8-26-07 Hike Notes by Ruben Martinez
Hiked in the foothills of the San Gabriels today with Sesshu Foster and his friend, Arturo Romo, 27 year old artist and writer, creator of the Eufencio Rojas virtual performance. He’s a skinny kid, long thick braided ponytail trailing down his back, long pants; Sesshu was in khaki shorts I think and his brown Merrills, those huge calves tensing up the mountain.
The ascent is arduous, steep switchbacks that gain a couple of thousand feet, at least, in about two and a half miles, where we come upon the ruins of the Mt. Lowe “White City” resort, an attempt by boosters to create a high-end Swiss-like tourist destination, complete with funicular and rail line. Almost immediately we have a wide-angle lens on Altadena, Pasadena and Los Angeles spread out below us, the massive basin that the San Gabriels so suddenly leap up from. The flora is typical southern California mongrel – not unlike Griffith Park, native chaparral alongside innumerable immigrant shrubs.
This morning I watered the front yard at McCready, last night watered the back. The drought is taking its toll. The old citrus trees are slowly dying off and I suspect it’s not just old age but the stress of recent climate extremes. Even though this time of year it’s normal for yellows and browns to dominate the landscape whether it was a wet or a dry winter, this level of dryness is unprecedented. All the bushes in the front yard are weakened and some might not bounce back.
And so it was in the foothills, which I’ve seen burn on more than one occasion in my lifetime. I recall a particularly bad fire season in the early 1970s with a fire in the San Gabriels that burned, in my recollection at least, over 100,000 acres. The sky over my entire universe – which comprised the house on St. George, Franklin Elementary four blocks away, and my grandmother’s house two miles away – was thick with brown smoke, the sun a coppery disk for days, and at one point I think the sun was blocked altogether by the smoke, which deposited a thick rain of ash all over Southern California.
Many times over the years I saw the smoke and rain of ash, smelled the unmistakable tang of wild brush burning – Southern California’s mongrel brush, that crazy mix of centuries of floral migration accompanying human migration… many nights watching the fire lines, like the burning edges of lava flows, racing down the hills towards the subdivisions backed up against the mountains, modernist infernos.
Wherever I’ve gone in the West, fire has followed me. Or rather, I have found that fire is everywhere in the West. More so today. Everywhere I’ve hiked – Joshua Tree, the Big Bend, along the line in southern Arizona, in the Mojave – taken together a broad swath of the Southwestern United States, is tinder-dry, ready to be ignited by the match of a madman, a lightning strike, the backfire of a truck engine, a cigarette tossed out a car window on the highway. (I smoked for 25 years, and tossed thousands of cigarettes out my window, preferring to keep interior of the automobile from reeking too much from tobacco. which it did in any case, even as I threatened to light up the land in terrible conflagration.)
None of this was really on my mind today however.
It was strange weather. The remnants of Dean, los restos del huracan Dean as the newscaster would say in Spanish, were floating over southern California, and although chances for rain were not prognosticated to be particularly high (the forecaster on NOAA called for 20 percent but acknowledged that was an exaggeration to alert people about the possibility of some unseasonable, sudden, possibly dangerous WX (weather, in NOAA lexicon).
It was humid and cloudy, the clouds rather high, and the humidity laid down a misty blanket over the basin. In the distance toward the north looked to be some “mesoscale convective systems,” not quite super cells, but more than one billowy collection of cumulus building up.
We talked of words like “Chicano” and “Post-Chicano” and their ideology and who uses them for what purpose and we talked of local journalism (we all agree that the Weekly is a piece of shit), and we talked of hiking and camping with kids, and Arturo talked of his honeymoon (in San Felipe, just two weeks ago with his young wife). San Felipe
Where the tide pulled back
So fast and far
That I thought a tsunami
Would soon thrust itself over us
Embrace us in smashing froth
But the blue wall never came,
The tide kept going further
And further out
Perhaps half a mile
At least that
Maybe a whole,
On our way to the shore
Of mainland Mexico,
It was 1987,
Some year like that,
One dressed in orphan rags
One of ideology and art
Lots of beer and rum and sex
The point is,
We fucked at the bottom of that ocean
That’s how I’ve always thought of it
Your toes dug into the clay-sand,
And then we returned
to the terrible moment
on the shore,
the war whose wave sent you
to my broken arms
It was a strenuous hike. I set a moderate pace as lead the first 20 minutes or so, then Sesshu sped things up a bit. We met many people coming down the trail, and passed a few that were ascending. It wasn’t as “diverse” a crowd as you see in Griffith Park, but fairly electic.
