Tuolumne River Days

Table of Contents

 

Tuolumne River Days

By Rebecca Lawton

That was the summer the Champs couldn’t hit the ball, could barely field it, couldn’t fill the stands as the team’s stats headed for the cellar. Defense took their places at the top of each inning with eyes down, shoulders hunched, braced in case the crowd went hostile. The first baseman was the one exception, all muscle and bulk, his forearms the branches of a large tree, his bat alive despite the deadwood around him. I called him FB: buttocks beefy against the seat of his pants, torso thick and solid like pistons, legs wide from a lifetime of squats and hard work. He’d picked up a swagger during the Champs’ second world championship, had seared that bull stride into our admiring brains by the third.

He was the first person I ever heard use the H-word in public, at one of his fundraisers. Hydrophilia, “the new cancer.” Water affinity. Not curable yet; not fully researched. The first casualties were slipped onto obituary pages the way folks once reported AIDS deaths, without detailing what had really happened, with euphemisms like “sudden passing” or “unexpected end.” If it’d been a long fight to inevitable pneumonia: “courageous battle.” Admitting the true cause of death was seen as a failing on someone’s part, although now we know that H is bigger than any one person, any one family.

It spread south from San Francisco, manifesting as increases in bipolar disorder, hypomania, swings in moods as mighty as FB’s outings at the plate, worse in the droughty summer and fall months, leading to muscular degeneration. Was it a disorder of the blood? Or psychological, starting with eco- or hydro-grief and progressing to the body? Cases were most rampant in city centers far from mountain springs and sources, followed by outbreaks in little, unsexy desert towns where swimming pools had been drained during the first droughts of the 1990s and 2000s. Spas and greens had gone dry, with none of the exemptions from mandatory conservation that had been allowed early on for economic reasons in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Pebble Beach, and Pacific Grove. H sufferers flocked to the coast for solace, even with the greens gone brown. Others flew to Vegas for “therapy weeks,” where groundwater pumping had finally been restricted everywhere but for spas that could claim medical exemptions. H victims with prescriptions got a free pass.

My editor was impatient for a write-up, a research-based piece about this health crisis centered on the Cal-Neva region, with spurs into Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. I searched in vain for public records that would tell the story, the numbers washed from agency websites and listservs. As had happened under the last Republican president, where U.S. EPA and Department of Interior pages had been disassembled, resource webpages were missing. Online sites showing years of conservation goals and outcomes for Cal‑Neva were like the last unicorn: vanished.

The government was staying ahead of the media on H. They knew it was a game changer, a product of the drought they’d claimed didn’t exist. It had nothing to do with global warming, they said, but anyone who cared to look could see that the dwindling water supply due to intensifying climate was becoming encoded into altered cells. Rogue DNA, somehow leading to H. If the press exposed governmental negligence, hubris in the face of boundless evidence, the lawsuits would stretch from here to Jupiter.

Even with the hitting drought all around him, FB fought on. Whenever the count went 3 and 2, he’d work the bat like a pinball flipper, swift and efficient, knocking the ball into the stands at five o’clock or popping it up so it dazzled the catcher and umpire with either sunlight or kliegs. Every time, FB in warrior stance, facing the pitcher. Achilles at Troy with his sword flashing, braced and swinging for his life, nostrils wide, pulling in oxygen.

How could I have known about his wife? No one could have guessed, could have seen through his valiant battle to reach base week after week, his resolve to put points on the board. FB got no support, from his manager down to the left fielder who’d been rotated to every long position with no good results. FB’s missiles had nothing but the dry California air to ride on. Even at the July television fundraiser, the From-Our-Plate-to-Yours Hit-a-Thon, with his spouse and young son competing against him, all smiles and lack of coordination, it was his spirit out there holding the thing up. Three other Champs volunteered but should’ve stayed home, their air swings pathetic.

