Monday, April 6, 2020

In the Footsteps of Grizzlies and Banditos

From a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia
Rode a boy with a six-gun in his hand
And his daring life of crime
Made him a legend in his time
East and west of the Rio Grande
~Billy Joel, The Ballad of Billy the Kid
As far as I know, legendary outlaw and bank-robber extraordinaire Billy the Kid was never in the San Gabriel Mountains. He was too busy shooting up saloons and rustling cattle and killing lawmen in Nuevo Mexico to bother coming further west. And even if he did have aspirations to visit the Golden State, those were cut short on July 14, 1881 when Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett ambushed Billy in a house in Fort Sumner, New Mexico and put a bullet in his brain. Thus came the swift end for Henry McCarty aka William H. Bonney aka Billy the Kid.

But the San Gabriels didn't need Billy the Kid. It had a robust assemblage of banditos and gun-slingers and desperados all its own. One of the more notorious was the gentleman and chivalrous outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez who claimed that his crime spree was to avenge the numerous injustices committed by invading Anglos against native Californios. Vasquez and his gang were all over the San Gabriel range and several places memorialize or bear witness to that fact (e.g., Bandido and Horse Flat Campgrounds, Vasquez Creek, Vasquez Rocks).

One of Vasquez's more infamous exploits was the raid on the Repetto ranch which was located in southeast Los Angeles in what is now Monterey Park. Alexander Repetto was an Italian sheepherder who Vasquez was informed was flush with cash after having recently sold one of his flocks. So Vasquez and his boys hatched a plan to relieve Mr. Repetto of his burden. Claiming to be sheep-shearers, they came to the Repetto ranch looking for work. But Repetto was a sharp cookie with a keen eye who saw through the ruse and called Vasquez out. Admitting that he was in fact not a sheep-shearer, but a gangster, Vasquez tied Repetto to at tree, demanded $10,000 of him, and threatened to hang him if he did not comply. But Repetto didn't have the money. He had spent most of it. And what remained was on deposit at the Temple and Workman Bank in downtown Los Angeles. So an alternate plan was conceived. Vasquez would force Repetto to write a check that his nephew would carry to the bank, negotiate, and then return with the proceeds. In a piece titled "The Hunt for Tiburcio Vasquez: A Chase Through a Californio's L.A., " Robert Peterson describes what happened next:

"When Repetto's nephew arrived at the bank, he was so nervous that the banker, Francis Temple, became suspicious and contacted the Sheriff. Upon further questioning the nephew broke down and tearfully revealed the whole story. The Sheriff immediately started assembling a posse to capture Vasquez. At this point, the nephew became worried that the Sheriff's involvement might result in his uncle's death. He managed to convince the banker to give him 500 dollars in gold and returned to Repetto's house, before the posse, to give the money to Vasquez. When the Sheriff's posse approached Repetto's house, Vasquez and his men mounted up and started racing north towards present day Pasadena."

Vasquez's escape route took him up the Arroyo Seco, into Dark Canyon, up to the old Soledad Road grade at the crest (present day Grizzly Flat Road), and then down into Big Tujunga Canyon via Grizzly Flat and Vasquez Creek (roughly, the present-day Grizzly Flat Trail). The ride down to Big Tujunga was rough, steep, and overgrown with Buckthorn, and Vasquez lost a horse and his revolver on the way down. Years later, a 16-year old kid named Phil Begue from the City of Tujunga, found Vasquez's saddle and his revolver still bearing the initial "T V" cut into the barrel.

For a nice write-up of the raid by Vasquez on the Repetto ranch by legendary Southern California historian John Robinson, go here:

Given its historical significance, I've wanted to see Grizzly Flat and the trail leading to it up Dark Canyon from Big Tujunga for awhile, but all the reports I had seen were that is was impassable and/or choked with poison oak. Me and poison oak ain't friendly. So I never went. Then one day, I read a report that the Grizzly Flat trail had been worked and was clear all the way to the divide. That was all the motivation I needed.

I started from Stoneyvale at Vogel Flats. The parking lot was empty save for one van near the trailhead. Two ladies in hiking gear had just come down trail and were loading their gear into the van. A good omen. As I passed them, they asked me where the trail went. They had followed it a short distance until it petered out in a tangle of growth at the stream and then turned back not seeing a way forward. A bad omen. I pushed on having to see for myself.

