Trip to the Sutter Buttes

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The strangest thing happened yesterday. I won’t be able to describe it well, but I’m just going to try to put down the gist of it.

I and my friends A and A signed up for a hike in the Sutter Buttes. The Sutter Buttes are a geological oddity, a tiny mountain range stuck in the middle of the Central Valley which stretches between the Sierra Nevada in the east and the Coast Range in the west. If you have ever driven up Interstate 5 from Sacramento to Redding you might have see them off to the east — they look like a strange little castle poking up in the middle of a great flat plain. They mark the spot where magma oozed up through a weak spot in the floor of the central valley.

Because they’re privately owned, having belonged to something like 12 ranching families since about 1850, if you want to see them up close you have to go on an organized hike with a group. The Middle Mountain Foundation is the one we went with.

What happened on this hike was that somebody died.

I woke up in the dark and drove to A and A’s house so we could leave at 5:30 in the morning. We crossed the hills that separate the coast from the flat flat central valley and drove north for about 2 hours. We saw the sunrise and thought about the supermoon we were going to see on our way back. At Sacramento we swung north into increasingly unpopulated agricultural land, leaving the Interstate for a smaller state highway that goes through small agricultural towns and fields, and then turned off onto a smaller road passing through the leafy sidestreets, well-kept victorian farmhouses and trailer parks of Sutter, a small and probably dying agricultural town. We parked at the high school and waited for the rest of the group. There were probably 10 of us when I called the emergency number to ask where our guide was. It turns out that the guides and the rest of the group were around the corner (where they could see us, but we could not see them). We quickly caravanned up and took off for the site of our hike. “We’ve never left this late before,” said Hank.

The people who go on these hikes, as you would imagine, are an odd bunch. Elderly but fit women, chronically lonely oddballs, bird or wildflower enthusiasts, us. There were 21 people on ours plus our guides — she a reasonable woman of about 35, he a former 5th grade teacher from New Jersey and a missionary teacher of English.
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We drove through some grazing cows, almond orchards and by an aboriginal looking swamp, probably a duck-hunting preserve, before turning in to a private road, passing through three gates and over progressively rough gravel and then dirt roads to the field where we parked, in a valley surrounded by ripening grass, grazing cows and the mysterious stone walls that crisscross the buttes. After everyone had used the port-a-potty, we passed through the last gate into a meadow. We crossed the meadow, walked a plank across a small stream and stopped to admire an old stage coach stop before climbing a small incline to the old stage road, which we followed through woods and fields, along a canyon past one lake to another, larger, lake. Hank, our guide, stopped us along the way to tell us stories about the geology, the history, and the family who owned the land. My friend A knows a lot about the history of California, too, from building so many museum exhibits about California history.

The whole Central Valley was originally a swamp until the rivers were dammed and levyed and the land divided up for agriculture. While the valley was a swamp, the Sutter Buttes were a dry island in the middle and a sacred spot for the Indians who traversed the state. Because it has no year-long water source, no tribe lived here, but many tribes would come to gather acorns and hunt, or to escape the floods, and apparently it was neutral ground, a sacred spot where war was not allowed. Yesterday the valley was full of haze, but I have been up there on a clear day and from the top you can see the Coast Range to the west, the Sierras to the east, Mount Lassen and Shasta in the north and Mount Diablo in the south. It’s a very central and beautiful place.

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We passed the first lake, which was much lower than usual. The cottonwoods which usually grow with their feet in the water were dry. We climbed further and stopped in a meadow across from the second lake for a snack. It was around 11:30. I was starving, having last eaten at 5:00. It was here that Hank proposed his idea. We could, if we liked, bushwack our way up to the saddle we could see above us. It was steep, but not too steep, and not very far. Not everyone wanted to go, so we decided that we would break into two groups. One would stay near the meadow, where they could follow the path to a little nearby ridge. I’ve been up that ridge before and it’s beautiful. It’s a pretty little meadow, and if you follow the path a bit further you come to a gorgeous little forest with a view of Mount Lassen, which looks like an ice cream cone on the horizon. That path takes you right up to a property line which you cannot cross, and probably from there to the summit. Dana, the other leader, would stay with that group. The rest of us, with Hank, would go straight up the hill to the saddle of a higher ridge. A few people asked how difficult it would be, and Hank assured us that he did not hike very fast, so that it was steep but doable.

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As we set off, it became quickly obvious that one of us, G, should probably not have come. We could all hear him struggling with the climb. Ten minutes in, he wanted to go back, but Hank convinced him that we would rest, eat our lunch, and then see how he felt. After lunch, we managed to convince G to keep going, but probably another twenty minutes in he had really had it, so we left him on a rock with the parole officer who had not really wanted to come, and we continued up.

