I’m not a morning person.
On Friday, June 5, 2015 I set my alarm for 5:00am, 5:12 and 5:19, staggering the times in an attempt to outwit my snooze button. Five o’clock came. I looked at my phone and hit snooze. I heard the alarm again and looked at my phone: 6:08. I should already be on the road, driving to an online meetup group hiking Mount Baldy at 7:00. I remember the words on the event page: “Be on time - it is inappropriate to think that we should wait for you.” I panicked and rushed out the door a little after 6:30 on an overcast Hollywood morning wrapped in LA’s infamous June gloom, and began my hour-long drive to the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
I grew up on a mountain in Massachusetts, a bump by west coast standards at 2000 feet. But I loved it, and between that and Boy Scout trips throughout New England, I’ve loved the outdoors since a young age. At 18, I left for college on Long Island and afterward lived in nearby New York City for seven years. I did very little hiking. Time outdoors was limited to bar-b-ques in city parks. Booze and partying became my recreational activities, and my physical and mental health deteriorated accordingly.
My last year in New York, I finally began planning my escape to the West Coast and began hiking again in New England.
On one of those trips, an adventure to Vermont’s Mount Mansfield I first learned of, and became enthralled with, a peak a continent away, California’s Mount Baldy.
I was staying at an Airbnb in Burlington that was hosted by May, a native of Los Angeles. She told me all about the rugged wilderness surrounding the city. She told me about the Santa Monica Mountains and Joshua Tree, but nothing caught my attention like Mount Baldy. She told me it towered over Los Angeles County at 10,000 feet, and that it was covered with pine trees and patrolled by bears and mountain lions. She described it as a pilgrimage for any self-respecting Los Angeles resident who considered themselves a real hiker.
When I moved to LA in March 2015, I arrived knowing that climbing Mt. Baldy was something I had to do. But I was scared at first and did small hikes instead. Will Rogers State Park. Griffith Park. Verdugo Mountains. I enjoyed these, but was always aware of the San Gabriels looming over me during these city hikes; taunting me and calling me toward them. With no other serious hikers in my group of friends, I decided I’d bite the bullet and go with an online meetup group.
It was still overcast when I finally pulled off the 210 East, drove up Padua Ave, and turned onto Mt Baldy Road. I remember seeing the sign for “Angeles National Forest” breaking through a mist which enveloped the chaparral covered walls of San Antonio Canyon, obscuring the rim from sight. I opened my windows, breathed in clean air and stole glances of Ontario and Bighorn Peaks across the canyon divide. Best of all, I felt at home after seeing pine trees for the first time since leaving the East Coast.
At Manker Flats, I set out alone. I quickly met and made friends though. Recent high school graduates from Glendora led me to the ski hut. A Boy Scout troop leader told me how to find the trail up the bowl. A pair of nurses shared warm couscous from their backpacking stove. We all bonded over our love for the outdoors.
With their help and encouragement, I pushed myself and made it to the top. I never caught up to the meetup group, but I didn’t care. I’d just pushed myself harder than I’d ever pushed myself before, and when the clouds cleared up, I was rewarded with a 360-degree panoramic view of the vast San Gabriel Mountains.
Thanks in part to the confidence climbing Baldy gave me, my world has since expanded to include the Sierras, the Mojave, the Channel Islands, and points beyond. I’ll soon be visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. Still, there’s a lot left to explore in the San Gabriels. Most weekends that’s where you’ll find me: hiking in those mountains that I once dreamt of from afar, which have now become an important part of my reality, a cornerstone of my new, adventurous life in California.