THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

MT. WILSON TRAIL

``Somewhere in the depths of solitude, beyond wildness and freedom, lay the trap of madness.''

From ``The Monkey Wrench Gang'' (1975) by Edward Abbey.

Before the white men invaded their lands, Gabrieleno Indians enjoyed the warm, dry climate of Southern California and the acorns and berries that grew in abundance in the canyons of the San Gabriel mountains. In winter they would come down out of the foothills to fish and hunt on the plains of the Los Angeles basin. But when spring came and the heat began to rise they would retreat to enjoy the fruits and coolness in the depths of the canyons. Untold centuries of habit had established Indian trails that led into these canyons and even over the mountains to the desert beyond. One such trail entered the foothills just north of the modern-day community of Sierra Madre and followed a canyon we now know as ``Little Santa Anita Canyon''. It eventually wound its way to the highest point in the local range, a mountain now known as Mount Wilson. Like many Indian trails this path was less than a foot wide and, in places, exceedingly steep and dangerous. But, it allowed access to one of the most beautiful wooded glens in the whole range, an idyllic glade at the head of Little Santa Anita Canyon. There, for many, many centuries, the foothills witnessed the same cycle of life. And, some years before the Spanish explorers passed in their ships, a small acorn took root in the fertile soil of the canyon bottom and began a 500 year odessey, leading to the magnificent oak tree that now presides over the spot we now know as ``Orchard Camp''.

In 1841, early in the days of the pioneers, Benjamin Davis Wilson, a fur-trapper born in Tennesse in 1811, came west to California. He claimed that he was on his way to China, though it seems unlikely that there was much future for a fur-trapper in China. Arriving in the Los Angeles area he decided to stay and bought land near Riverside with the intent of trying his hand at cattle ranching. In 1844, his fortunes seemed to take a major step forward when he married Ramona Yorba, the daughter of a prominent and influential Spanish-American family. Two years later, however, came the Mexican war that pitted the largely Anglo-American Northern Californians against the predominantly Mexican-American Southerners. Wilson sided with his fellow Anglo-Americans and spent most of the war in jail in the south. With the victory of the northerners, Wilson's fortunes changed again and he entered both business and politics in the still small pueblo of Los Angeles. At that time, the population was about 500. One measure of Wilson's revived fortunes was his election as mayor in 1851.

Wilson's political and business successes allowed him to purchase his own ranch and, in 1854, he bought the 128-acre Rancho La Huerta de Cuati at the top of the San Gabriel Valley in the lee of the San Gabriel mountains. That ranch represented the nucleus of a larger dominion that ``Don Benito'' (as he became known to the largely Spanish population) accummulated in the years that followed. His hacienda came to include large parts of the present cities of San Marino, Pasadena and Sierra Madre.

A shortage of timber in the desert-like surroundings of the valley prompted Wilson to glance up with increasing frequency at the wooded peaks of the mountains towering over his lands. In 1864, he sent his Mexican and Indian ranchhands to explore and improve the old Indian trail that began in Sierra Madre and led up the Little Santa Anita to Mount Wilson. Wilson recognized that this trail could give him access to the stands of pine and spruce that covered the higher slopes, and he decided to widen and improve the trail in order to harvest the timber. But, the slopes of the geologically young San Gabriels are steep and rugged and progress on the trail was painstakingly slow. By April, the work crew had reached a point near the head of the canyon where there was a particularly beautiful, wooded glen dominated by a magnificient oak. Since this glen was almost exactly halfway to the summit, Wilson decided that it was a strategic spot at which to build a ``Halfway House''. A wooden shack was constructed in the shade of the great oak. Eventually, the way station also included stables and a blacksmith's forge for the horses.

