By Richard Barker
Special to the Town Crier
Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to be given a tour of the James Reserve by Dr. Jennifer Gee, reserve director. After the tour, she explained that the reserve is named in honor of an extraordinary man named Harry C. James. My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to learn more about him. She was right. He was an extraordinary man.
In 1913, at age 17, Harry left his home in Canada and moved to Los Angeles. Having been inspired by the writings of famed naturalist, John Muir, and deeply drawn to Native American culture, Harry spent his free time hiking and communing with nature. On one such hike he met a kindred spirit who belonged to the Cahuenga (“the hilly place”) tribe. The two young men founded a hiking club, which came to be known as the Trailfinders.
Harry became a prolific writer; some of his books are in the Idyllwild Library, and in his later years he had a column in the Town Crier. His two favorite topics were the importance of spending time in nature, and Native American culture, especially the Hopi and the Cahuilla. He was so well-respected by the Hopi that he was one of only two white men adopted into their tribe; his Hopi name was Walking Bear.
In 1924, he met a schoolteacher named Grace, and they married three years later. With her help, Harry created the Trailfinders School for Boys. It maintained high academic standards (for instance, every boy was required to read the newspaper daily) as well as a strong focus on music appreciation; the school day began by listening intently to classical music.
And of course, there was a huge emphasis on communing with nature. The curriculum included extended field trips, including the Sierra Nevada, the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains, as well as retracing the travels of Lewis and Clark. Classical music was studied during trips to Europe. Summers were spent on Hopi reservations in Arizona.
Harry wanted the Trailfinders to have their own property for hiking and camping. Ideally, the location would be steeped in Native American traditions as well as offer seasonal diversity to ensure a wide variety of camping experiences — and challenges.
Harry found what he was looking for in the idyllic wilderness called Idyllwild. The James’ acquired 29 acres next to Lake Fulmor in 1941. They built a beautiful log cabin and named it Lolomi Lodge, after the Hopi word for “peaceful.” They fell so in love with our mountain that they sold their house in the flatlands and made Lolomi their home, and there they hosted many luminaries over the years, including two U.S. presidents.
Since its inception, the Trailfinders sponsored a Conservation Forum that met several times per year. It included many adult Trailfinders alumni and representatives of other environmental organizations and was dedicated to “preserving our outdoor heritage.” One such meeting in the early 1950s gave birth to America’s first desert conservation organization, the Desert Protective Council, with Harry as president. On the 23rd of this month, it will celebrate 60 years of hugely impactful environmental activism.
In 1966, Harry retired the Trailfinders. Having turned 70, he no longer had the stamina necessary for leading hikes up mountain peaks. That same year, he bequeathed Lolomi Lodge and the whole 29 acres to the University of California Natural Reserve System, although he continued to live there until his death in 1978.
Harry nurtured nearly 40,000 boys during the five decades the Trailfinders existed. It is a testament to his impact on them, that the surviving Trailfinders still hold reunions twice yearly, summers at the James Reserve and winters in Pasadena where they attended the Trailfinders School.
Mark Yardas (founder of the Idyllwild Conversations) and I were lucky enough to be invited to this summer’s reunion, which gave us the opportunity to float the idea of resurrecting the Trailfinders organization to enable hiking and camping opportunities for youth from both on and off the Hill. Dr. Gee and the surviving Trailfinders are enthusiastic about the project. Idyllwild Conversations members will be devoting next month’s meeting to the Trailfinders’ legacy and future.
I think a new generation of Trailfinders would be well served by adhering to Harry’s original precepts. He nurtured self-reliance as well as a healthy self-esteem that arises from such things as taking ownership of a task and doing it well. But he wisely balanced that by also nurturing cooperation and teamwork, as well as empathy not only for other people but all forms of life.
Harry taught the importance of choosing a career you are passionate about, and he exemplified that lesson himself. From a young age, he had a lofty vision, and with passionate determination he made his dream a reality.
His holistic approach aimed to strengthen mind, body and spirit. Recognizing the danger in modern man’s estrangement from nature — a phenomenon Jung described as “Nature has lost her divinity” — Harry taught his boys to emulate the deep connection with nature that is so integral a part of the Native American worldview.
On Trailfinders campouts, Harry would rise early and make breakfast for everyone, and then call out, “All Trailfinders awake! Open your eyes, arise. Become children of light, vigorous, active and joyful! All hearts be glad another day is here.”
Harry was indeed an extraordinary man.