Lionel Hammond was the epitome of a cautious craftsman. A power company lineman, working alone in all-but-trackless mountains in the high desert where California meets Nevada, he chocked the wheels of his pickup truck even when it stood on absolutely level ground.
In the middle of the last century, before monitoring by electronic eyes in the sky was possible, men were hired to patrol remote power lines. Some high-tension wires already strode the land on steel scaffolds, but most were still draped less dramatically from old-fashioned tar-drenched timber poles. Constant attention was meant to correct minor problems before they became outages – or public outrages.
Most such men lived close-to-ordinary lives: Outdoors in nasty weather more than most mortals, but spending nights in green-lawned suburban homes with wives and children.
A few, though, patrolled the sparsely populated landscapes across which, even seven decades ago, electricity had to be stretched to power the ever-growing array of hungry devices that hummed and blinked on remote ranches. Those men spent their days and nights in prairie or bog, forest or fen, cavern or canyon, always alone.
A lineman could summon help if a problem were more than he could manage, but he was expected to be strong, resourceful, and self-reliant. He (always he, in those days) might see no other human being from one week to the next. Caution was mandatory.
Lionel seemed born to such solitary work – or self-exiled to it, some thought.
He had a wiry, muscular build well-suited to the job. He was perhaps in his fifties and carried not an ounce of perceptible flab. He trimmed a thin graying beard from time to time with scissors and tamed a ragged gray brush of hair with the same tool. He wore faded blue denim top to bottom, augmented in cold weather by long underwear and a faded-blue down vest that offered some warmth without impeding upper-torso mobility.
He spent his nights in a two-room house of weathered wood with a tarpaper roof that stood halfway up Buzzard’s Canyon. The house – a shack, really; the second room was a shed for tools and cordwood – was perched on a narrow shelf a hundred feet above the canyon floor. He looked down on a ravine carved by a shallow but relentless stream through flanks of granite boulders and gravel barren of anything greener than sagebrush.
I was working for the Lazy T Ranch, which ran cattle on summer range far above the sparse springs that fed Buzzard’s Creek. The High Sierra, to the west across the Owens Valley, was sharply etched by glaciers whose snowy white mantles were constantly renewed by moisture from the Pacific. Those crests trapped the moisture so well that our Inyo-White range, only a few thousand feet lower, was rain-starved, scantily eroded and so more rounded.
The wild grasses up there were sparse, but better feed than the desert valley could offer in the summers. Heat down there rivaled that of Death Valley to our south, so we drove the herd up to the mountain range late each spring.
A century earlier, when the invasion of this land was spurred by a craze for gold, forty-niners had built a log cabin where the Buzzard’s Creek ravine widened a bit, a half a mile up canyon from Lionel Hammond’s shack. Amidst their ultimately fruitless poking into the terrain, they found time to dig and line a narrow, 20-foot-deep well.
The Lazy T Ranch revived that miner’s cabin just in case our peripatetic horseback patrols caught one of us there as night fell. That was rare, so we made scant use of the well. But every day, as late afternoon shaded into evening, Lionel stopped to draw enough water to fill a small keg. He then maneuvered his four-wheel-drive truck up a switchback track to the high shelf he called home.
That shelf was dead level; it was 50 yards from the shack before the rutted track began to jackknife down. Lionel always turned the truck around to be instantly ready for any emergency. He then got out and chocked the wheels – all four – with trapezoidal chunks of solid oak, kicking each smartly to wedge it in.
He carried those misshapen wooden pyramids in the truck, chocking those wheels every place he parked. And more: When he climbed a ladder to a steel tower, he tied the top rung to the tower, the way a cowboy might hogtie a calf, so it couldn’t pitch him over backward. When he climbed a wooden pole on spikes to destroy a bald eagle’s nest lest it short out the high-tension lines, he buckled a stout leather belt around the pole and behind his butt; if a spike splintered loose, he might be mashed against the pole, but would not fall.