A short distance later I saw for myself. The path seemingly ended abruptly in a boggy, overgrown mess along Big Tujunga creek. This wasn't right. The reports I had read indicated the trail was passable. So I rock and log-hopped across the creek to left-hand side, bashed through a stand of Arundo donax, and the trail magically reappeared. From this point until the path tacks south at Silver Canyon and begins the climb to Grizzly Flat it was easy and open walking.

Then things began to get more interesting. As the trail starts to climb what I suppose is technically Dark Canyon, it gets steep, rocky, and narrow. Not impossibly steep, but steep enough to make you work. As the climb began, I looked for the Windsor benchmark (2094) without luck. It must be buried in the very thick brush that blankets the hillsides here.

Further up, stiff brush began to encroach on the trail poking and grabbing me as I passed. Then there were a number of fallen trees that had to be negotiated. Again, nothing too difficult, but enough to add some spice to the outing. But the higher I climbed, the more ducking and bending and crawling on, over, and around vegetation I had to do. Fortunately, none of it was of the poisonous oak variety. Just below and west of Grizzly Flat, in the dark and cool drainage that must be Dark Canyon (none of the maps that I've looked at are labeled), I heard rustling in the underbrush ahead. Since I was just shy of Grizzly Flat and in the deep recesses of the San Gabriels, I immediately assumed Ursus americanus californiensis. So I started hooting, hollering, and clapping my hands in a pathetic attempt to scare off the unseen beast. Then two guys came around the bend on the descent making me the fool. They didn't say anything but they knew. And I knew they knew. I asked them if they had gone all the way to the ridge, but they demurred. They said they got tired of bush-whacking so were beating a retreat back to the trailhead. Another bad omen.

Then I popped out into the clear and the sunshine at Grizzly Flat, named after the Grizzly Bears that once called the Angeles National Forest home and reputedly favored the Big Tujunga region. I've heard that before the Station Fire, Grizzly Flat was nice. Now, it is not much more than wide-spot on the trail. I stopped for a spell, investigated the water tank, hydrated, then pushed on.

Here, the trail morphs into Grizzly Flat Road so I was optimistic that the traveling would become easier. But while the way did in fact open up, and the path did become wider, forward progress definitely did not become more effortless or simple. It seems Spanish Broom, a beautiful, non-native invasive, has a particular affinity for the area and it has aggressively colonized the place. It crowded the road to the point of being almost impassable at times, and I spent the next half-hour or so ducking under, around, and through massive clumps of the offending stuff.

Finally, I reached the divide separating Big Tujunga Canyon from the Arroyo Seco. This was the exact spot where 100+ years earlier, Tiburcio Vasquez finally shook Sheriff Rowland from his tail after the Repetto Ranch raid. The spot offers expansive views down Dark Canyon and into the Big Tujunga Creek drainage. Here, I found a spot to admire the fine scenery, shed my sweat-soaked top, dry out, and contemplate the historical significance the piece of ground on which I was sitting. After I had my fill, I hoisted myself up and then retreated back into the wilds of Dark Canyon that was once the haunt of both bandits and grizzlies.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Old Man Yells at COVID-19 Trail Refugees

Trail Panties - WTF?
Like the rest of y'all, I'm under house arrest these days per orders from Gov. Gavin Newsome. Under his orders, we're all required to lay low at home and not go out except to engage in "essential activities." The list of activities that are considered "essential" is pretty obvious and includes buying groceries, going to the pharmacy, and seeking emergency medical assistance. I'm also pretty sure it includes hiking.

So last Saturday afternoon I broke from quarantine for some outdoor physical activity and to rejuvenate my withering soul. In an effort to minimize my travel, I opted for my local trailhead where I've hiked hundreds of time before instead of a more far-flung and "interesting" destination. Normally, this trailhead is pretty uncrowded even though it is easily accessible and immediately adjacent to the sprawl of the suburbs. 5-10 cars in the parking lot is typical, slightly more during the day on the weekends.

But on this particular day, when I arrived at the trailhead late afternoon, I was shocked at what I saw. The parking lot was stuffed with cars beyond capacity and there were folks crawling all over the hills and social distancing together. There was literally no place to park. Dejected, I turned tail and headed for a less popular trailhead 15 minutes away in a neighboring community. I'd never seen more than a car or two at this particular trailhead so I figured it was a decent bet for a chance of solitude far from the madding hordes. But even here, I found 11 cars parked and numerous casual hikers heading into the hills. Coroanavirus refugees all, no doubt.

