Editor Trapped, Billy Epps to the Rescue

Frontloader on Pearl St. in Downieville, clearing a bit of snow for the residents

This past Friday evening The Mountain Messenger’s editor, not feeling particularly well after a sleep-deprived week, drove up Saddleback Road, just west of Downieville, to his “little cabin in the woods.” On the way, he encountered his neighbor who was driving into town and he learned a couple of feet of snow was expected to arrive over Saturday and Sunday.

No problem, the editor figured, we’ll just have to make a track through the snow tomorrow or Sunday.

Bad figuring, but it took until Sunday morning before this became clear. The sky had dumped close to two feet of new, very wet and heavy snow on top of the foot already accumulated on the ground when the sun set on Saturday night.

Damn, he thought. The only way out of here will be to walk.

While this necessity soaked in, Governor Newsom came on the radio to tell Californians about a set of directives. People who are over 65-years-old and those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing health issues were being told to self-isolate themselves for protection against Corvid-19.

OK, being 71 and a non-filtered cigarette smoker for over 50 years, a person who has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your editor was in a perfect position to comply with Newsom’s order. It would be hard to imagine a better place to “self-distance” oneself than his off-grid “little cabin in the woods.”

Still, he thought, angrily, having a phone the way he did before AT&T cut off DigitalPath’s excellent service at the knees a few years ago would sure be nice. Before leaving town on Friday he’s followed the protocol he’d established with his daughter, texting her to say he was “heading up the hill” and he would call her on Saturday.

Having failed to follow through on this promise, he knew she would be worried when Sunday passed by without his call. But, what could he do except try to reach town on Monday? So, after packing his backpack with clothes and steeling himself for an early start to his walk to town, he was in bed shortly after dark to get as much rest as possible for what he knew would be an exhausting journey.

Unfortunately, unlike what he had expected, what looked like another foot of new snow had arrived overnight. He had to climb up from his porch to start his trek. But, leaving there and stepping onto the fresh snow, his foot vanished into snow up to his upper thigh. And, this was in the area he’d tramped down the day before while collecting fuel from his wood shed. Once he’d passed this site, the going really became bad. Then, within about a hundred yards from his cabin, loaded down with a backpack and a daypack containing his laptop, he encountered an oak tree blocking his 0.2-mile “driveway” to Saddleback.

Discouraged, he retreated to the cabin for tools needed to clear a path through the mess of branches on the road. Once this work was done, he left the cumbersome packs behind and attempted to reach Saddleback with the lighter load. He gave up quickly, though. The “Sierra cement” was simply too difficult to negotiate. 

The next day, Tuesday, began very badly. When he left his bed and started downstairs to make coffee, he looked outside and saw the trunk of a cedar tree had fallen across the brow of his wood shed. Inspecting the situation, he found the structure had survived the blow (he still doesn’t know how), got one of his chainsaws going, and removed some of the branches weighing down the structure.

But, with supplies dwindling and having exhausted his supplies of cigarettes, your editor decided maybe, just maybe, the pair of cross-country skis he’s been given last month by a friend in Goodyear’s Bar might save the day. Yes, his days of downhill skiing had ended decades ago and, no, he’d never done any cross-country skiing. But, there was a paper to produce by Wednesday and people who were out there worrying about him. It was time to, at least, attempt escaping his trap via the skis.

Well, he did try. But, after taking close to half an hour covering the distance to Saddleback, his skis dove into the snow, his body followed immediately thereafter, and one of his skis came off his boots. Clearly, with two and a half miles ahead of him, this method of freeing himself was not going to work out well. Visions of ending up off the road, down in the ravine, or Rosasco Creek canceled out his wishful thoughts. Worse, it took him over an hour to make the short trip back to the cabin, where completely exhausted, he prepared himself one of his last cans of chicken noodle soup and ate plenty of saltine crackers. 

Tomorrow, he thought, I’ll have no choice. Walking out, as difficult and as dangerous as it might be to his health, was the only option. Just go slowly, don’t get overheated, and make perseverance your mantra.

All Tuesday night he slept fitfully, dreaming about the wording of stories he wanted to appear in the paper. Then, shortly, after he’d awakened, he heard the sound of an engine. Jumping out of his warm bed, he looked out the window and saw a light coming up the driveway. Huzzah, he thought, it must be Billy Epps coming to the rescue.

Indeed, it was Billy. He’d been up the driveway once before, back in 2008, the first time he had been assigned to clear Saddleback. Back in the days when he smoked cigarettes and came up to bum a couple from a fellow smoker. So, the first words out of your editor’s mouth were, “Have you got any cigarettes?”

“No,” he said, “I stopped smoking years ago.”

“Well, no matter, come on in and have a cup of coffee,” your editor called out.

Soon, Billy and an incredibly relieved, nascent editor of The Mountain Messenger were traveling slowly but steadily down the twists and turns of Saddleback Road. The time was nigh for contacting an extremely worried daughter and for getting this newspaper out into the world.

As it turned out, the wonderful team of people assembled over the past couple of months hadn’t been idle while the editor was missing. Nick Spano and Kelly Staab, in particular, had already put together almost all of a six-page edition, including Tessa Jackson’s weekly sports column, Cory Petermans’ latest account of the Romargi’s roadhouse, and Katie O’Hara Kelly’s “North Yuba Naturalist” column. Jan Hamilton plus Logan Kinnear were, respectively, typing up the “50 Years Ago” and “Recollections of an Outdoorsman” articles.

There were many moments, up on the hill, alone, when I feared the paper’s 166-year record of continuous, weekly publications would come to an end under the latest editor’s watch. It didn’t happen because a community of people saved the day. Isn’t this also exactly what we need to occur while facing the global threat of CORVID-19?

5 thoughts on “Editor Trapped, Billy Epps to the Rescue”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed article about Editor being trapped. This is what a small town newspaper should be all about

  2. As we are getting our first Fall rain of any significance here in Sonora, I enjoyed reading your story from last Winter, early Spring. Reminded me of life above Sonora when we lived in Strawberry. But I’m so happy I was much younger (before kids), back then to deal with it. Glad to see you have a team to help you with the paper. And time to get more soup for the winter coming – I hope. We need the water.

Leave a Reply