My father, Victor White, would have turned 90 tomorrow (July 13.) Before his health began to decline rapidly in late winter, the whole family was making plans for a rustic vacation out on Catalina Island to celebrate his big day. One of my camping heroes, Horace Kephart, wrote that he camped “in the shade of Nessmuk in the Happy Hunting Ground.” (Nessmuk was the pen name of the great outdoors writer and master-camper George Washington Sears, a great inspiration for Kephart.) In a similar sense, I am always camping in the shade of my father because he is the one who took me out into the wild country when I was a boy, and brought the family back to the High Sierra every year without fail from the year I entered kindergarten to the year I moved away.
The Hudson Highlands were my father’s escape from his gritty neighborhood and impoverished circumstances during the Great Depression. Exploring that wild country gave him a sense that the world was wider than his crowded and stifling neighborhood. He worked his way out of there, made his way out to the west, and got us out among the glaciers and bears right around this time of year (always late July) for a week or so. Every time we headed up the highway toward Mammoth Lakes, we would look up at the Alabama Hills — the same strange potato-shaped rocks, with the Sierra escarpment rising up above them. Those rocks looked like a waking dream for my father, who used to while the hours away at the long-since-demolished Cannon Street Theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he was a kid. For a nickel, he would watch cowboy movies all day long. It occurred to him that the Alabama Hills were a constant backdrop for many of those low-budget cowboy films. In taking us out to the wild country, he was making those matinee dreams a reality, not only for himself but for his four children.
My father passed away in late March. I’m so glad I had a chance to spend a couple of weeks with him at the hospital, and to share camping stories, and show him an early version of Under the Stars. He loved the fact that he has a starring role in the book’s final chapter. My Dad always liked to have the last word.
He will be on my mind tomorrow.