Impatient to see what lay beyond his Halfway House, Don Benito and his children's tutor, William McKee, decided one April day to press on to the summit without the benefit of a trail. Loading their horses with food and camping gear, they scrambled up the steep slopes and through the dense brush at the head of Little Santa Anita Canyon. Eventually they reached the saddle between Mount Harvard and Mount Wilson and made their way, just before sunset, to the summit of Mount Wilson. There, amidst the stands of pine and spruce, they could look out over a magnificient panorama. The valley below was dotted with ranches. The pueblo of Los Angeles may have been visible in the distance, and they could certainly make out the ocean with the profile of the mountains of Catalina on the horizon.

The remains of two log cabins on the summit provided mute testimony to previous, unknown adventurers. The tracks of a bear testified to a more dangerous visitor. In those days, California grizzly bears were common in the San Gabriels. The grizzly is now extinct and the brown bears that roam the mountains these days are a recent import. The group were relieved to find a spring of fresh water a few yards west of the summit and settled down to spend the night there.

Late in the summer of 1864, the trail was completed. Wilson built a cabin and other facilities on the summit and his men began to harvest the timber. However, after a few weeks, it became clear that the project was not very practical and Wilson abandoned the enterprise. Nevertheless, his name was now permanently associated with the mountain and the trail he built became one of his most enduring legacies. Indeed, for many decades it remained the only access to the top of Mount Wilson.

A few years after Wilson abandoned his timber business and his ``Halfway House'', the latter was homesteaded by George Islip, who planted a small orchard of apple, pear, cherry and plum trees on a narrow bench near the house. The trees soon bore fruit and an increasing number of hunters, fishermen and even hikers began to enjoy this natural rest stop in the shade of the huge oak tree. At this time, it acquired its modern name, Orchard Camp. Islip was later joined by another mountain man, George Aiken, and they supplemented their income by keeping bees and making wooden singles both of which they transported to the valley below. For reasons that are unclear, Islip and Aiken abandoned Orchard Camp prior to 1880 and, for about a decade, it lay derelict though a favorite camping spot for hikers, horsemen and hunters.

As the population in the valley grew, the recesses of the canyons became a favorite weekend retreat. It was the dawn of the great hiking era. In the middle of the 1880s as many as 70 people might spent the night at Orchard Camp, the ladies in the old wooden shelter while the men braved the open ground. Mount Wilson remained a favorite weekend destination and it became customary for hiking parties to build a large fire to signal their arrival at the summit to family and friends waiting in the valley below. With this rapid increase in the use of the trail, there was clearly a place for a way station to serve the needs of visitors. Capt. Fred Staples, an old ``fortyniner'', had homesteaded Halfway House sometime before 1889 and, a few years later, sold the property to A.G. Strain. Strain leased it out to a series of individuals who operated it as a way station and weekend resort. The first of these proprietors was James McNally who turned the cabin into a refreshment stand and built cabins and tent houses nearby. To improve access to this increasingly popular resort, burros could be rented from the Mount Wilson Stables in Sierra Madre. In 1912, McNally sold his interest in the resort to Foster W. Huston who enlarged and improved the facilities, adding a dance hall and a croquet court as well as more accommodations.

For more than fifty years, Orchard Camp served the needs of all who passed that way. It became one of the most popular retreats in all of the San Gabriels. And when the interurban railway of the Pacific Electric Company brought the ``Big Red Cars'' to Sierra Madre in 1906, crowds of hikers would arrive early on Saturday morning bound for the local canyons. Come Sunday evening the reverse migration would occur. At its peak in the year 1911, over 40000 people signed the register at Orchard Camp.

The hiking era came to a close soon after the automobile began to dominate people's lives. Roads were driven into the San Gabriels and few people ventured more than a few hundred yards from their automobiles. Orchard Camp was abandoned in 1940 and the remains of the buildings were demolished by the Forest Service shortly thereafter. But the great oak tree remained and, today, that beautiful glen has reverted almost completely to its natural state. The number of visitors is probably a few percent of the number who came in 1911. For me it is a special place and I am glad of that silence.

