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The Pine Ridge Association at Henry W. Coe State Park

Eric's Bench

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by Libby Vincent

Parts of me sleep now
while others play
in the woods.

Soon the weary will rest
and the dreamers
will awaken.

When will they both
sing together?

- Eric  (November 10, 1985)

Eric’s Bench sits beside a meadow on top of Pine Ridge in Henry Coe State Park.
The bench was placed there by family and friends as a memorial for Eric David May,
who was killed in a fall on Mt. Shasta in 1988 when he was 26 years old.
. . . . .

Pine Ridge is a special place for many people who know Coe Park well.  It’s the first piece of the park you see from the valley below -- the far, high ridge to the east marked by a spine of ponderosa pines -- and lies just inside the western boundary of the park.  On the eastern flank of Pine Ridge there’s a monument to Henry Coe that was put there by his daughter Sada Coe Robinson when she donated her ranch to California in memory of her father.  The monument is inscribed with the words "May these quiet hills bring peace to the souls of those who are seeking."  On the western flank of Pine Ridge Eric’s Bench sits in dappled sunlight beside the meadow that overlooks Santa Clara Valley.  Barry and Judy Breckling were married on Pine Ridge in 1996, near Eric’s Bench.  Barry has lived at the park for more than twenty years and probably knows it better than anyone else; Pine Ridge is still at the top of his list of favorite places in the park.

To get to Eric’s Bench, you have to walk from the visitor center half a mile or so up the road and the Monument Trail and turn left at the top of the hill.  The elevation here is just over 3,000 feet above sea level so there’s often snow on the ground in winter and early spring, especially in the shaded places and on the north-facing slopes.  The trail leads to a broad, grassy meadow with a sprinkling of ponderosa pines, oaks, and, on the north-facing side, some madrones.  In the spring, the meadow is a carpet of wildflowers -- blue-eyed grass, buttercups, oak violets, lomatium, ground irises, and later in the year evening-blooming soap plant.

When the trail curves to the right, you walk between two tall ponderosas and see Eric’s Bench ahead sitting beneath the gnarled remains of a live oak, an enormous ponderosa that has been topped by powerful winds, and a younger ponderosa with three trunks that looks almost like a gray pine.  The bench is in immaculate condition, faces south, and is inscribed with the words "In memory of Eric David May from his family and friends."  If you kneel and scrape away the grass from around the two concrete foundations of the bench, you’ll see scratched into the left foundation "Dad," "Jon," and the date 4-8-89.  Dad is Dan May, Eric’s father, Jon is Eric’s older brother Jonathan, and the date marks the date the bench was installed, ten years ago.  On the right foundation are simply the initials "FK," for Fred King who was with Eric when he died.

When you sit on Eric’s Bench and look southeast, you can see far off, framed by those two tall ponderosas, Mariposa and Pacheco peaks south of Highway 152.  Other peaks to the south are hidden by trees on Pine Ridge but if you walk forward you can see them, including Santa Ana above the town of Hollister.  You can almost see Monterey Bay and, in certain weather, you can watch the coastal fog stream inland and seep up Santa Clara Valley.  In the valley below, you can almost hear the hum of activity in the towns of Gilroy and Morgan Hill; you can glimpse traffic on Highway 101 but are far removed from its turbulence.  Above Santa Clara Valley and to the west rises the blue density of the tangle of hills between the valley and the ocean.  There’s an enormous, ancient, spreading valley oak a hundred yards west of Eric’s Bench; through it, you can see some spectacular sunsets.