As much as it frustrates me because I'm basically a selfish bastard who feel that "my" space is now being invaded, I get it. Working from home, kids out of school, restaurants, bars, malls, and movie theaters all closed. After a while, staring at the walls will cause even the homiest of home bodies to contemplate slitting their wrists. And getting outdoors and into the hills is a perfect antidote for those otherwise dark and self-destructive thoughts and urges. We that have been doing this for a very, very long time already know this. But, the people suddenly bum-rushing the trails now are not hikers. They are mall-walkers at heart. I don't necessarily say that disparagingly, but by and large, these folks are only out on the trail because they have no other options. Once this crises passes and the malls re-open, they'll happily abandon the wild places to us weirdos and introverts and things will go back to normal.

One of the glaring issues associated with newbies hitting the trails is that a good number of them aren't really outdoor enthusiasts. As a result, they aren't aware of and have little appreciation for trail etiquette. Neither are they instilled with an outdoor ethic that guides their behavior while out on the trail. So, as a public service announcement to those folks (and candidly, for others who go out frequently and ought to know better, but apparently don't), I offer up these useful trail tips for your next outing outside.

1. Pack it in, pack it out. This one is pretty simple. At least in concept. You carry something out into the hills, you bring it back out. In practice, however, this simple to understand principle is often not observed. So it bears repeating here: don't be a lazy asshole and leave your plastic water bottle or candy wrapper or beer can trailside or tucked strategically under some rock for someone else to deal with. Your mom isn't coming by later to clean up after you so be an adult, pick up your shit, and carry it out.

2. Pick up after your animal. This is a corollary to commandment no. 1 above. If you take your dog out on the trail, be prepared to pick up its shit. The trails are not your own personal dog park and the rest of us aren't amused by having to side-step little poo packets left on the path by your little (or big) bundle of fur. And do not, I repeat, DO NOT, pick up your dog's shit, put it in a little plastic baggie, and then leave that baggie on the trail as if you're going to come by later and carry it out. We all understand that game and know that that is just for show. So stop the pretense. And another thing. Stop bringing your dog on trails that are clearly marked "no dogs." I'm a rabid dog-lover. But Jesus Christ people. There are places where your dog shouldn't be: grocery stores, office buildings, restaurants, the dentist's office, and trails marked "no dogs."

3.  Don't leave your snot, sweat, and pee rags on the trail. What the actual fuck is with people leaving buger-encrusted, urine soaked, and shit-stained tissues trailside? How disgusting can you be to take a piss, wipe your crotch, and then drop the pee rag on the trail for all the world to see? If you must pee on the trail, air your crotch out naturally. Or if you insist on wiping yourself, bring a little plastic baggie and use it to pack your pee rag out. The same holds true for sweat rags. If you must wipe perspiration from your brow with a tissue, fine, but don't leave that sweaty, disgusting artifact on or near the trail. Better yet, bring a bandana along and use that instead. It's multi-functional and washable. And for the love of God and decency, don't take a big dump near the trail, wipe your ass, and then leave the mess for the rest of us to deal with. It's fucking disgusting and so are you if you do that.

4. Yield to uphill hikers. This is trail etiquette 101. Uphill hikers are working harder than you if you're coming down. They have the right of way. Give it to them unless they defer to you.

5. Hike single file. I get that you're out with your besties and want to chatter and catch up on all the latest gossip while you hike, but please do so single-file if the trail is narrow. If you're walking shoulder-to-shoulder in a group, you're not leaving space for others, particularly those going uphill (see commandment no. 4 above). This isn't the mall. Don't act like it is.

6. Keep your music to yourself. In my humble view, if you insist on listening to music while you hike, you're missing the point. But that's really none of my business. What is my business is being forced to listen to your shitty music while I'm in the hills. So if you can't walk out of the house without Cardi B or 2 Chainz as your incessant backdrop, bring your ear buds along. And use them. That is why God invented them after all. The rest of us don't think you're bitchin' because you have music on blast while you're hiking. We just think you're a self-indulgent douche (think the Harley-Davidson South Park episode).

