Q: Getting permission to live in a cabin on Black Mountain Ranch (in the hills east of Palo Alto) in 1975 must have been pretty exciting for a graduate student with a young family.
A: I was working on a degree in geophysics at Stanford and I wanted to place some instruments on Monte Bello Ridge along the San Andreas Fault. In the process of getting the okay, I found out they needed a caretaker for the summer cabin that used to be owned by George Morell, the publisher who gave the ranch to the university. It was right by the present-day backpack camp. We moved there in January of 1975 and became caretakers for Stanford. I lived there on the ranch with my wife, Julie, and our two children for the next 20 years.
Q: What was life like on Monte Bello Ridge?
A: I’ll probably start crying if I try to tell you. It was the greatest place to live I’ve ever seen in the world. We had a 200-degree view of the Pacific Ocean from a hill nearby. From the radio towers area, we could see San Francisco Bay, Mount Diablo, Mount Tam, and on a really clear day, the Crystal Range above Lake Tahoe. Our nearest human neighbor was a mile and a half away. But we had mountain lions in the front yard once or twice a year. Coyotes singing at night were just part of our lives. Arguably some of the greatest sunrises and sunsets in the world. We had wildflowers all around us in the spring, and actually the wildflowers were better in those days. Stanford was still leasing the land out for grazing, and that helped the wildflowers because cows graze down the grasses in the spring, so you get much more prominent wildflower displays.
Q: The cabin was pretty primitive, right?
A: Very few people in the Bay Area lived under conditions as primitive as we did. We heated strictly with wood. It was a Depression-era shack built as an outbuilding, an add-on to a chicken coop. The wind blew right through the house. We did have electricity, though, because of all the radio facilities on top of the ridge. When we moved in, there was still a big ramshackle barn. People had carried off most of the 19th-century farm implements, but it was still a working horse barn. It still had stalls with the horses’ names carved into the post. And we ran cows. I guess it was while Stanford still had it that we started raising cattle and producing milk and meat. And we continued that even after the Open Space District took over in the late 1970s.
We had tremendous storms with hurricane-force winds. You couldn’t stand up outside. One time the barn roof — many, many tons of ancient corrugated-iron barn roof — lifted right off. Parts of it flew about 100 feet toward Los Altos Hills and landed in the top of an oak tree. We were lucky. The house was just 25 feet from the barn. If the wind had been blowing in a slightly different direction, all of that would have landed on top of us. The winds at the weather stations on top that night were reported to 100 to 120 miles an hour. Sometimes it was bitter cold in the winter, so cold that the ponds would stay frozen for a couple of weeks. Every other year we’d have a significant snowstorm and people would come up cross-country skiing. Summers were hotter than hell, especially in a house with a flat, tar-paper roof. So we lived outdoors in the summer.
Q: You also had some interesting neighbors.
A: Deer paid daily visits, and my kids gave each a name. Bobcats sauntered by occasionally. Rattlesnakes seemed to enjoy life at the ranch too. There were rattlesnakes on the front porch in the spring. Rattlesnakes under the lawn. Rattlesnakes on the back porch. They’re pretty slow and dumb. One morning as I was leaving for work, I saw a red-tailed hawk on the ground in front of me with a gigantic rattlesnake. She had it in her claws in the middle and was squeezing it. She was having a hard time lifting off with it.
Golden eagles would come over from the Hamilton Range in springtime. Julie was home one spring day when she heard a pounding on the door. Here was a middle-aged couple very, very upset. Sort of trembling. They clearly had to talk to someone, and Julie’s very comforting. It turns out they had been coming up the Canyon Trail, and they had seen a doe with two fawns. And then all of a sudden a golden eagle came down out of the sky and grabbed one of the fawns. They can do that, lift off holding a small fawn. But before the eagle could get it together and lift off, the doe attacked. Does with fawns are not to be fiddled with. They’ll attack you with their front hooves and it’s serious. They can kill an eagle with one kick. So the eagle dropped the fawn and took off. But while the doe was chasing the eagle, a coyote ran out of the brush, grabbed the other fawn and ran away with it in its mouth. These people just couldn’t get over it. This was too much nature in the raw for them!
Q: What eventually happened to the cabin?
A: We never had a lease at Black Mountain cabin; we were always month-to-month. In 1995 we had to move for our own reasons, plus our kids were in college by then. And the Open Space District wanted to tear down the cabin. But while we lived there, we tried to be the most trouble-free tenants the world had ever known because we loved living there on Monte Bello Ridge.