One afternoon a while ago, I took a break from staffing the visitor center and walked up Pine Ridge for a bit of exercise and fresh air.  I walked first to the monument to see if I could see the Sierras then crossed the ridge top to the Monument Trail that leads back down to the visitor center.  There was someone walking down the Monument Trail just below where the trail to Eric’s Bench branches off.  I didn’t know who it was but noticed that he was carrying something in each hand.  As I caught up with this person, I remembered that I had my volunteer uniform on; the uniform sometimes creates distance from visitors so, to break down the barriers, I began chatting to the hiker about what a wonderful place Eric’s Bench was.  The hiker stopped, put down what he was carrying and turned to listen to me as I talked on about Eric being a young man who was killed while mountain climbing with a friend who was a volunteer at the park.  I said that all of us at the park thought Eric’s Bench was a very special place and I added that when I was staffing the visitor center I sent special people here, people I thought would really appreciate the quiet and peace and beauty of the place.  The hiker smiled a small smile, tipped his head a little to one side, and said "I’m Dan May, Eric’s father." Only then did I notice that he was carrying a can of some kind of paint and a brush and some other implements, and realized that he must have been doing some maintenance work on the bench.  We walked on quietly down the hill together and I wiped away some tears.  I felt silly for chattering on about the bench to the person who had been instrumental in putting it there and who loved Eric, and I felt enormously moved that Eric’s father took such good care of his son’s memory.  Later, I wanted to learn more about Eric David May, how he had died, and why his family and friends had chosen to place a bench in his memory on Pine Ridge in Coe Park.

Fred King had backpacked and climbed with Eric for a number of years.  They had climbed Mt. Whitney in 1987, the summer before Eric was killed, and on July 4th, 1988, had hiked to the top of Mt. Shasta.  At 14,162 feet, Shasta is among the monarchs of California mountains, although the three W’s are higher -- Whitney, Williamson, and White mountains.  Shasta is a symmetrical peak, snow-covered year round, and is a distinctive landmark that’s visible from the Trinity Alps to the west, from the Sierra Nevada just below Donner Pass, and from many other places in northern California.  Shasta is a spiritual center for Native Americans.  In a conversation, Dan May, Lynne Birch, Eric’s girlfriend, and I agreed that perhaps, somehow, Eric chose to die there, in that special place.

On that July day in 1988, Fred and Eric were walking back down the trail after summiting Mt. Shasta when Eric slipped on the packed ice on the trail and fell over the edge so suddenly that there was nothing Fred could do.  They were on the north face of Shasta; Eric fell 500 feet to a crevasse near the west headwall of Hotlum Glacier and died, the pathology report later revealed, within minutes if not seconds.  It took Fred nearly an hour to get down to Eric’s body, but there was nothing he could do to help his friend.  He went back to the tent where he and Eric were camped to stay overnight, and hiked out the next day to report the accident and get help.  Fred was quite calm talking about Eric’s death, but it’s now 1999 and he’s had almost eleven years to come to terms with the shock and horror of that day.

Dan and Jonathan May and Lynne Birch and Donna Taniguchi, Fred’s girlfriend (now his wife) drove to Shasta Township to retrieve Eric’s body when the helicopter brought him out from Mt. Shasta.  They brought Eric back to Morgan Hill where family and friends gathered for the funeral service.  Eric had lived in Morgan Hill since 1972 and attended Live Oak High School.  He was an active and creative young man who was a naturalist and a skilled observer of plant and animal life.  He also wrote poetry and played the violin, and was an acolyte at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Eric loved meadows and flowers and the wild hills around the Santa Clara Valley; he once hiked from home to Coe Park through Otis Canyon, Clark Canyon, and Finley Ridge.  He also hiked and backpacked in the Sierras.  He majored in biology at Humbolt University, graduating in June 1987, the year before he died.  Fred King said of Eric, "When he died, the world really lost a friend of the earth."

Dan said that as soon as the family thought of Coe Park, it was the obvious place to put a memorial for Eric.  Dan contacted the park and got in touch with the Pine Ridge Association.  Don Holmes was chair of the board of the Pine Ridge Association at the time; Don and others worked with Eric’s family and friends and the State of California to develop criteria for a memorial and a list of 14 different sites in the park, representing a variety of settings and distances from park headquarters, where a memorial could be placed.  Possible sites included the headquarters parking lot, the entrance parking lot, the Little Fork of Coyote Creek, and several springs -- Arnold, Deerhorn, Grapevine, Brem, and Willow Ridge.

