Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Mt. Wilson, Part 1
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
I’m going to leave off on the political stuff, which seems to be going about as expected. Also, Michigan, Michigan State, Connecticut, North Carolina, and the unlikely Ohio University are out of the NCAA tournament, and we can only hope Ohio State will lose.
Instead, I’m going back to my stock-in-trade on this blog, and recount a walk I took last Tuesday part of the way up Mt. Wilson. Mt. Wilson is a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, the range that runs along the north side of the string of cities to the northeast of Los Angeles—Glendale, Pasadena, Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Azusa, etc., above old Route 66 eastward to San Bernardino.
Mt. Wilson’s claim to fame is that it has been used since the late 1800s as a site for telescopes. In the early 20th century an observatory was built there, containing increasingly powerful telescopes. Since the 1980s the observatory has been gradually abandoned in favor of sites in other countries. I will have more to say about the observatory when I actually get up there and find out more.
Mt. Wilson was named for Benjamin Davis Wilson, 1811-1878, who was the second mayor of Los Angeles and became, incidentally, the grandfather of General George S. Patton, Jr. Benjamin Wilson, known to some as "Benito," started a trail up the mountain in order to get wood for casks for his winery located in what is now San Marino. To his disappointment the wood wasn’t any good, but he constructed the trail anyway, in 1864, and it became popular with recreational hikers. So much for history. Let me now revert to a transcription of the recording I made while walking.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012. It is 10:10 a.m. and I am in Sierra Madre right off Mira Monte Drive, at the beginning of the Mt. Wilson Trail. This is a steep dirt walk that goes up from the present elevation of 970 feet to the top of Mt. Wilson, 5650 feet, over a distance of 7 miles. Because of the steepness of the trail and the fact that I haven’t walked in a long time (although I’ve gone to the gym on a regular basis and have done a bit of cycling), I’m not sure if I’ll make it all the way to the top this time, but at least I’ll make an effort and give myself something to aim at the next time I go.
Clear days are important for this walk, at least from the standpoint of being able to see the wide valleys that become ever more visible as one makes the ascent. Although this isn’t anything like the flat roadside hiking I did across the country, the young and not-so-young people I see jogging in both directions make me realize that I’ve gotten out of shape, comparatively speaking. I needn’t have worried that my workouts at the highest settings on the elliptical trainer were tougher than what I might encounter here. Aerobically, this is by far more difficult. I’m huffing and puffing in a way that my training didn’t prepare me for.
With each switchback the view of the floor of the San Gabriel Valley widens, and though I started in tiny Sierra Madre, what comes into view in the foreground of the slightly hazy distance is the city of Arcadia, which lies between Monrovia and Pasadena along the east-west line at the foot of the mountains. An expanse of concrete and grass gradually reveals itself to be the Santa Anita Racetrack and the large mall adjacent to it.
The dirt trail, although reasonably well maintained, is narrow—perhaps four or five feet wide in most places—and has no railings to keep people from meeting almost certain death should they fall off. At times it’s rocky, too. I see that it would never be a good idea to take this walk during or right after a rain when the stones are slippery and the little groove in the middle of the path is full of water.
Finally I begin to catch my breath, and after a mile or so I stop at a bend in the trail to talk to a toothless old man resting on a large rock on his way down. He’s probably not all that much older than me, but with his gauntness and without the teeth he looks ancient. We chat for a few minutes, during which I tell him it’s my first time on the trail and he tells me he’s been walking it for decades, although he doesn’t go all the way to the top any more—not since the 1980s. He’s just been up to the first stopping point, a place called First Water about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. He also assures me that the steepest part of the walk is behind me, and that things flatten out somewhat from here on and it becomes much shadier. Finally he tells me that the water at First Water is drinkable. “At least to me it is,” he says, with a chuckle that makes his face light up like a benign jack-o-lantern.
With thanks I leave him and take another hairpin turn. I’m wearing my hiking vest—the one I used throughout my journey across the country—with its pockets full of lunch, snacks, camera, cell phone, basic first aid stuff, and a bottle of water in the back. I have so far hesitated to drink much, waiting to see what the water situation will be further up. I have plenty, and it’s not an oppressively hot day. Nevertheless I’ve been sweating up a storm, and I take off the long-sleeved shirt I’m wearing over a t-shirt and tie it around my waist for now.
The going is still steep for now. I realize that most of the people I meet coming down have only gone up to First Water, or at most to Orchard Camp, another two miles past that.
At 1.5 miles I reach First Water. It has taken me 50 minutes to get here. I see that it’s a little stream about two hundred feet down from the trail on an alternate path. I have read that it is not advisable to drink from the rivers up here, and I think I’ll be prudent at this point and forgo this water, since I still have plenty. If necessary I’ll drink here on the way down. Who knows what that old guy looked like before he began drinking the water up here? Also, I really don’t want to waste the time or energy to walk down to the stream and back up to the trail. So I proceed to Orchard Camp, which the sign here tells me is in 2.0 miles.
It occurs to me suddenly that today is the first day of spring, although that term and designation means a little less here in southern California than it might in the north and the east. But just as I think it I become aware of a chirping bird. Here the feeling of spring is evident at the beginning of February, in a subtle way. Nevertheless, this is the day of the vernal equinox.
About a thousand feet into the next leg of the walk I pause on a rock to rest and to contemplate the sheer absurdity, if not utter bullshit, of what the skinny jack-o-lantern man told me about the steepest part of the walk being behind me. The trail is every bit as steep where I’m walking now as it has been all along, although it is a bit shadier and I've put my outer shirt back on. And indeed it wouldn’t make any sense for the trail to be less steep, given the additional elevation ahead. The total climb is 4680 feet in 7 miles, or an average of 670 feet per mile, and the first leg of 1.5 miles was 1000 feet, which is pretty close to the average. So no, it doesn’t get less steep, you crazy old coot. Maybe for a short time, but then it would have to get even steeper to make up for that.
At a clearing looking south, I take another look at the expanse of Santa Anita Racetrack and the Westfield Mall, which have become smaller and now sit in the middle of large expanses of residential real estate of Arcadia and beyond, even as far as the gravel pits of beautiful Irwindale. It feels good to be walking again. I turn around and get a look at the cluster of towers and TV antennas on the top of Mt. Wilson. Closer, but still a long way up.
About 3.5 miles into the walk I reach Orchard Camp, the halfway point. It’s no camp, in any ordinary sense, just a flat area with some low concrete and stone sides, perhaps twenty feet square, under some shade trees. I turned off my cell phone about an hour ago, since there was no reception and the search mode was sucking down the battery power. I turn it on for a moment to check the time. It’s 12:20, so it has taken me two hours to travel this far. Obviously it would take at least that long to do the remaining half of the ascent. I’m beginning to make up my mind to go only another mile or so beyond this point and then turn around and call it a day.
As I get closer to the top I can see that white areas I sometimes mistook from the highway for patches of snow are really just outcroppings of bare rock. It does snow up here sometimes, but rarely, even in winter, does the snow remain all day. The vistas to the south, instead of getting wider, are now narrowing due to the fact that I’m getting further back into the mountain range as I proceed. As bright and clear blue as the sky is, down below on the ground the haze puts a greyness on everything, making it less than ideal for viewing the valley. I suppose only a strong breeze from the west can really clean this area out. Back in the 60s and 70s the San Gabriel Valley was known for having some of the worst smog in the greater LA area. It blew from the west across the city and got trapped between mountain ranges. But air quality improvements, largely in auto emissions, have dramatically reduced smog overall, and made the valley a desirable place to live. In fact (and maybe due to the improved air quality) the City of Arcadia is listed as having the second-highest per capita income of all cities in the U.S. with populations of over 50,000. Greenwich, Connecticut is number one.
The vegetation up here changes rapidly. Deciduous and live California oaks, mesquites, huge cedar-like evergreens, scrub pines, you name it. Though I’m not afraid (too tired and focused on putting one foot in front of the other) I find myself wondering how many people over the years have slipped off this trail to their deaths down the steep rocky hillsides on this railingless trail. Don’t know if Google will give me the answer [it didn’t, at least as far as I looked], but there must be some statistics. Well, my job at this point is to not become one of them.
I decide not to press on to Manzanita Ridge, another 1.9 miles past Orchard Camp, and instead turn around at what I reckon to be between 4 and 4.5 miles. I mark my stopping point by photographing a large dead cedar or redwood tree, so I’ll know if I get past this point on my next foray. Mt. Wilson, I’m beginning to see, is something to be worked at, just as the entire 70 mile round trip length of the San Gabriel Bikeway is.
Walking down steep hills is a rigor of a different kind. Not as aerobically challenging, to be sure, it uses the legs in ways they really weren’t intended to be used. Each step is both a progress and a putting on of the brakes, as it were, and soon my knees and the fronts of my thighs begin to tell the tale. While I can move a bit faster, I can’t go too fast for fear of tripping. I reflect on the fact that most injuries from stairs occur on the way down, not up. Occasionally a young person comes down from behind me and passes, jogging, often with a dog in tow.
I reached my highest point at 1:00, two hours and forty minutes into the walk, and it takes me until 3:00 to get to the bottom. I had thought in advance that it might take half as long to go down as it did to go up, but this wasn’t quite the case.
Easing back behind the wheel of my car it feels as if I’ve done a day’s footwork. Next time I’ll go beyond, maybe not to the top, but closer. It’s been a good walk.