of GRS, a diverse group of people who were devotees of the author’s work.

Information of which I had been starved was now pouring in. I discovered that Sewickley, Pennsylvania, had been the birthplace of Stewart, and that he had achieved his PhD in 1922 at Columbia University, New York.

Stewart had helped set up the Oral History Department at the Bancroft Library, seeing many advantages of such a project.

I had contacted Mrs Willa Baum, another of the new contacts, and she told me of a series of taped interviews with George Stewart, and that it would be possible, with Mrs Stewart’s permission, for me to have a transcript of the tapes. There would be a charge of $49 plus postage; my reply, with the money order was sent by return!

The transcript of the taped interviews was entitled A Little of Myself

Halfway through May, a reply arrived from John Caldwell. With his letter was a copy of his published booklet; George R Stewart, in the Western Writers Series as “a gift from one Stewart admirer to another”. It was the most informative source of information I’d yet seen.

During October 1984, I received A little of Myself. Suzanne Reiss had conducted the interviews in the apartment in The Sequoias, and there was an introduction by James D Hart, the Director of the Bancroft Library.

With the book, there was a letter from Willa Baum asking if I would be coming to America to do further research.

Now, travelling around Britain and writing to information sources in California was one thing. Travelling to the west coast of America was definitely another! Yet the more I thought about it, the more realistic it became and I started talking about it as a possibility.

If I had expected resistance from Carol, my wife, none came. What I did receive was enthusiasm and encouragement.

In January 1985, I received a copy of Fire from Bob Lyon, together with four papers which he had read at the Western Literature Association of October 1984;

The Tribes of George R Stewart’s Earth Abides and Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague by Robert C Lyon

A quarter century of enlightened literacy by (the late) Bruce A Nelson

Witnessing ordeal narrative vantages in Donner Party novels by Richard Dwyer

Step by step from stem to stern by Frank H Sloss

Also included was a short poem by Stewart on the virtues of alcohol; A roistering song for sexagenarians.

 And so I accelerated toward March 1985 and California, and then the day arrived.

All of this happened because I read one book. That one book changed my life and my perception of the world.

During my visit to California, I learned of so many others whose lives have been changed because of reading, and learning from, George Stewart’s words.

Thank you, George.Ish's Hammer(1)

ISH’S HAMMER

© 2004, Steve Williams

Stories about Stewart II

This is the second of  two posts by others greatly influenced by George R. Stewart, and Earth Abides. The author of today’s post is Gary Wilson,who emailed kind words about the GRS quest/biography, and his story.  Here’s Gary’s memoir of booksellers, the Stewarts, and the Hammer of Ish

Gary A. Wilson is a story writer who encountered George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides” in 1969 and became a huge fan and collector of his works.  Through a chance meeting of a certain used book seller, Mr. Wilson was offered the chance to meet Mr. Stewart and much later wrote the story of what happened.  Things did not go as planned but George and Ted saved the day. 

An excerpt:I had selected two volumes from the shelf when a much older and shorter version of the used book clerk found me.  He was even more iconic a book clerk than the younger guy – bent and bearded. This guy looked even more “used” than many of his books as he asked if he could be of assistance. “Yes, I’m interested in works by George R. Stewart.  I’ll be buying these two, but had hoped to see rarer works.”“Ah,” he responded. “You are a student of Mr. Stewart then?”“Not really,” I answered.  “Just a big fan”.He leaned in to whisper, “Then I should show you what I have in my office.” …

You can read the full ten-minute story here.

 

Something New: Christmas Photos from Stewart and Twain Country

Since this year has a George R. Stewart connection (see photo of Ed Stewart near the end of the page), I’m posting the 2020 annual Christmas photos on the weblog.  Family and friends will enjoy seeing these online.  And  I believe that many of you who are faithful followers of the weblog will enjoy seeing some of the place where the posts are composed. 

The area around Carson City, Nevada, sits at the boundary of two of Earth’s great landform provinces – the Sierra Nevada and the Basin and Range Country.  It’s also George R. Stewart country.  Many of his better-known works are set nearby, including Ordeal By Hunger, Fire, Storm, and Sheep Rock. US 40 and The California Trail have large sections about the Northern Nevada and Sierra Nevada regions.  Some of the country in these photos was likely seen by George R. Stewart himself.

It’s also Mark Twain country.  Sam Clemens adopted the pen name “Mark Twain” while he was living in Carson City.  Roughing It is set partly in the area.   The photos may help readers of Twain visualize this area and its people.

The photos begin with images from the Pandemic Era – a much gentler pandemic so far than the Earth Abides pandemic; following those are images from the Basin-and-Range/sagebrush country in spring and summer images of a park set in a small eastern extension of the Sierra Nevada.  The album ends with photos of hiking friends (the Rocks),  Ed Stewart, (GRS’s grandson and Keeper of the Legacy), Ranger Phil of the Bureau of Land Management at beautiful 8100 feet (2470 meters) high Burnside Lake, and the first winter’s snow. 

Let me know what you think.  If this seems to be of interest, I can post the end-of-year/Christmas photos here next year. 

