Founder of Eastside Sports died July 15 at age 67.
James had just gone hiking a couple weeks ago with his wife, Kay, and friends Alden Nash and wife. The four spent five days hiking a ridge that divides the Sequoia and Golden Trout wilderness areas, all above 11,000 feet, Alden told The Sheet.
Alden said he was lucky to be able to take them there. He said James was great to be with in the backcountry, always getting excited seeing a tree or bug, or someplace new. “He was a treasured friend and climbing companion,” Alden said.
A couple weeks after, James suffered a stroke and died days later on July 15. He had just turned 67. He had sold his famed mountain sports store in Bishop, Wilson’s Eastside Sports, just a few years prior, but was staying busy with his time off. He was still active in organizations like Rotary International, Friends of the Inyo, which he helped found and where he was a board member for nearly 30 years, and the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society, and had a long-term commitment to Machik, a non-profit US group assisting people in Tibet, like keeping schools open under a Chinese regime, and to helping get medical assistance to the poor in Mexico, and with all of that, he still pitched in at the local soup kitchen, too.
There was a look of shock and disbelief on the faces of some of the people who talked to The Sheet about James. James was fit and energetic and so well loved and admired in the community, and he died so suddenly. Long-time friend and fellow co-founder of the local Audubon chapter Mike Prather said he thinks about James every day, and said he walks around with a blank stare.
But as a testament to the character of the man, everyone who talked about James had a story about his love and wonderment about the natural world, his wit and sense of humor and his generosity.
“One time …”—a lot of the stories started this way–—“James and I spent three nights on Paoha Island in Mono Lake,” said Denise Waterbury, one-time employee of James and friend for more than 40 years. She said James needed another person to help row; “It ended up being a great adventure.”
Denise and James were also friends with local climbing legend Smoke Blanchard. After Smoke’s death, she and James hiked to the summit of Mt. Blanco in the White Mountains on two different occasions to burn incense and reminisce about Smoke. She talked about going bouldering at the Buttermilks in the 1970s with James and crew, having potlucks and parties.
He was confident in outdoor pursuits and “funny as hell,” she said. James came off as this serious person, then he’d rip with some comment or one-liner and bring down the house.
Mike Prather shared the story James would always bring up when Mike was driving. Mike said he and his wife Nancy have been on many birding trips with James and Kay to Texas, Australia, and Belize, to name a few. It was in Belize during a particularly warm spell with high humidity about ten years ago, Mike explains, that the four decide to take a golf cart ride in the cool night air. Mike was driving.
They stopped and discovered a mass of spiders along the roadside. Mike said when it was time to go, he drove, Kay and James in the backseat, facing backward. He knew a three-point turn was in order to get the cart in the right direction. He said he pulled up then went into reverse but pulled the back wheels off the road edge, a raised edge, he said. The cart tipped back, Mike heard a “clunk” followed by “protests and whatnot” from the dark jungle.
James and Kay had been launched into the jungle when the cart went over the edge. “There wasn’t a plant down there that didn’t have thorns,” he said.
Gary Guenther of Mammoth Lakes, who admitted knowing James longer than he’d been married, had a story of skiing with James. James was driving after a day on the mountain and it was snowing hard. James’ truck started to slide a little, then spin, eventually getting out of control.
“We slid for a long, long way. We didn’t hit anything, but we finally came to a stop and he looks over at me calmly, ‘Are you OK?’ then he kept driving.”
Rosie and Chris Howard told a story of “The Moonbird.” It’s a book James loved about a bird, a Red knot that was tagged and tracked migrating from the tip of South America to the Arctic. Rosie said she heard of a tour on the coast of New Jersey where the birds stopped, but there were only four tickets left. She said she called James and Kay and told them they had to go on the tour. Without any other information, James and Kay booked the trip with Rosie and Chris.
For many people, the most memorable backpacking trip made by James was the marathon hike from Death Valley to Bishop with Walt Hoffman. A trip not completed often, by anyone.
But James was more than a climber, backpacker, birder, photographer, adventurer, environmentalist and conservationist, he was also a businessman. He went into business with Rick Wheeler of Wheeler Boot Repair in Bishop in the 1970s. The name expanded to Wheeler and Wilson Boot Repair and then Wheeler and Wilson Sports, with a location just two doors south of Eastside Sports’ current location on Main Street.
James believed in hard work and honesty, Mike explained. James’ father was a minister and moved around the West, and was also an avid birder. Mike said James was always proud of his father and thankful for introducing him to the natural world.
“He came from a family that loved the outdoors and it rubbed off,” he said. So did the ideas of civic participation and giving back to the community, principles that drove James in many endeavors. Mike gave the example of the Banff Film Festival that James brought to the Eastern Sierra decades ago that now draws hundreds of moviegoers, the profits going to different organizations and groups.
“He not only loved the outdoors, but he worked hard to protect it” and share it, Mike added.
And business was good for James, which meant good things for the community. Alden said James had the resources to contribute and help the environment and people. “There are things he did in the background for the community that probably no one knows about but him.”
Rosie said James could see both sides of an issue, business and environmental. She said he also had the talent to listen. Alden said his opponents have lost a worthy adversary. Mike said it would take an accumulation of people to equal just one James Wilson: “He’s irreplaceable.”
James leaves behind his wife Kay, daughter Rosanne, son-in-law Bayard and grandson Ansel.
This small article does little justice to representing James Wilson and what he meant to so many people; the stories alone could fill this entire paper. And there are plenty of James’ friends and loved ones that were unable to contribute to this piece. To share a memory of James or to read more stories, go to forevermissed.com/james-kepler-wilson. An announcement for services has not yet been made.
Mike said when James got into a sticky situation or when things weren’t going right, James would say, “My dad always said, its not as bad as a sharp stick in the eye.”