Other weekend cabins and way stations were constructed in Little Santa Anita Canyon. Halfway between Sierra Madre and Orchard Camp, the trail first encounters the stream at a point that is now called First Water. It is a pretty place with shady trees and a stream that forms a series of small swimming pools, connected by waterfalls. It rapidly became a favorite picnic spot. There, in 1888, Emil Deutsch built a cabin for his family and gave it the logical name, Quarterway House. Later, this cabin was leased to George Damon, the Dean of Engineering at Throop Polytechic Institute (that later became the California Institute of Technology) during the period 1911-1917. Several other cabins were built nearby. Nothing remains of these structures but First Water still serves as a welcome rest stop after the tough climb up the wall of the lower canyon.

In its early days, the Mount Wilson Trail also witnessed a number of other important events. The burgeoning interest in science during the second half of the 19th century gave rise, in the 1880s, to major developments in the field of astronomy. Scientists began to seek out high mountain-top locations around the world where clear air and good weather would allow the sharpest view of the heavens. It occurred to some of the local leaders that Mount Wilson might be an ideal site for star gazing and that a observatory on that peak might bring both prestige and business to the region. Consequently, they set out to attract a reputable astronomer to lead such an enterprise. Eventually, they persuaded the director of the Harvard University Observatory, Professor Edward Pickering, of the merits of the idea and the director dispatched his brother, William, to the west coast along with a small, 13-inch telescope, that would serve as a test experiment.

Prominent among the local boosters of the Observatory scheme was Judge Eaton, a resident of Pasadena, who offered to arrange to transport the telescope up the trail to Mount Wilson. The telescope would be dismantled for the journey. However, when it finally arrived in Sierra Madre on February 20, 1889, the Judge was crestfallen to discover that, instead of the anticipated weight of 1600 pounds, the telescope was found to weigh 3700 pounds! Nevertheless the Judge set to work immediately. The trail was improved and widened in places. The parts of the telescope were loaded on a specially constructed dolly, and a team of six men and two horses began the slow process of transport to the summit. In some places the two horses pulled the dolly; more frequently the dolly had to be winched forward with the help of a block and tackle. Progress was painfully slow. Though the event was not recorded, one can imagine the day when the team paused in the shade of the great oak, girding themselves for the second half of the journey. Progress continued without major incident until they reached a point about two miles from the summit. There, a late winter storm suddenly arrived and dropped about two feet of snow. The team had no alternative but to abandoned their cargo to the elements and beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of Orchard Camp. However, within a few days they were able to resume their task and, on April 3, 1889, Judge Eaton lit a large fire on the summit to signal the success of the venture. The journey had taken more than thirty days to complete.

Though Harvard University removed the 13-inch telescope just a few years later, the instrument had clearly demonstrated the value of the site for an observatory. Though a hesitant start, the experiment did represent the beginning of a glorious history for Mount Wilson in the annals of astronomy research. Later, a number of ground breaking telescopes including the Snow solar telescope, the 60-inch reflecting telescope and the spectacular 100-inch Hooker reflecting telescope placed the Mount Wilson Observatory in the international forefront of astronomy research. It is said that during more than 50 years of operation, the 100-inch telescope contributed more to man's knowledge of the universe than any other single instrument. For 31 years it remained the most powerful telescope in the world and witnessed many remarkable discoveries in the furthest reaches of space. These later developments were made possible by the construction of a new road to Mount Wilson. This new road, initially constructed as a trail in 1891, was improved to carry vehicles in 1907 and then began operation as the Mount Wilson Toll Road. It followed an easier but longer route up Eaton Canyon, some distance west of the old trail. The two routes met at a point just below the Harvard-Wilson saddle.

The construction of this new road reduced the use of the old Mount Wilson Trail. Nevertheless, the old trail continued to attract hikers for many years until it fell into disuse during the Second World War. Fortunately, several dedicated Sierra Madre residents devoted substantial time and effort to the maintenance of the old trail. It might otherwise have disappeared entirely for each winter the rains inevitably cause significant damage. During the 1950s, Bill Wark and a group of volunteers put much effort into restoring the trail and, for over thirty years, Ambrose Zarro (who became known as the ``Grand Old Man of the Trail'') almost singlehandedly maintained it in good condition. The hiking community mourned Ambrose's death in 1990.


