Tie Sing reached out a strong arm, as if he could stop disaster.
The pack mule ahead of him, usually so sure-footed on the high trails, sleepily stepped too close to the edge. After Tie Sing shouted a warning, he heard the ominous ping of small rocks tumbling down a 300-foot cliff.
The mule lost his footing on the moving rocks and his big body went over the edge. Tie Sing tried to reach the mule, but too great a distance stood between them. The mule's legs shot up in the air and then down again as he rolled over and over to the bottom of the cliff.
Tie Sing's carefully packed items—essential supplies and special "tasties"—went flying: knives, apples and grapefruit, along with his ancient sourdough starter used to make his famous rolls.
A movement now caught his attention, and Tie Sing started in surprise. The mule was back on his feet, shaking himself and clambering up the slope.
Tie Sing inspected the mule for injuries and found he'd escaped with only a skinned nose—the rest of the animal was surprisingly unharmed. The same could not be said about some of his most-needed supplies and food. The loss could mean the end of a dream.
When the Future is at Stake
During that warm summer of 1915, a beautiful place depended on his ability to impress a group of nineteen powerful, influential guests. They were on an essential tour of California's Sequoia National Park.
With Tie Sing's reputation as the finest mountain chef around, responsibility rested heavily on his shoulders. He needed to provide comforting food for each exhilarating but tiring day on the trail. The guests expected a delicious spread of elegant dishes, and they expected it on time. Now, his careful plans lay scattered at the bottom of a ravine.
The future of this land of spectacular giant trees, waterfalls and mountains could be lost along with the food. Already cattle, grazing on the formerly lush meadows, destroyed the beauty and heritage of the Sierra Nevada range of mountains.
This group of men could decide to help protect it or let the exploitation continue. If they became dissatisfied, it could influence them to push aside the importance of preservation.
Far behind schedule now, feeling frustrated and angry, Tie Sing scrambled to recover the items. As he searched the rugged terrain, he tried to plan how he could overcome this obstacle to everything that was important to him: his reputation and the land.
Tie Sing's lessons about how to overcome obstacles started long before that summer day in Sequoia. As a baby, his eyes opened to the high mountains around Virginia City, Nevada. He grew up exploring the trails and peaks of the West.
An American, he faced grinding prejudice against those with Chinese heritage, whether born in the United States or China. Laws fiercely restricted his opportunities.
He had few choices: hard, backbreaking labor without the chance to make his own decisions, or work confined inside a hot, steaming laundry day after day.
Tie Sing vowed to break open a different trail for himself. He kept his eyes open for the opportunity he most wanted—the freedom to use his gift of creativity in the mountains he loved.
He grabbed an opportunity to cook for mapmakers who tried to organize on paper the wonders of California. Working for the United States Geological Survey for twenty-eight years, his reputation grew—his sumptuous gourmet meals and his innovative mind made him a legend.
To keep food fresh, Tie Sing wrapped supplies in layers of wet newspaper to let the breeze cool the food. When he fixed a new batch of dough from his sourdough starter, he packed it next to the warm body of a mule. The dough rose during the day, saving time when he arrived at camp to prepare dinner.
One of the members of this new expedition, Robert Marshall, had met and admired Tie Sing through the U. S. Geological Survey. He recommended Tie Sing to become the gourmet chef to help accomplish a dream. Marshall knew no other man could help achieve the goals anticipated for the important 10-day trek into the wilderness.
The touring group, which came to be known as the Mather Mountain Party, had been organized by millionaire Stephen Mather. He invited the nineteen guests with one goal: to influence them to embrace the urgent need for a unified national park service.
Tie Sing meticulously planned every meal and every chance to impress this crucial group of men. In the early days on the trail, his amazing menu included fresh fruit, cereal, steak, potatoes, hot cakes and maple syrup, sausage, eggs, hot rolls, and coffee (and that was just for one breakfast!).
For dinner under the giant Sequoia trees, the group returned from a day of exploring to find slices of cantaloupe, Lyonnaise potatoes, steak, venison, trout and his famous sourdough rolls.
Innovation: Success from Disaster
After the mule's tumble and the search for usable supplies in the ravine, Tie Sing finally arrived at the camp that night—as late as he'd feared.
However, Tie Sing made sure he'd moved on from anger and frustration. There was no time for that now. He had to look ahead and try to create success from disaster.
As the hungry men watched, he and his assistant, Eugene, spread out a snowy-white tablecloth. They hung paper lanterns and created a warm, inviting setting under the stars.
Then, he served a simple but heartening meal from the supplies he'd salvaged. He had lost his precious sourdough starter, but he made biscuits that melted in their mouths. From the apples that had flown off the mule's back, he cut out the bruised parts and served a delicious applesauce that was long remembered. Soon the group relaxed and began talking and laughing, enjoying the flavors of the meal Tie Sing had put together.
Tie Sing, and the Mather Mountain Party, made a lasting impact that millions of us enjoy today from all over the world.
The startling grandeur of the mountains, coupled with Tie Sing's memorable and fabulous meals, won over every man in the group.
Gilbert H. Grosvenor returned to the city and dedicated a whole issue of National Geographic to the national parks. He distributed a copy of that April 1916 issue to every member of Congress. The writers in the group spread the word and filmmaker Burton Holmes amazed the public with lectures and images of the giant trees gracing the Sierra Nevada.
The public campaign unleashed by the Mather Party was a success. The National Park Service came to life in 1916 with Stephen Mather as its head. Mather could now bring his dreams of conservation into reality with a unified oversight of the National Parks.
Tie Sing could also feel a deep sense of satisfaction—he had played his own influential role in making the protection of the lands he loved a reality.
Sadly, just three years later, Tie Sing was killed in an accident.
Horace Albright preserved Tie Sing's memory by recalling his adventurous spirit and his extraordinary meals in the book, Creating the National Park Service.
Robert Marshall also had made sure Tie Sing would never be forgotten. In 1899, Marshall had arranged for a mountain in the Sierra Nevada to be named in Tie Sing's honor.
Sing Peak at Yosemite National Park
Today, Park Ranger Yenyen Chan of Yosemite leads groups to the summit of Sing Peak to remember the mountain chef and honor his service to the National Parks.
More to Explore
Mountain Chef,by Annette Bay Pimentel with illustrations by Rich Lo, is a delightful picture book telling Tie Sing's story.
The writing and artwork made me feel as if I were right there by Tie Sing's side as he planned and created the meals to help make the National Park Service a reality. There is so much more to his story than I've written in this blog, and the author and illustrator make it come alive.
Discover how Tie Sing made another lasting impression with handcrafted messages to each man in the Mather Mountain Party: Check out Mountain Chef from your local library or see it at Amazon.com
Linda Borromeo's first visit to a National Park was at Tie Sing's Sequoia. She still has a photograph, taken with her trusty Kodak camera, of two deer in a meadow and the amazing giant trees.
Linda lives in the Pacific Northwest and enjoys visiting the beautiful places Tie Sing helped to preserve. Celebrating her love of the outdoors and history, Linda has written Mystery Shores, a novel of secrets unfolding on a remote lighthouse island in 1893.
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