 

20200426_121641“Sheep May Safely Graze”

The annual ‘mowing’ of the cheat grass by Borda Ranch sheep

20200410_144603

A Pandemic Gift From Paul Schats Bakery 

20200423_124936

Reminder on the trail

 

20200215_145358Path into spring

20200515_133616Spring impressions – new life  along the trail

Red-headed thrush's spring songsThe Harbinger Sings

 

Wild mare and coltWild Horses – mare and her colt

P1080845The Local Outback

P1080953Washoe Lake Gazebo

Pelicans, Washoe Lake, Slide MtnWhite Pelicans, Washoe Lake, Slide Mountain

Davis pondDavis Creek Regional Park Pond

Cheeky cu
 Cheeky Steller Jay at Davis Creek

Davis Creek - Chinook - Slide MtnThe Good Chinook William Clark at Davis Creek Regional Park

P1090048Rockin’ friends on the Discovery Trail, Davis Creek Regional Park

P1090127Smokey Sun in a year of fire (Stewart’s Fire is set not far from here)

Monarch of our GlenThe Monarch of Our Glen has passed.  Requiescant in Pace, old fellow. And thanks.

with child actors Hollywood at the St. Charles:  Director Melissa Joan Harte with child actors and camera crew, working on “Feliz Navi-Dad” for Lifetime TV. (Premiere 11-21)

P1090134Birthday Balloon 9-26-2020

ed - church of mark twainEdward Stewart at the “Church of Mark Twain”  (The Orion Clemens House, Carson City)

20200805_153508

The Chinook at Burnside Lake

Panorama liightRanger Phil at Burnside Lake

P1090199Sierra stream in Autumn

P1090209Washoe Valley ranch

P1090226First Snow 2020 (Earliest snow in 100 years.)    (Carson City is the only State Capitol with a deer crossing – and the deer use it.)

 

The More-or-Less Annual George R. Stewart Christmas Story

Here’s the annual re-post of a story of the close connections between George R. Stewart and Jimmy Stewart, and between the mythical town of Bedford Falls and the real  town of Indiana, Pennsylvania – the boyhood home of both Stewarts.  

its_a_wonderful_life_002

  It’s A Wonderful Story

This is the time of year when most of us, regardless of our religious affiliations, watch classic Christmas movies.  A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Miracle on 34th Street, A Child’s Christmas in Wales   (which is an almost unknown gem, produced in Canada, starring Denholm Elliot), and   It’s a Wonderful Life.    

The local theater in Arroyo Grande, California, owned by a man who loves movies, shows one of those classics each Christmas. The admission is a can of food or a toy, to be donated to those in need – in the spirit of the movie.To see such a film on the big screen, surrounded by friends and neighbors of all ages – to see how the children love the film – it is a reminder of what we’ve lost.  Today we watch movies on TV, often alone, and usually less intently than in a movie theater.  Yet at a showing of Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street the audience clapped and cheered when the judge decided that, yes, Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus.  How long since you’ve experienced that?

For many people It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.  So those who are George R. Stewart fans will be interested in the connection between that classic film and GRS.

Ø Ø Ø

George R. Stewart spent his boyhood in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived.  His maternal grandfather, Andrew Wilson,  planned to be a teacher and even helped found a school nearby (it would become the prestigious Kiski School).  But he couldn’t earn enough to support his family so he went into the mercantile business.  He  had a hand in a hardware store there, owned by another Stewart.  That Stewart’s son was James Stewart, also born and raised in Indiana.

George and Jimmy looked alike.  With all the similarities in family history, geography, and physiology, you’d expect they were related.  But they  shared only one possible distant relative.  And they lived in different worlds.  The George Stewarts went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents to the upper-class Presbyterian church on the hill.  GRS went to a public high school out west, Jimmy to a prestigious private school in the east.  Their paths apparently never crossed.  12-year-old GRS and his family left Indiana for California in 1905,  the year James Stewart was born. Out west, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.

Still, the lives paralleled in remarkable ways.  GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage moved his family to Berkeley, California.  Jimmy went to Princeton, then moved to Pasadena; and spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like that grand Christmas classic we all love.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, an advisor to Walt himself.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions.  Ironically, GRS did not like the media, and apparently did not attend movies often, if at all.

Even though their paths never crossed, during the Christmas season we should remember there is one thing they shared:   The experience of life in a small American town in the early 20th century.  Like a trip to Disneyland, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life enfolds us in such a place.  For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town and the time where both boys grew up.

Here’s a passage from the biography of Stewart,  about Indiana, Pennsylvania as Bedford Falls:

George R. Stewart’s boyhood town was so archetypically American that it could pass for George Bailey’s “Bedford Falls” in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, the town was “Bedford Falls” – at least for the movie’s male star. Indiana, Pennsylvania, was also the boyhood home of James Stewart,  “George Bailey” in Capra’s film.   Although the movie’s “Bedford Falls” was built on a studio backlot in the San Fernando Valley, Jimmy Stewart said that when he walked onto the set for the first time he almost expected to hear the bells of his home church in Indiana.

Although the film’s Producer/Director, Frank Capra, is said to have modeled his mythical town on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls,  for Jimmy Stewart Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he and George R. Stewart grew up, was the place he had in his heart as he brought George Bailey to life.

Each year, Indiana holds an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, with a parade, hot chocolate,  tree lighting, and continuous showings of the film at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.  It’s a winter festival so the people lining the streets in their warm clothing bring life to a snow-bound town, like the movie brings life to the streets of the movie set town.

As you watch Capra’s great film this Christmas, keep in mind that GRS celebrated his Christmases in a town which for another Stewart,  Jimmy, was the model for iconic,  Bedford Falls.

Merry Christmas to all.

  1. A Christmas gift, for 2019 readers – a link to the radio interview with “Tommy Bailey,” one of the Bailey children growing up in Bedford Falls, setting for It’s a Wonderful Life. 
bedford_falls
  1. A Christmas gift  – a link to the radio interview with “Tommy Bailey,” one of the Bailey children  in It’s a Wonderful Life.