Mt. Baldy is definitely one of my happy places. Only a thirty minute drive from my home (provided traffic cooperates), the road up the mountain takes you from LA suburban chic neighborhoods to wilderness in less time than it will take you to read this blog.
And wild she is, this mountain, wild and magical. Mt. Baldy is a nickname that stuck; her real name is Mt. San Antonio. I don’t know why American mountains are nearly all named for men. To me, mountains emit a very female energy. This mountain, the third highest in Southern California, is the Mother Mountain that towers over the rest of the San Gabriels. She gives birth to mountain streams and giant trees, cougar and bear. The Peruvians understand the female energy of their mountains. They call her Pachamama, Mother Earth, their mountain home. I call my mountain home the same. She greets me every moment when I step outside on my deck to watch the sun rise, and I greet her. She is very special to me.
While Scott and I have hiked on this mountain many times, we’ve always walked the same trail, to San Antonio Falls. This time, I was determined to hike the summit trail, although at six miles each direction to the summit from the little village where the trailhead is found, I knew we would hike only a portion on this day. This was to be my first strenuous hike, my first mountain hike, since my knee replacement surgery in December. I knew better than to overextend myself.
We parked our car near the national forest visitors center and head up the road to the trailhead. We had no idea there were houses back here, off the main road. Cabins, actually. Cabins with a clear, rushing mountain stream where their front yards would have been had they been built elsewhere. I fantasize as I walk about what living in such a cabin would be like. One can always dream.
The shadows in the mountains love to play tricks. Near the trailhead, it looked like little creatures, weasels, maybe, were playing on the rock. Only when we got within fifteen feet or so of the rock did I realize my dancing weasels were leaf shadow dancers, shadows cast by a sun we could not see, the forest was so thick.
The thickness of the forest surprised both Scott and me, for the forest on the San Antonio Falls trail is not nearly so dense. These are, for the most part, desert mountains. Yet here on this trail we pass the largest Bigcone Douglas-fir tree in existence, a tree named, according to a sign, “Old Glory.” She is 145-feet tall. Other nearby trees are impressive in their own right, if not quite as large as Old Glory.
The black oak trees also found in this forest are an important part of this forest ecosystem, for the acorns they produce nourish the neighborhood bears. From the looks of the forest floor, there was a good acorn crop this past year. A good crop usually means there will be lots of baby bears the following spring. Even though we’ve never seen a bear on Baldy, I’m happy at the knowledge their numbers are growing, thanks in part to the black oak.
We momentarily step out of the forest into a meadow, and are bombarded by winged insects. They are everywhere!
We dash across the little clearing into the next stand of trees. Here we discover what is flying all around the meadow: ladybugs. There are dozens and dozens of them, clustered on the leaves of the black oaks and on the shrubs below.
Then we take a closer look at the ground around us and realize there must be millions of ladybugs! They are everywhere, heaped haphazardly all over the forest floor.
I am enchanted; never before have I seen so many ladybugs in one place. I briefly wish I could pocket a few hundred of them and take them home to release in my garden. Ladybugs will cure a gardener’s aphid problem in no time flat. But my cottage on the hillside across the valley is not home to these creatures. I will leave them here, where they belong.
Suddenly I feel I sharp nip to my arm. A blackfly has taken a bite out of me. Then, I feel another nip, and another. There are blackflies everywhere, nearly as numerous as the ladybugs, and they’re biting me faster than I can slap them away. Scott, too, is slapping furiously at his arms and legs. We say goodbye to the ladybugs and hurry up the trail. The flies will be with us for the rest of our hike, but we quickly learn if we keep moving, they don’t disturb us quite so much.
But to keep moving on such a gorgeous trail is difficult, because we are constantly wanting to stop and ooh and aah over something or another. The spring wildflowers are in full bloom—a little late this year, because we had an unusually chilly spring, but this has worked to our advantage, as the California wildflowers are spectacular. We stumble across a patch of wallflower, one of our favorites, because the orange blossoms smell a bit like the lilacs both Scott’s and my mothers had growing at our Midwestern childhood homes.
The Indian paintbrush is also blooming. Carefully, I pull a single segment from a blossom, then squeeze it gently. I small drop of nectar oozes out. I gently place it against my tongue and am treated to an exquisite sweetness no bee—or Earth Mage—can resist. I pluck another and offer it to Scott. We leave the rest to the bees, happy to have had this tiny taste of heaven the Mountain has given us.
We continue our climb, breathing heavily. We’re at high altitude here, and neither of us have been on so strenuous a hike in almost a year. As long as we keep moving, the black flies pretty much leave us alone. But each time we stop to take a drink or to admire a wildflower, we are plagued. Nevertheless, when we leave the large trees behind and enter the scrub zone, I can’t help but stop and admire the fabulous twisted branches of a dead Manzanita bush.
Perhaps 300 yards into the scrub zone, we can tolerate the black flies no more. They are worse at this elevation than they were below, and the ones up here have no compunction at all about biting us while we are moving. Perhaps they are attracted to our glistening skin, for we are both sweating profusely from our steep climb. But whatever the attraction our bodies hold for the flies, we’ve had enough of it. I pause long enough to photograph a particularly beautiful yucca.
Then, we turn and almost run down the trail, back to the relative safety of the woods.
The hike down takes only half as long as the hike up, although hiking down is more difficult for me than it is for Scott. I had my right knee replaced in December 2010, but I’d had my left knee replaced in 1997. Seven years later, in 2004, I had to have the left knee replaced again—a revision, my doctor called it. I had blown out the lower part of the replacement joint hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Apparently, for knee replacement patients, it is okay to hike up a mountain, but not a good idea to hike down, as it puts too much strain on the joint. Nevertheless, as I had hiked up on this day, I saw no option but to hike back down, and will likely continue hiking down for as long as I am able to continue hiking up.
Exhausted, we finally make it back to our car. A Stellar’s jay welcomed us back from his perch in the trees above our car, inviting us to share our picnic lunch with him. When we did not, his welcoming chatter turned to screeches of disgust. Amazing how easy it can be to understand what a wild creature is saying, if you just take the time to listen.
I always leave Mt. Baldy with reluctance. Driving down the mountain and suddenly being thrust into the havoc and mayhem that is life in Greater Los Angeles taxes my Earth Mage sensibilities. But soon enough we’re back on our side of the valley, and climbing the hill to our cottage nestled in the oak and avocado trees. Our noses are greeted by the cloying sweetness of California buckeye blossoms in the arroyo. Fence lizards and the baby spotted ground squirrels—the polka dots—scatter as we pull our car into the drive. Perhaps our great horned owls will hoot tonight, or our coyote choir give a performance.
Home is a pretty magical place, too.
(Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.