ROBERT STEBBINS’S MEMORIES
Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.
A Family Outing With Some Treasured Memories and Some Unexpected Consequences
It was “Easter Week”, time for an outing. Participants included the following: Mom and Dad Stebbins, Uncle John and Aunt Ada (Dad’s Anut – in their 80s), and Bob and Ernie Stebbins and their girl friends Anna-rose and Esther Cooper. The older folks were interested in visiting Indio near Palm Springs where there were Date-palm orchards, Citrus gardens, and animal and plant display areas. Youthful members soon felt the urge for further adventure, and I, having recently aquired a car (a Rockne), was eager for travel. I had in mind just the place to go–the Colorado River in the vicinity of Blythe. It was to add 100 miles of travel just to reach Blythe (close to the Arizona border) but my plan also included traveling north along the river on highway 95 for 20 miles or so. This was so we could be in the vicinity of high points of the Big Maria Mountains, a massive mountain system that I had hoped someday to climb in search of wildlife.
We found a good place to camp where the river swung some distance away from the road. However, in reaching our selected campsite, we had gone down a steep hill to get to our chosen spot an area with beautiful cottonwood trees. Here we constructed a make shift tent, in case of rain. At bedtime Ernie and Esther slept in the tent, while Anna-rose and I slept nearby on the ground.
“A Treasured Memory”
About 3:00 a.m. I heard two male Great Horned Owls (“talking” to each other). One sounded NE, up river, the other across the river. I gave a few sleepy hoots and went to sleep.
I was awakened a little later by a light rain so we moved into the tent. Heard an owl again. Began answering. In a few minutes heard a rustling of branches perhaps 50 yards up river. Hooted again. The branches rustled once more and to my delight the owl appeared, flying silently and, directly toward me, ghost-like in the moonlight, and landed on the ridge pole of our tent, not over 5 ½ feet above my head! He hooted, I hooted. He peered over the edge of the tent with ear tufts (plumicorns) extended, moving his head from side to side as if to more carefully check the interior for “the other owl”.
We hooted back and forth. Then a scratching sound indicated he had taken flight, followed by a thump as he landed on the ground nearby. Moonlight again illuminated the area. He walked with stately tread toward the tent coming within 10 feet and appeared ready for battle (characteristic bowing pose with tail elevated each time he hooted. I asked Anna-rose for the flashlight, but our talking and movement frightened him. He flew up river. Shortly thereafter, we again went through a similar pattern, the owl finally alighting on the tent and once more landing on the ground, this time in back of our tent.
I got ready with the light and partly covered my head with the sleeping bag top and began hooting. Suddenly he appeared on the ground at the corner of the tent within 3 feet of my head. I was so surprised I reflexly turned on the light and lost the chance to see if he would have actually attacked. I had planned to duck into my sleeping bag. Perhaps it is just as well he departed. The talons of a Great Horned Owl are formidable indeed. He remained in the vicinity until 8:00 A.M. the following morning.
In the meantime, he moved around our tent from one perch to another several times alighting on top of our parked car. Finally he perched in a cottonwood tree about 100 feet away and continued hooting. When I got up to explore the area for other wildlife, he followed me as I periodically mustered a feeble hoot (hooter wearing out!) to keep him interested.
The super aggressiveness of this owl, I believe, relates to the other male I heard across the river. The river was probably a terretorial boundary that had been trespassed, and at a time when the young would be demanding special parental care.
Unexpected Consequences (Some Good, Some Bad)
A rain-storm had descended on the area –and, as we learned later, it apparently included much of southern California. We broke camp the morning of the owl episode, having spent only one night in the area. We were not equipped to deal with rainy weather. Everything was wet from the rain. To add to the misery, Anna-rose had fallen, bottom down, into a water filled ditch. We felt it was essential to get the car out, unloaded, because the slope that we had descended in setting up camp was now very slippery. After much effort, and repeated reving of the engine, we finally made it to level ground. We then gathered up all the wet gear and placed it in the car. All passengers were pretty much in a miserable frame of mind as we drove out onto the road headed for home.
We had gone only a short distance when we faced another dilemma. A sheet of water, around 20 ft. wide, was moving rapidly across the road. It was laden with silt and had deposited a layer of mud several feet wide at both of its borders. I got out of the car and tested the depth of the water and mud. They each measured about a foot. Now I faced a dilemma: Do I ease into the mud and water and cross slowly or go at a fairly high speed? I decided on the latter, but experienced severe jolts entering the water and leaving it. When I reached the other side the engine quit. Steam was rising from the radiator. Fortunately there was a car behind us. The driver hooked onto our car, remarking that he had seen water levels 8 ft. deep at this road site. He towed us for many miles before having to leave. Soon another driver came along and took us to a garage in Blythe.
Four memories stand out in relation to our unplanned retreat from Highway 95 and the Big Maria Mountains: (1) Many of the upland areas drain due east toward the highway, as the flow feeds the Colorado River. At the time of our visit, (April 1941) we were there when heavy flows of water could be expected crossing Highway 95. This led to the loss of power of our vehicle. (2) The treasured memory of the Owl episode. (3) Mud in my face as our helpful drivers towed our car. The storm had ensured dust turned to mud over many patches of the paved highway. Soon the windshield of our car was useless (coated with mud), so I had to stick my head out of our car to control swaying, resulting from the single rope connection. (4) When we were waiting for the second driver to help us, a flock of Yellow-headed Black Birds settled on a telephone wire nearby and entertained us with their beauty and calls.
At the Garage in Blythe and Heading Home
The Garage owner was a busy man. We had to wait all of the rest of the day before he could help us. We were tired, hungry, and uncomfortable. When he got around to us it was late in the day. He found a hole in the radiator about three inches in diameter, caused by jolting that occurred in the road crossing. The jolts had cause the fan to hit the surface of the radiator. The generator burned out because of the repeated efforts to climb the slippery slope leading out of the campsite. He replaced the generator with one from his shop. It was now dark. As we left the area, headed for Indio, we went only a short distcnce when the lights began to fade. We returned to the garage. The garage owner was just closing up. He had no other generator in stock but remembered seeing one in his yard –presumably somebody’s throwaway item. Grass was growing all around it. He took it into his shop, cleaned it up and installed it in our car. It worked perfectly. We had purchased the car from a friend in 1940 and sold it in 1948. The generator was still working!
We travelled for a time, now headed for Indio, to join up with family members, but we were tired and it was evident we were not going to make it. We found a place where we could pull off on a paved area some distance from the road. There we spread out our still damp sleeping bags and climbed into bed in our still damp clothing. We were very low on gasoline and had made our stop at a closed station, planning to fill up when it opened the next day.
The next morning we gassed up, discovering in checking our financial situation that we had left only 11¢ among us. When we arrived at Indio we found our family members had left. After all, they were old folks and the weather was terrible. We made it home, just barely.
Ever since then Anna-rose has seen to it that our travelling kids each has a 20 dollar bill for travel, that if not needed, is returned.
About two months after the events in this story, Anna-rose became my wife and we have lived together now for almost 69 years. It’s amazing what a woman will put up with!
Special recognition goes to Anna-rose, who has a remarkable memory. Without her input much of what appeared in this story would have been lost.
Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.
For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.