Soon after I became pastor of ABC, Viola McLain began attending. A few months later she approached me about being baptized, and I had some classes for her in preparation. There were two things a bit unusual about this. First, Viola was 72 years old, and I have not baptized a person that old before or since. Second, she wanted to keep her membership in the church where her parents had raised her, and so she never formally joined ABC.
Some time after Viola’s baptism, I learned that she had a husband who had never attended services with her, so I arranged to visit him and get acquainted. That turned out to be one of the most delightful visits of my pastoral ministry. Donald McLain was 96, quite a few years older than his wife. He was full of stories, and once he started, there was no stopping him. Viola and I just sat and listened.
Born in 1887 into a poor and troubled Detroit family, Donald ran away when he was twelve. He hitched a ride on a freight train and followed the advice “Go west, young man.” He heard about the Klondike Gold Rush and made his way to the frigid Yukon River, but the gold had run out and prospectors had begun drifting back to the States. The teen-aged Donald worked at odd jobs as he drifted south along the Pacific Coast. He was attracted to the mountain ranges and learned how to find enough food and shelter to survive there. He also developed a skill at finding his way where there were no trails and few visible landmarks, and this led him, in his twenties, to become a guide and ultimately a wilderness surveyor. He gained enough of a reputation over the years that during his late thirties he was hired to be part of a National Geographic expedition surveying and mapping the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, including newly excavated Mayan ruins.
By this time, Donald McLain was a respected mountain man, and he was hired by the United States Forest Service to be a ranger. For some time, he was stationed at Henniger Flats, above Altadena. He became an expert on the entire San Gabriel Mountain Range, and he was responsible for revising and updating Forest Service maps of the area. He told me that he named Kratka Ridge after “Dear Miss Alice Kratka,”* and I’ve been able to document this in an on-line search. I also discovered that he named “Mt. Lukens,” just above La Canada, which is the highest point within the Los Angeles City borders. I discovered a 1970 Sierra Club report, entitled “100 Peaks Lookout,” and I’ll print below an excerpt about Donald McLain’s role in a conflict about this mountain’s name.**
It was at Henniger Flats that Donald met Viola. She was an elementary school teacher in Pasadena, and she and another teacher took a group of children on an energetic nature hike up to Henniger Flats. The weathered, somewhat wild-looking ranger gave them a tour and explained about the geology and the wildlife of the area. The kids were in awe of the mountain man, and so was the single, young school teacher. During the lunch break, Viola whispered something to her friend, who went over to McLain , and . . . Well, here’s how he told it:
“So this other lady comes over and says, ‘Mr. McLain my friend was wonderin’ what you’d require in a wife.’ I says to her, ‘Well, first of all, she’d have to chew leather to make my buckskin.'”
There was a pause, so I asked him, “Does Mrs. McLain still chew leather to make your buckskin?” He answered without hesitation, “Naw, she just chews my ear.” He had a twinkle in his eye when he said it. I looked over at her and saw the same twinkle. I thought it was great that this old couple could still twinkle together.
Well, they were married. Donald quit the Forest Service, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to re-enter mainstream society. He took a job managing a blue fox ranch on an island in Puget Sound, where the climate was ideal for the development of quality fox pelts to make fur coats. They were alone on the island, except for a visit by a supply boat every three months. For the first three years of their marriage, their mutual twinkle sustained them.
I decided to write about Donald and Viola because I think fascinating lives should be remembered. Everybody’s got a story, but most people don’t get to tell their story in such a memorable way. However, don’t you believe that God knows and remembers every little detail of every little life? Isn’t that what’s meant by our familiar gospel song, paraphrasing a teaching of Jesus: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me”? Each human person is created uniquely in God’s image, and I think God has every little incident in every little life stored away of his infinite memory bank.
I’ll bet God could tell quite a story about “Dear Miss Alice Kratka.”
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*Kratka Ridge is in a ski region, near Wrightwood in the East San Gabriels. It was renamed “Snowcrest” to attract skiers, but since a 2001 fire destroyed the lift operation, “Kratka Ridge” is again the familiar way of referring to the elevated area.
**I discovered a 1970 Sierra Club report on a debate over naming the mountain. For years locals had called it “Sister Elsie Peak,” after a nun who had worked with Native American orphans at a local benevolent society. When drawing a new map of the West San Gabriels, McLain had unilaterally renamed it “Mount Lukens,” in honor of a former mayor of Pasadena who had done a lot to reforest the foothills. The article concludes: “When recently asked about the matter, McLain replied somewhat as follows: ‘What did Sister Elsie ever do for the mountains? Lukens was more deserving.'” Sounds like vintage Donald McLain. You can read about this at http://www.hundredpeaks.org/lookouts/1970_03.pdf., on page 3.