Brubb Brub Brrrubbb Brub!
7. Nature doesn't need a paint job. Look, there's a time and place for graffiti. That time and place is in the urban core on the side of buildings, billboards, light posts, and whatnot. Not on the trail. So don't feel compelled to leave your brightly-colored mark on rocks and tree trunks and trail signs like a dog marking its territory. Nature doesn't give a shit about your little tagging crew. And neither do the rest of us.

8. Switchbacks are not made to be cut. On trails that switch back and forth up a steep hillside, you may be tempted to cut the switchbacks in favor of the more direct route. Don't do that. Cutting switchbacks creates erosion which fucks up the trail, kills vegetation, and can cause rocks and debris to dislodge onto hikers below. And at the end of the day, it really doesn't save you any time. If you're really that concerned about getting back to your house or car a few seconds earlier than you might otherwise, then just consider staying home in the first place.

9. Don't trample wildflowers to be an IG influencer. You want that perfect shot to post to Instagram. You're an "ooh, ahhh" junkie. I get it. I have an IG account too and regularly post content. But you know what? The outdoors is a big goddamn place. There's plenty of available vantage points from which to take pics which don't require you to run roughshod over the native vegetation. So use those vantage points and leave some flowers for everyone else to enjoy. The world wasn't made for just you.

10.  Follow the Golden Rule. No, not that Golden Rule silly  This Golden Rule: Don't be a dick. That is somewhat encapsulated in commandments 1-9 above, but it is worth stating explicitly. Acknowledge your fellow trailmates. Say hello. Help folks out if it looks like they need it. Be respectful of others. This ain't brain surgery folks. Go out and enjoy the outdoors, but make sure your enjoyment doesn't encroach upon or negatively affect others.

Well, that's all I've got for you. I'll yell at a cloud or kids on my lawn in another post. In the meantime, stay safe. Don't touch your face with your virus-infected hands. Keep your social distance. And for the love of Christ, don't hoard toilet paper. We ain't running out of that stuff any time soon.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Last Free Place

George Hansen: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.
Billy: Man, everybody got chicken, that's what happened. Hey, we can't even get into like a second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel, you dig? They think we're gonna cut their throat or somethin'. They're scared, man.
George Hansen: They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to 'em.
Billy: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hansen: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That's what it's all about.
George Hansen: Oh, yeah, that's right. That's what it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.
Billy: Well, it don't make 'em runnin' scared.
George Hansen: No, it makes 'em dangerous.
    ~Easy Rider (1969)

We encountered the abandoned shuttle-stop shelter on the outskirts of Niland, California along the road leading east into the oblivion of the vast Sonoran Desert. On the side of this shelter was a fanciful mural bedecked with bright, colorful flowers, an over-sized "Peace" sign, and the almost mocking declaration that we were about to enter Slab City, the "last free place." 

It's a bit of an odd "Welcome Mat" for a place that is essentially no place. At least in the conventional and generally-accepted sense of the word "place." For Slab City is not even Niland, a bleached and saline little town that sits on the southeast shore of the Salton Sea baking for the majority of the year under the relentless and searing desert sun. Niland has churches, but no bars. It has no Starbucks. It has no fun. It only has God's condemnation and heat. Scorching, fucking heat. But at least Niland is an actual, recognized place with streets and houses and other trappings of organized society. It even has it's own "dot" on the Rand-McNally Road Atlas. Not so Slab City. So how could this no-place beyond the boundaries of no-place possibly be the "last free place?"   

Beyond that, we found the shuttle-stop message a bit unnerving because of what it portends. After all, America is the land of the free. All of America. I know this because Francis Scott Key said so. And we all collectively sing about how free America is at every sporting, school, social, or civic event we attend. So just what in the hell are the denizens of Slab City trying to insinuate here? Is this welcome message intended as some back-handed poke at the freedom joke that's been played on all of us? What did the "Slabbers" know that we didn't know? This needed further investigation.

So we pushed forward along the uneven gravel road straight into the heart of absolute freedom. It's an eclectic domain populated by a wide assortment of characters all looking to "drop out" for their own personal reasons. Vagabonds, vagrants, artists, nudists, gypsies, preppers, pot-smoking hippies, Jesus freaks, doomsday prophesiers, drug dealers, criminals, and destitute retirees in dilapidated RVs just trying to make it across the finish line before the the money runs out. They are all here, drawn to this forsaken and forgotten place by the promise, or a least the hope, of being able to exist completely unencumbered by the conventions, the rules, the constraints that bind the rest of civilized society. It's a place of and for free spirits and free thinkers. Alexander Supertramp was here. So was Leonard Knight who spent the majority of his twilight years building Salvation Mountain, his folk-art tribute to the Almighty.

