August 23, 2022
Over the last several million years, two tectonic plates, one slowly grinding underneath the other, lifted up a huge block of the earth’s crust and tilted it westward. That giant upheaval forged the present-day Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’m most grateful for what those immense tectonic plates accomplished. They provided me, my brother Victor, and occasionally a friend or two, with unforgettable times spent summer after summer in one of the single most beautiful continuous mountain ranges in the United States.
Most often on trails, but occasionally cross country, we encountered crystal-clear lakes, breathtaking waterfalls, lush meadows, dramatic mountain peaks—some as high as 14,000 feet—and awe-inspiring giant Sequoia redwood trees. After a day of hiking in such magnificent surroundings, what a pleasure to let our heavy backpacks drop to the ground, start a small camp fire, and eat a very basic but satisfying meal as day turned to night!
In the summer of 1969, Victor and I were accompanied by Barbara Barclay, an old friend. Barbara was an avid hiker and wonderful company. With her, Victor and I seemed to cover more ground and have more adventures along the way. “If you climb this gorgeous mountain in front of us,” she once proposed, “I have a surprise waiting at the top.” The surprise was a can of smoked oysters and a small bottle of cognac Barbara had carried all the way from home.
Hiking long distances is hard work, and Barbara, Victor, and I were overjoyed whenever a resting place with stunning views presented itself. The pause also gave us a chance to share experiences with other hikers who had stopped to catch their breath.
One day, heading to Mather Pass on the John Muir trail, we met a man with his four kids, ages no more than six to twelve. You could tell immediately that George Smith and his brood—Tyle, Cody, Quade, and Flint—were no ordinary backpackers. They wore basic clothes and carried a minimum of equipment. I had the feeling that Mr. Smith and his sons were not city people vacationing in the mountains, but serious climbers. Confirmation came when we learned that their goal was to climb every 14,000-foot peak in the contiguous United States in one month, and no fewer than three that very day. When we said goodbye to the Smiths, they headed for Mt. Sill, and we for our eventual evening camp site at Paradise Lake. We never expected to see them again.
I stumbled into camp that night, tired but also out of sorts. I had left my water canteen half way down Mather Pass by a stream, and didn’t relish the thought of being like a camel for the rest of the trip. But when we were about to put out the camp fire and crawl into our sleeping bags, I heard a voice in the distance calling, “Telegram for Arnold Steinhardt” over and over, until, to my utter astonishment, the Smith family emerged from the dark with George holding my canteen.
It had taken the Smiths far longer than planned to climb those three 14,000-footers, and, descending the last one, George had spied what looked like my canteen. How thoughtful of the Smiths to go out of their way to deliver it, but now, with their base camp far away, dark had descended. This would not do, so Barbara, Victor, and I invited them for soup and to stay the night. Instantly, George became General Smith and ordered his kids to collect firewood. Like so many billy goats, they scoured the area and soon dragged part of a large dead tree trunk into camp. With soup came stories traded around about our lives and mountain adventures. Then the Smiths set the trunk on fire to keep the increasing cold at bay, and went to sleep curled around it while the three of us guiltily spent the night in our toasty sleeping bags.
The next morning we all had a quick breakfast together before the general and his billy goats set off on another 14.000-foot climb. The unexpected adventure with the Smiths had been so lively and warm hearted that we decided to trade addresses.
That Christmas I received a card from the Climbing Smiths. The photo showed the five of them in a beautiful mountain setting looking confident and happy, as if those surroundings were their true home To this day, I receive a card every Christmas from the Climbing Smiths.
George lived in Denver, and whenever I performed in the city, which was quite often, I’d call him for drinks or dinner. Even when first meeting George, it was hard not to notice that one of his arms was quite short and disfigured, and that only part of his hand still remained. I would not have dared to ask, but over dinner one night George volunteered what had happened to him. Short of his fourth birthday, a neighbor backing his car out of the garage didn’t realize that young George had hopped onto the passenger-side running board. George’s arm, crushed against the protruding garage door, turned into a giant blood blister. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors said he was lucky they were able to save any of his right arm from the shoulder down. Gangrene set in and his thumb and forefinger were amputated. His right hand now looked more like a claw than a hand. He was left with a withered arm, three dwarfed semi-stiff fingers, and an elbow frozen at a right angle. George looked up at me after describing this ghastly accident, and, instead of seeming downcast, he proceeded to tell of the remarkable and inspirational life he had led after the accident.
Late in life, George, aided by his sons, wrote a memoir called The Bark of the Cony: Not If, But How, A Philosophy of Life. In it, he wrote:
What I gained from my upbringing was the desire to pull my own weight and the self confidence that I could. I became determined to do as well as anyone with two arms. I actually resented someone offering help or assistance when I sensed it was done out of pity. I needed to figure out my own way to do something in order to keep up with the others, and with time and experiment, I learned how to compete equally. That so called “handicap” became a driving force within me that would change how I would lead my life and consequently affect the lives of many others. . . .
He ended with:
Everyone has a handicap of some sort, some you can see and some you can’t.
If this statement seems like an expression of George’s philosophy of life, it certainly was. He produced dozens of such sayings over his lifetime. George called them “Thought Cards”. Here are a few:
I don’t know where I’m going but I’m a lot further than I was.
Not if, but how.
Do your best to do your best.
The thing that makes us the same is that we’re all different.
Take my advice and do whatever you want.
If I had to do it it over again I would do it over again.
Laughter sounds the same no matter what the language.
George would occasionally come to my performances when I played in Denver, but I had no idea that we shared a musical connection. After one such concert, George disclosed that he had built a dance hall behind his house decades earlier, and that he called square dances with live music regularly. One year before his death, George was still calling every week.
Two years ago, George’s son Cody wrote to say that his father, now severely ill, had asked to see me. On a Zoom call, I spoke with George—older but still standing tall—and his four sons, who by some miracle had changed from kids to men in their sixties. George and I reminisced with affection about our friendship, which had begun innocently enough with a water canteen and was now fifty years old.
George Nash Smith passed away on October 22, 2020, at the age of 92.
Not if, but how.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!