Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Adventures with Mike on beautiful Bishop’s Peak

Mike Larrabee, an avid hiker and outdoorsman, enjoys a camping trip in the Sierras.
Mike Larrabee, an avid hiker and outdoorsman, enjoys a camping trip in the Sierras.

Since 1971, I have hiked to the top of Bishop’s Peak perhaps 1,200 times. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful mountain in the city of San Luis Obispo. My friend Mike Larrabee agreed with me. For eight years, from 1995 until his death in 2003, we often hiked to the summit on Thursdays at 5 p.m.

Mike had an unending list of stories to tell that reflected the adventure-filled life he shared with his beautiful wife, Margaret. His travels extended to 35 countries around the world. In addition, he was a highly successful runner who once held the world record in the 400-meter run and the 4x400 relay. He won the gold medal in both of those events in the Tokyo Olympics.

I also have traveled extensively and had moderate success as a distance runner during my college years at Johns Hopkins University. My dream of someday running in the Olympics was never fulfilled. Despite this, it was always exciting to hear Mike’s stories about his experiences and those of other athletes he was exposed to.

As we hiked to the summit, Mike showed his respect for the peak by picking up occasional litter and clearing small stones that might interfere with the steps of those who followed him. He always carried a stopwatch. Ever the competitor, at the summit he would announce his time to everyone and compare it to previous performances.

When pancreatic cancer ended his life, I decided an appropriate memorial would be to place a bench in his honor at the summit. Dave Romero, mayor of San Luis Obispo, gave permission for this to occur. I hiked to the summit with a city official to point out the location for this bench and was there to help when the bench was installed. Several of Mike’s hiking friends helped me to cover the cost of this memorial to a special person. It is our sincere hope that the hundreds of people who reach the summit enjoy the vista and share a few moments with Mike.

One year ago, on one of my many hikes on Bishop’s Peak to enjoy the beauty and exchange silent pleasantries with my old friend Mike, a special adventure occurred. You may remember the day, Dec. 21, 2010, when 7 inches of rain fell on San Luis Obispo and its distinctive peak. Wouldn’t it be great to hike to the top and enjoy a wild and exciting experience along the way in the gusty winds and rain?

My old rain gear was pulled out to ensure dryness underneath. As I started up the trail, a young girl a short distance ahead of me turned around and decided to go no farther. As she passed me, I noticed a whimsical smile on her face; “What is this old guy heading upward trying to prove?”

The rain often hit me horizontally and forced me to close my eyes to small slits. Heavy winds pushed trees and their limbs sideways. Still, with a bit of care, it was not difficult to stay on the trail and maintain my balance. The hike ended up being one of the most beautiful nature experiences of my life. The only other person able to share it with me was my dear friend Mike nestled safely at the top.

On a recent Friday, Nov. 11, 2011, I recalled a silent agreement and renewed a yearly ritual that I have only recently begun to describe to my friends and patients. If you have ever been up Bishop’s Peak, you may recall an area a quarter-mile long that begins past the halfway mark on your descent. The trail enters a beautiful forest with dense growth. On the left are grasses and plants that blend upward into boulders and rocky precipices. On the right are many acres of mature oak trees.

For the past 40 years, especially on sunny days, traversing this part of the trail has always reminded me of the cartoon character Bre’r Rabbit from the Uncle Remus stories. Instantly, I envision him in my mind skipping down the trail with a happy smile on his face.

Those of you who share my recollections of Bre’r Rabbit may also remember that he had an unusual way of counting. His favorite high number was “lebenty leben.” As a special tribute to this fine character, I make a point each year of hiking up Bishop’s Peak on Nov. 11.

This year was special because Nov. 11 also occurred in the year 2011. My friend Lars Koch joined me. A moderate rain meant that we had the trail all to ourselves. At the bench we tipped our hats to Mike and then skipped down the trail in search of our rabbit friend. What a wonderful day!

Dr. Donald Smilovitch practices internal medicine in San Luis Obispo.