Epperson stokes embers of the heart

Roger Epperson in May of 2006. Photo by Scott Hein.

It was winter. The last ember of sunset burned in the southwest, a shallow dome of scarlet receding tidally into tones of barn-red above Morgan Territory. Eight miles northwest stood the jagged and black contours of Mt. Diablo’s Summit and North Peak. I was standing on the topmost hill in Round Valley Regional Preserve, a place made magnificent through the efforts of a man named Roger Epperson.

As supervisor of Round Valley, Morgan Territory and Black Diamond Mines regional preserves from 1986 to 2008, Epperson bequeathed a body of work that I and tens of thousands of park-goers enjoy, our attention focused on the beauty – not the vision, skill and persistence that made possible our immersion in the beauty.

Epperson died 10 years ago this month in a kayak accident in Hawaii, leaving behind wife Carol Alderdice plus myriad friends and admirers. It’s tempting to exclude myself from this story. I never met Epperson; never felt the ache of his absence. But one thing is certain: I’m one of the people he had in mind when he did his work. I and tens of thousands of hikers, runners, campers and cyclists; exuberant families and solitary pilgrims who visit the places he designed and maintained – we are the people Epperson had in mind. We see him everywhere. “I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love,” wrote Walt Whitman. “If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”

“To remember Roger on the 10th anniversary of his death,” said Alderdice, “our group of friends went on a campout [in Black Diamond Mines on Dec. 8, the date Epperson died]. We were ready to blame Roger for whatever weather we encountered, hoping for anything other than rain. We got fog. A beautiful, wet, thick fog that blanketed the valley, obscuring the ridge tops. It was magical.

“It reminded me of a wet New Year’s Day in the late ’80s, working alone at Black Diamond Mines,” she said. “My assignment from supervisor Roger was to walk through the Stewartville valley, off trail, looking at drainages, picking up litter and noting maintenance needs for future projects. Roger’s love of the land hadn’t really hit me until that day, when I spent hours in the silence of the valley, soaking wet, watching trees drip, manzanita glow in the mist, smelling the wet grass and hearing the occasional hawk cry.”

Bob Doyle, who serves as general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), was a close friend of Epperson since high school. “Roger actually took my ranger job at Black Diamond when I moved to the HQ,” said Doyle. “In addition to all the friends and fun (both of us got to live in funky park residences, me on Diablo and Roger at Black Diamond), we had the incredible opportunity to get paid as young men to explore all the best wild places in East County.”

By the ’90s, when Doyle began spearheading the EBRPD’s acquisition of land (as assistant general manager for Land and Planning), Epperson was making that land optimal for park-goers. The sanctuaries of beauty we now enjoy were once obscure and inaccessible – right up Epperson’s alley.

Roger Epperson in January of 2007. Photo by Bonnie Watkins.

“For me, growing up hiking Mt. Diablo, this was a special ‘local yokel’ treat,” said Doyle. “It was our back yard. The fun was always having Roger at my side to explore every nook and cranny of a new property and old barn or other finds. Roger collected reptiles from a young age so he was always turning over rocks and boards to find a new snake or lizard; always carefully putting them back.

“Roger’s contribution to all those parks,” said Doyle, “is much more than working so hard managing the parks. He loved every parcel, and when we were more than tripling the parks in East County he would always say, ‘Just keep buying them and I’ll keep making them parks’ – cleaning up old refuse piles, reshaping old roads and putting in fences, gates and trails.”

Epperson’s taste for the obscure wasn’t confined to local landscapes. Jim Rease (aka “Roger’s other wife”) remembers his friend’s attraction to what Rease calls The Good Obscure, whether expressed in a passion for rare cars and motorcycles or rare art forms. “Roger and I had a phase when we went to a lot of hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurants,” said Rease, “and watched a lot of black-and-white samurai films with subtitles. We wouldn’t go to the multiplex; we’d go to Japantown.

“Before we’d take a trip to our favorite parks, Roger would research the back roads – always a very circuitous, less-traveled and scenic route. The routes were as good as the destination. We’d take the longer route – maybe an extra hour and a half – just to discover places along the way.

“We’d listen to a lot of music. When we’d take a road trip, Roger would hook up a headphone splitter to overcome the road noise. He’d arrange the CDs in a particular order, or – back in the days of cassettes – he’d record the road-trip soundtrack. It was never random.”

Epperson occupied a special status among his friends. “As our group gathered on the 8th,” said Alderdice, “we all were very aware that it was always Roger who was the glue that held our group together. He had the skill to blend intellectual debate, goofy play, eclectic music, potty humor and naturalist docent at any given gathering. And was he ever funny. Roger never shied away from getting a laugh, even at the expense of his ego.

“He was forever changing the words in songs,” Alderdice remembered. “Creedence Clearwater’s ‘There’s a bad moon on the rise’ became ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’ and Counting Crows’ ‘I belong in the service of the Queen’ became ‘I belong in the cervix of the Queen.’ He made eye contact with you when he sang it for the hundredth time – just to make sure you got it.

“We owned two fake foam bricks that looked incredibly real,” Alderdice added. “Roger delighted in carrying them like they weighed a ton, then throwing them full force at the windshield of arriving guests. Friends, of course.”

The view from Roger Epperson Ridge, Morgan Territory Regional Preserve.

“I miss the way he would convulse in laughter and drop to the floor,” said Rease, who recalled a moment when Epperson, who at the time was wearing shoulder-length hair, was spotted by a friend who hadn’t seen him in a while. “She said, in astonishment, ‘Roger, look at your hair!!’ He got this sad, hurt look on his face, lowered his head, and said, ‘I’ve contracted DHS.’ And the person wondered, ‘What the hell is DHS?’ but said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ And Epperson replied, maintaining his pained expression, ‘Delayed Hippy Syndrome.’”

“He was Puck in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” said Doyle. “Lighthearted. Not just fun loving; he was the creator of the fun. He’d walk into my office, blow past the secretary, come in and do whatever he wanted. He’d sit at my desk with his feet up on it – muddy shoes – completely inappropriate. I really miss that.”

To his friends, Epperson’s death left a void impossible to fill. “Bob and I are always cursing Roger for having the gall to die and wreck everything,” said Rease. “We still do our guy trips. But every time we go to do something, we’re thinking “put another chair at the table, set another place there.”

Take a trail map at the Morgan Territory staging area and you can find your way to Roger Epperson Ridge, its gentle undulations flowing toward Mt. Diablo like ocean swells. On the north terminus of the ridge stands a monument. The inscription chiseled into the stone reads “In memory of Roger Epperson (1954-2008) in recognition of his significant and lasting contributions to the East Bay Regional Park District and the landscapes he loved.”

Back at Round Valley, as I watched the final ember of sunset dissolve into dusk, more monuments to this extraordinary man came to mind: the embers that burn in the hearts of his friends, embers that burn long after the flame died, testifying to the light and heat the flame radiated. 

And so are the palpable monuments of trails, roads, campgrounds and benches where vistas are framed and moments are etched in memory. It’s fitting that Epperson’s friends, to remember his life, roam these places he nurtured. Being out there in that glory is where we feel most alive, and most at peace: these vistas, these moments, enhanced by this man. Peace, Roger.