Friday, April 27, 2012

Mt. Wilson At Last

Southern California

Saturday, April 21, 2012

9:50 a.m.  Starting up the Mt. Wilson Trail from Sierra Madre, telling myself that I’m going to walk it all this time.  It’s going to be a hot day down here in the valley, maybe 90, and I’m looking forward to getting up into the shadier realms and higher elevations where the heat will be more tolerable.

It’s clear and cloudless above, but hazy with smog down below.  I’m carrying in my walking vest my usual full complement of paraphernalia, evenly distributed at least, including three 16 ounce bottles of water, which I expect to refill when I come to one of the three streams the trail crosses on the way up.  I haven’t yet heard anything negative about the water quality up here, but still I’m a bit nervous about it. 

I’m amazed, as I was on the two previous occasions, at how quickly the initial feeling of energy and exhilaration leaves and the lung burning begins and fatigue sets in.  Fortunately this is just part of the process of gathering one’s second wind.  It’s very hot already on the south-facing sunny parts of this lower half of the climb.  The bandanna I carefully left out to take with me this time to mop my brow and neck is still on the back seat of the car, but I did at least remember to slather sunscreeen all over my exposed skin.

Sweat pours in sheets down my face and forehead and down the center of my back.  Even the spaces between my fingers are wet where sweat trickles down my arms.  Only my legs, in khaki shorts, haven’t started to perspire yet. 

I take few pictures of humans when I’m on these walks, and as those of you who follow the blog know, few shots of people in general.  Don’t quite know why that is, except that I’m a little reluctant to photograph people without their permission, and I don’t feel like stopping to ask them.  Nevertheless it's the humans on whom I focus my attention.  Folks with dogs, suffering hot people like me, half trotting down in my direction, all muttering the same one-word greeting (or perhaps it's merely a statement) to each other: “Morning.”  Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Latinos, Anglos, couples and families, pairs of young girls and middle aged women, men and boys, huffing and puffing older men:  “Morning.”  Very seldom do we fail to greet one another as we pass, as if to do so would violate an uncodified rule of civilized human interaction. "Morning."  I guess it's also to show each other we haven’t lost our minds or our speech.  "Morning."  Or maybe it’s like when the employees in the gym come up to oldsters like me when they see us laboring on the machines and ask a question, to make sure we can answer back and they don’t have to go get the defibrillator.

Yes, morning.  Despite the sweltering heat, I'm reminded of the sweet words of the hymn by the English writer Eleanor Farjeon, written in the 1930s.  “Morning has broken like the first morning, blackbird has spoken like the first bird.  Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise for them springing fresh from the Word.....Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning, born of the one light Eden saw play.  Praise with elation, praise every morning, God's re-creation of the new day.”

I come to the spot that was the jack o’lantern man’s seat on the first walk, but barely acknowledge or slow down for it as I make a switchback turn and let the sun hit the left side of my face for a change.  Above the dirty mist covering the San Gabriel Valley the tip of a mountain rises like a low island on a grayish white sea.  Perhaps it will grow, or disappear altogether, as I climb.  Could it be a mirage?  I know the confluence of the mist and clouds and heat can play tricks on the eye.  More will be revealed, I think.

I am armed today with a plastic-coated guide to the wildflowers of Southern California, filled with color photos of blossoms.  I stop to try to identify something with small yellow petals, which may be golden yarrow.  But none of the blooms I see seem to be the exact ones pictured, and I give up for now to concentrate on walking.  I do see (and pick and smell) lots of what appears to be wild rosemary growing in small clumps along the path.  Occasionally I catch a whiff of it through the air.

I make it the 1.5 miles to First Water in 45 minutes and pause to drink a bottle of the water I’ve brought with me.  I appreciate the patches of shade beginning to appear here and there on the path.  Somewhere between here and Orchard Camp there’s a stream where I intend to drink another bottle of my store-bought water and fill both empties.  I’m losing a great deal of fluid and without a doubt will need to take in a half gallon to feel decently hydrated.  Since I started with a quart and a half, that means I’ll have to have at least one bottle of the river water in besides.  I know at the top of the mountain I’ll be able to replenish again.

