Mt. Rubidoux isn't the snow-covered peak of the "purple-mountains-majesty" type that shows up on brochures depicting California. But it may be one of the most quintessential Southern California landmarks, beloved by thousands, and now it's made national news because of a fight over the 35-foot concrete-and-steel cross that's visible for miles. In August, a group based in Washington, D.C. called Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote a letter to the City of Riverside threatening a lawsuit if the cross wasn't taken down. On November 13, at a city council meeting in downtown Riverside, more than 200 residents packed the chambers for a two-hour debate about the cross, religion and history, and why this mountain is unlike any other.
I've been walking up these steep trails all my life, and so have many of my friends, neighbors, and family. I walked with my Girl Scout troop, with my boyfriend who became my husband. My daughters have been going up since they could walk -- I trained them for hiking on the wide flat road, though back then cars competed for space with pedestrians. We have talked everything out while passing granite boulders that turn rose-gold at dawn and sunset, and blaze white in summer heat. College, boys, politics, dreams, fears.
Every day, hundreds of people wind up Mt. Rubidoux, their voices untangling days, or their breaths huffing while they run, their dogs trotting along in silence. Juan Ortega walked with his pit bull Rhino this week. He usually comes up at 5 a.m., sometimes four days a week, and he has plenty of company at dawn. This time he did a lunch hour run, since it was his day off. "The cross?" he shrugged. "It doesn't bother me. To each his own."
Eileen and John walk frequently -- she likes to come up at night to take photos of city lights below. "My son says that's crazy, but there are tons of people here then. And sundown is beautiful."
Cristal Perez, who lives in Rubidoux, the community on the west side of the mountain named for its founder, was pushing her two-month old daughter in a stroller, with her friend Iris, visiting from Washington and her own baby. "It's good exercise," Perez said. And they talked the whole way, as did all the mothers squiring babies and toddlers up the paths.
Justin Croteau and Tryla McGlasson, who live in downtown Riverside, say they come up every other day. "I usually sit by the castle to rest," Croteau, who wore an Anarchist t-shirt, said. "I'm not a religious person at all, but to each his own."
The castle he was referring to is part of the mountain, as is the cross. This really isn't a simple fight, because this isn't an ordinary mountain -- it's actually whimsical and artistic history. The cross isn't seen by many as a religious statement at all, but one with the "castle," the wooden footbridge that looks borrowed from a western, the cactus forests and pepper trees and rock walls and giant granite stairs at the summit. There are so many landmarks that one hiker, Sherrel Collyer, a Riverside native wearing her own cross, said, "When I was little, I always thought of fairies and goblins and witches up here, because of all the other things you could see."
So, the history: In 1906, Frank Miller, owner of the famous Mission Inn, joined forces with Henry Huntington to buy the steep hill, part of Rancho Jurupa land owned by Louis Robidoux. Miller and Huntington wanted to develop the property for tourism -- imagine a carriage ride from the picturesque adobe hotel to the top of what was not a wild peak but a more sedate, lovely California ascent. The asphalt road was the vital thing from the start. Miller and Huntington commissioned the man who built the Yellowstone Park Road for the U.S., Brigadier General Hiram Chittenden, and in 1907, the American flag was raised at the summit to celebrate the road's opening.
A few months later came the first cross, a wooden one. From published accounts, it wasn't erected as a symbol of triumphal faith or conquest but as a tribute to Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions. Since this was Frank Miller, who built his hotel to resemble a mission and filled it with artifacts from all over the world, that makes sense. Miller loved art, history, and beauty. With this cross, which was consecrated in spring of 1907, there was a reason to ascend the mountain. By 1909 the nation's first sunrise Easter service was held. About 100 people came, and in 1926, twenty thousand gathered.