“When you work alone,” he told me once, “you don’t leave anything to chance.”
Whether his isolation itself was a precaution against chance did not initially occur to me.
A few of us Lazy T cowboys kept watch on three hundred Hereford and Brahman beef cows and their offspring, spread for miles along that lofty range of thin vegetation. We patrolled, in a sense, just as did Lionel, alone all day watching for problems. But we worked horseback, kept each other company at night in a well-appointed log cabin near the crest, and paid more attention to hungry mountain lions and frail calves than to nesting eagles.
My job included keeping both the mountain bunkhouse and the canyon waystation supplied with victuals from the ranch, a weekly trip. I’d been told about Lionel, so the first time I saw his truck up near his shack, I rode up to try to get to know that self-contained man.
Which was not easy; he didn’t want to talk about himself. He thought discussion of his carefulness was pointless, and the wisdom of those wheel-chocks seemed to him self-evident. I wasn’t clever enough to ask in a conversational way how he could stand the isolation. And we couldn’t talk about national or international affairs, because he paid no attention to those.
He had a small battery-powered AM radio but used it only to get a weather report each morning and evening. He also had a crude radio telephone with which he could at day’s end send a terse report that he was still functioning, and might, when needed, manage a plea for a spare hand.
Otherwise, the civilized world was beyond his orbit.
He didn’t quite live alone. His night-and-day companion was a large German shepherd, with a purebred’s dark muzzle and black back, that traveled with him in the truck and slept on a burlap sack of wild grasses at the foot of his bed. Not a man with a gift for words or poetic imagination, he called his dog Shep. There had been two predecessors, also named Shep.
All his dogs, he told me on my third visit when we had begun to be friends, might instinctively protect him from marauders or wild animals, but were trained to do one thing: tell the power company he was in trouble. “If I say Get help! he’ll hightail to the power company in Big Pine,” Lionel said. “They’ll know why he’s there and will follow him back to me.”
“Big Pine?” I asked. “That’s 15 miles, maybe more!”
“Less, if you don’t have to stick to roads. He’s a big dog. Strong. And he knows the way.”
Lionel didn’t say exactly how that skill was imparted to his dogs but said it took weeks each time, practicing at increasing distances. “I’d show you how smart he is, except I’ve never taught them how to call it off. If I say it to Shep now, he’ll be off in a flash and never look back.”
Although taciturn, Lionel didn’t mind telling me, when I asked, the prosaic basics of his work. And he expressed interest in things like how far our cattle wandered on this arid landscape, and whether we had seen any strangers.
Jack Evans, the ranch manager, thought Lionel was hiding from something. “Just my hunch,” he said, “and none of my business. He was up there when I came to this ranch 18 years ago. He rarely goes to town; never takes a vacation; never gets drunk, as far as I can tell. It’s not natural for a man to sequester himself like that unless he doesn’t want someone to find him.”
Toward the end of that summer, a stranger did indeed show up. I wasn’t aware of it, nor were any of my fellow cowpokes up on summer range. We learned only later that a man dressed in city clothes had been moseying around Big Pine asking if anyone knew a man who resembled a black-and-white photo he showed of a smooth-faced young man with well-barbered blond hair.
It took me a while to catch up with that gossip because I was distracted by the tragedy down in Buzzard’s Canyon. A German shepherd showed up at the Big Pine office of the power company, barking and prancing until some men got into a pickup and followed him. Intent on showing the way, the dog refused to ride, but led them up the canyon to that log cabin, and then to the well.
A veteran lineman named Lionel Hammond, they told the newspapers, had lost his balance drawing water from a century-old well. He fell headfirst to his death and likely drowned. It was hard to know, but they surmised that a few loose stones in that ancient lining had dislodged and thrown him off balance.
He had, as always, chocked the wheels of his pickup. But he hadn’t taken his little keg with him to the wellhead.