Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mt. Wilson, Part 2

Monrovia, California

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Let us give thanks for the Buckeyes’ loss in the Final Four. Now I can relax and await the start of baseball season in a couple of days.

Last Saturday I made my second foray up Mt. Wilson, still not reaching the top, but getting a couple of miles farther than I did the first time. Without a doubt I could have made it, as I breezed (and wheezed) past my previous high point; but again I got a rather late start and didn’t feel I had time to go the last mile and three-quarters up. Besides, it was a misty day and the view from the top would have been nonexistent. Nevertheless there were many people on the trail, heedless of the mist and fog. Let me now switch to the contemporaneous recorded account of the day.

Saturday, March 31, 2012, 10:40 a.m. I’m starting out on a cool and misty day in Sierra Madre up the Mt. Wilson Trail. As with my first time up, the first few minutes are an adjustment—pain in the legs and burning in the lungs. As I look down toward the valley I see only fog, and the same when I look up.

This being a Saturday there are many more people out on the trail, notwithstanding the weather, than the last time I walked, which was a relatively clear Tuesday. I don’t see too many just now, but I know it’s crowded because the parking is more limited on the streets down below.

The challenge for today is to make it to the dead tree I reached last time and go a bit beyond. I don’t have ambitions to reach the summit, just to improve on the last walk. Nor would this necessarily be a great day to be at the top, since visibility is only about enough to ensure that the hundred feet of trail in front of me is clearly visible.

Just at the hairpin turn where I met the mendacious jack-o-lantern man I begin climbing into damp cool mist. Knowledge of what lies before one is an important asset in any journey. Forewarned is forearmed, and all that. So I continue climbing this time with the knowledge that the first two stopping places—First Water and Orchard Camp—are eminently attainable.

Walking is a time for contemplation--hence for me the recorder into which I am speaking now. As I pass groups I can pick up snatches of conversation or monologues. People—women especially—talking about relationships and goals and problems. Men are more taciturn, or else talk about things less personal. We don’t naturally bare and share, as a rule, at least not in a setting like this.

At 11:24 a.m., 44 minutes into the walk, I reach First Water, which is 1.5 miles. Better time than I made last trip. I pause only long enough to look at the clock on my phone and forge ahead to the next stopping point. The cool dampness is beginning to tell and my initial sweating, which caused my to take off my outer shirt, is giving way to a feeling of chill that makes me put my the shirt back on now that I’m pretty much in full shade. Between First Water and Orchard Camp is an area of somewhat flat spots punctuated by occasionally downward dips. Pumpkin Man didn’t lie about that, and it occurs to me that he was only talking about this stretch compared to the previous one. Perhaps I’ve dealt too harshly with him. But when the steep sections come, which they do, they’re all the more steep to make up for the flat parts.

I’m not fully engulfed in fog, but close to it. Still I can see about fifty feet ahead, and since my sight must be on what’s immediately in front of me anyway, this isn’t such a bad thing. No unnecessary sky-gazing today. One foot in front of the other. Nor, like Lot’s wife, am I tempted to look back.

At 12:24, exactly one hour after attaining First Water, I reach Orchard Camp two more miles. So far I’ve done 3.5 miles in one hour and 40 minutes. Good time, for me. I pause here to rest and eat my sandwich, sitting a bit apart from a group of about a dozen middle-aged Japanese people, replete with backpacks and the best walking equipment including the things that look like modified cross-country ski poles many people use for the downhill part of the trek. They’re speaking their language and resting, appearing as they so often do somehow busy even in leisure. The worker bees of the human race. I think they’re on their way down, but I’m not sure. Orchard Camp is bigger than I had first realized—perhaps a fifty-foot-square flat expanse surrounded by large shade trees. This could well have been an overnight camping spot, and perhaps still is.