FB’s adorable, aqua-eyed wife and child only beat his pure athleticism because he let them, a mountain allowing a pair of songbirds to wing over it. They were his tender heel, his only chink. My editor said to get my ass to the Hit-a-Thon, to “find out if the family man thing’s for real. Go stick a mike in his face if you have to open your blouse to get there.” It wasn’t the first such reference I’d heard, although it was the first from her.

FB was polite from the start, answering with the ball-speak common in sports interviews, the nothing answers. He didn’t connect my name to my beat until the manager stopped by. “Good job on The List.” He winked and added that he was anxious to see The List: Part Two, “where you name names but of course not ours.” Then FB opened to me like a big door swinging wide, no longer a wall of cotton jersey pinstripes with a lucky number on his back.

I left the clubhouse carrying the promise of a tour of FB’s house. His wife and son passed me on the way in, holding hands. She smiled and sang out a hello. The son echoed her an octave higher.

That summer, I took getaway days to the river after filing any assignment, leaving the city on the winding highway that followed an old wagon route or gold prospector’s trail—I forget which. Parking off the road in a rutted dirt lot, I carried a small pack and descended to the Tuolumne River via the Clavey, switchbacking down the tributary on straw-colored slopes. Earlier in the season, the hills had been green with long grasses and covered with more poppies than the field guarding Oz. I’d never witnessed the flowers so thick before, the hills so emerald and carpeted you might think you could roll down them without slamming into rocks and branches. Nose up to the hot air, like a deer sniffing the wind, I hurried to the first ledges of bedrock.

Plenty of water still swirled in the Clavey’s bedrock cauldrons, filling me with an excitement I associated with the early season, despite July’s heat invading everything. Cicadas clicked in the hot air. Lizards and snakes crisped through dry grass. Whenever I could walk on the granite I did, my boot steps hollow on the exfoliating rock. A few times I stopped to dip my bandanna in a cool eddy and pick foxtails out of my socks; then I’d start up again, eager but trying not to rush it.

By midafternoon I’d reach the Tuolumne confluence at Clavey Falls—a rafter’s nemesis and the main river’s steepest drop. Once when I’d floated the T (I’ll call it) with a group of friends, all ex-guides like me, one of the boats crashed into Clavey Hole as if it had been trying to get there. Really the oarsman, Jude, had put his back into rowing away, but the reversal sucked him in and held him. The raft bucked and thrashed, trapped a full minute. An eternity. He stayed with it, a prize rider on a water beast, though his girlfriend had washed out in the first 10 seconds and taken a nasty swim, probably the beginning of her leaving him for that geologist in Menlo Park. As the boat jumped and spun and tried to shake him, Jude clung to it, his snarled hair hanging wet in his eyes, his teeth bared like a mama wolf. He never did leave the boat, although he later said that riding it out had only bruised both his shins and torn a muscle in one arm and had meant nothing to the river.

By myself on those weekends, I’d set up camp downstream of the Clavey‑T confluence, hidden in the willows on the lower end of the beach. Any rafters or kayakers or gold-seekers coming in later could have the main camp; we wouldn’t have to see each other. They’d probably forget I was there as they downed the beers and boxes of wine they’d hauled in on their boats.

On those long, lazy days, I’d read paperbacks most of the morning, then hike in the afternoon to one of the homesteads a short bushwhack from the confluence. Miwok metates were sprinkled over the granite, little depressions no bigger than baseballs. They’d been ground into bedrock under shade trees and close to shore where the original people must’ve gathered, maybe talking and laughing, working acorns into meal. Sometimes I’d linger in an abandoned apple or pear orchard, the once-tended rows now scraggly but still giving good canopy. If the dam stopped releasing and the river dried up, I’d walk out to the trickle of water that remained midchannel, no need even to remove my boots, the granite damp and showing off black and pink specks of minerals. A few landlocked trout would be there, slipping like eels from pool to pool, caught between O’Shaughnessy Dam upstream and Don Pedro down, migratory urges thwarted.

