Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hiking Mount Wilson

Did it right. Took the trek up to Mount Wilson in the Angeles National Forest, one of the tallest peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains at 5,700 feet, just Northeast of Pasadena. Starting at the Chantry Flats campground, north of Sierra Madre, my friend Chance and I sobered up and got to work on that 14 mile monster around noon with back-packs full of water, nuts, banana chips, sunscreen, Swiss-Army knives, dogs, buns, sausages, and 16 little ketchup packets Del Taco was kind enough to allow me. I even brought some fresh Aloe Vera, recovering from a sunburn 2 days earlier at my prep-hike in Griffith Park. The sun-block and aloe were not necessary, Upper Winter Creek Trail is heavily shaded. Wore shorts. Got poison ivy.

After a gentle mile or two, the trail zig-zag's up the face of a mountain, with no level path in sight. Half the way up, Chance began to offer me his water, which confused me, so I reminded him I had my own, and he admitted this was a tactic to lighten his pack. He carried our heavy charcoal and lighter fluid, as we planned on grilling at the top of the world after conquering the summit. We broke for a sandwich at the top of the most rugged section of trails, not knowing that the ridge of the mountain was only some hundred yards away, where we'd be showered with sunlight and vistas for the last three miles. Like being lost in a big city, a trail seems far longer and stranger on the first visit, distances expand with the dark shadows of dead tree limbs and blind turns around ridges.

Hiking's rules are simple: continue walking. Like with runner's eye, the hiker's fatigue fades as he commences, that is, continues, proceeds to crunch past pine cone corridors and acorn alley-ways, the weariness subsiding as the trail washes away the hiker's distractions, his self being fixated in a manner that eludes fixations, direction the only concept, no idea what is ahead, merely traveling, simply walking, neither lost nor found, turning-back not an option, only the procession, the event itself, the undertaking over the ground, the movement, the shuffle.

As our heads popped above the forest canopy, we saw the golden sand typical of the west-side of the San Gabriel mountains. Atop the ridge, the canyon stretched for miles subdued at last by the northeastern reaches of L.A. The city's confusing arrangement of bushes and trees belied the supposed order of its highways and gridded streets, the few buildings visible seemed insignificant, as the trees outgrew most homes and the ocean seemed capable of reclaiming the town with a high tide. I wondered why we flocked to this strange clutter when the mountains, visible from the city, hold truth and beauty over more vast stretches than even the city Los Angeles.

At the top of the ridge, one can no longer remain grounded as there is no flat surface, no safety rails, no easy balance, no paved floors. Gravity is real, as is the sky. Ascending does not defeat gravity, rather it provides the potential for falling. However, atop the mountain, one can look out onto a panorama with no ground, no floor visible to secure his connection to the earth, the sky able to be grasped as it truly is: flowing through our existence, a life entering and exiting, filling and emptying, the seeming overhead in our head.

Like Kerouac's Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums, I saw that we are truly upside-down as the earth drifts through space:

"I had a tremendous sensation of its dreamlikeness which never left me all that summer [living on top of a mountain] and in fact grew and grew, especially when I stood on my head to circulate my blood, right on top of the mountain, using a burlap bag for a head mat, and then the mountains looked like little bubbles hanging in the void upsidedown. In fact I realized they were upsidedown and I was upsidedown! There was nothing here to hide the fact of gravity holding us all intact upsidedown against a surface globe of earth in infinite empty space."

I walk through and exist in the air, merely connected to an alarmingly small piece of earth, filled with the sky and its celestial bodies. Having hiked through worlds of forest, once atop the mountain, one can compare the scale of the macrocosm of the mountain range against the now tiny patches of trees that are home to many animal and plant communities, just as the oddly arranged trees in the city indicate residences. There's humility here, not only because hikers reserve precious time from their modern pre-occupations, but a natural humility, where one is not protected and danger is present. A confusing place, where one seems just as likely to fall up to the heavens as off the cliff, where jutting land submits to permeating sky. It was bigger than me. I've learned to ignore the sky, able to live my life under roofs and awnings. Within walls that block my peripheral vision, my focus narrows along with my consciousness. I think I'd feel the same before an expanse of grazing land, but perhaps it's the depth of the slopes and canyons dropping underneath our feet that provide the full sense of powerlessness to the magnitude of mountains. There is no conquering, only accepting.

Only problem with the peak: no grill pits to be found up there. Minus 1-Star on the Yelp review for that. They did have some leftover snow from the weekend, +1. Also, while the Mount Wilson Observatory was nice, it's kind of a bummer to walk 7 miles uphill to find a developed community of radio phone and power antennas, telescopes, residences, even a "Cosmic Cafe", which I think was closed. Great views are offered from the north side of the peak, and wildlife is abundant, as we saw 4 deer and many many gray squirrels, but at the top of a long hike like that you kinda have to get going to keep time. On an empty stomach in our case. We had to walk down Sturtevant Trail back to Orchard Campground 3.6 miles away. Although slightly shorter than the way up, this way was steeper, which we could've done without since we had a few leg issues round the groin and knee-caps by then.

Finally reaching the creek that leads to Sturtevant Falls, exhausted, we came upon Sturtevant Camp: log-cabin vacation homes that were abandoned until the summer. Fed up with waiting and un-fed for the past few hours, our bitching got the best of us, and we concluded the campground must be too far away, and we'd have to light up the charcoal on a dusty patch amidst the cabins, with a log bench nearby and a giant rope swing between trees. We didn't bring skewers, but the dirt off a twig was the least of our worries. Good dogs. Thank God we had a rez.

Filling up bottles with stream water, we doused the coals several times and hurried on for the final 3 mile stretch. It was about 7 o'clock by then and the forest supposedly closes at 8, so we ran for it, passing the legal bbq pits at the campground we had searched for all day only 100 yards down the trail. No time to bitch about that and no time to see Sturtevant Falls a mile down the road. It might have helped with time but left me with a cramp for the final 2 miles. Passing some more cabins near the end, nighttime came and we agreed we'd rather stay and go to sleep in the park. The achievement had turned into practice for when we get a tent and never pay rent.

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