Mount Zion and Mount Wilson
From Chantry Flat: Upper Winter Creek Trail, Zion Trail, Sturtevant Trail, Mount Wilson Observatory, Old Toll Road, Lower Winter Creek Trail
5,710 feet with 4,000 feet of elevation gain
I went to Mount Wilson in search of winter. I had no prior memory of wanting to hold on to winter. Now, at the very end of March, spring had signalled its arrival, and I couldn't get the hang of it just yet. Earlier in the month, the vernal equinox caught me off guard. Cast in a haze of semi-winter light, the days grew longer but somehow lacked the full promise of spring. The warmth of the sun was interrupted by a meager fog that never quite burned off, giving the impression that the weather was experiencing a mild existential ambivalence. I wasn't ready to accept this flimsy brightness. I wanted the grey winter chill to hang around for a little longer to match some kind of mood I was in.
At Chantry Flat, the white morning light cast the west facing slope in shadow and illuminated the dewdrops on the new blooms and young shoots at the very ends of the old tree branches. A burst of steam escaped from a laughing girl's mouth at the other end of the parking lot. I took the Upper Winter Creek Trail to avoid the folks who were out to look at Sturtevant Falls. It's a more challenging, less scenic route (Perhaps the less scenic route is inherently the more challenging one, I thought.), bypassing all of the old cabins and Sturtevant Falls in a more direct approach up the south face of Mount Zion. I was glad for the solitude, but the southeast facing route was exposed to the open sky, and the sun was already warm. Spring had indeed come to the mountain, and the trail was decorated with dainty wildflowers woven among the yuccas.
I thought of the microspikes in my pack and admitted to my wishful thinking. We had a dry winter overall, and there had barely been any snow at the summit back in January. Stripping down to my T-shirt, I accepted that my search for a bit of winter would likely remain unfulfilled today. The difficulty of the trail was rewarding, but I missed the cool intimacy of the Lower Falls Trail that winds up above Sturtevant Falls, following the creek and threading around ancient boulders and stands of sycamores. Finally passing the Mount Zion spur trail to the summit, I began the gradual descent into the uppermost part of Santa Anita Canyon toward Sturtevant Camp and the landscape I craved.
I turned west and began the long, steep ascent to the summit of Mount Wilson. Passing a small talus field, I remembered that it was almost exactly a year before when I'd first walked the path. Struggling but ecstatic, I'd put one foot in front of the other as steadily as I could, trying to pretend that I wasn't straining every muscle to keep up with the experienced walker ahead of me. When he finally shouted out, "Here's the snow!" and sat down on a rock for a bit of a rest, I was so relieved to stop for a minute that I didn't even care about the snow. Later on at the summit, I was so cold that I shivered as I ate my lunch and envied the Japanese hikers who'd brought their camp stoves to prepare hot soup that sent tiny clouds of steam up into the frigid mountain air above their pots.
I went back a month later to take my first long walk alone. The snow was gone, but it was cold at the summit. I had a lot on my mind that day: primarily unrequited love and unsatisfying work, but also a sense that I was at a crucial point in life. I had a deep-seated notion that the decisions I made and the actions I took in the near term would reverberate for a long, long time. I didn't realize until later on, when I was walking more and more, that the decision I'd made by taking that walk was a commitment to myself to enact my life. What I'd perceived as specific, isolated issues were all related to a general malaise deriving from my failure to engage the next step in my own maturation into a genuine independence that would be characterized not just by the abilities to be alone and to tolerate loneliness but by a holistic self-sufficiency. In short, I was bored. And worse, I had become so complacent and depressed that I was on the verge of being incapable of experiencing joy.
What a difference a year makes...
There are something like twelve switchbacks in the three mile, 2,570 foot climb from Sturtevant Camp to the Mount Wilson summit. I've done this walk maybe six times, and it was sort of easy once. Mostly, it's very, very hard. I have to concentrate on every step to maintain form, obtain a level of patience I can't ordinarily achieve, and muster all of my physical and emotional will to complete the task. On this day, I struggled to find these tools. I could not quiet my mind and finally surrendered. Once I allowed the walk to be as difficult as it was, the release I felt was complete, and all of my jumbled thoughts and feelings, the uncomfortable mess of my insides were given up to the mountain.
Skyline Park was quiet. Two trucks and a Syncro van were parked at one of the out buildings, but the stillness was so complete that it was hard to believe anyone else was up there. The pavilion was deserted, the Cosmic Cafe still boarded up for the winter. The thermometer read fifty degrees, but it felt much colder to me. I hurried through the lonely parking lot and slipped over the side of the pavement onto the Mount Wilson Trail toward the Old Toll Road.
At the bench above the Mount Wilson Trail junction to Sierra Madre, I stopped and ate lunch. I stared across the path at a bank of white fog that looked like the end of the world. My muscles were already sore. I gathered my things and followed the Winter Creek Trail into the cover of the woods, enjoying the change of scenery. Facing north and west into Winter Creek Canyon, the hillsides are covered in big pines and bright ferns, and the close woods were quiet but for my footfalls. To make up for missing the Lower Falls Trail, I chose the Lower Winter Creek Trail for its scenic stream crossings and sycamore groves. I couldn't have been happier when the sky began to spit soft raindrops at me as I rounded the last few bends of my walk. I'd found what I'd needed in the exertion, the cold, and the quiet. My knees and ankles felt solid, but my muscles were aching. I thought about the big walks I have coming up and started making plans.