With over 4,000 ex-students, sometimes I struggle remembering who was in what class. Stepan Hovenesian asked me in Yosemite if I would forget him. I laughed and said that I was sure I wouldn’t if he did something remarkable or awful, otherwise, I was not so sure. Although, every Biodesign Class was remarkable, some had experiences that called for extraordinary courage and resilience. When the news of Kristy Nelson’s passing arrived, I was trying to place her in the right class. I knew that she went “way back” but couldn’t pin down the year. After posting the announcement about her on Fb, an astounding number of responses poured in. Immediately, I saw a pattern of many members of the class of ’75. A quick check with my niece, Jennifer Mensch, confirmed my hunch that Kristy was in that class.
Oh my goodness, a flood of joy/sorrow; good, bad and ugly memories washed over me. The Class of ’75 was the second year of Biodesign, a class that was still called Bio-X as in experimental. Lettie Hudak planted a seed and a few adventurous kids wanted to “reinvent” the advanced biology program at St. Helena High School, and that was pretty much it. I only had sketchy plans that involved taking students to Yosemite and the Mendocino Coast to check out the biology in the respective areas. Looking back, I shudder over how naïve and foolish I was. The first trip to Yosemite was in the spring and the trails were still covered in snow. The next year (‘75) we decided to go in the fall in order to hike into John Muir’s back country. We were scheduled to drive to Yosemite on Thursday, hike on Friday and Saturday and return home on Sunday. I bought a USGS “topo” map of the Yosemite area and planned to hike to the top of El Capitan.
We started at the Foresta Trailhead. The hike winds uphill 3,000 feet to the top of El Capitan, 4 miles along the upper cliffs, and 4 miles down the steep Yosemite Falls Trail. The overall distance was about 19 miles and we were woefully unprepared. Four miles up the trail we realized that some students would not be able to make the trek. Dr. J.C. Pickett was along and he agreed to lead a small group several miles out to Hwy 120 where they hoped to hitch a ride back our Valley campsite. Half way up the El Capitan Trail we realized we were in for a huge challenge. Most of us were not in great physical shape; we didn’t pack enough water, and I had never heard of “moleskin.” Some students were developing blisters on their feet. We reached the summit of El Capitan around 3:00 PM , which was only about the half-way point. By the time we reached the top of the Yosemite Falls Trail it was dark. We didn’t anticipate this and failed to bring flashlights. Therefore, we had to grope and stumble our way down 4 miles of mostly switchbacks. It was about 7:00 PM when we limped back to our Valley campsite. Some were too tired to eat and went straight to bed.
The next morning, some of our hikers, looked a bit like George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. They could barely walk, due to blisters or achy bodies and some of the blisters had ruptured and socks were oozing with blood. Fortunately, I had a first aide kit and Dr. Picket got busy cleaning and dressing wounded feet. Amazingly, they laughed and playfully moaned and groaned as they struggled to walk. I did not find the situation humorous. Instead, I kept hearing lawyers in my mind asking if it was my intention to wound or maim innocent students. As a medical doctor, and parent of one of the hikers, Dr. Picket exercised extreme compassion by not exclaiming how reckless and ignorant I had been.
We spent Saturday hobbling around like we had been through a war. We unceremoniously returned home Sunday and I realized that I had much to learn physically, mentally and logistically.
Surprisingly, I didn’t hear from any parents, school administrators or lawyers. 😉
Over the years I have met students from the class of ’75 and instead of bashing me, they said that after that ordeal, they were able to cope with many of life’s challenges.
Eventually, the Class adopted a poem by R.L. Sharp:
“Isn’t it strange
That princes and kings,
And clowns that caper
In sawdust rings,
And common people
Like you and me
Are builders for eternity?
Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass,
A book of rules,
And each must make,
Ere life is flown,
Or a stepping stone.”
From the stories I have heard and read about Kristy, she went on to live an exceptional life as a wife, Mom and school secretary. She converted many, many stumbling blocks into stepping stones and was part of an extraordinary group of students who had a profound impact on my life.