Sometimes I’d remember my water beat for the paper and the dismal win-loss record of the Champs that season, the worst in baseball. But I’d forget the traffic and pounding of the city. Nothing broke the quiet but the cries of crows, the cack-cack of ravens. If the Champs’s hitting shortage entered my mind, or the rivers changed by drought concerned me, I didn’t hold them there. My worries vanished in the deep shadows of rock cliffs as the sun arced across the narrow river canyon or under the creamy swath of Milky Way late at night.

FB’s next fundraiser would be a so-called water-conservation event called Tuolumne River Days. My editor asked me, “What’s the deal with all his effing philanthropy? He just did one of these.” To hear the T mentioned on national radio was like hearing a shy friend outed, but instead of turning down the volume I turned it up. FB was raising money to enforce water conservation, he said, because of the drought. “And especially because of hydrophilia.” A gasp went up. Even I—who, as I said, hadn’t heard that word exposed in public like that—might’ve let out a little breath. He handed the mike to the city’s GQ mayor to explain. Proceeds would be used to make repairs to the Canyon Tunnel diverting from O’Shaughnessy. The funds would ensure the continued flow of the one thing we needed most for survival, our lifeblood.

Tuolumne River Days began as all such events do, with early-bird deals advertised on radio and TV. Tickets went like they did for Stones or Springsteen concerts: immediate sellout followed by scalping and a general panic for seats. I’d figured people had become inured to FB’s events, given that he’d put on almost one a month for as long as I could remember. Now I saw that this event, this cause, could spark a rally.

The day of the fundraiser broke hot and dry. No marine layer had drifted in overnight to cool the city’s asphalt and steel; forecasts called for triple digits in the East Bay and 90s at the ballfield. FB stood at a podium erected near home plate, alongside his wife and son, speaking for the Champs, who were “grateful to offer our bats for this cause.” The team lined up for FB’s address and the manager’s, then stayed in place for the singing of “The Star‑Spangled Banner” by an Irish tenor policeman who brought the crowd to wild applause even before he hit the land-of-the-free note. FB’s son stood not with his hand over his heart but in a frozen salute, like John-John when his father’s casket passed.

FB didn’t take the plate right away, but sat with his family in a box in the center stands. The other players went in first to hammer the ball, pulling themselves up to be noble like him, but they failed to connect, pitch after pitch. An anonymous donor had offered $10,000 for every hit, $25,000 past the infield, and still the Champs went down in order.

I simmered in the shame of it. This event, to honor the mighty T? It was like Donald Duck pinch-hitting for Odysseus.

As the Champs went O-fer, except for one hit to the infield by the catcher to earn 10 grand, the stands began to empty out a few folks at a time, a family here and there. Was FB going to step up or was he just going to watch this thing go down? Probably a third of the spectators had exited by the time his name was called.

Someone had pledged $50,000 for one hit—anywhere in the park, by FB and FB alone.

FB didn’t budge. The manager stalked over, said something, waved his arms. Casual, FB said something back, which the manager then conveyed to GQ. “He’s promised us a hit, folks, out to the Cove in no more than three pitches. One hit, one magical hit, if we can make it an even hundred in the next 10 minutes.”

Silence in the stands. The exodus stopped, people turning back to the field from the rows and aisles as if called to baptism. They began to file instead to a window designated for donations. On the giant television monitors, lights flashed $100K—$100K—$100K.

GQ kept up his pimping. “Ten minutes to do it, 10 minutes to save California from this terrible affliction. Ten minutes of generosity, and he’ll swing that mighty bat for the bay.”

FB looked unaffected, was hoisting his son from his wife’s lap to his, speaking to her as if it were just another night, as if he hadn’t just promised the impossible. As the donations rolled in, announced by GQ, FB seemed to stay tuned out. When the exact number had been reached, he handed his son over to his wife as if passing her a soda or a bag of chips.

We didn’t have to wait long. He hit it on the first pitch, a fastball caught like a soft toss with the meat end of the bat, a giant arc for the Cove, held in the air as if gravity pulled the tiny orb away from Earth and not toward it, weightless and spinning and lunar. The eventual reentry and splashdown. The boats racing for it, their competition caught by television cameras. FB didn’t even look, didn’t need to check the trajectory, knew what he had done. He dropped the bat as if it were on fire, something he had to get out of his hands, quick, or burn his palms.