But once in the confines of Slab City "proper," one quickly comes to understand that absolute freedom may not look exactly like the mind's eye ideal. Discarded shoes hang from branchless trees. Abandoned cathode-ray television sets litter the landscape. Broken glass glints and shimmers on the desert floor. Tireless automobiles rest in the sand on their axles slowly being eaten by rust. Discarded tarpaulin, plastic sheets, and plywood are strewn hither and yon. Unfettered personal liberty is a chaotic, sordid, and messy affair. It's practitioners are a dirty and dangerous lot. A good number of "freedom-loving" Americans would like to see them brought to heel. Or worse. George Hansen understood this even though Billy did not.

And then there's the incongruity here amidst all the lack of societal oppression and subjugation. Slab City may be the last free place, but it's not total anarchy. Here, like pretty much everywhere else in the world, the idea of absolute freedom is tempered by the reality of community. Even if that community is nothing more than a bunch of folks eking out existence in a scatter-shot assemblage of rotted-out single-wides, broken-down buses, and the occasional faded tent. It is also moderated by the fact that the "Slabbers" are living in a fish bowl that they didn't ask for and probably don't want. That's because these days, their brand of living is so novel, and their DIY level of self-sufficiency is such a curiosity to the rest of us, that they have become a sort of tourist attraction. Freedom tourism is now a thing in America. Thus, the "last free place" is ironically peppered with hand-scrawled signs more reflective of a heavily-regimented master HOA than of a do-as-you-please Utopian enclave ("Keep Out," "Private Residence," "No Trespassing," etc.).

There's also rules here. Adjacent East Jesus, which several signs make clear is NOT Slab City, has an extensive list of "rules" you must follow if you visit. Don't arrive after dark. Don't smoke. Don't put your shit in the refrigerator. Don't do drugs. Stay the fuck out of the music room. Don't park in the wrong place. And, oh yeah, pay us $15/night per person to stay here. I don't necessarily begrudge East Jesus its rules or economic opportunism (hey, everyone has got to make a buck), but I can see why Slab City might want to disclaim association with it.

Oddly, there is also more community structure here than the disorder might otherwise first suggest. There's an Internet Cafe. There is a well-stocked community library/less well-stocked bar that is open 24/7/365. There is a hostel. And there are actual named "streets" such as "Fred Street" where, presumably, Fred lives.

And finally, there's "the fuzz." When driving through Slab City, you necessarily have to move slowly. You do this primarily because the dirt roads running through the area are rough and can kick up a lot of dust when you pass over them. Thus, to protect your suspension, and out of basic respect for the Slabbers, you take your time moving through the area. And slowing down is consistent with the whole vibe of the place anyway. But as we were creeping along the main road through the slabs on the day of our visit getting our eyes full of all the wonderful wonders it has to offer, two Imperial County Sheriff's Department SUVs came blasting past us as if we were on the open highway. Maybe it was just me, but the oppressive and faceless efficiency of their movement, the implicit disdain they exhibited by speeding through the area in pairs, their entire authoritarian aura communicated one thing to everyone within eye-shot of them: you are not as free as you think you are and we are here to make sure you don't forget that.

Later that evening, we camped in the open at Corvina Beach along the shore of the Salton Sea. The "beach" here is comprised of billions of invertebrate shells and thousands of desiccated Talapia carcasses which makes a surprisingly comfortable natural mattress. Our camp mates were an older couple and a single retiree, both Snowbirds from Canada who were riding out the cold season in this more hospitable clime. The former pair spent their time gluing Popsicle sticks together and hawking the resulting creations to passerbys as kitsch; the latter was a gray-haired, dope-smoking gentleman from Ontario with some sort of serious medical condition. He was traveling America alone in a van he had partially converted, but never quite finished. He had $7 to his name, not even enough to pay the fee imposed by the State of California for the privilege of sleeping. So he guerrilla camped and then hastily left early the next morning before the Ranger came snooping around and demanding money from him. He never said it, but I got the impression that this might have been his final rodeo, his last epic adventure.