The Mount Wilson Trail Race was inaugurated in 1908 when a very tough group of young men, raced up the trail from Sierra Madre, rested for half and hour at the summit, and then raced down to Sierra Madre again. Thus began the tradition of the second oldest foot race in California. The event was held sporadically until the early 1950s. After a hiatus of more than ten years, it was revived in the fall of 1965 and then, in the spring of 1967, it took its present form as part of ``Search and Rescue Days'', held to promote interest in and support for Sierra Madre's volunteer Mountain Search and Rescue Team. The present race is about half the length of the original event. The start and finish lines are in Kersting Court in the center of Sierra Madre. Participants race up Baldwin Avenue, turn right on Mira Monte and then left onto the trail. They proceed up the steep trail to Orchard Camp, about 4.2 miles from the start, where, after touching the large oak, they turn around and retrace their steps. The elevation gain is about 2100ft along a trail that is rarely more than three feet wide and has vertical drops of several hundred feet in many places. The return run downhill is almost as difficult since the frontrunners and backmarkers must negotiate their way past one another on the narrow trail. The difficulty of the event depends somewhat on the state of the trail and this varies considerably from year to year depending on the extent of the storm damage during the preceding winter. Therefore, records are not kept; however, the winner in 1992, Michael Gottardi, completed the course in 58 minutes and 19 seconds.

Looking back, I cannot be sure of the exact progression of events that led me to enter the 1994 Mount Wilson Trail Race. I know that I became aware of the race shortly after we first moved to Sierra Madre in 1978(?). And at some point in the middle or late 1980s, my son and I began to jokingly challenge one another to enter. Each year, about two weeks prior to the race, the city would erect a banner over Baldwin Avenue, announcing the event. By that time it was too late to prepare for the race and so another year would go by. I had serious doubts that my rugby-damaged knees were strong enough to participate without buckling and thereby causing debilitating injury. However, by 1994 all the hiking had strengthened my knees to the point where participation seemed feasible. Moreover, early in 1994, an announcement of the race in the local newspaper, the Sierra Madre News, caught my attention in lots of time to allow for preparatory training.

In my entire life, I had never entered any contest of this sort and therefore I had many trepidations. But I loved the trail and Orchard Camp in particular. Many, many times I had hiked up to the shadow of the great oak and it became a significant symbol of the enduring wonder of the San Gabriels. Almost wilfully I entered the race and, about a month before the event, I made my first very tentative attempts to run up the trail. The first few times, beginning at our home, I could not even run to the trailhead without stopping. The slope of Baldwin Avenue was more than I could surmount and I would have to stop to haul great lungfulls of breath into my body. I would then force myself onward at a modest walking pace only to find that, on the steep trail, I could not even keep that up without stopping. It was all most humbling especially since I thought I had acquired some level of fitness. Even when I turned around to come down after only a mile or so, further indignities awaited me. The jarring motion caused by running downhill was very hard on my knees, but that I expected. What I did not expect was that my belly flopped up and down in a way that rapidly became painful and caused me to stop even before my knees did. It was all quite depressing. I should have concluded that my participation in the race was foolhardy at best; I could probably have minimized the teasing of my family by claiming that my knees simply could not absorb the punishment. But I also remembered a moment from my youth when I gave up during a cross-country race because I felt sick. I have never quite forgiven myself for that failure and I knew I could not repeat it. And so I forced myself to attack the trail again. I went to the athletic store and purchased a corset of the kind worn by many athletes and that helped damp the motions of my belly. I bought a proper pair of running shoes and that helped my knees. And, as the days past, I found I could go a little further without stopping and that I could get further up the trail without turning around. I still had to walk most of the way up the steep trail but at least it was a fast walk and, after three weeks, I managed, for the first time, to make it all the way to Orchard Camp without stopping. Now, however, only a week remained before the race.