Now the trail becomes pretty consistently steep, like walking a continuous erratic and broken down stone staircase. Suddenly I look up and see that I’m standing in front of the dead evergreen that was the apex of my last walk, its drooping branches hanging mournfully against the white mist behind it. I continue on, although I must say that fatigue is setting in. I’ve gotten to this place in about 30 minutes less than I did last time. Very encouraging, and no more wear and tear on the body than before.

At a large outcropping of rock in the trail on either side of a stream I encounter four men on mountain bicycles coming down from the summit. I’m impressed to say the least. If you could see this trail you’d say they were insane for trying to bike it, as there’s rarely a stretch of more than fifty feet that isn’t punctuated with rocks or tree limbs lying across the path. But I suppose people have done crazier things. They do walk their bikes across the boulder and the stream, however.

Now I’m in terra incognita, and each bend shows new vegetation and new somewhat more treacherous pieces of trail. It gets steeper and rockier and stranger, the alpine trees and shrubs coexisting with agaves and yuccas. I pause to sit on a large rock and take a drink of water and rest my legs. Cold mist blows up from the ravine below, reminding me of the mist they blow at you as you enter the casinos in Las Vegas, to cool you down. Here the mist is about the same temperature as the air, however, which I would guess to be in the mid-50s.

No sooner do I say that into the recorder than I turn a corner and catch a warm breeze—from where I don’t know. Immediately the temperature is ten degrees warmer. Then I turn away from the edge of the mountain and back into the deep shade and the air gets cool again. This happens twice more. Perhaps I’m getting above the clouds.

At 1:38, or about an hour and 15 minutes after Orchard Camp, I reach what I take to be Manzanita Ridge, although there’s no sign to that effect. So this 2 miles has been quite a bit slower. My pace has slackened. The sign here says “Mt. Wilson Junction,” and is of more recent vintage than the other ones I’ve seen. To my disappointment it says Mt. Wilson itself is 2.25 more miles, not the 1.5 I’d expected. Based on that it looks as if Mt. Wilson is 7.75 miles from the beginning, not the 7 the old signs promised. A mile and three quarters on flat ground wouldn’t mean a hell of a lot, but up here it does.

I sit on a nice new wooden bench facing south. This is a wide flat area where several paths come together—the one I took and one or two from further east, perhaps starting to the east over in Arcadia. Beyond me on a clear day, to the west, would be a view of the top.

During my ten minutes on the bench a tall thin guy perhaps my age comes clambering up and emerges from the trail I was just on, dressed mostly in orange, sockless and in shorts and a nylon windbreaker, with a pair those newfangled mesh shoes I’m seeing everywhere—not the ones with the individual toes, but similar to them. He sits down and immediately begins talking, complaining about the fact that the sun isn’t shining, as if there were anything either of us could do about it. “I love the sunshine. I must have sunshine,” he says in an Eastern European accent. Good for you, I think.

This man quickly reminds me of an older version of the character Janos from an episode of Seinfeld. He was the guy who ran a tennis shop but couldn’t play tennis, and convinced Jerry to let him win while his wife watched them. Then as Jerry obligingly misses and lets him win, Janos begins to taunt him and call him names. “Look at the little baby, can’t even hit the ball,” etc. Naturally Jerry gets pissed and begins to beat him.

The patter this guy keeps up has the same obnoxious tone to it, though not directed at me. First he makes light, in a loud voice, of a group of Asians who have arrived at the ridge to rest—a large extended family or collection of friends, in fact, spanning at least three generations. They’re on their way down from the summit. “Look at the Koreans,” he says, “they have so much gear. They have everything.” This is pretty much true, but I’m mystified why he has to point out to them and the world in general that he knows they are Koreans. My obnoxious Eastern European guy has only a small rucksack. Already he’s putting me a bit on edge. Up here we should all be brothers and sisters, I’m thinking. Then he starts ribbing them about whether they left him any food at the top (apparently there’s a restaurant, or at least a concession stand). “You’d better have left me something to eat! I’m starving!” Concerned a bit and knowing that sometimes people don't plan ahead, I offer to let him have one of my snacks. “No,” he says loudly, “I’m just bullshitting.”