So what does it all mean? Does Slab City live up to its own hype? Is it the "last free place" in America? Well, after spilling all of these words, the answer is "I just don't know." It's complicated. Because freedom is a relative concept and absolute freedom is a unicorn. I'm not certain it even exists other than as an abstract concept. And if it does exist, I'm not sure anyone has ever seen it or will ever see it. Beyond that, I know there are folks tucked away in all sorts of lesser-known nooks and crannies living life on their terms. Are these locations materially less free than Slab City? I suspect not. But I do know that if the folks occupying these lesser-known spaces know what's good for them, they'll keep their lesser-known spaces lesser-known. Otherwise, it won't be long before the monied-interests seek to economically exploit them and law enforcement starts flexing its muscles and demanding allegiance to good public morals and social order.

But back to the original question, I guess it doesn't matter how free Slab City is relative to everyplace else. All that matters is that the place exists and that the Slabbers, either by circumstances or choice, are living there. Not on your terms. Not on my terms. Not on God's terms. On their terms. And who gave them permission to live this way? Nobody did. They did. And that's the way it should be. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Dying Season

My, my, hey, hey
Rock and roll is here to stay
It's better to burn out
Than to fade away
My, my, hey, hey
~Out of the Blue, Neil Young (Rust Never Sleeps)

I'd been thinking about the Sierra and how I hadn't gotten a trip in this summer. And it was bumming me out. The southern Sierra is a relatively easy weekend, but somehow I'd allowed summer to slip into fall while my overnight gear sat unused in the closet. Now, Pacific Standard Time with its short days, cold nights, and long hours of darkness was on the horizon. Opportunity was fading away. It was time to act.

So last Friday afternoon, I stole away from the office early and started for Lone Pine with plans to explore the lakes of the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. This drainage holds the Palisades Glacier, the largest in the Sierra Nevada. Glacial powder from this melting icy giant is reputed to turn the Big Pine Lakes a striking turquoise. I needed to see that. 

But of course, the world conspired against me first and did it best to prevent that from happening. October is fire season in Southern California and as if on cue, a wind-whipped conflagration broke out in the hills above Santa Clarita promptly closing down the 14 freeway to both north and southbound traffic. But, as Donkey said in Shrek, "Never fear! Where there's a will, there's a way. And I have a way." That way involved traveling north on the 5 and then east on the 138 to the ultimate junction with the 14 in Lancaster. Then it was business as usual along the lonely desert highway all the way into Lone Pine.

When camping in the Alabama Hills, I'm always immediately drawn to Tuttle Creek. Candidly, it's not that spectacular of a place, but it has everything I want and need. And for some reason the place just seems to embrace me. I'm at peace there and always sleep really well when I camp there.

We pulled in as the last light faded from the horizon and were a bit surprised to see the place packed to the gills. Who knew that late October was high season in the southern Sierra? We grabbed one of the few remaining spots, set up camp in the dark, and then started a fire. The night was clear, cool, and pleasant. A million stars twinkled and the Milky Way splashed across the ink black sky.

The next morning we headed north fueled by large cups of caffeine courtesy of McDonald's. Say what you will about the ubiquitous fast food giant, but their coffee is always hot, tasty, and inexpensive. 40 minutes or so later, we turned west on Crocker Avenue (which becomes Glacier Lodge Road) in Big Pine and awhile thereafter arrived at the trailhead adjacent to Glacier Lodge. Along the road, we scared up a couple of handsome deer out for breakfast who viewed us suspiciously before bounding off into the underbrush.

We were now in the midst of the dying. All around us the end of season and the imminence of winter was on full display. From the floor of the Owens Valley, you only catch a glimpse of the colors of death. But here, up canyon at 8,200', you're enveloped in the vibrant reds, warm oranges, brilliant yellows, and muted browns of the changing seasons. There's no escaping it. Here, you can literally smell the vegetation as it decays. Here, you can feel life slipping away. It's a full-body sensory experience.

For we humans, death and dying is generally an ugly, morose, and sad affair. We don't know how to do it with style. Not so the Aspen, Alder, Maple, Oak, Birch, Willow, and Cottonwood. They do not go gentle into the good night. They rage against the dying of the light as Dylan Thomas taught. Summoning all they have left, they go out in one final and exuberant explosion of glory and beauty. Oh to be like them. 

