Joe Wilson was a living legend in the small, central valley town of Tracy, California. He was the community’s first Recreation Director, and served in that capacity for 36 years before retiring. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of kids would say “Joe Wilson gave me my first job”, whether it was at the community swimming pool, on baseball diamonds, basketball courts, or in summer recreation and craft programs for everyone from kids to adults and even seniors. It seemed that Joe was everywhere in town.
Although I too knew Joe Wilson the Recreation Director, most of my memories of him were of Joe Wilson the outdoorsman. We were what I call mountain neighbors. Every summer, numerous families from valley towns would flee the 100-degree heat for the cooler environs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We would place our trailers and tents in a mountain paradise known as Ebbetts Pass, where would spend every summer from ice out till the first snow that closed the pass.
We swam in the creek, fished, chased chipmunks, and collected Indian arrowheads. We roasted hot dogs and fresh trout around the campfire and then settled back for campfire songs, ghost stories and star gazing. Our small group was called the MoHoNeu, and we summered in Hermit Valley.
Joe Wilson and his family summered in the next valley two miles over, called Pacific Valley. He had a son, Allen, and about a dozen really cute daughters. Actually Joe and his wife Trudy only had four daughters, but they sure were cute! We’d see them sporadically on our excursions into Lake Alpine for supplies. While my dad was an amazing fisherman, it seemed as though Joe Wilson was an equally amazing hunter. Dad focused almost all of his outdoor energy on chasing his beloved trout and almost never hunted. What hunting instruction I got was by trial and error or from guys like Joe Wilson.
I’ve had a lot of hunting stories slung my way over the years and there was an awful lot of BS included, but the best actual hunting information I ever got was from Joe. Like a lot of young, novice hunters, I was having difficulty finding big bucks. Every fall when I went into the mountains in search of deer, all I ever found were does or spike bucks that I couldn’t shoot. Dad couldn’t help because he wasn’t a deer hunter. Finally my dad took pity on my plight and one midsummer day drove me the two miles over to Pacific Valley to see Joe Wilson. Joe proceeded to give me specific instructions to one of his secret hot spots that I could hunt the next fall. I followed Joe’s instructions to the letter and he had directed me to the top of a series of high bluffs that looked down upon at least six bucks that were 4 pointers or better! I never forgot Joe’s kindness to a greenhorn kid from the next valley.
On New Year’s Day of 2010, Joe Wilson checked in to that big hunting hot spot in the sky. It wasn’t all that long afterward that he was joined by his wife Trudy. When my dad and mom had died a couple years earlier, our family honored their wishes and scattered their ashes in their beloved Hermit Valley. Not surprisingly, after Joe’s death his family scattered his ashes in his favorite mountain retreat as well. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Cecelia, Joe Wilson’s oldest daughter. It seems that in getting ready for an estate sale the girls had come across a safe full of live ammunition that was about 50 years old. They didn’t know exactly what to do with their dad’s old ammo. Was it dangerous? Was it safe to shoot? Did it have any value? Answering questions like that is sort of like determining “how high is up?” I agreed to meet sisters Cecilia and Mary at their parent’s old house and take a look at the old ammo cache.
If stored properly, ammunition has an incredibly long shelf life. Joe had about 15 boxes of popular factory-loaded rifle ammunition and about 25 boxes of factory-loaded shot shells. I was able to sell them to local dealers or shooters and get his daughters some return. His reloads, however, as well as his boxes of oddball caliber ammunition, were another story. No dealer in his right mind can take a chance on selling old reloads. Liability laws, especially in California, have made it impossible to sell cartridges that have been reloaded. They have to be dismantled one bullet at a time into separate piles of gunpowder, cases and bullets and then recycled or disposed of. I am saving one box of his reloads to go out this fall and shoot with an old high school buddy, who also knew Joe. If Joe is watching, I think he’d approve.
Joe Wilson’s ammo tells a story. He was a deer hunter who used 130 grain bullets in a Winchester .270. He was a duck hunter, quail hunter and dove hunter who used 12-gauge, 16-gauge and 20-gauge shotguns as appropriate. He was a predator hunter who used 120 grain bullets in a .220 Swift varmint rifle. And he collected old guns in outdated calibers just because he loved them. Joe Wilson was a perfect example of a well-rounded Western hunter who did it all. I know that if I ever visit a remote river crossing in the Sierra Nevada where his ashes are scattered, I’ll smile and say: “Rest in peace, Joe. You were a heck of a hunter.”
Image courtesy Wilson family, used with permission