Then his wife ran to him, tearful, overacting in my opinion, squeezing their son between their chests in an embrace that he hid from the cameras with his big body. They hugged until fireworks startled them apart. Then all three of them kept their arms around each other’s necks, wide-eyed faces tilted to spectral explosions that lasted a full five minutes, a picture of goodness and hope.

July edged to a close, the last week cooling at night, resembling fall. Days were dimmed due to smoke-filled skies. Fires burned all over the state. Mariposa, Yreka, Weed, and Santa Barbara were the first towns and cities to be 100 percent evacuated. My editor had demanded The List: Part Two, and I’d complied: the top 50 water offenders in Major League Baseball, an update from The List of last year. It would come out mere days after the fundraiser; the timing would be “impeccable.” The List: Part Two had subcategories: Who’d been exceeding his mandatory use restrictions? Who’d gone over? Of those, who’d paid his fine and who’d been dodging? The Champs had shown up as the biggest offenders last year, guys with more than 2,000 square feet of house per family member and Hollywood-style grounds. With the H event under their belts, though, and the manager’s hints to me, their expectations for better numbers soared.

To get to the T before dark that week, I had to file The List: Part Two while it was still in progress. The copyeditor promised to fill in the missing data so I could hit the road. He swore to take care of it, and I believed him; he was the best in the office with details, treating each submission like his own baby even though he’d never had a byline.

The T ran low that weekend, so much of the river diverted to the Canyon Tunnel for landscaping demands in the valley that just a pathetic, midchannel trickle was left in the afternoon. I spent both days sitting out on cool slabs of granite, feet in the water, nature’s little spa jets working on my toes, my insteps. FB’s mighty hit kept returning to me, like an egret in flight, or the drift of pale alder fuzz, or a green apple still clinging to the tallest branch of an old homestead tree.

I’d been daydreaming about the hit when I saw the unusual: a big black bear hulking through an abandoned orchard like an oversized dog. He reached for apples on hind legs but failed to reach the too-high fruit, coming back to Earth with his front paws heavy as they touched down. As he strode toward the next tree, his colossal hind legs reminded me of FB, especially when he kept his foot on the bag while reaching for a wide throw. Power. Grace.

A single rifle shot cracked over my head, close enough to whistle. I fell belly down in the kettle of river where I’d been sitting, my breasts pressed to the clammy rock, afraid to look but peeking anyway, as the bear fled up the jumbled scree on the far side of the T. When no more shots came, and I’d been flat for what felt like a half hour, I crept back to my camp and packed up as if leaving early had been part of my plan.

wavy lines marking a section break

FB called to chew me out about The List: Part Two. It had come out as promised while I was on the T. He asked who-did-I-think-I-was, if I was going to eff with him I’d better bring my A-game. Hadn’t he given his all at Tuolumne River Days? What was I thinking? He was midsentence, exploding, then stopped short with a clunk. He’d dropped the phone, or thrown it. Silence until his wife came on the line, all apologies. Could I come to the house that afternoon? Meet the family, see what they’d done to improve their conservation efforts since last year? With every warning bell ringing in me like that tenor’s voice hitting the high notes, I thanked the wife. I’d talk with my editor.

Who was steamed about FB landing on The List: Part Two, claimed I’d “done it this time.” When I mentioned the invitation, she didn’t look at me. “Do it. We need this—you need this.”

FB’s mansion was up in the East Bay hills, in the town of Piedmont, an island of wealth, where Clint Eastwood grew up in the 1940s and 50s. Labyrinthine streets. Old carriage houses converted to garages. Lawns green despite the drought. A world away from the surrounding, plebian towns of Oakland and Berkeley.

