Mule Packer, Horseman &
Sierra Wilderness Guide
Memorial Note: Early September in Bishop, there will be
Did you know Dan? Fish with him? Drink with him? Work with him? Live with him? Grow up with him? Go on a pack trip with him?
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Memories of Dan:
Snow this morning. Big soft flakes drifting down, a gentle weight that settles on cars and tree limbs, grass and rooftops, but not as yet on the streets and sidewalks.
Looking out over the old harbor in the historic Stockade District of Schenectady, New York, I see it as a translucent silk curtain stretched between me and the Mohawk River, rippling, falling, always falling, but never reaching its end.
The soft glow of a late November morning presses lazily into my bedroom through broad solarium windows, and as I stretch sleepily, waking, I reach out and touch – for the 10th morning now – the spurs and chaps that hang from the corner-post of a nearby bookshelf.
Ten days since I got back from California, twelve days since Dan died.
The cowboy gear hanging on the corner-post is his, the last solid thing I have of him. Souvenirs of better days from his career as a cowboy and mule packer, the office attire of a working horseman.
And, oh hell, another morning on which he is no longer in the world with me, another morning on which I can’t call and talk to him — ask his advice, tell him the latest joke — or think of him alive and well in his small town way on the other side of the country. Him, just living, doing the things he did, saying the things he said, being himself as he did so well.
Daniel Franklin Farris. My Dad, far as I’m concerned. Our last names are different, yes. It’s because we weren’t actually related by blood. I lived 22 years, growing up in Houston, Texas, before I met him at the pack station where we worked in the summer of 1975.
You’d think by the age of 22 a young man would be long past the need for a father figure, but there was a Dad-shaped hole in my young life, gifted to me by a distant father and a mean-spirited stepfather, and Dan stepped in to fill it.
He pulled me into his orbit, then put up with me for 35 years. But he also taught me. He was my mentor in wilderness lore and my example in life. He was the man who smiled when I stopped by his house, as my father and stepfather never smiled, the one who welcomed me in to dinner or TV or cribbage, or just stories of his packing days. Who offered me his favorite toast on winter evenings by the fire: “Here’s to you and here’s to me, may the best of friends we always be. And if we ever disagree, to Hell with you ... and here’s to me!”
I could show up at his door anytime of the day or night, with two big dogs, and he’d welcome me in. He was an amazing friend — just about the coolest, toughest, soft-heartedest, defiantly individual-est cowboy sonofabuck you could ever hope to know.
His knuckles were misshapen from past wars, he had the marks of human teeth on one wrist from a forgotten bar fight, and his sunburnt forearms were stippled like pale lace with the ten thousand tiny scars of a hard-working outdoorsman. If he was a tomcat, he’d be the crumple-eared, one-eyed, back-alley Balrog, willing to share the cream of life with friends, but also willing – and able – to fight off wolves.
He was legendary even among the local cops. A young officer called to a Mammoth Lakes bar, site of one of Dan’s battles, touched a hand to his pepper spray. Dan looked him in the eye and gave him a solemn warning: “Don’t you do it.” And the officer backed down.
Dan Farris, born March 22, 1934, departed this Earth – too soon, too young, with far too many of his stories left untold – November 6, 2011, aged 77 years. His tombstone would read “The best Old Man ever. ‘I’m a lover, a fighter, a wild horse rider. And somewhat of a poet.’ ”
This is my inheritance: I have his spurs, his dusty leather chaps, two-thirds of a lifetime of memories ...
[ High-country wilderness. Clear blue lakes and intense blue sky. Unforgettable campfire tales mixed with memories of fireside culinary magic done with trout and beef. A million things more — sights and scents and sounds framed in a surround of mountain splendor. ]
... a collection of pictures from bright days gone past, a gallon of shed tears, and a fullness, a completeness, a strength in me that he helped build. I also have this duty laid out before me, this determination: to try to be half the man he was.
I got to see him before he died. Over my four days with him, his last four days, I had the time to tell him how much he meant to me, how he’d always be a part of me, the best part of me. He was there with me as I talked, Dan Farris himself, iron will intact, smiling, listening, looking silently at my face, visibly comforted by my presence, giving my hand one last squeeze — a final touch that will have to last me a lifetime.
He wasn't alone when he died. He had somebody who loved him there, and he knew it:
“I’m here with you, Old Man. The horses and mules are all fed, the pack gear’s all
~Nov. 18, 2011