On Life, Death, and Respect

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[Nyerges has led wilderness trips into the forest for over 40 years. He is the author of “Enter the Forest,” “Extreme Simplicity,” “”How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

Many years ago, I met a man named Charlie Locke who was a live-in caretaker for the Angeles Forest Service at a camp called Oakwilde. Oakwilde is about a five mile walk from the closest road.

I met him when I was leading a hiking class through Pasadena City College, taking the class down the old CCC road from the Angeles Crest Highway, into the Arroyo Seco, to Oakwilde. Little did I know that the trail was washed out, and half the class turned back. The rest of us hiked right down the ridgeline into the camp and there we met Charlie, living there with his many tents and many dogs. Charlie was your stereo-typical hermit mountain man, living the good life naturally and rustically.

We all enjoyed meeting this mountain man and talking with him about his viewpoints on life, gold-panning, Irish coffee, and many other topics.

I’d visit Charlie a few times over the next few years before he had a medical emergency and had to be airlifted out of the campsite, never to return.

Charlie told me that one day in his remote part of the canyon, an angry man with a dog came by and told Charlie that he was sick of life and that he was going to kill himself. The man climbed up a nearby cliff where he informed Charlie he was going to jump. Charlie told me that he had to think quickly.

“What about your dog?” yelled Charlie. “Who’s going to take care of Sampson?” The man responded that he was going to kill himself, not responding to Charlie.

“And are you just going to jump right there?” Charlie demanded. “You mean to tell me that you’re going to hit those rocks and let me or someone else clean up the mess?” Charlie acted as if he was angry. The man still seemed angry but seemed to be thinking about it.

“That’s not very considerate,” said Charlie. “I mean, if you’re going to kill yourself, you should at least get a home for your dog, and figure out how to do it so it doesn’t inconvenience other people.” The man remained on the cliff.

“I really don’t want you to jump,” continued Charlie. “I don’t have the time or energy to clean up your body and then go get the police or sheriff and then find your family. I mean, I’ve got to repair my tent, and I need to clean out the fire pits for the weekend hiker, and the rangers want me to keep the outhouse cleaned up for the hikers.” He was silent for a bit.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Charlie. “You can go ahead and kill yourself, but just not today. Why don’t you give me a hand with my chores, and when we’re done, I’ll make us some soup and potatoes and we can talk about it. What do you say?”

Charlie says that the man slowly came off the cliff, and then he followed Charlie back to the camp a short distance away. Charlie began by giving him a tool to cut down some of the tall wild grasses around the camp that were potential fire hazards. When the man was done, Charlie gave him another task.

Charlie told me that they had a very satisfying dinner, and neither brought up the suicide attempt again. The man stayed with Charlie a few days, helping out with chores, before he disappeared back down the trail and into the city.

“You see,” said Charlie, “perhaps all the man needed was someone to listen to him, and to make him feel important, that his life meant something. I didn’t do anything special, just treated him like everyone ought to be treated.”