The cook answered the door, her white uniform clean, her black slipper shoes hissing on the polished floors. The family would be right in. She motioned me to a tray with snacks and handwritten labels on silver stands: gluten-free crackers, Humboldt mushroom paté, Sonoma soft cheese, organic red pepper and kale chips from Napa Gardens, a single glass of tonic and lime. As I waited, eating little, looking out over the sapphire swimming pool and farther-off views of the city rising up through the fog, the springing sound of a tennis ball wormed into my hearing, along with the thwacks of rackets making contact. The sound stopped; there was soft giggling.

In a minute the wife came in, face flushed, her pink tennis dress fresh. Her racket rested on one shoulder. “Our son’s at the neighbor’s,” she said, as if I’d already asked the first prying question.

FB entered next, covered in sweat that he dabbed with a towel. His skin showed tan below the short sleeves and legs of his dazzling clean tennis whites. He spoke in a soft voice, too low to echo under the high ceilings, his handshake firm and eye contact steady. Only once did his gaze flick down over me, then away. Nothing about his anger on the phone the day before. He took my arm in one broad hand and led me on a personal tour—not of the indoors, as if that were irrelevant—of the lush gardens, with unbroken lawns and borders of palm trees. The wife followed. He counted the drip emitters for me, led me to the Rainbird timer in the five-car garage that had a brass plaque placed by the National Registry of Historic Places. It had been scouted as a location in the remake of Sabrina but in the end had not been used.

He towered over the digital meter for his sprinkler system, clearly not knowing what the buttons did, his fingers hovering but touching nothing.

The wife took over. “State-of-the-art and programmed to our limit. Our gardener consulted with an aide from the governor’s office before finalizing landscape planning.”

But their swimming pool?

“Not a drop more than we’ve earned back in offsets.”

I asked the inevitable, dreaded question: With all these conservation measures, admirable indeed, where were they losing water?

FB raised a finger and led us back to a central courtyard inside the home. It had once been an atrium for birds captured all over the world. Macaws and parrots and little African birds. Something from the Congo that you couldn’t get anymore. Cuckoos from Switzerland. Chinese crested terns, the rarest species you could imagine.

The wife’s eyes teared up. “I had them donated the minute we signed papers. It was terrifying, seeing those beautiful creatures in prison.”

Now the atrium held fountains. Water coursed among tubs, falls, and sunken pools, circulated from one receptacle to the next, all gravity and movement. The very air thick with the ozone scent of water molecules. Palpable with humidity but cool as a northern temperate rainforest. All the moving water sent my mind to the T for an instant.

The wife turned to me, her eyes only a shade darker than the Caribbean-blue pool nearest us. Her mouth curled in a grimace. “I have it.”

It dawned on me, one stolen step at a time. They’d been allowed a medical exemption, which we had failed to factor in to The List: Part Two. They’d cut back and cut back, but—as long as she suffered the disorder—they’d have to keep the therapy atrium flush with water from the T. The very river that had inspired FB to bust out the prize-winning lumber.

His expression went feral, eyes darting over the water like a fox’s, his bulk for once not his most striking feature. It was eclipsed by his quick attention, the intelligent assessment that had taken in thousands of curve balls, seen as many pitches go over the plate, understood at a glance whether the outfield was playing close in or back.

“We’ll continue to fight,” he said. “Until there’s a cure.”

The wife put her arms around his big torso, looked up with adoration. “We didn’t want to alarm the fans. Draining the outdoor pool would raise eyebrows, and besides it’s not allowed by our homeowners’ association.”

“You tell everybody,” he said. “We’re not lawbreakers.”

When we’d published The List the summer before, in the height of heat and drought, some had called it water shaming. FB had been baseball’s top offender, apparently part of an entitled couple setting a poor example for their child. I’d written an op-ed on privilege, suggesting the name The Piedmont Syndrome for water flagrancy, reminding those keeping their lawns green that everybody needed enough to drink first.

Had the wife been sick then? If so, FB had opted to keep it secret, to look shameless rather than ignorant. The southern California teams had mocked him, but he’d kept his wife’s condition on the down low.