As we climbed into the drainage, the scenery gradually returned to the familiar stone gray and ever green of the Sierra. The path into the basin parallels the North Fork of Big Pine Creek that was still coursing strongly late into the season. At about the 10,000' contour, we crested a rocky prominence and were gobsmacked by the stunning emerald beauty of Lake 1. Further up-trail, Lake 2 did the same thing to us. We thought about stopping to just absorb what we were already seeing, but the drugs had taken hold. We were now Big Pine lake junkies in need of more. So we pushed on toward Lakes 4 and 5.

That decision proved worth the effort. Lake 5, set as it is against the backdrop of towering Two Eagle Peak, was an idyllic and scenic spot to have a snack and rejuvenate in the warm, late-season sunshine. Physically and spiritually fulfilled, we then retraced our steps back to the the golden trailhead as the shadows got long and the light began to dim. In the car again, we drove down canyon out of the blue and into the black as the final sputterings of day disappeared with the sun behind the darkened Sierra crest.

My, my, hey, hey.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Reconnecting with the Forest of Angels

I was born on this mountain, this mountain's my home
She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe
Well they took everything that she gave, now they're gone
But I'll die on this mountain, this mountain's my home.
~The Mountain, Steve Earle

There was a time in the not-to-distant past that I was making the trek to the Angeles National Forest almost every weekend for an adventure. I'd take one weekend day to attend to domestic responsibilities and save the other day for the forest. My compulsion, if you want to call it that, was my desire, nay need, to explore all of the places I hadn't seen and to walk all of the trails I hadn't walked. In my past, I felt that I'd squandered time, place, and opportunity and I wasn't about to repeat that mistake in the present. So I'd find at a blank experience spot on my map each weekend and then head off to fill in that gap.

Over the course of a couple of years, those blank spots on my maps became fewer and farther between as I covered most of the established trails in the ANF and a good number of off-trail locations. That's not to say I've been "everywhere." I haven't and can't even pretend that is feasible. But within my physical limits, and considering the framework of my initial objectives, finding a new or unexplored spot did start to become more of a challenge. Drive times and distances to locations worthy of experience begin to stretch out. Days in the forest necessarily got longer. Not necessarily days "on the trail," but days getting to and from the trail. So subconsciously, I scaled back my efforts. My forays into the ANF became more of a drip campaign. I stayed local instead. After all, the Santa Monica Mountains are virtually in my backyard and afford endless miles of fun.

Heading into this past weekend, I reviewed where I had been in 2019. I had an inkling that review would show that I was being a little bitch. I guess I just didn't realize how much of a bitch. Three times into the Angeles in the first seven months of the year (Colby Canyon, Islip Ridge, Lone Tree Trail). I can do better.

So I broke out my Tom Harrison and scanned for destinations I still hadn't been. My buddy Keith Winston over at the Iron Hiker recently made a visit to Bobcat Knob and Goodykoontz from Buckhorn Campground which reminded me that I hadn't yet visited Will Thrall Peak. A friend and me made the cross-country trek from Mt. Williamson to Pallett Mountain and out the Burkhart Trail to Buckhorn Campground a couple of years back, but we didn't have the time or the energy to tag Will Thrall once we arrived at Burkhart Saddle. I've also come up to the saddle from the Devil's Punchbowl on the north side, but again didn't go further than that. So Will Thrall Peak it would be.

The day was warmer than it was supposed to be when I arrived at Buckhorn around 10:00 a.m. Traffic on the Angeles Forest Highway "detour" was lighter than expected so I was surprised to see both the parking areas at Cloudburst Summit for Cooper Canyon and the Buckhorn Day Use Area already packed to the gills. Buckhorn Campground itself was also stuffed to capacity which didn't bode well for finding a place to park at the trailhead for the Burkhart Trail. But I scored a spot right up front nonetheless and was tromping down the trail in short order.

The first mile and a half of the trail is quite spectacular as it descends through a lush evergreen canopy to gurgly Little Rock Creek roughly 800 feet below. Thanks to the rainy and snowy winter we had, the trail is still wet in places where water springs forth from trailside springs. Along one short stretch of trail, I passed an explosion of gorgeous Lemon Lilies (Lilium parryi) which the California Native Plant Society classifies as rare and endangered. I didn't know at the time what I was looking at, but I knew it was special. Others on the trail seemed oblivious and/or completely disinterested in what they were seeing (or not seeing, as the case may be).

