Stuck in the Snow with Tania… On Meeting a Terrorist Group in the Sierras

Patty Hearst, holding an automatic weapon, proudly posed for a photo in front of the seven headed cobra symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army.


I’ve now written about two of three adventures from my 20s when I was hunting and fishing: one about escaping from a lightning storm and the other about searching for a lost friend in a snow storm. Both of them were on the scary side. This tale fits the category of being scary, but it was also strange.

“Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.” —Motto of the Symbionese Liberation Army


The final of our three adventures was more in the nature of a scouting trip. We had driven up into the mountains early in the spring to look for likely fishing holes. Trout season was only a few weeks away. The mountains were still coated with snow. We drove up an ever-narrowing road until a snow bank suggested that further progress was best left up to animals with big furry feet. Stopping fifty feet before the end, we parked and got out to stretch our legs.

We had wandered no more than a few feet when a white van came roaring up behind us and tried to slip by the right side of our car without slowing down. Normally it wouldn’t have been more than an irritation but the narrowness of the road combined with the snow left just enough room for one and one half cars, not two.  We watched in slow motion disbelief as the van barely missed our vehicle, slid into the snow, and became seriously stuck.

“Yes!” we said in unison, there is justice in this world. Right about then the side door of the van opened and disgorged a polyglot group of rough-looking characters. “Whoa,” I mumbled more quietly, “we had better keep our opinions to ourselves.” While two or three of the men bent down to look under the van, a not so rough, in fact an attractive young woman, disentangled herself from the group and came strolling over to where we were standing.

“I am in love,” Hunt mumbled. Bob and I joined the admiration society while an elusive thought began tugging at the back of my mind.

“Hi, guys,” she smiled at us, becoming even lovelier. “Do you have any guns in your car?”

My tiny elusive thought suddenly became a very large insistent nag. Pretty girls don’t normally start conversations by asking whether you are carrying weapons. Hunt, on the other hand, was beaming. He liked guns and girls that liked guns.

“I have a twenty-two along,” he announced proudly.

“Oh,” she replied, apparently a little disappointed at the size of Hunt’s gun. “My friends taught me how to shoot automatic weapons in the Bay Area. We are up here to practice.” It was stated with the same type of pride a new mother might talk about her child’s first steps or words. My large, insistent nag turned in to a three-stage fire alert. What was a pretty girl doing in the mountains hanging out with a scruffy looking group blithely talking about shooting automatic weapons?

Meanwhile Hunt had suggested that he and his new friend take the twenty-two out for a little practice since it was obvious that the van wasn’t going anywhere quickly. I don’t remember how I managed it, but I pulled Hunt and Bob aside sans beauty for a very quick and quiet conversation.

“I am not one hundred percent sure,” I began, “but I think the young woman who likes big guns is Patty Hearst, aka Tania, and that her friends over at the van are members of the SLA. If I am right, we are in a very dangerous situation.”

The SLA, or Symbionese Liberation Army, was one of the more bizarre and misled of the radical groups to be born out of the ferment of the late 60s and early 70s. Viewing itself as an urban guerrilla movement, SLA’s first action of note had been to gun down Dr. Marcus Foster, the black Superintendent of Oakland Schools, and seriously wound his deputy, Robert Blackburn. Blackburn had earlier served as Peace Corps Director of Somalia and then gone on to work for the Philadelphia School System. He had been responsible for recruiting my first wife, Jo Ann, and I as teachers when we left the Peace Corps. It would have been hard to find two people more committed to helping disadvantaged inner city kids in America than Foster and Blackburn.

SLA’s next major public statement was to kidnap Patty Hearst, heiress to the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearse, while she was a student at UC Berkeley. At some point, Patty switched from being an unwilling kidnap victim to willing participant in SLA and adopted the name of Tania, who had been a girlfriend of Che Guevara. The common assumptions were that Hearst was brainwashed or a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response through which a kidnap victim comes to associate with his or her captors. Certainly, the young woman we talked with was proud of her skill with automatic weapons and had the freedom to come over and chat with us. She hardly seemed like an unwilling prisoner.

In 1974 Patty participated in a San Francisco bank robbery and then moved to Los Angeles with the SLA where several members of the group met their death in a fiery confrontation with LA police. Some 400 LAPD officers had surrounded a house occupied by SLA and emptied over 5,000 rounds into the structure. Patty, who wasn’t there, watched the whole confrontation on television. She, along with William and Emily Harris, then fled to Pennsylvania for several months before making their way to Sacramento and another bank robbery.

There was enough connection with Hearst and the SLA that I suggested we go over to the van, smile a lot, and help the nice folks get unstuck— which we did. They drove up to the end of the road, turned around, carefully edged by our car and headed off down the mountain. We waved and smiled vigorously as they disappeared.

Was it Patty Hearst and the SLA? The timing was right, the young woman looked like Patty, and the group could have fit a description of the SLA. I have often pondered the question.  In May of 1975, the SLA robbed a bank in Sacramento (Carmichael) and a young mother, Myrna Opsahl, was shot and killed. Patty Hearst drove the get-a-way vehicle. It was one more sad and sordid event in the history of the SLA. In most ways this group of want-to-be revolutionaries was a group of losers. Their murder of Marcus Foster was regarded with disgust by most members of the radical community. It was their kidnapping of Patty Hearst and, even more so, the fiery shootout in LA that gave the organization status.

As for Hearst, I have no doubt that the Stockholm syndrome played a role in her behavior. But I am also convinced there was more. The atmosphere of the time encouraged radical thinking and Patty, who was something of a rebel, was living in a cauldron of dissent at Berkeley. I suspect it wasn’t all that hard to slip into a role of radical chic.

