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“Pike” — on his San Francisco Trip
Pike was the town character of Wawona in the 1890’s. It was supposed that Nathan Bennett Phillips earned his nickname from references to Pike County, Missouri, but he was born 1839 in Tennessee and there is record of his having lived in Missouri. 48 He was known simply and widely as Pike gained a reputation as a colorful character from his actions, stories and looks.
He had long, yellowish hair, a mustache and a chin-enveloping beard of the same yellowish hue. Customarily, he wore boots, Levis, a heavy blue shirt with white buttons and a brood, white cowboy hat. Phillips drank heavily, swore frequently and had a unique, gruff whispering voice. An attack of diphtheria had so injured his vocal cords that he could speak only in a hoarse, guttural whisper. No one had any trouble understanding him though and his favorite reply, when questioned as to how he had lost his voice, was a husky, offhand, “telling lies to the tourists.” 48
His “lies” were repeated, even in 1882 San Francisco newspaper, by and to appreciative listeners. There was the one about a bear that chased Pike up a pine tree and out on a limb. At the top of his damaged vocal chords, Pike whispered fiercely, “Get back you fool or we’ll both be killed!”
Pike lived in Yosemite Valley for years, but when asked how long by tourists, he replied that he had lived there ever since “they were hauling in the dirt to build it.” 46
On bear story Pike liked to tell on himself was about the time he was on foot, without a gun and being chased by a bear. “That bear had the downhill pull on and soon caught up and was about to grab me.” As open-mouthed as his pursuer, Pike’s listeners would ask breathlessly, “What did you do to save yourself?” “Why, I turned around right quick, shoved my arm down the bear’s throat, grabbed his tail and turned him inside out.” 37
Still another story was of the time an Englishman found the guide playing cards in the hotel saloon and asked him to take him on a grizzly bear hunt. Pike refused with his characteristic growl. The Englishman told him to name his price and again the guide refused.
Unhappily, the Englishman asked, “Why won’t you go?”
With verbal embellishments, Pike told the saloon audience that the last time he hunted grizzlies with an Englishman, he had been armed with an old musket with which he had wounded a grizzly. When the enraged bear turned toward Pike, “John Bull” dropped his own high-powered rifle and raced for the nearest tree.
Pike threw himself on the ground, feigning death because it was thought that grizzlies would not harm a dead man. The bear come over anyway, rolled the guide over a few times, then whispered, “Pike, don’t you ever go hunting with an Englishmen again.”
After all that, Pike agreed to guide the spellbound “John Bull” an a grizzly hunt. 37
One memorable time he stayed in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel as the guest of a Southern Pacific official whom he had met at Wawona. A bell-boy took him to the top floor in on elevator, then showed him to his room and the button to push if he needed anything.
No sooner had the helpful bellboy left when Pike pressed the service button and upon the boy’s return asked for a hatchet.
“A hatchet?” The boy looked at Pike in his cowboy hat, Levis, outdoorsman shirt and boots with bewilderment.
“Yes,” Pike rasped. “I want to blaze a trail out of here.” 37
For years, Pike guided early horseback visitors to Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point. He was always over-solicitous to any pretty woman riding in his party, having them ride back of him at the head of the line. This did not set well with the men or plain women.
One dusty trip, a snooty, plain woman who was a member of the British nobility became annoyed at Pike’s inattention to her and called imperiously, “Guide, there is something wrong with my stirrup. It hurts my foot.”
Pike dismounted dutifully, examined the stirrup carefully; then announced in his gruff, carrying whisper, “Lady, there ain’t nothing wrong with that stirrup — yer blasted foot is too big.”
That same day, he had a unique chance to redeem himself with “Lady Bigfoot.” When the party was dismounting for lunch at Peregoy Meadow, Pike was predictably assisting a pretty girl from her sidesaddle. Lady Bigfoot became impatient, slid off her horse unaided, and her skirt which had been draped around the sidesaddle, caught on the curved saddle horn and there she stood with her back to the horse, her skirt up to her neck, exposed to wind, weather and eyes.
Quickly, Pike ran to her side, gallantly swept off his brood-brimmed hat and shielded her embarrassing state with it, at the same time unhooking her skirt from the saddle horn. There is no memory of what Lady Bigfoot said, if anything, as her skirt fell into place and Pike clapped his hat back on, but later her grateful husband gave the guide twenty dollars for his presence of mind and hat. 37
It was said that Pike made more money than any other guide of that time and, once, received a tip of $40. From early tourists he had learned the names of many plants and wildflowers and for later parties he interspersed that information with his tall tales. 38
Besides guiding, story-telling, drinking, chewing tobacco and caring for his mule, Brigham, Pike had a number of useful talents. He hunted deer, bear and grouse, trapped, fished, did roadwork with a pick and shovel and played a mean, memorable fiddle. Even this he did with an individual flair, using a homemade willow bow strung with black hair pulled from the stage horses’ tails. One of his favorite pieces was “Ten Little Injuns and One Old Squaw.” 39
Pike and his eccentricities delighted Wawona’s small boys. Jay Bruce, later State trapper, was an impressionable, ambitious youngster who skinned rattlers and sold skin and rattles to Thomas Hill, the famous artist, for resale in his studio. Hill paid him only a dollar per skin, rattles and unpleasant work; so Jay watched Pike speculatively as he spliced broken sets of rattles together to make one truly impressive string.
Pike confided hoarsely that he was “fixing up some rattles for John Bull.” He fixed up stories to match his rattles and, once, Jay witnessed him selling a long string to a credulous Englishman for a twenty dollar gold piece. Then Pike proceeded to treat all the barroom loungers to “a drink on John Bull!”
Jay “fixed up” rattles too until his indignant mother discovered Pike’s influence was corrupting her son. 39
When he was about fifty-five, Pike died as he had lived — colorfully. In the summer of 1894, he took Jay’s brother fishing and spent most of a day wading in the river. That night his ankles began to swell and later he was treated at the Mariposa hospital. The Mariposa Gazette for August 11, 1894, reported that he was “threatened with paralysis from too much exposure in the cold water.”
He was such an outdoorsman that, after his return to Wawona, he refused to move inside to the store attic, stubbornly insisting on sleeping as usual in his bed on the west porch. Even during the cold nights of October, though he became sicker, Pike continued to sleep outside, announcing on October 30 that he felt much better and would soon go back to work with the road crew. But suddenly, that afternoon, he died. 40
An inquest was held the next day and the official findings were “that the cause of death was neuralgia of the heart, resulting from a sickness of about two months’ duration.” 41
Pike was buried in the Wawona graveyard in a marked grave. The story goes that a young couple paid for the tombstone because once the guide had done something chivalrous for them. 42 Presumably, the wife was pretty! However, one Wawona old-timer remembers that the generous couple were Lady Bigfoot and her husband. 40 *
* Folktales are invariably clouded in obscurity, and disagreements arise as to original sources and content. Some 20 Yosemite stories are told in Laurence Degnan and Douglass Hubbard’s Yosemite Yarns, available from the Yosemite Natural History Association.
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