As Wiley Jeb stole away into the moonlit hills of an early autumn night, he didn’t realize that soon enough he’d be face to face with an MSOJ winter. After leaving Ma Elder, Hayfork, and the relative comfort of a mid-century rural civilization behind, Jeb scoured the Trinity Alps and the Marbles looking for the best place to float and soak. Miners saw him soaking upstream from their claims, taking in the peaceable waters before they were muddled and violated by the ravenous machinations of the residual gold fever. During these weeks Jeb and the miners coexisted amicably, but as winter closed in reports of missing supplies, food, and clothing became more frequent. Winters in the MSOJ are not kind affairs: the angular crowd of peaks requires a healthy portion of snow to feed the rivers, creeks, and tributaries that make the area’s holin’ so exquisite.
"Jeb had felt cold before but the beating, subsequent recovery, and his refusal to leave the area knowing Eden was close left him ill-equipped for the winter. Had it not been for an ex-trapper, ex-miner, ex-gambler dubbed Hobblin' Bob, Jeb might have perished that very first year in the mountains."
Hobblin’ Bob had been around the MSOJ for as long as anyone could remember—longer actually, since there was nobody still breathing born before him. Old timers remembered seeing him when they were youngsters: he’d lurch into McGinty’s Dry Goods with beaver pelts stacked on his back nigh to the ceiling. But even mountain men are subject to the wiles of fashion and when beaver pelts went out of style, Hobblin’ Bob too changed his manner of business. Having spent years criss-crossing the mountains, he quickly became one of the area’s prominent prospectors. He had a knack for digging up nuggets and an even greater knack for losing them at the poker table. Hobblin’ Bob was a risk-taker, it was just in his blood. Some claim before he trapped beaver he was a harpooner on a whaling ship, and while that might fit his character he’d have to be the second coming of Moses in order to have lived that long.
When it came to poker, it should be noted, Bob was silent and accepting of his losses: no big show, no claims of being cheated, no duels in the street. He’d fold his cards, bow his head, and when the money ran out he’d get up and exit the saloon, stable as a sequoia no matter how much of William Brown's11DON’T call him Bill! home-cooked hooch he’d taken down. Eventually though the search for gold became too much of a struggle for Bob, with all the most profitable loads picked over. Besides, the hills were awash with dynamite-crazed yokels looking to blow up a plot of land at the tiniest hint of gold flake and ready to draw on a man just for stepping on the wrong side of a creek. It just wasn’t fun any longer. After he quite panning Bob all but disappeared from town. He stopped betting cold turkey and built himself a cabin in a remote part of the mountains, as far away from the madness of the miners as he thought possible.
It was here he discovered Wiley Jeb one late fall afternoon. Bob had been out hunting, hoping to bag himself a deer before the snow set in. He’d fired at but missed a young doe and, astounded by his miss, stumbled in a fog all the way back to his cabin. No more than fifty or so feet from his front door, the sight of a tanned, half-starved hobo in a wool sweater and sandals stumbling out from the back of his cabin snapped him out of that fog in a hurry. “You better stop right there son, or I’ll turn your head into a dropped meat pie.” Bob yelled, raising his gun. Jeb took one look at this ancient bear of a man and promptly ran. Had it not been for the missed deer, Bob might have just let Jeb go. But he knew he was better than that—he was a crack shot!—and just to prove it to himself he raised up and took aim at the cask of wine Jeb intended to make off with.22Nobody said Jeb was a nutritionist. When the wine burst it covered Jeb in a thick red glaze, and Bob sat staring at proto-beatnik Jesus freshly christened in his own sacrament. Fortunately Bob didn’t believe a lick of the scripture, and there were no holy spotlights piercing the veil of clouds to radiantly illuminate this tawny beggar.
“Now, if you would have just stopped when I told you to we could have shared that cask of wine, but I couldn’t bear seeing that whole cask just scamper off into the woods to be enjoyed by some skinny piece of beef jerky.”
Jeb stared at Bob, somewhat vacantly.
“Are you deaf? Got something wrong with you? Why are you out here?”
Jeb, emaciated and nearly dead from hunger, could only manage to get out a few words.
“The holes, the swimming holes,” he sputtered, before collapsing at Bob’s feet.
Once again Jeb found himself subject to the mercy and generosity of a complete stranger—a stranger he’d tried to steal from no less. But Bob had seen his type before, given that Bob was damn near 130 years old. He’d been a whaler, surveyor, trapper, and more. He’d seen the severe ascetics of India, lonely monks in the Carpathian mountains, shamans who could transform into sloths in the jungles of Costa Rica, and Pacific Islanders who wrestled with hammerhead sharks just for the fun of it. He recognized a mystic when saw one, and over the coming winter months he shared his food stores and stories with Jeb. In turn, Jeb told Bob the story of his quest to find swimming hole nirvana.
"And, in a stroke of cosmic benevolence, the fates couldn’t have provided Jeb with a better guide.”
Over the past forty-some-odd years Bob had surveyed this entire region to a degree bordering on the absurd, leaving him with a few ideas as to where Jeb might find good holin’. “Come spring, I’ll take you to some holes that will shake you to your very foundation, such is their natural beauty and serenity.” As it turned out Bob was also well-prepared, with an entire cellar of wine, meat, cheese, etc. On these stores the two lived, feasting their way through winter.