I had, clearly, left it much too late to begin training. There was no alternative but to allow my body to recover somewhat before the big day. So, during that last week, I concentrated on shorter efforts. I tried each day to reach First Water as fast as possible. One of the first such efforts coincided with a day that was significant hotter than at any time during previous training. And the higher temperature caused me to overheat, bringing on an attack of nausea. I had to stop before First Water to be sick at the side of the trail. As I sprawled on the sand at the side of the trail, I could not help but question my own sanity. And yet I knew that much of what I had ever achieved had come from an uncompromising determination to persevere and that I would have to continue. When the nausea subsided, I struggled on to First Water and resolved not to be defeated. I avidly hoped that it would be cooler on the day of the race.

And so my inadequate training came to a close two days before the race. I was fairly sure I could finish the race even though I had only completed the full course once. I had encountered others training on the hill and had few allusions about my own prowess. But I hoped that I would not finish last.

On the morning of May 28, 1994, I arose before dawn and began my physical and mental preparations with too much time to spare. About 7am Doreen drove me down the few hundred yards to the center of our village, the intersection of Baldwin Avenue and Sierra Madre Boulevard. Already this was a hive of activity with numerous volunteer race officials and other spectators. The prospective participants milled around exuding a nervous energy as they trotted on the spot or made brief sprints up the hill as much to test their resolve as to warm up. I figured that I would be warm quite soon enough for the morning showed all the signs of being hot. I made my way over to the check-in table and, very efficiently, received a plastic bag containing my commemorative tee shirt and my number plate. I hesitated for a moment before attaching the latter to my chest for I recognized that, thereafter, I would clearly be committed to participation. My number was 19. I thought that this moderately-sized prime number was appropriate to my circumstances and idly wondered if it would be notorious in the annals of the Mountain Wilson Trail Race.

   
Starting up the hillApproaching the finish

Nearly 200 runners had shown up but only a few were determined to jostle for the most advantageous places on the starting line. The rest seemed less competitive, more focussed on simple survival. We gathered in a dilute group, behind the Start banner strung across Baldwin Avenue. As the starting time approached, I placed myself strategically at the back and side of the pack.

It was a genuine trill when the starter's gun went off and we moved, en masse, up Baldwin. There was a sense of epic, of sallying forth where only the brave would venture. But this did not last long for that surge of adrenalin made me begin too fast and I had barely reached the turn onto Mira Monte before I was gasping for breath. Near the start of the trail itself I slowed to my accustomed fast walk and began to settle into a pace I could maintain. Already I was near the rear of the pack, just a few stragglers behind me. However, there was a continous line ahead of me so I was still ``in contact'' with the mass of participants. As the trail wound back and forth I could see that line snake up the mountain, stretching as it went. The initial steep ascent up the switchbacks that climb the western wall of Little Santa Anita, was made more difficult by the heat. There is little shade on this part of the trail and the morning sun seemed merciless. But I breathed as deeply and regularly as I could and fended off the nausea, knowing that this was the worst part of the course. I knew that, had it been cooler, I could have gone faster but not by that much.

The first water stop manned by the Boy Scouts was, appropriately, at First Water. This was a most welcome way station for the psychological lift as much as for the water. Another steep but short section follows First Water and as I ascended this section, I felt an increasing strength and my rhythm increased slightly. And I began to experience the pleasure of passing other runners; indeed, I was clearly making progress relative to the others at the back of the pack.

An exciting moment occurred when shouts of ``Runner coming!'' were relayed down the mountain. The leader (and eventual winner), Michael Gottardi, came gliding down the trail at an amazing speed. We all stood to the side of the trail to let him pass unimpeded and to marvel at his grace. It still looked like a suicidal speed to me but he made it seem easy. He was well ahead and it was some minutes before the cry of ``Runner coming'' went up again. Soon it became so common as to be superfluous.