In October 1988, Dan May, Eric’s mother Jane, Jonathan May, Lynne Birch, and Fred King joined Don Holmes and volunteers Leif and Bonnie Larsen on a tour of the park.  It was a long, dusty day, but they took their time to explore each of the fourteen sites on the list of possibilities and also enjoyed lunch by Coit Lake.  Of those fourteen sites, two ended up on the short list.  One site was just below the high point of Middle Ridge on the road that heads down to Deer Horn Spring and the Middle Fork of Coyote Creek, with a view northeast across the canyon to Blue Ridge.  The other was the meadow and sprinkling of ponderosa pines on top of Pine Ridge with spectacular views east, south, and west.  Every season has a personality in that meadow, it was a place Eric would like, and it would be easy for family and friends to be there quietly with thoughts of Eric.  They chose this place to put Eric’s memorial.

Now that they had chosen the perfect place for the memorial, family and friends decided that the best form a memorial for Eric could take would be a bench inscribed in his memory.  They worked with the Pine Ridge Association to establish the Eric David May Memorial Fund, to which people could make contributions toward the cost of the bench.  There were so many contributions that the board of the Pine Ridge Association established a perpetual fund with the extra money which was to be spent on interpretive projects recognizing the Eric David May Memorial Fund.  Dan selected the bench and the carpenter in Santa Cruz who did a beautiful job of carving the inscription on the bench.  Dan, Jonathan, Fred King, and Leif Larsen installed the bench in April 1989.  The bench sits overlooking that meadow today and is as beautiful as it was in 1989.

Dan May has retired and lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, Carrie, and two cats, Tio and Tilly.  Years later, Dan has been able to let go the pain and anger of Eric’s death.  "You live with it," he says.  He still has Eric’s violin, his writing, his poetry.  When you talk to Dan, you begin to understand how gentle, thoughtful, and sensitive Eric must have been.

Eric’s mother, Jane Voigts, is a teacher; she’s now living in Frankfurt, Germany, for a couple of years with her husband.  She wrote an eloquent obituary of Eric that was published in the October 1988 issue of The Ponderosa.  She described, with parental pride, the many achievements of his short life and included the following note Eric had written:  "Hot stuff -- Beethoven piano concerto #4, opus 58 (first movement)."  Jane is touched that the bench keeps Eric’s memory "alive in the hearts and minds of many people...even those who never knew him."  She was delighted when the signpost to the bench was installed on the Monument Trail and the bench was added to the park map.

Eric’s brother, Jonathan, visits the bench and Eric’s grave site regularly.  Jon still feels the loss of the brother he had just begun to develop an adult relationship with, and feels the sadness of Eric’s unfulfilled potential.  Jon is a social worker and lives now in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Jeanne.  Jon said, "It has been a great comfort to our family knowing the bench is enjoyed by visitors and animals of the park."

Fred King joined the volunteer program at Coe Park after Eric died and was active for some years.  He and another volunteer, Dave Sellers, installed peak registers on several of the highest points in the park.  Fred and Donna live in San Jose and stay in touch with Lynne and through her, the May family.

Lynne and Eric had been dating for four and a half years and had moved in together just a month before Eric died.  Lynne’s loss was profound and she still feels it.  She is an architect and now lives in Santa Cruz, running her own business.  She’s in her late thirties, still looks like a young and beautiful graduate student.  The tenth anniversary of Eric’s death in July 1998 was very difficult for Lynne; she and Donna went to Eric’s grave and she broke down the next day.

Eric is buried in the cemetery on Spring Street in Morgan Hill, his grave marked by a simple, elegant piece of marble inscribed by his family.  The cemetery is surrounded by trees -- pines, acacia, and some mimosa in full bloom -- El Toro rising behind them in the waning afternoon light.  A dog barks; some children play across the street; a cool evening breeze stirs the air.  From Eric’s grave, you can look across the valley to the hills Eric loved.  You can see some of Pine Ridge but the grassy meadow area is obscured now by an acacia tree in the cemetery that has grown many feet in the last eleven years.  You can’t see Eric’s Bench from his grave site but you know it’s there, resting quietly in the late afternoon sun on Pine Ridge, bringing peace and consolation to all of us who know that special place.

Copyright © 1999   Libby Vincent

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