Wandering Alpine County’s peaks and valleys

Judy Farnsworth hikes through the Sierra near Reynolds and Hawkins peaks.

Judy Farnsworth hikes through the Sierra near Reynolds and Hawkins peaks.

The smell of rich, warm broth filled the air. Nepheles Restaurant was small, charming, and particularly known for their succulent, flavorful gourmet chowders. Judy Farnsworth dipped in the great ladle to serve a piping hot bowl to the gentleman next to her.

He looked into her magical blue eyes. “You are standing on my foot,” he said. “Oh, sorry!” Judy smiled and stepped back. This was the start of a life-long love affair. Dean McKinley and Judy were inseparable from this moment forward.

They could not have been more different, so rather than puzzle pieces that fit perfectly together, they were more like a mysterious two sided puzzle, cut of the same shape, but exactly opposite and unto themselves. Dean was gregarious, social, and known locally as the “Mayor of Markleeville.” You could usually find him, elucidating on issues both large and small, in the streets of downtown Markleeville. He was always looking to create an “informed citizenry.”

A farm girl, Judy was raised not only by her father and mother, but by her grandmother and great grandmother on a rural piece of land in Michigan. They were rooted to the earth, working outside all the time. This molded the young Judy into a person of integrity and connection. It was as if the sumptuous earth and the luminous sky were her siblings, making her grounded and kind.

She was intensely shy, preferring to float in her own private translucent bubble above the landscape with its hustle-bustle of people and events. I can picture her observing the world from the safety of this space. It is how she became a “true wanderer” of the eternal mountains and valleys of Alpine County. They are a marvel to explore, and that is what Judy has done every day of her life. She appreciates finding the unexpected in the natural environment.

When I first met her, I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. It was not merely because of her fine and delicate features, but because of a certain quality she exuded. It was as though she had grabbed a handful of clouds, and another of the lush green soil and held them, silently contemplating their existence. She was filled with a sense of wonder for everything around her.

“The Tamarack Fire burnt out many of the ravines and crevices that you could never get into before,” says Judy, “Now I go to these places and see the life coming back. There are flickers, new bugs, and the bushes are starting to bud.” Judy is able to be still and truly listen. “I love the sounds all around me: of the river flowing and the wind in the trees.”

When Judy and Dean became an instant family, this included his two children, Shawna and Jason. The family lived in the “Bett’s place” and the kids attended Diamond Valley School. Judy had been trained in how to make a home, and was well-suited to do the cooking, cleaning, and she watched over all of them. Their little house was filled with love.

Just as her ancestors would piece together a quilt out of tiny scraps of fabric, Judy has created her life out of a million hand-sewn pieces to make something extraordinary. It is challenging to make a living in the wilderness. Each decade carries its own possibilities and hardships. Today, Judy runs her own business, researching real estate titles, but the variety of her skills and the unusual opportunities that have appeared before her have given her work life depth and complexity.

Judy had been trained by a friend from her church to be a dental assistant when she was only 13 years old. She went to business college to increase her skills when she moved out to San Diego, but did not stay there long. She missed the seasons, so settled in Lake Tahoe.

Over the years in Markleeville, she waitressed at the Toll Station, was a short order cook at Hope Valley Resort, cleaned houses, and was a caregiver for two longtime Alpine residents who were suffering from serious illnesses. She maintained irrigation ditches for the families that own them in both Hope Valley and Markleeville.

“I hung out with ‘bird people,’” Judy said, “and knew their areas, so got a job doing the bird inventory in Utah, Arizona, and here at Grover’s Hot Springs.” She worked at the Park doing an interpretive program on birds of prey in the evenings, and Junior Rangers during the day. When a 130 year old land survey needed to be redone, Judy hiked out into these little traveled lands, not only re-surveying, but remounting markers and restoring pinnacle stones.

For a period of time, Judy and Dean were caretakers and worked at a well-known restaurant that was housed in what is now the Mad Dog Cafe. They ran a food co-op out of the historic stone structure next to it. They spent many years living at their mining claim up on Burnside Lake Road. It was an era when Judy would run up Hawkins Peak regularly. She has always been tough and gentle at the same time. That speaks to her rootedness in the natural world and reflects both those qualities. For decades she rode her horse “Paint,” out in the mountains, and had cows and donkeys too.

Dean shuffled off this mortal coil on Dec. 31, 2011, while on vacation, sitting on a beach in Ecuador. Judy has soldiered on without him since then. She has a personal relationship with the lands of Alpine County that is both intimate and intense. It has kept her here for her entire life, sustaining and comforting her.

Alpine County is a place where nature still reigns supreme, where there are no cement sidewalks. Just like Judy, this section of the earth has been left in its wild state, untarnished and unaffected by the constructs of civilization. The specific regions that have no parking lots, no buildings, and no technology are the spots where Judy is the happiest and can be who she really is.


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