There is a small clearing on a ridge, used as an emergency helicopter pad, that marks the three-quarter point on the way to Orchard Camp. Here the trail becomes less steep and I was able to sustain a run over this flatter section. Moreover, the canyon is heavily forested along this stretch. The cool of the shade and my rising excitement and confidence as Orchard Camp grew nearer, gave me further strength. I continued to pass other runners. And as I reached the summit and ran the last hundred yards downhill into Orchard Camp, it was with a real joy for life that I greeted the crowd of officials and Boy Scouts gathered under the great oak. They had placed a hat on the ground to mark the turn-around point but I walked on a few paces to the trunk of the oak. I placed my hands on its ancient surface and, for a brief and silent moment, paid reverence in my own way.

But only for a moment for there were still 4.2 miles to go. By now the back markers were widely separated and so, for long sections, I was running alone. For the first downhill mile, I encountered the stragglers on their way up the mountain but soon even they were gone. Still exhilerated, I looked forward to passing the Mountain Rescue people stationed at each of the danger points and amused myself by asking ``Where's the bus?'' as I passed. The later part of the descent was hard because my knees became sore and then numb from the continuous pounding. The numbness induced a sense of instability and inevitably I slowed a little, losing a few places to younger and more robust bodies. But the descent takes about half of the time required for the ascent and so it was not long before I neared the end of the trail. People were gathered at the intersection on Mira Monte and they seemed to cheer and clap for me as much as everyone else.

On Mira Monte there is a brief uphill rise to the intersection with Baldwin, and it took substantial will-power to extract the energy to mount that rise. My lungs and legs seemed about to collapse as I turned the corner. Then I could see the Finish Line in the distance. All I had to do was to coast down the hill in order to finish. The pain seemed to evaporate and my speed increased. Though truly exhausted, the die was cast and I was going to finish in some respectable fashion. Then Doreen was there and smiling broadly. And many folks still formed a crowd on both sides of the road over the last 30 yards or so. Their claps and cheers had almost a direct physical effect in spurring me on over the last few yards.

And then one of those moments arose that colored my memory of the race for ever after. For a period during the ascent I had run along with a young couple who were obviously deeply in love and who ran with joy in themselves and joy with the mountains and the world. And I had taken a vicarious pleasure in their happiness. They were among those I had passed during the later stages of the ascent. But now, as I approached the finish they were gaining on me rapidly without my knowing of their approach. Within yards of the finish they drew level and I suddenly became aware of their presence. Surprised, some basic instinct caused me to accelerate and, in addition, to say something like ``Oh no!'' as if to say ``Please don't pass me now!''. It all occurred so quickly that I cannot be sure of exactly what happened, but either because of my acceleration or because they slowed down in response to my remark, I finished a few feet ahead of them. I have always felt a sense of guilt about that moment. What possible difference did it make whether I finished ahead of or behind them! And surely it would have been especially nice for both of them if their final, joint effort could have been rewarded by passing a competitor at the finish. If I had it to do again with the benefit of hindsight I would have it otherwise but, then, one cannot dwell on such regrets. Hopefully, they were so absorbed in each other that they were oblivious to the moment.

Soon, however, we were all lost in the crowd at the finish. Someone stripped off the tab at the bottom of my number plate so that my official finishing position and time could be registered. I had completed the course in 2 hours, 11 minutes and 28 seconds. I was the 25th and last male resident of Sierra Madre to finish. I was the 26th finisher in the 50-59 age bracket. But I was third in the category of Sierra Madre residents aged 50-59! Admittedly this category was not a large one.

But whatever the statistics, the Mount Wilson Trail has left in me the complementary memories of an ancient and enduring beauty, the magnificent oak of Orchard Camp, and the fleeting, ephemeral beauty of two young people running together with joy and love on a balmy summer day.

Back to table of contents


Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen