Tad Jones lived alone in nature, until nature revolted
He’s 73, with a long, woolly beard, like someone’s version of Father Time. He lives in a hand-built cabin with no electricity or running water, nearly eight miles on a forgotten dirt road in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, one mile from a stream named after a settler. long ago – Waddell – who was killed by a grizzly bear. They call him a hermit, a holy man, the Unabomber. He does not care. On the night of Sunday, August 16, 2020, a heat wave with temperatures well above 100 degrees brings a rolling cloud from the ocean as the old man sleeps under a canopy of redwoods. When the lightning comes, it sizzles and winds, is consumed with the dry earth.
We all start somewhere and end somewhere too. But how did he become here, feed jays and squirrels every day, under the redwoods? His vow of silence, which he made in his early thirties, made him an enigma for others, because silence is one of our great American fears. But still, it didn’t cancel itself. He also has a story, born a middle child, to a mother with dashed artistic ambitions and a father who was a traveling salesman, with two sisters, living in a comfortable Sears Roebuck home in Columbus, Ohio. He enjoyed camping and fishing with his father. He loved animals, rabbits first. Patiently played with her younger sister, Jill. Was seriously ill at one point and likely concussed after hitting a tree with his sled. He went to college and passed out exuberantly. He entered the military in 1967 and was sent to Germany instead of Vietnam, becoming increasingly hated by authority figures and chains of command. His legacy was a growing anger; almost a substance: even now it smolders and ignites.
The next day, Monday August 17, lightning set fire to grasses and brush in the mountains around Big Basin Redwoods State Park. A few miles from these growing fires, saw the old man in the remote enclave of Last Chance, in a ravine below the ridge. He has no plumbing and stores his supplies in plastic drums. Once a month, he hires a car in town, Santa Cruz, to stock up, including 800 pounds of seeds to feed the animals, and to visit Windy, the 43-year-old daughter of a friend he helped raise. Until recently, she had never heard his voice as he took a vow of silence when Jimmy Carter was president, communicating on the board and scribbling on paper. She has never known him except as this wise and constant presence in her life. “The bay area is made up of many microclimates, and the one I live in is particularly pleasant,” he told Windy in one of his letters. “I don’t have the heat of the interior or the fog of the coast. So I will stay here as long as possible. Point fires, left unimpeded, are now growing and starting to converge. In some places there’s 50, 100 years of fuel on the ground. Although there hasn’t been a call for an evacuation yet, you can smell the smoke. The forecast is for more heat and wind.
Alcohol, weed, 60s. Tad Jones, as people use him, lives on a school bus on Sanibel Island in Florida with a girlfriend. After their separation, he lived for a while with his other sister, in her barn. Her skin is turning pale green perhaps from “alcohol mixed with pharmacology,” as Jill says today. But at some point, he gets up and turns into a seeker. He finds yoga, which helps him with his scoliosis, and a guru: Baba Hari Dass, an Indian yoga master whom he follows in California. Like his guru, he gives up everything but essential material possessions – and apparently sex too – and takes a vow of silence. Baba Hari Dass wrote: “He who does not want to own anything owns everything. ”
At first it is difficult for the Jones family to understand this retreat, their blind rejection of American society, but he keeps repeating his mantra: he does not want to inflict his anger on the world. Or his growing paranoia. “How calm he was,” Jill recalls. “If he was outside his kingdom, he was overwhelmed.” He carries a knife for protection; he makes sure to wear neutral clothing so as not to be mistaken for a gang member. He grows his beard until it reaches his knees. He braids and rolls it up often, then unrolls it to the surprise of new acquaintances. He lives inside the trunk of a sequoia, in rhythm with him, in opposition to industrial time, reproducing those happy camping trips with his father. In the 1980s, he moved to Last Chance, a homecoming community fed by cold springs and a barn dance in August. His job here is to integrate with the fauna, to enter the undergrowth, to encode himself in nature. He wrote in a letter that the skunks rub against his legs, without even thinking of spraying.
We could use more contemplation, more introspection. America – we – we could use more silence. As radical as it may sound to withdraw from society, cancel your own voice, and add yourself to the forest floor, it turns out the old man isn’t exactly radical. He loves the group Rush and the movie “The Big Lebowski”. He reads National Geographic, articles about faraway places and these extreme changes in our environment. The wind direction now changes from northwest to northeast, and the fire aligns with the topography, lighting up the humus and branches: more than 43,000 acres are about to burn in a matter of hours.
Windy, who adores her, keeps all of her letters, which are full of advice written in her big, curly handwriting: here’s how to interact with her grandparents, here are the pros and cons of having children. (“[T]the land doesn’t need people anymore, so if you are giving birth you want to give the baby a reasonable chance to be successful. ») He tells her about the Mexican radio station he listens to, with the voice of the woman who sings so beautiful. He makes mildly profane jokes about Donald Trump. He says he placed redwood trunks in ascending order up to a small pet entrance in the cabin so the cat could protect itself from predators. When he has arthritis – his knees, shoulders and hips, walking with two metal canes – he goes into town to see the doctor, to stay with Windy. “The word is, crabs are plump and good,” he wrote to her. “I am including a nice B” – a hundred dollar bill – “to buy dinner”. Guinness beer too. He writes, “Remember I am speaking / speaking now, so don’t be shocked.
After nearly 40 years of silence, the old man starts talking again, initially to communicate with the doctors. It’s 2017, and he still swears like a sailor. Jill, his sister, is talking to him on Windy’s cell phone, and the first words that come out of her mouth are “How do you get this fucking thing to work?” It’s like they never missed a beat: he still has that melodious, perplexed voice, that Midwestern accent. And that hair trigger temperament. As the fire encroaches, that Tuesday he buys food for the town’s animals, then returns to Last Chance. The wind is blowing, stronger now, created by the fire itself, it seems. A community is its own ecosystem – like a forest – linked by impulses, half above ground, half underground. Each person, each cell communicates in a chain. Yet hardly anyone here knows the old man’s last name. The fire joins and rages, from oak to oak, from redwood to redwood. In the fascinating face of it, your own anger isn’t much. Even at 8 p.m., no evacuation order was issued by the state. The residents of Last Chance, more than 100 in all, believe they are safe. It wasn’t until the smoke cleared that the Fire Marshal saw wild flames rising from the ridge, the fine dry matter of the leaves heating up. As the conflagration strikes at Waddell Creek, she takes matters into her own hands, no longer waits for state officials to sound the alarm, and the evacuation plan goes into effect.
Around 9:30 p.m., all but three people are present at the door leading to Last Chance. The old man – the hermit, the holy man, Unabomber – tries to drive the road in his rented minibus, but suddenly fire blocks his way. He turns and backs up, but now more fire is blocking the way back. It is as if the napalm has fallen on the forest, all alight and storming. The firefighters are nowhere to be found. An inhabitant spends the night in a field, fighting rivers of sparks; another goes to a pond in his garden, exhaling from a pipe to escape hell. At 10:30 p.m., Last Chance had almost burned down. In the days that followed, only one person was reported missing.
Later comes the recovery mission. People with chainsaws, a foray to collect what’s left of the house. Many sequoias are still burning inside and will die later. The old man is found – his bones, his ashes – near his two metal canes and the minibus not far from his hut, next to a charred ravine, the burning fire from the windows of the van has evaporated. Jill says there is a way to see her brother’s disappearance as “terrifying” but “glorious”. “A slow, rusty death – that wouldn’t have been good for him,” she said. “It would have been horrible.” After the evacuation of 70,000 people and the loss of nearly 1,500 structures, Tad Jones is the sole victim of what will be called the CZU Lightning Complex in the most endemic fire year California has ever seen. never known. “It burned to the ground where he lived,” says Windy, “the land he loved, the forest he has walked through thousands and thousands of times, and he’s a part of it.”
[Read an article about Tad Jones’s death.]
Michael Paterniti is a contributing writer for the magazine and is working on a book about the discovery of the North Pole.
Correction: December 28, 2020
An earlier version of this article misrepresented Tad Jones’ year of birth. We are in 1946, not in 1949.