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Life at the Top

California and the West

Palm Springs' Mountain Bob Aids Curious Tourists, Stranded Hikers

February 07, 1999|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALM SPRINGS — Before Mountain Bob joined the workaday world, he was a local legend.

He climbed like a bighorn sheep. He kept coming to the aid of lost hikers. And he lived alone in a cabin he built by himself high in Tahquitz Canyon, a spot most people need a helicopter to visit.

Soon, Bob Hepburn could not make his weekly trek down to a grocery store in this resort and retirement hub without people pointing at him and whispering "Mountain Bob."

But last month, Palm Springs' fabled loner came down from the mountain, donned a crisp khaki uniform and started giving nature talks to tourists at three canyons owned by the Agua Caliente Indians. He's now Tribal Ranger Mountain Bob--at least for a 10-hour workday, until he scales the granite cliffs to his cabin three miles away.

"My love of nature and wanting to protect the canyons is innate," said Hepburn, a blue-eyed 49-year-old with a silvery, trimmed beard. "Being a ranger brings it all together."

He ditched civilization and the pressures of life in the flatlands 15 years ago, he said, so he could follow his passion of interpreting the Bible from ancient languages. If there is more to the story of why a man chooses the loneliest of lives in the most rugged of landscapes, Hepburn isn't telling. He grew up in Reseda, served in the Marines in Vietnam and then held jobs as a salesman while studying languages. He has never married.

"It takes so much time just to support yourself," he said. "So I came up with this plan of living in the wilderness."

He has gone from sitting alone in the woods studying Greek, Latin and Sahidic Coptic to explaining the medicinal value of the Santa Yerba bush to 40 sightseers. Luckily, Hepburn is a hermit with good people skills. He laughs easily and heartily. He comes from a family known for engagement in the world: One brother is president of the police union in Los Angeles, and a grandfather was the national leader of the Salvation Army.

Dave Hepburn, head of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, runs, works out regularly and backpacks. He expected to visit his brother's tiny, one-room cabin with little problem, but describes the climb as "one of the most horrible experiences of my life" and vows never to do it again.

"I pictured walking up a dirt path, but you lose the path a quarter of the way up and you're climbing from rock to rock. You cross a river, and the going keeps getting steeper and steeper until you're crawling up with your hands and feet," Dave Hepburn said.

"And there's my brother, who's more of a mountain goat than a human, telling me, 'C'mon it's just over the next ridge.' It took us five hours."

Palm Springs City Councilman Ron Oden visited Hepburn's tarp-roofed cabin--by helicopter. From the air, Oden said, the cabin was almost invisible amid cliffs, marked only by a small clearing and an American flag. Oden brought a Domino's pizza, the only thing Hepburn has ever had flown in.

Hepburn said he carried every piece of the cabin structure, every biblical reference book, soup tins, water bottles, his guitar, even a mattress and dresser, on his back.

He cooks macaroni and cheese over an open flame, and roasts a turkey on Thanksgiving. He has a kerosene lamp and a battery-operated radio. He uses a cave as a study room. He bathes in a nearby stream.

"That's one thing I've never gotten used to: 42-degree water," Hepburn said.

Even at night, he easily navigates a trail that most people cannot climb in daylight. Last week, he sprinted through darkness back to his cabin to call for help on his ranger walkie-talkie after he discovered two teenagers stuck on a cliff, one of dozens of rescues in which he has played a part. The Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue squad lists the area among the most dangerous in the country.

Most of Tahquitz Canyon belongs to the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, but checkerboard parcels at high elevations are in private hands. Because they were considered so inaccessible, Hepburn was able to buy 15 acres at bargain prices over time, including a spot with a waterfall, his childhood dream. Stints as a handyman in town helped cover the bills.

The fight against graffiti and litter united Hepburn with his Agua Caliente neighbors. Last year, the tribe began a major cleanup, evicting trespassers. Hepburn empathized because he had just kicked a homeless couple off one of his properties.

"Can you imagine saying to two people: "I'm sorry, you'll have to move. I just bought your cave," Hepburn said. "But, I did. They had no respect for the land."

Instead of taking another handyman job, Hepburn joined the tribe's canyon cleanup crew last summer. Tribal officials say that he was soon promoted to ranger--more for his way with people than for his mountaineering know-how.

"It was because he's personable. He likes to tell stories and do research," said James Taylor, tribal ranger director. "That he lives in Tahquitz is just a bonus."

In his tours, Hepburn rattles off the names of chemicals in desert plants--such as nordihydroguaiaretic acid found in creosote--with the same delight he takes in deciphering ancient languages. Hepburn never went to college and said he learned Greek through a mail-order course while he was stationed at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms.

The book he's been writing for 14 years, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ: An Exegetical and Manual Commentary," is still a work in progress. Hepburn is putting most of his efforts into his ranger job. It seems there comes a time when even biblical scholars on mountaintops start looking toward life in a retirement resort.

"I'm 49 years old. I have to think ahead," he said. "Someday, I'd like to have a house in Palm Springs--that is down in Palm Springs."

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