This post is my entry to the National Forest Foundation blog contest.
I grew up in the quiet embrace of the San Gabriel Mountains, cradled in their foothills. Their scent as the seasons changed marked the years of my childhood. They were there for me as I grew, and I still go to them for comfort as anyone, no matter their age, runs to their mother.
The first time I hiked all the way to Jones Peak, my dad brought Valentine’s Day candy hearts along, and I ate one at each switchback. I was 6. When we got home, I had hot chocolate with my best friend, and felt the happy fatigue in my legs as we drank our sugary drink. She said something funny and we spit hot cocoa all over each other.
A group of us used to run around Eaton Canyon in the summer afternoons until dusk. We were elves of the woods and only we knew the secret paths along the south side of the canyon. We caught tadpoles and ran barefoot along the dusty trails.
In those days my dad would take me up into Bailey Canyon at night sometimes, when you used to be able to walk up through the monastery and the old tennis court. We would hike up to where the bench is and then drink hot cocoa there and watch the lights in the city flicker.
Sometimes there were packs of coyotes. There my dad taught me to be brave, shine a light, speak in a loud voice and the coyotes will leave you alone.
When I was thirteen, I would walk my dog up into the mountains in the mornings, alone. Just me and her. It always smelled fresh and dusty, and I felt clean when I got home though my ankles were dirty. It was our secret time. Me, the dog, and the mountains watching over us.
The mountains saw me through the tumultuous age of Who-Am-I-Why-Am-I-Here, serving me their dust and heat, their soft dark green curves, a rattlesnake and an angry mamma bear because it was time for that kind of thing, for me.
I was running up the Mt. Wilson Trail when I scared mamma bear’s baby. I stood trembling, aware of my own smallness and what I had done. As I heard her trundling toward me I took off down the trail, singing at the top of my lungs. Remembering what my dad taught me – be loud, don’t be afraid.
After that I knew I was ok, come what may. I had long strong legs and a hardbeating heart and wasn’t entirely stupid in moments of crisis. I would be ok.
I’m considered an adult now, even though my mom still is the first one I call if something goes wrong. I still live under the benevolent shadow of the San Gabriels and their presence calms me day by day.
I tried living somewhere flat once. The lack-of-mountains made me deeply uncomfortable, like nothing was holding me and I could fall off the world.
My dad and I did a Christmas day hike when I was nineteen. We started up Bailey, reached Jones Peak, and then decided to cut across the peaks using the fire break and see where we would go. We scrambled and stumbled along the uneven fire break. At a few moments I saw my dad almost fall. He was breathing heavy. I kept asking him to stop, take a breath. It was the first time I realized he was getting older. He wasn’t indestructible.
We finally popped out at Henninger Flats and hiked down into Eaton Canyon, eventually using someone’s cell phone to call my mom to pick us up. She had been worried, but we were laughing and happy tired.
I return to the mountains frequently. I run the Mt. Wilson Trail Race every year. During my training, I always remember that rattlesnake, that mamma bear. We’ve hiked up to Sturtevant Camp and stayed through the chilly mountain night with a fire and new friends, imagining the camps of the past.
More often though, I do a simple hike. A little walk. Up to the foundation, or to First Water. Like calling your mother to tell her you’re ok and update her on how the garden is doing and what you’ve been cooking lately, I commune with my mountain mamma. She made me who I am, after all.