I was lying in the intensive care unit of the Cambridge (Minn.) Medical Center in the spring of 1993, waiting to be transported by ambulance to Abbott Northwestern Hospital to treat blocked arteries in my heart. I was 48, about 50 pounds overweight, and had led a sedentary life. I'd smoked for 20 years, but had quit 10 years before this emergency.
After an angioplasty, the insertion of some stents in my heart and three days in a recovery unit, I went home to consider my mortality and the life-altering event that had just happened.
I went to a library book sale a few months after my release from the hospital, and I bought a small paperback: "Ishi, Last of His Tribe" by Theodora Kroeber. That purchase changed my life.
The book was about an American Indian called Ishi who had lived most of his life as a part of a small tribe called the Yahi that had hidden in the mountains of northern California for about 40 years.
That small paperback absolutely fascinated me. Eventually, it would change me in a way I never thought possible. Ishi's story would motivate me to work for better personal health and with it, personal discovery. His story of survival, adaptation and adventure pulled me out of an introverted, inactive life and put me into a number of memorable adventures.
Ishi survived for decades alone in the mountains of the northern California.
Ishi had lived a Stone Age existence until he was "captured" in 1911. He was the last of his tribe. The Yahi had been slowly eliminated by massacres and disease. Books say every person in his small tribe eventually died while they were hiding from the white settlers, who would kill them on sight, and there was no one left who spoke his language or knew his customs.
Ishi used a bow and arrow and spear, and shaped (or "flintknapped") points from obsidian and other materials.
That fascinating book led me to read a second book called "Ishi in Two Worlds," also by Kroeber, which detailed his life in his native land and his adaptation to the then-modern world of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, I followed my doctor's instructions and stuck to a low-fat diet, exercised and took cholesterol-lowering medications. I lost about 40 pounds and turned some of my weight to muscle.
I also dug more deeply into Ishi's story, and found an author named Richard Burrill, then of Sacramento, Calif., who had written about him. Richard and I exchanged e-mails over time, and he mentioned he had visited the wilderness of Ishi and his tribe.
The Ishi Wilderness is on 41,000 acres in Lassen National Forest in the Shasta Cascade foothills of northern California (and close to Lassen Volcanic National Park). The region is about three hours north of Sacramento.
Something about the story of this lone survivor living a prehistoric life was compelling to me. Richard eventually invited me to fly to California to join him on a backpacking trip. With kids in college and the expense, I turned him down. However, he was philosophical. "Well, if you really want to do something, there is probably a way," I recall him saying.
I talked with my wife, Joan, and she said I should check into the realities of the expense. With that mild affirmation, I started to consider flying West and backpacking in the very land of Ishi.
This was not like me. I am a fairly shy and introverted person. This was way outside my comfort level. I had never backpacked in my life. Of course, I also had a heart condition.
A first trip
Nevertheless, I really wanted to do this, and plans were made for May 1996. I exercised daily on a 2-mile trek, and began doing the hike with a filled backpack.
Three years to the week after my rush to intensive care, I flew to California.
The first trip with Richard was to a place called Graham's Cabin site, close to a beautiful rapidly flowing stream called Deer Creek. There were a few ruins of a cabin of an early settler called Elijah Graham. For all the beauty, the area held a grim history. Many methods were used to try to eliminate the Yahi, and Graham was part of that story. One legend has it that he tried to kill the Indians by putting poison in some flour he left on his porch.
Richard and I met the other members of the group: Bob, a park ranger; Milt, an elementary school teacher, and his son, Aaron.
The drive in was long and rough, with the road deteriorating with each mile. The foothills were only a couple thousand feet in elevation, but the environment was challenging. The hike to the place we camped was hilly and rocky, and the campsite next to Deer Creek was everything I had imagined. Poison oak was everywhere, as well as a rattlesnake that had given us ample warning to avoid it.
We camped for three days, and went on several treks to locate specific sites that were documented in research and in the books. The ruggedness of the area, the volcanic activity, and the beauty of the wildflowers met my every expectation of the trip.
Twenty years later, I have made 18 journeys, the last one this past June, to northern California, and all of them have had some connection to the story of Ishi. I have met many fascinating people, and have made some dear friends.
Interestingly, there is a Minnesota connection to the story of Ishi. A doctor named Saxton Pope cared for Ishi in San Francisco, and he learned to love the bow and arrow. In Chatfield, Minn., near Rochester, the Pope and Young Club Museum is devoted to archery. It has a large section about bow hunting, record hunting trophies, and one large exhibit about Ishi.
Virginia Pope Evans, Saxton Pope's daughter, was 100 years old when I first met her. She remembered having a meal with Ishi at her parents' home, and had several arrowhead points that Ishi had flintknapped for her father.
It is amazing to me how two little paperback books about a man called Ishi have enriched my life so much. They introduced me to worlds I did not know existed.
Roger Anderson retired in 2002 after working 35 years at Cambridge Regional Center. He worked to try to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities.
This story originally ran as part of First Person: Ageless Adventure, an occasional series of essays by Star Tribune staff and readers.