Then he asks me if I know what time it is. I pull out my cell phone and tell him, then I add, “This is all this phone is good for up here, just to tell the time. There’s no reception.” He says, “They don’t waste their money putting cell phone service where there are no people.” Good point. We talk a bit about cell phone dead spots and he says he wonders when satellites will get better. I hold up my phone and say something to the effect that phone technology is worlds better than it was 20 years ago. “No,” he says emphatically. “I wish it were like it was 20 years ago. These kids today, they walk around with their phones in their hands like little babies with their milk bottles.”

It’s at this point that the guy really becomes Janos from Seinfeld. I want to ask him if he liked the way it was twenty years ago in whatever country he came from, but he’s up and on his way without so much as a good-bye. It occurs to me that five minutes with some people is about four minutes and 59 seconds too long, and I spend a few moments feeling sorry for his wife, his children, and his grandchildren before I move on.

At this point I don’t know if I’m going to make it to the top or not, but I’m pleased that I’ve exceeded the distance of the last walk, so I’ll be content with whatever transpires hereafter.

At 6 miles I reach the place where the trail meets the old Mt. Wilson Toll Road, a bumpy one-lane affair that apparently becomes the trail from here on up. The Toll Road runs more or less north and east up the mountain from Altadena, a small town just north of Pasadena. It was created after the Harvard telescope was placed on Mt. Wilson in 1889, and was in existence as a motor way from 1891 until the 1930s, when it was replaced by a better road running up the other side of the mountain from a point in La Canada-Flintridge. It’s no longer drivable because of the many large boulders that have rolled into the roadway, but gets used by hikers and cyclists. And for me it bodes well in terms of being comparatively wider and flatter than what I’ve come up so far. The sign says it’s 1.75 miles to the top.

I pause on a large rock about 200 feet up the Toll Road to contemplate my options. I have a tantalizingly short distance to go. I could go the extra distance to the top, which would add another 3.5 miles round trip. That would be another hour and a half, maybe more, not counting time spent at the summit. I decide instead that this is where I’ll turn around for today. The time is 2:15. I’ve been at it for 3 hours and 35 minutes and the walk down will probably take about 3 hours, getting me back to the car a little after 5:00. That should be sufficient for today, so I start back.

The temptation on the way down is to break into a trot because it’s so steep, but this I fear would play hell with my knees and probably cause me to stumble and fall headlong into . . . what? So I walk as quickly as I can but keep it at a walk, inserting the ear buds from my iPod to listen to a recorded book. It's called The Man Who Ate His Boots, by Anthony Brandt, a detailed and very well-written account of the British search for the Northwest Passage across Canada in the early to mid-1800s. Listening to the accounts of the hardships of British Navy men, the French voyageurs, and their native North American helpers facing starvation and cold and endless days and nights stuck in the ice going God knows where makes me feel warm and comfortable in comparison.

When I get back to Manzanita Ridge the clouds overhead clear just long enough to afford me a ten-second look at the towers on Mt. Wilson. Then I’m back into the rocks and the trees and the mist and fog once more. The piece from here to Orchard Camp is by far the steepest. I’m told by some friendly people I meet on the bench I earlier shared with Janos that there’s a museum up on Mt. Wilson too, so I do want to allow myself at least half an hour up there.

The humidity is so heavy that it’s almost raining. At 3:40 I stop to sit and rest at Orchard Camp for about two minutes then proceed down to First Water. This next piece will be a bit better, characterized by some nearly flat spots from time to time. Tiring as it all is, today’s walk has been easier than the first one was.

A little above First Water I finally descend below the worst of the fog and can actually see the mountains surrounding me and a little bit of the wide view of the San Gabriel Valley, including Santa Anita Racetrack in the haze. At about 5:15, just as I’d guessed, I finally reach the bottom and walk the half mile to the car. 12 miles this time. Another good walk.

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