Happy Trails -- Celebrate National Trails Day on June 4

Hiking up Strawberry Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains

I mean this in the nicest possible way--go take a hike!

Seriously. Don a pair of sturdy shoes, boots, even tennies; slip on a hat, slap on some suntan lotion. Then head to the nearest Los Angeles city or county park (Bonelli or MacArthur or Belvedere); wildlife refuge (Jackrabbit Flat or Seal Beach); the micro Steelhead Park, from which wends paths lining the LA River; or to the closest forest trailhead leading into any of the Southland's coastal ranges. Once there, start walking.

There is no more appropriate way to celebrate National Trails Day, marked this year on Saturday June 4th (participating California sites and events are listed here). A program of the American Hiking Society (AHS), National Trails Day was established in 1993 to build public interest in and support for the more than 200,000 miles of trails that crisscross the United States, from fruited plain to purple mountains majesty (and everything in between, however rough or gentle the grade).

That's almost five times the number of miles devoted to the interstate highway system, and let's face it, hiking--even if we are puffing along, maybe especially if we're red of cheek--is a lot better for us than revving up the Chevy and putting it on cruise control. So says the AHS: "Trails provide opportunities to breathe fresh air, get hearts pumping, escape from daily stresses and maintain overall health."

Salubrious, putting heel-to-toe also can be liberating. Certainly that inveterate walker, Henry David Thoreau, thought so, and he spilled a lot of ink chalking up the virtues of trekking, or as he would have it, sauntering. This latter word's derivation, he affirmed, had several sources, one of which was from the French, sans terre: "without land or a home. Which, therefore...will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere."

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Especially including those places where humans lived not. Thoreau opens his canonical essay, "Walking," with these words. "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness," because he wanted to make it clear that he "regarded man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." To accept that claim required another, the belief that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World."

But what does this mean? Bumper-sticker ideologues often reverse its intent, arguing that wilderness preservation is required to create landscapes in which humans have no place. Read in context, however, and it is clear that Thoreau is talking about the human experience of the wild, our mediation of it as we saunter through it.

His journeys may have been pedestrian--"our expeditions are but tours," he admitted, "and come round again at evening to the old hearthside from which we set out"--but his consciousness would shift along the way. To trek was to become mindful. To walk was to think.

You don't have to adopt his transcendental vision to enjoy these unfettered moments outdoors, even in the most urban of settings (as mine often are). There is, after all, something riveting about watching a great white egret standing stock-still in the swirling waters of the Glendale Narrows, cars and trucks whizzing overhead on the Golden State Freeway; and then it strikes, a flash of silver in its yellow bill.

Every bit as startling was the moment when my wife and I rounded a bend in the marshlands of the upper reach of Newport Bay, and caught this strange drama: on an exposed tree limb, an Osprey, whose diet is heavily fish-dependent, was ripping apart a squirrel.

To scrub that grisly image, listen to the clatter of rock and shell as Pacific rollers sweep ashore at Will Rogers State Beach. Peer down into the thin flow of Salt Creek in Death Valley, hoping to glimpse that Ice-Age relict, the minuscule pup fish. On a baking August afternoon, high up in the Santa Anas, catch a random whiff of creosote. Nature abides.

Yet to be at home in these disparate places requires us to enter them. That obligation is in part what drives my students and colleagues up into the hills, out across the desert, from tidal pool to coastal bluff, grassland to arroyo.

Asked about his favorite local hike, Richard Ross, who is studying American history at the Claremont Graduate University, doesn't hesitate: the Puente Hills. Of special note are the Turnbull Canyon trails, which rise up out Whittier's streetscape, a relatively easy climb set within an increasingly dry and rugged terrain. Once you reach the ridgeline, 1000-feet above the valley floor, the Pacific glitters to the south and west, downtown mirrors back the sun, and if you pivot east the San Gabriels soar above. This walk, he confirms (without any prompting!), "is a great blend, in a Thoreauvian sense, of the domesticated and the wild: not too wild, but not too tame either."

As devoted to Southland hiking is Wayne Steinmetz, whose enthusiasm for the San Gabriels I've chronicled before. After ticking off a number of that range's landmarks--the classic "Bridge to Nowhere" trail along the east fork of the San Gabriel River; Mount Baden Powell (with its killer views of the San Andreas Rift zone)--his mind veered east, settling on Mount San Jacinto, "a peak whose ascent is not a death march." Good call.

Good, too, because, Wayne assures, the summit offers the best views in all of Southern California, from the pan-hot desert to the icy peaks of the San Gorgonio Wilderness; John Muir agreed, enthusing it was the "most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!" Best of all, sweet tooths, you can "finish your day in the European style: stop at the restaurant at the upper station and have coffee and Apfelstrudel."

That might be a bit too cultured for Ross Brennan, who likes rough country. It helps to know that he grew up in the Sierra, has spent summers living in a tent above treeline in the Rockies conducting biological research, and that his peers lovingly dubbed him the "Mountain Man" (the wild hair and beard help). A recent Pomona College grad, he spent the past four years exploring jagged upcountry. His favorite: the Cucamonga Wilderness Area. "What I like about these high elevation hikes of the San Gabriels is that their mountainous environs feel so different than much of what 'Southern California' embodies," he told me; "they are cold, have beautiful old pines, a splashing stream, and they're steep. You can even see the stars at night. Maybe I just feel at home."

Another whose footing seems most secure on precarious ground is a keen-sighted geologist, the indefatigable Rick Hazlett. His legendary field trips to estuaries, salt flats, and sand dunes, like his mountain tramps, are done at quick time (perhaps no surprise for the son of a decorated Marine test-pilot). That you need endurance to keep up is clear from his description about why he leaps at the chance to clamber up Strawberry Peak: "its beautiful conifer forest and aerobic climb."

To slow him down, Rick's students stall: "what's this tree?" (pant, pant); "remind me the name of that upthrust" (gasp); "this. is. a. refugium?" No fool, the dedicated teacher answers even he as keeps moving, firing back with his own questions--at once, geological, hydrological, and ecological. The trail is just another classroom.

To hike can also shift one's point of view. Friends recount that whenever they are feeling muffled beneath the thick, cool, gray marine layer of early summer, they lace up and start climbing. Soon enough they break through June gloom into the brilliant summer sky. What you feel depends on where you stand.


What you see depends on what you understand. So affirmed Mary Austin, whose luminous insights into the workings of the high desert, the Mojave, were hard-won. She listened to its ancient people speak of this land without borders; struck up conversations with a Pocket Hunter, a prospector, who had "that faculty of small hunted things of taking on the protective color of his surroundings."

But it was from those small hunted things themselves that she learned the most essential facts. Getting down on her hands and knees, getting down "to the eye level of rat and squirrel kind," Austin wrote in The Land of Little Rain (1903), was the only way she could perceive the "slender threads of barrenness" that guided these furry creatures great and small to spring or sink, to moisture: "Venture to look for some seldom-touched water-hole, and so long as the trails run with your general direction make sure you are right, but if they begin to cross yours at never so slight an angle, to converge toward a point left of right of your objective, no matter what the maps say, or your memory, trust them; they know."

Her emphatic affirmation, and the canny perception that underlies it, can only be acquired by spending time, lots of time out-of-doors.

Take a hike.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user justinjohnsen. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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