NEXT BLOG: What to do when an elk attacks: Play ape.

NOTE: I am away backpacking and kayaking. I’ll respond to comments when I return.




The Panamint Range of Death Valley: A Rattlesnake, Flowers, and Very Large Kilns… The Desert Series


Panamint Rattlesnake in Death Valley.

We found this rather handsome fellow on our way up to Wildrose in Death Valley. Check out the shadow! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I crossed over the Panamint Range once on a bicycle. It wasn’t fun. Or let me put it this way, the nine-mile climb up out of Panamint Valley wasn’t fun. It was at the beginning of my 10,000-mile solo trip around the US. I only had seven days of cycling behind me so I was still getting in shape (massive understatement).  Adding to the challenge, I was carrying over 50 pounds of gear, everything I needed to survive six months on the open road.

Standing out of the saddle in my lowest gear, and exerting every bit of muscle power I could, I averaged two miles an hour. And yes, it would have been much easier to get off my bike and push. But I am a stubborn when it comes to things physical. The ride down, on the other hand, was lovely and about 20 times as fast.

Our Toyota Tacoma thought nothing of the climb out of Death Valley to the Emigrant Canyon Road and on to Wildrose Canyon. In fact the pickup loves a challenge and likes to be on the road as much as Peggy and I do. Or maybe I am anthropomorphizing a bit too much here. (And don’t you just love that word, all 18 letters of it.)

We were lollygagging along on the Wildrose road and stopping often to photograph flowers when we passed the rattlesnake. Peggy was driving. “Stop, back up,” I urged. Laughing, Peggy complied. She’s used to my fascination with rattlesnakes. I’ve had dozens of encounters over the years. One of my favorite tricks is to get down on my belly in front of them to take photos as they crawl toward me. Unfortunately, my headshots are usually blurry. Could it be that I am backing up too fast?

Panamint Rattlesnake in the Panamint Mountains, Death valley.

Having determined that we weren’t edible, the large snake went on his way. Isn’t the head magnificent? It shouts pit viper.(Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

This guy was a beauty, a Panamint rattler (Crotalus stephensi), and I would guess almost record size. He was on the driver’s side of the truck so I handed Peggy her camera and she snapped three shots. And then, before I could get out to the truck for some close-ups, she stepped on the gas and we were out of there. Can you imagine that? I whined for an hour.

The flowers soon assuaged my disappointment, however. At our elevation of around 5,000-7,000 feet, they were everywhere. While we were too late to catch flowers blooming in the valley, our trips up to Dante’s View and Wildrose more than made up for it.

Desert flowers in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

I was taken by this old desert road that cut off the main road and was covered with flowers as far as the eye could see.

Hill covered with flowers in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

And how about this hillside?

Prickly poppies growing in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

These prickly poppies were attractive. Petals were tissue paper thin. The red beetle was quite busy.

Death Valley flower.

I don’t know what this striking yellow beauty was. Maybe one of my readers can identify it. (Finally found it in one of my field guides. It’s called Desert Plume and is a member of the mustard family.)

Lupine growing in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

This lupine, however, is an old friend. It is common throughout the west. Peggy is even growing some. What was amazing about this plant was its size. I would say around four feet tall.

Beyond the rattlesnake and the flowers, the highlight of the tour was the ten charcoal kilns built in by the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company in 1877 to prepare charcoal to be used in smelters at its lead-silver mine about 25 miles away. Local pinion pines and junipers were cut down and hauled to the kilns. It took approximately four cords of wood to fill one kiln. After 6-8 days for burning and another 5 days for cooling the charcoal was then transported by an army of jackasses.

Charcoal kilns located in Death Valley.

The kilns, which were used for about three years, have sat quietly for over a century. Navajo Indian stonemasons from Arizona restored the kilns in 1971. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

An interesting aside is that George Hearst was the principal investor in the mining company. His son, William Randolph Hearst, would go on to found the Hearst media empire. And it was his great grand-daughter, Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 70s. Where this is going is that I met Patty and her abductors in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I was up with some friends scouting out streams for trout fishing when a van roared around us and got stuck in a snow bank, which we found rather amusing. A group of folks came tumbled out of the van including a young woman who came over to talk with us while her companions tried to dig out of the snow.

“Do you have any guns in your car?” she asked. “My friends have been teaching me how to shoot automatic weapons in the Bay Area and we are up here for practice today.” That’s when the alarm bells started going off for me. We were talking to Patty Hearst and her ‘friends’ were SLA members. When Patty wandered off to check on the van’s progress, I whispered my concerns to my friends and suggested we help get the van on its way, which is what we did.

But so much for the detour (grin). I was either going to tell you stories about rattlesnakes today or the Patty Hearst. Patty won. Back to the kilns.

Charcoal kiln in Panamint Mountains in Death Valley.

Peggy provides perspective on the size of the kilns that are 25 feet tall.

Back view of charcoal kilns in Death Valley.

Back view of kilns showing window where smoke escaped. You can still smell the smoke inside.

View looking out from inside a charcoal kiln in Death Valley.

View from inside the kiln looking out at the pines.

A final view from Wildrose. What appears to be puffy white clouds on the horizons are the snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A final view from Wildrose. What appears to be puffy white clouds on the horizons are the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains.

NEXT BLOG: What’s a desert without a ghost town, or two. We head off to the old mining town of Rhyolite sitting on the edge of  Death Valley.