The Burkhart Trail

Lemon Lily (Lilium parryi)

Lemon Lilies Growing Trailside
Speaking of others on the trail, there's was a lot of them and most of them did not appear to be regular outdoor folks. Groups of ill-prepared millenials wearing Vans, toting towels, and blasting bad music; families with tired, small children in tow looking lost and asking "which way to the falls?"; large congregations dragging feed bags and beverages to the canyon bottom that will invariably will end up clogging the creek bed. Cooper Canyon Falls has definitely been "discovered" by the social media set and they were out in full force to get the perfectly "grammable" selfie on this sunny, summer Saturday.

The good news is that beyond the use trail to the falls, the herd thinned to one: me. From the creek crossing at Little Rock Creek to the Burkhart Saddle, I had 3.3 miles of glorious trail all to my lonesome. I realize that makes me sound like an anti-social, selfish bastard, but that's only because I'm an anti-social, selfish bastard. At the saddle, I stopped for water and to take in the stunning view of the sprawling Mojave Desert to the north before the final push to the summit of Will Thrall. As I was mustering my strength, a couple of different groups came down off of the big, flat whale-back that is Pallet Mountain to the east. The first folks I'd seen in an hour and a half.

The use trail to the summit of Will Thrall is well defined and regularly used. It wiggles steeply and relentlessly up the west side of Will Thrall gaining about 800 feet in perhaps a half-mile. Along the way, sublime views of the desert to the north and Kratka Ridge and Waterman to the south come into focus. About a third of the way up, I encountered a group of three that were descending from the summit. They were familiar with trail etiquette, so they stopped and moved out of the way to let me continue my upward trajectory without having to break stride. Curse them! I was feeling the burn at that particular stage and could have used a breather. But I was too damn proud to show weakness so I staggered on until they were out of sight before I stopped for a rest.

Finally on the summit, I encountered a group of four taking a group shot before continuing on to the Pallet benchmark another half-mile or so to the west. I plunked down in a splotch of shade to evaluate my water and energy supply. Both were running a bit lower than I would have liked, particularly given the 800 foot climb I still had to make out of Cooper Canyon on the return trip. It was then that I realized that although I might be in hill shape, I was definitely out of mountain shape. All those weekends staying local had caught up to me. Discretion being the better part of valor (or, stated differently, not wanting to become an embarrassing rescue statistic), I decided the Pallet benchmark would unfortunately have to await another day.

Passing Through Cooper Canyon

Will Thrall in the Distance

Mts. Waterman and Winston
Kratka Ridge
But it wasn't all bad news. I had stashed a cold Grapefruit Hop Nosh IPA in my pack in case of an emergency. I figured this was an emergency in the broadest sense of the term, so I broke it out and cracked it open. I don't know what it is, but there is something about a cold beer on a mountain top that is just so dang enjoyable. Beer, it seems, always tastes better in the thin air of the outdoors than it does in oxygen-rich, low-land, indoor air for some reason. But that is a universal truism I suppose. Everything is better in the thinner, leaner, outdoor air.

The can dutifully emptied, I made my retreat to the saddle and then back down the Burkhart Trail. Back where the teeming masses were congregating in the sylvan canyon bottom, the trail steepens as it begins the climb back to Buckhorn Campground. My water was very low at this point which validated my decision to forego the Pallet Benchmark. Back at the truck, the parking lot at the trailhead was now over-flowing with vehicles which were strewn hither and yon, every conceivable nook and cranny put to good vehicular use. One was inches from my passenger-side. I marveled that the driver was even able to exit his/her car. A few feet away, a family was playing soccer in the parking lot in front of the smelly outhouse. On the drive home, traffic came to a sudden stop in upper Big Tujunga Canyon as emergency personnel worked to scrape another motorcyclist off the asphalt. Packs of dangerous fools on bullet bikes scream up and down these canyons on the weekend so this was not unusual for these roads. Ultimately, I was forced to back-track to Clear Creek and descend the ACH in order to gain access to the 210.

Ah yes, it was good to be back in the forest of angels.

High Desert from Burkhart Saddle
Pallett Mountain

Desert View from Will Thrall