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The spring of 1918 several important things happened which changed the whole course of my life. My job making war tanks in the Holt Manufacturing Plant in Stockton, California, had affected my health. I was classified 4-F by the draft board and was told to get out in the clear open air of the mountains to regain my health. So my wife and I went to Yosemite National Park and this changed the pattern of our lives.
The journey was made by train from Stockton to El Portal, the end of the railroad. From there a Park Motor Coach took us to the Yosemite Valley. My wife Martha, her sister and I stayed the first few nights in The Cedar Cottage, near the Sentinel Hotel. Martha was carrying a guitar, her sister a banjo. We were taken for the entertainers and were given first class accommodations which we enjoyed for several days. This ended when the hotel manager asked us to play for a dance and we had to inform him we were not part of the band, that was scheduled for the summer entertainments. The next day we set up our camp equipment in Camp 15, near Kennyville one mile from Park headquarters.
We were thrilled with the sights of the Valley and could hardly take our eyes off the Yosemite Falls. It was late April and the falls were running full fed by the melting snows from the mountain tops. The resounding noise of the falls would keep us awake at night.
The birds and animals were active and we soon made friends with them. Our neighbors the Darl Millers, the Park Blacksmith, warned us about the bear and deer, how they would steal our food and tear our camp apart if they did not find anything to eat. This did occasionally happen to us.
We soon learned many interesting things by hiking over the Valley trails and by studying the flora and fauna of the Park. Soon we were friends with the Park employees and concessionaire families.
A neighbor camper was in the habit of leaving her pet dog loose in the Camp which was against all Park Regulations. One day a Ranger came along about the time the dog was having a good run. The ranger was very firm and business like. He said, “Lady you will have to keep your dog tied up, for if it is caught running loose again it will have to be shot.” The lady camper decided then and there to keep the dog tied up for the ranger’s word was law.
Among our new friends was Jim Helm, Stable Boss at Kennyville, which is now the site of the Ahwahnee Hotel. The old buildings and barns had been used since the 1880’s and were built by Coffman and Kenny, early pioneers in the livery business.
One day Jim Helm called to me and said, “Slim John how would you like to work?” What kind of work? I asked.
“Guiding the dudes up the trails on horseback Jim said. He had asked me some time before about my boyhood days on the farm in Ohio so he assumed that I could ride and handle horses. Then he added. Show up here at the barns at 5 a.m. and help saddle the string of horses and mules. Some sixty riding animals will be going to Glacier Point.”
Helm was a typical old-time cowboy ranch foreman and knew how to get along with both men and animals. There were twenty men employed as guides and to handle the saddle and pack animals. Some two hundred head of stock were used most every day.
I reported at the corral at 5 a.m. as directed. The animals were already tied up at the hitch-racks. A middle aged short man, with a drooping mustache, and dressed in full cowboy regalia spied me and said, “Well don’t sand there, get busy and saddle those sixy head before breakfast. We’ve got work to do.” Right there and then I started my first job in Yosemite.
Andrew Van Riper was the character’s name and he became one of my best friends. He was an early pioneer guide of Yosemite and taught me all the tricks of the trade in handling horses and mules.
That particular day he was head guide. His colorful appearance and air of assurance showed that he knew his job in handling people on the trails. With novices, never having been on a horse or mule before, he would talk to them in a low tone always assuring them that the animal knew just what to do and that all they had to do was hang on.
Andy, as everyone called him, assigned me eight mules with eight women riders. I was given a sleek little mare named Babe. I wondered why Andy gave me all eight women to handle. Every mile he would stop the string and check back to see that they were riding well. I had trouble with two of my riders. Their mules would go out to the edge of the trail on the zig-zags and look over. This made the riders so nervous they were about ready to get off and walk home. I kept assuring them, that this was a natural habit of mules. Finally I decided to bring the two mules and their riders up next to me. From then on they followed close at the heals of my saddle mare. I leared later that these two mules were in the habit of following Babe in the corral and pasture. It is a known fact that certain mules are known to take up with mares and never get out of their sight if they can help it.
We made the trip to Glacier Point via Nevada Falls, then Illilouette Falls and down the Four Mile Trail in safety. That evening at the supper table Andy said, “How did you know what to do up there on the trail? By gosh, you have horse sense.” From that day on we were truly friends and I was accepted as one of the “old hands.”
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