No trees to speak of until we arrived at the ruins of the White City, where there was a stand of pines near where the tennis courts once were, and some sycamore-like trees, yellow-green leaves and aspen-like trunks, many scratched with graffiti and I told Sesshu and Arturo about the aspen graffiti in New Mexico. “It’s really beautiful up there,” Arturo said when I told him where we lived. Yes, it was, and that is invariably what everyone says when you tell them that you lived in a tiny farming village in northern New Mexico. You are lucky! That must have been amazing!
Go up to the “echo phone” and Sesshu shouts “Leonard” with a big yawp into the megaphone that faces Echo Mountain and two seconds later the voice bounces back loud and clear, and Lenny perks his ears and cocks his head and looks out across the big ravine between us and the face of the mountain.
Another funny thing about the weather. Even as it was generally, pleasantly warm and humid, but certainly not hot, there were occasional gusts of genuinely cool air, especially on our way down, and above 2000 feet (my guess is that we began the climb at 750 or even 1000 feet above sea level, ascending about 2000 feet on the trail). These felt like hints of autumn; Angela and I have noted other such cool moments through the latter part of this summer, unseasonable weather – earthquake weather (and we had a 4 point –something a couple of weeks ago in the middle of the night, neither of us woke to it).
The White City was an elegant 70-room Victorian, another 40-room hotel, a tavern, a casino, an observatory, a railway stop, etc. and etc., all of which fell victim to fires, floods, winds, rockslides, the curse that any California developer faces when fucking with the natural events of the this clime and this land.
Looked down on the great basin from the ruins of the White City. JPL, the Rose Bowl, the subdivisions creeping up the backside of the Verdugo Hills. “On a clear day you can see the ocean,” Sesshu says. He also said, “It sure didn’t turn out to be the White City these guys wanted it to be,” laughing.
Took our time walking around the stone and concrete foundations, looking down into the large cistern (sample graffiti: “La Muñeca”). And, finally, down the hill.
Lenny was hot and tired, scurrying toward even the most miserable shade of a brittle-leafed shrub.
We were within a quarter mile of the trailhead when we saw the fire. I heard it first. Like an angry god tearing a skyscraping piece of paper, along with the typical snaps and pops of logs in a fireplace, but again on a massive scale. The breeze couldn’t have been more than 5 miles an hour, with gusts a little higher, but even so with the tremendous dryness of the brush, and the dramatic incline of the hill (nearly vertical), the flames shot up at least 15 feet, marching up the hill, consuming an acre within a couple of minutes.
On the switchback above us, we heard voices, a trio of hikers were calling 911 on a cell phone. Other hikers were running down the hill. Heard sirens within a couple of minutes. And then a spotter helicopter, and another, and another, the first water drop took place within 15 minutes.
We stood there staring. A young, thin California blonde stopped and stared next to us. Lenny kept wanting to get up close to her, maybe she was on her period. She wore incredibly thin and short shorts.
“Just another relaxing day in California,” she said.
Sheriff’s squad cars and busloads of strike crews, a terrifically fast response, they’ve had decades of these conflagrations to train, to prepare, and here it is, a live performance and the water and the retardant rain from the heavens and hikers are evacuated…
I say goodbye to Romo and Sesshu, walk to my car past dozens of residents-turned-spectators, if the wind were to shift, which of course it easily could…
I drive down Lake, more assets roaring and sirening up the the wide, steep avenue, and even a few miles down there are still people out on the street,
Looking up at the mountain,
At the burning eye
On its face, which expands
With every exhalation
From the dying hurricane.
Los Angeles burns, again
Ten Favorite Books of All Time
Burt Amos, NOTHING BUT SWEET AND STINKY
Eleanor Hiyakawa, GARDEN OF FIGURINES, SCENT OF VERBIAGE
Sigefredo Lemus Azores, LIVE CLEAN TODAY, DIRTY BASTARDS
Elspeth Carriaga, FASHIONABLE DRINKING IN ONE HOUR
Remo Tenedor, IRONCLAD DIRIGIBLES OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
Steve Frank Goldang, CUT A FIGURATIVE SWATH BY HAND
Gabby Alsueno, DIRIGIBLES DRAGGED ME FROM THE SEA
Helleen Mirozaki, HELP ME A LITTLE VOICE SAID
Dorotea Islotes, REPUBLICANS IN JAIL AND OUT
Carson Telluride, TORTURE FOR LAWYERS
Dick Cheney, THE NATURE WRITINGS