“It’s just not talked about,” she said, moving into his arms.

On the field, FB didn’t falter as his fellow Champs crumbled, week after week, all the way into August. Then, during one foggy night game, an outfielder rallied, possibly spurred by the threat of not making the playoffs. With the prospect of a short season hovering like the gray marine layer, the previously scoreless right fielder knocked it over the wall. FB took the plate to hit cleanup, all confidence, the bat over his shoulders yoke-like. He hit into a double play for the third out. A hush settled over the crowd.

At least he didn’t go down looking, but he went 0 for 4 that game while the pitcher threw smoke. FB swung for the stars but didn’t touch the Moon or hills or even the ball. He wasn’t seeing it, not sensing it, not knowing where he was or how to get there.

During FB’s hitting drought, we broke the story on his wife. There was no suppressing it even if we wanted to; she’d been taken to UCSF, the eightieth case of H known to lead to hospitalization. She gave interviews to our paper only, “Grateful for their courageous work on The List.” Lovely even while bedridden, more vulnerable than before, she couldn’t hide the weakness in her voice, her eyes shadowed with dark circles. FB held her hand during the brief press conferences she gave for just our paper’s photographer and me. Her wide-eyed look no doubt entreating us to do the right thing.

Around then he had his third lousy game in a row, after the sports page had called him a “bum” and an “overpaid drought-flouter.” I walked with him to his vintage Camaro with a small crowd of reporters, stayed until they’d cleared out, and told him he was a hero. How could he not be? Given the fight for his wife. His fundraisers helped save water. I especially loved his defending the T.

He looked as weary as a 90-year-old, all defeat until he turned to his Olympic Gold 1969 ride. Then his eyes picked up a gleam off the paint. He unlocked the passenger side, invited me to try the bucket seats.

“No.” I laughed. “Thanks anyway.”

“Sure, just check out the optional Deluxe Interior group, it’s original.”

So I leaned in and he pushed me. Both of his big hands. He turned me over like he was flipping a doll. For a minute I thought he’d follow me down, gouge my cheek with the zipper of his leather jacket, squeeze my left breast as if milking it, ram his right hand under my skirt. I wished I’d worn jeans. Maybe he’d rip into me, his manhood not as meaty as the rest of him, but enough. His breath on my face.

Clavey Falls crashing. Jude’s boat bucking, pitching. Him hanging on. The bear fleeing, hind legs pumping.

I hooked my thumbs into the son of a bitch’s eyes. When he pulled back screaming, I made a dash for it. Behind me his cell phone ringing the theme from Rocky.

I didn’t cover baseball after that. I stuck to the water beat. Every so often I’d hear about FB, that his hitting drought got worse, that he might be traded. Sometimes I’d still catch a bit of the Champs on the radio, but I’d switch them off before he came up in the batting order. Or I’d just listen to American League games, skip the Nationals altogether. The Champs didn’t trade him, but I hear he went down to the minors and never made it back to the bigs. When my editor—now former—asked why I gave up baseball, I told her it’d all be in my memoir, Reaching First Base. In the end no one touched it, because I had to admit when pressed that there was not much to reveal, making it a pretty poor tell-all. FB’s wife penned a bestseller, though, or someone did for her, as she continued to fight for her life. The H with No Name, it was called, referring to the first days of hydrophilia and the code that said don’t talk about it. Rumor was she got even richer from book sales than FB had from baseball, before she passed.

I spent less time up on the T, maybe once a year, as the drought became the new normal, and the river lost the last of its fish run. Bears weren’t seen up there anymore. No more swirl of water in bedrock when the dam was releasing, not even enough water for the remnant pools. Down in the city, we were drinking recycled: tertiary treated sewage. More than 2.5 million people had needed a drink of fresh water, and my river had poured it, but now it was done. Clavey Hole had turned to stone, no falls over it. At least there was no more getting thrashed in there, now that the last boater had run the river at its peak, back in those rare and faded days.

Next Story: The Most Beautiful Voyage in the World, by Jean McNeil

Back to top