We reached the top through a little oak wood. It was a beautiful spot — a little granite knoll covered with enormous thistles, black swallowtail butterflies, and views of green green pastures going down to the flat valley floor below. Hank wanted to ascend an even higher point, and some of us went with him, but the As, I, two women and one elderly man rested where we were, more from a fear that getting down would be impossible than from any disinclination to go further up.
P1040934The man who stayed behind was a man I had noticed earlier. He had an eastern accent, Maine? Vermont? New York? He reminded me of my step-father Peter, which made me inclined to like him. He seemed like a Yankee, with his white hair, sensible but well-worn burgundy hiking shirt, and elderly blue backpack with zips he arranged carefully every time he opened or closed it. At lunch, when Hank went on at great length about his missionary trips abroad to teach English, we learned that this red-shirted man had a daughter who had taught English in Mexico.
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We hung out on the knoll for half an hour or forty minutes and then started the descent, which was tough, but nowhere near as tough as A and I had been expecting. Again against expectation, it was easy to find the abandoned G and from there we were nearly down. The group got strung out, and there were moments, from the back of the pack, that it was sometimes hard to see where the rest had gone, but I used skills carefully honed as the younger sister of two brothers close in age and was able to keep the back of the pack from getting lost several times. We stopped in a little forested boulder field right before the meadow to collect up again. I saw G and the burgundy-shirted man leaning on rocks. The man looked pale, and got up and walked away from his hat and his stick. I called after him, but someone told me he was going into the woods to pee, so I thought no further about him. I left the boulder field and headed back to the meadow where we all sat and rested with the other group before going on. G came back, and we were waiting for P and the parole officer, the two of whom had been appointed the rear guard by Hank, the red-shirted man and another woman, and when they came back we waited a bit more, lying and sitting around on the grass and the rocks. Suddenly, there was a commotion. The red-shirted man fell off the rock he was sitting on and lost consciousness.

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We reacted quickly. Two women were a nurse and a physician’s assistant, and they set to work immediately doing CPR. The parole officer helped, four others held up the blanket to shield Alan, (as we learned, that was his name) from the sun. My friend A held up Alan’s legs. Hank called 911, who had a hard time understanding where we were and whether they needed to come. I remembered that I had the MMF’s number in my phone from earlier when we had been in the wrong parking lot, and I called the office to see if they could call 911 to convince them to come. Forty minutes later a helicopter flew by but appeared not to see us. Hank pleaded with 911 and the helicopter came back, circled, and landed. Three men jumped out and set to work, but forty minutes later they could not revive him.

It seems that he had probably died instantly. It seems that there was probably nothing that could have been done. The kind EMT assured our nurses that they had done the right thing, and that had he been savable their actions would have saved him. They allowed us a few minutes with Alan before carrying him to the helicopter. We held hands and said goodbye to a man we had known for an day. It seemed that it was a good way to die and a good place to die, but that his family might not think so. We were stunned. As we sat and waited for the EMTs to decide if they would take his body out or try to get a firetruck up the path, which would have been impossible, I thought of the old Elizabethan poets’ dictum that all flesh is grass. I felt heartless for thinking that, since death is inevitable, this was a pretty good way to go. I wondered if he’d known what was happening, if, like in a novel, he’d thought, “Oh,” as he fell over.

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It was stunning then, and it is maybe even more stunning today. K left for Dallas this morning to talk about building codes and A called to see how I was doing. We agreed that there was something surreal about it — we left early in the morning. We crossed the county line. We changed cars and drove through gates and climbed a mountain. One of us died. It’s like a Steinbeck novel, or the Island of Blue Dolphins. It’s a coming of age novel for middle-aged people. We went on an adventure and came back changed. We’ve seen death — an abstract death. We liked Alan, but didn’t know him. It seems like a good way to die, as long as the person dying is not your father or your husband. It turned out that poor hapless G is the one who knew Alan, who was his mentor at church. Alan was a recently retired gastroenterologist who loved to travel with his wife and had grandchildren. And G had to try to contact his wife. The group bonded, briefly, and maybe we will send flowers to the funeral, or money to a charity of his choice, but then we broke apart to drive home. A and A and I stopped for burgers in Colusa on the way home, which seemed like another leafy, dying Central Valley town.

So that’s my story. I’m going to A and A’s for dinner — we plan to tell the story one more time to our friends S and D. We seem to need to in order to make sense of the whole thing.

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14 thoughts on “Trip to the Sutter Buttes

  1. Wow, what a story. And so very sad. And I know exactly what you mean about needed to tell a story over again with the others who were there. Otherwise it’s like it didn’t happen.

  2. Alan’s family will say that he died in a beautiful place doing something that he loved and it will comfort them. They will be grateful that you were there as companions and that his last words included thoughts of his daughter. It is a memory that will stay with you always but it should be a peaceful memory because you did everything that you could to help.

    • I hope you are right, Alice. It was a very peaceful death in a lovely and really sacred spot. It actually made death look so easy. I guess if he were my relation I would take comfort in that. Maybe the odd thing is that it did make death look so easy.

  3. It does remind you that life and death are near things and happen all the time just not always right in front of you.

  4. I like that story. I have recently seen a death that is usually called “easy” and it looked incredibly difficult to me. It’s actually reassuring to hear that it can happen in an instant, and that no one could be sure it had already happened. Incredibly reassuring, in fact. Thank you for telling the story here.

  5. Wow. I’m sure that’s not at all what you expected when you went on the hike. I can see how the whole thing would seem a bit surreal.

  6. I was on the hike with you, and was just looking over the pictures you took. If you look at picture (P1040942) and zoom in on Alan, he wasn’t looking too good up at the top of the mountain. Makes me wonder if something was going on prior to his collapse. Most everyone was walking around and checking out the views, and he is just sitting there with his head down and arms limp. Hope your handing this all okay.

  7. Wow–that is quite a story–I’m glad we had warning early on in your entry, as I found it quite startling and sad. We walked up the North Butte around 12 years ago and it was a wonderful spot with great views over the valley below. Your experience does seem like it’s out of Steinbeck (The Wayward Bus or something?) I hope you’re doing okay with the neaby intimations of mortality.

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