But that is one dawn. Every day, hundreds of people make the ascent with nothing in mind but beauty or cardio or contemplation. The mountain became a public park in 1955, when Miller's family donated the land to the city of Riverside. People continued to drive up the road, parking at the summit, for decades after that. (In fact, during the 1970s and '80s, so many people drank beer sitting on the boulders, the steps, or in their cars at night that we were astonished no one drove off the steep cliffs. But they didn't.) Mayor Ron Loveridge was among the first to advocate for pedestrians only. "I tried to change the concept of the road to a trail," he told me this week. "The mountain was open 24 hours a day, which wasn't a good idea. But it wasn't until Chuck Beaty, on the city council, agreed, and then we made it work." After torrential winter rains in 1992, the road was washed out in places, and Loveridge took that opportunity to close the mountain to cars, which allowed for beautification and the conversion to more pedestrian-friendly trails. He climbs the mountain with his dog Sundance every morning he is home, and notes the "extraordinary procession" of people he sees.
In that 1955 deed, a condition required the city to maintain the cross and the .43 acre parcel on which it stands; the condition expired in 1985, which means the cross is now on public land. Suggesting solutions to the impending lawsuit are tricky: some officials proposed selling the cross and land to a private owner. Scott Russell, a Riverside native and filmmaker with no religious convictions, hikes, runs, or bikes the mountain almost every day with his wife Julie, a close friend of mine. He's started a petition, which has gathered 1700 signatures so far, opposing the sale. "My intent wasn't to save the cross, it was to keep the park public," he said yesterday. "I don't want a fence around the mountain, keeping me from walking. My younger liberal hippie self came out and didn't want the park privatized. But then people started talking to me, and I realized how much the cross meant to them. The city could give it back to the Miller family, and they could re-gift it to the city and extend the provision. If only it had said, 'in perpetuity.'"
Russell, along with many others, worries about commercialization of the cross. I imagined a Target bullseye on it -- like Staples Center or Qualcomm Stadium. Everything, even weather and traffic forecasts, seems game for company logos.
And if this cross is taken down, how to justify religious symbols at the California Missions, or El Camino Real, or other historical sites owned by cities or states?
At the summit, looking out over the river and land and mountains, I saw the C on Box Spring Mountain to the east, painted on a cement foundation decades ago by UCRiverside students; Mt. Baldy's gray stone pate, a natural feature, to the northwest; the faintest outline of the geologic formation that gives Arrowhead its name in the San Bernardino mountains. On planes flying out of Ontario or Orange County or LAX, I can't count the times people have said, "Oh, that must be Riverside -- there's the cross on Mt. Rubidoux."
Behind me, a man jogged up the steep stone stairs to the top, pausing for breath, his bare skin gleaming with sweat over tattoos. Jeremy Shafer runs up the mountain all the time, he said. Another Riverside native, he is proudly religious, and said, "I love the cross. I want it to stay. It's the same as a mosque or anything else. They can put whatever they want up here. They're all equal."
What if a Star of David were erected near the cross, near a Muslim symbol of faith, next to a Wiccan icon, and whatever atheist image was chosen? Would people deface all of them, and would fences be erected, or would someone buy each one as a "sponsor?" That seems not whimsical at all.
This mountain has become art and history. President Taft and Booker T. Washington have been to the summit, with Frank Miller. Plaques adorn many of the boulders, and one on the granite arch of Friendship Bridge honors a Japanese Olympic equestrian who lost his medal to save his horse -- that one unveiled in 1934 by the Riverside Humane Society for Prince Kaya of Japan. The "castle" is actually The Peace Tower, erected in 1925 as tribute to Miller's love of other cultures, where my girls, along with countless children, would imagine those princesses -- or ghosts.
In the beginning, this was where Cahuilla people lived and worshipped long before ranchos and land grants and missions. Their villages were on the flanks overlooking the river long before the arrival of Louis Robidoux or Miller and Huntington. What would the Cahuilla say about any of it -- the flag whipping in the wind to my right, the cross unmoving to my left? Church and state are separated here by the wide expanse of sand and stone, native brittlebush and buckwheat, and pepper trees whose ancestors were imported from Brazil.
To each his own.
At the crossing of the roads below, a plaque set into one towering stone places the words of John Muir next to a Psalm. Nothing separates them there, where the procession of humans passes by, laughing or silent.
Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.