In another hour, at 11:38 a.m., I reach Orchard Camp and stop and eat a sandwich and drink some more water.  Then I begin the 1.9 mile leg up to Manzanita Ridge, by far the most difficult piece of the trek.  It has all the steepness of the piece from the street to First Water, only I’m missing the energy I had at the beginning.  Stops of a minute or so just to stand still become more frequent. 

I make it to Manzanita Ridge at 12:42 p.m., just a little over an hour from Orchard Camp.  Much better time than I made last trip.  Up here there’s a large clearing with a wide view of the mountains and valley and the summit.  In the center is a modern wooden bench.  I stand over on the shady side of it and drink another pint of water while chatting with two middle-aged women, one of whom, a pediatrician (her friend tells me), lies prostrate under a tree looking a little like a beached seal.  I ask one of them if she’s heard anything negative about the drinkability of the water from the streams on the way up and she says no—that she assumes it’s pretty clean, probably much more so than when people used to ride horses up here a hundred years ago.  I say good, because I’m drinking it now.  She takes the bottle from me and holds it up to the light, as if that will tell her anything.  It’s as clean looking as anything you’d get in the store.  “If there are any insects in it, I won’t mind,” I say.  Just some more protein.  It’s the microscopic bugs I’m concerned with.  “Well, I guess I’ll know in a few hours one way or the other,” I say.

These women have come up the same path as me, they say, but they’re done in, and have decided not to do the 2.75 miles more up to the top.  If I see their friend Anna, an Asian woman wearing a black top, would I please tell her they’re okay but won’t be going any farther?  Of course I agree, then after a few more minutes of chat (much more enjoyable than my conversation with Janos the Eastern European last time), I continue onward and upward.

At 1:15 I attain the old Toll Road and begin the last 1.75 miles up.  The forest of towers and antennas at the top is in full view.  To describe the vistas I see at this point would require me to use trite words like “magnificent” and “breathtaking,” so I just take photos instead.  It’s like an Asian painting, with the mountains above the clouds. While the layer of smog covers the populated floor of the valleys of greater Los Angeles, above it hilltops peek like enchanted floating isles.  I can just barely make out, amid the haze, the cluster of cylinders and skyscrapers that is the downtown business district of LA, and nothing else of the city, or of the sea to the southwest beyond.  What a view this must be on a breezy clear day.  Well, that’ll be for another time.  I encounter Anna, the friend of the two women at Manzanita Ridge, coming the other way, and give her the news that her friends are okay but won't be going the rest of the way up.  She has surmised as much, and is going down to meet them.  

Soon I see some parked cars, and I realize I’m not too far from the top, which is attainable by road from the other side, via La Canada-Fruitridge.  It turns out that at this point there’s another rocky steep trail that cuts off the Toll Road.  A group of Japanese people coming down tell me this trail is the way to go and I get on it, but a guy I met and talked to at the beginning of the Toll Road is still down there on the relatively wider and more gradual remnants of the roadway, strewn with boulders but still inviting if you’ve been mostly walking on a three-foot-wide ledge all day.  I can see him several dozen feet down the hillside, paralleling my rougher route.  I decide that he’s taking the easier, softer way and that I’ll definitely not take the piece of trail I'm on now on the way back down.  Still, I’m glad I’ve tried it out.  

At 1:50 I attain the summit.  I’m on the edge of a large gravel parking lot which at the moment is filled with two dozen motorcyclists who have made the vehicle trip from La Canada and are looking down the mountain.  I take a little unkind satisfaction in the realization that, like Harley riders everywhere, these folks are far too fat and out of shape and/or dissipated to have walked up.  Noble knights of the road.

Around me are a plethora of antennas and the domes of several telescopes.  In the immediate distance is a pavilion, in the center of which is a refreshment stand.  Nearby are some bathrooms where I refill all three of my water bottles for the walk down.  It’s in the 80s even up here, but I’ve stopped sweating with exertion and know I probably won’t need all the water.  Still, I’ll take it.

I venture down a road in the direction of the Mt. Wilson Observatory itself, but realize that it’s still at least a half mile distant.  I stop at a small astronomy museum—just a large room, really, where there’s some information about George Ellery Hale, the man who built the first telescope up here in the 1890s.  Later work was done up here by John D. Hooker and Edwin Hubble, among others.  The little museum also contains some great photos of outer space take from various equipment.  I decide to save the trip to the observatory for a time when I can drive up.  Besides, I have an aversion to things celestial that goes back to bad experiences I had with a couple of astronomy classes in college--my own fault, but still distasteful to contemplate.    

I decide, with advice from my leg muscles, that walking any more in the opposite direction from the top of the trail back down the mountain isn’t a good idea, so after the museum I turn around and head the quarter mile back to the refreshment stand.  Though I have plenty of water in my vest and even a couple of snacks left, it doesn’t seem right not to partake in what this store of comestibles has to offer, especially since I believe they're only open on weekends and might not be available next time I come up.  An iced coffee looks good, and to go with it I get some vanilla ice cream, in one of those little cardboard cups with the flat tabbed lids like we used to get from Mr. Greer the druggist on the last day of vacation Bible school when I was a kid.  After drinking a bit of the coffee I put the entirety of the ice cream into it, to melt slowly amid the ice and the caffeine.

It’s 2:30 as I officially start my descent from Mt. Wilson.  It took me exactly four hours to make it up, and I’m hoping I can get down a in bit more than three and back home by 6:00 p.m.  This time, however, I don’t seek out the trail, instead walking past the forest of antennas and finding the old Toll Road from which I diverged.  This will take me back to the regular trail in a little less than two miles.  You’d think, amid all this vast transmitting capacity, that cell phones would work up here, but that’s not the case.  I’ve been without a signal since just a bit past First Water.

Soon after starting down the dusty one-lane road I encounter a nice young couple I’d passed an hour or two ago on my way up.  They’re standing on a promontory overlooking the misty city, still working their way up to the top.  It’s their first time to the summit, too, and the girl, especially, is really fatigued, and they’ve obviously been stopping frequently.  “We're almost there, aren't we?” she beseeches.  I assure her that they are indeed almost there.  They ask me to take their picture with her fancy and rather heavy Nikon camera, and I oblige, asking them to return the favor with my small and trusty Canon.  We talk a bit more and then I’m on my way.

Strolling down this old autoway is by far the easiest part of the descent, and soon enough I’m back on the rocky trail and into the woods, almost trotting at times, as I make my way back to Manzanita Ridge, which I reach at 3:25.  When I get there it’s deserted, and I don’t tarry.  What a difference it makes when you’re not huffing and puffing.

To keep me company on the steep remainder of the descent I have my earphones in now and am listening on the iPod to The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, a 2004 narrative of the history of the Dutch New Amsterdam colony, based on some recently-translated 17th century Dutch records found in the New York State archives.  I’m pretty sure a word or two will be said about some of my ancestors, both Dutch and English, who were there during that period.  In any case it’s an interesting and detailed account of an aspect of American colonial history that’s usually summed up with the oversimplified story of Peter Minuit buying Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets, then followed by a fast forward over the next half century to when the British took over and renamed the place New York.

At 4:10 I get to Orchard Camp, about halfway down.  Making pretty good time.  The sweat now isn’t so much from exertion as it is from the afternoon heat shimmering up onto the increasingly less shady trail. 

At about 5:00 I pass First Water with just over 1.5 miles to go.  The only wear and tear I’m feeling is the beginnings of blisters on the bottoms of both my heels, evidently from the slippage of having to put on the brakes with almost every step.  Interestingly, I didn’t get this the last two times.  I stop to tighten my shoelaces, but I fear the damage is done. 

At 5:45 p.m. I’m back to the car.  Mission accomplished.  I'll next try the trail up Mt. Wilson that begins at a place called Chantry Flats in Arcadia, of approximately equal distance and difficulty, they say.  Then it's on to others of what are called the Six Pack of Southern California mountain hikes, up to increasingly higher elevations.  But for now, some rest for the feet.


Michael Roberts said...

Congratulations. Long uphill (up mountain) hikes are no easy feet. Pun intended. Given the heat, you might like a vest that is mesh except for the pockets. Summer wear for fly fisherman...

Billie Bob said...

While you are having a great time out in Cal climbing mountains, we here in the progressive southern state of North Carolina have just legalized discrimination. Praise Jesus. Can’t wait to leave.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

You mean re-legalized, don't you? Anyway, where are you going to run to? Michigan and California have the same laws, as do many other states. NC was just a little behind the times. Looks like you and I are going to have to postpone our marriage to one another again, old friend.