Years ago I had the opportunity trek through Baja with Donnie Albright, who has been a favorite person of mine: thick glasses, quick smiles, lots of stories about the sorts of things that capture my imagination–geography, geology, local Indians, Baja, the Sierra Nevada, impossible treks and distances … Donnie’s been approached by several publishers to write books about Baja, a place he’s been traveling to since the late 1940s (he declines, he says, because he wouldn’t want to keep them updated). He led tours there on behalf of the San Diego Natural History Museum.
So I went.
But I didn’t just go for Baja and to profit from Donnie’s hard-earned experience there. I had ulterior motives, as they say.
We had, my brother and cousins and I, grown up with a vague sense of a grim story. The name Bays Locker was the story: he had died. Donnie, as a teenager, had recovered the body. Bays was revered–by my father and uncle and by my grandfather, who had been Scout Master of Troop 36 in Pacific Beach, Calif., and then district commissioner of Boy Scouts for the region. My uncle and grandfather attended Bays’ funeral. My father fought to go, but was deemed too young at 12 years old. I wanted to hear from Donnie what really happened.
Over the course of our trip down the peninsula the story unfolded like the Arabian Nights, around campfires and desert wilderness. When we got back to the United States at the end of the week, I immediately wrote down what Donnie had told me: about how he and Bays and two other boys were hell-bent on first ascents and had ventured up the rugged Black Divided of the Sierra Nevada in July of 1952 to get their share. Bays fell from a rock. Died. Three boys, ages 13, 15, and 17, were left to pick up the pieces.
But the story, like any story I suppose, got complicated quickly. Strange coincidences. I had 25,000 words and no real theme! Years passed. New characters emerged. Others passed away. I chipped at it, spending time in libraries and archives and in the Sierras and on the phone … Spending time in my head trying to imagine that world: Post-war San Diego, a city growing at a breakneck pace in a time obsessed with progress: freeways, rockets to the moon, Mt. Everest, the “memex” machine, and a Baby Boom.
It’s finally done and due in June. I only hope I have done the story justice.