On the 29th of January, I walked out of Barstow late in the day. I had spent my time at the Library, writing the last installment of this blog- then I went over to the Desert Discovery Center, and had a great time chatting with the Center’s non-profit director, an Englishwoman named Jane. She asked me lots of questions and posted a little article about my journey on the center’s Facebook page.
I walked about 11 miles before dusk, and settled into camp alongside the railroad tracks. I had decided to follow the railroad instead of the old Route 66 because it was easier going, and after a long day of walking next to traffic whizzing back and forth, I find my nerves get jangled. However on the railroad there was a lot of rail traffic, with trains thundering back and forth all day and night. As I walked along, I played a game of trying to remember the locomotive’s numbers, and waving to the engineers as the trains went by. A lot of the engineers would toot their horn as they passed by. There are two railroads, the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, or BNSF, and the Union Pacific. Ostensibly these two companies are competitors, with separate tracks, engines and rolling stock, but for all practical purposes, it appears to be the same railroad, since they mix up engines and tracks and rail cars in what seems to be an indiscriminate manner.
On the 30th, I walked 24.5 miles, a record for the entire OST so far. I think I was a bit lonely. It had been really wonderful to have both David and Dan as traveling companions, to swap stories and opinions, and to pray together. Alone, I simply had nothing else to do but put one foot in front of the other. As I left the outer limits of Barstow, I expected the desert to reassert itself, but in the upper reaches of the Mohave Valley, the land was very settled, with green alfalfa fields and farmhouses all along the valley. By Helendale, about halfway between Barstow and Oro Grande, I saw water in the riverbed as I had expected. In the days of the Old Spanish Trail, the Mojave had carried surface water as far downstream as about twenty miles east of Barstow, or the approximate location of Camp Cady. Camp Cady was located near the famous “Forks of the Road”, where the Old Spanish Trail was met by the Mojave Road, otherwise known as the Garces Trail, which came west from the Colorado River. Groundwater pumping has lowered the water table, and so the river does not have a surface flow below Helendale.
By nightfall, I had reached Oro Grande. The small town is dominated by a giant cement plant on the east bank of the river, and by the former George Air Force Base, now converted to civilian use and called the Southern California Logistics Airport. I could see several 747’s parked along the tarmac above me on the bluff, and a strangely modified DC-10 landed there as I was walking. Later I discovered this was a fire-suppression plane, the largest current such tanker in existence.
On the 31st of January, I got an early start, hoping to reach the crest of Cajon pass by the end of the day. My strategy was to follow the City of Los Angeles power lines through the suburban sprawl of Victorville up to, and over the Pass, and down into what Jedediah Smith called “California”, the fabled land of eternal spring, where 10,000 horses roamed the grassy hills, and where the Spanish Padres had taught the Indians all the better arts of civilization.
Only a mile or so from my campsite, I followed the power lines as they crossed the Mojave River, and over a chain of broken hills that led south-westwards. After a mile or two, I could see that I was not following the proper set of lines, so I cut through a couple of subdivisions and along some concrete drainage channels to the string of power lines that would lead me to the Pass. The steel pylons, called “lightning kachinas” by the Hopi, raised their arms, and like an army of giant Moseses, parted the sea of subdivisions with awesome power. I ghosted between a solid line of identical houses that stretched as far as the eye could see on both sides of the power line right-of-way, thanking the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water for getting there first, and giving me a way to go so easily through the dense developments.
By mid-day, I crossed US 395, and then immediately after, I came upon the California Aqueduct. I had a choice. I could detour about a mile south and cross the Canal via 395, or just a few feet northeast, I could go across a concrete structure that conveyed a wash over the Aqueduct and onwards downstream. I chose the viaduct, but as I approached it, I saw that the walls were too high for me to drop into the viaduct easily. What to do? The walls were about 10 inches thick, so I decided to walk across the California Aqueduct on this narrow ledge, tightrope style.
The Canal was about fifty yards wide, and full of water. There was a slight breeze, and with my backpack on, I was not as steady on my feet as I normally would have been. Still, I pressed forward, and negotiated the crossing without falling in.
Leaving the Desert
Joshua Trees had made their appearance on the north (or west) bank of the Mojave, but north of the canal, they began to dominate the landscape. An old acquaintance also made an appearance at this point, cedar (or juniper) trees. I had not seen one, with the exception of Mountain Springs Pass, since leaving Utah. The cedars were joined in short order by sagebrush, and by scrub oaks. I felt like I was back home in Utah with old familiar friends. Coming up from the desert, the hill that marks the northern edge of Cajon Pass is nothing more than a long, gentle rise. I could sense I was nearing the top of this hill, but other than seeing the San Bernardino Mountains as a backdrop to this easy slope, I had no idea what I would encounter as I neared the crest.
Suddenly, I was at the top of the hill, and Cajon Pass revealed itself to me in the most dramatic fashion. The Old Spanish Trail crosses the continental divide, and drops into the San Juan River. The trail crosses the Colorado River in red rock canyons, and crests the many-fanged San Rafael Swell. The passes at Mountain Meadows and Utah Hill and Mountain Spring all have their beauty and majesty, but I don’t think there is any land feature quite so dramatic as Cajon Pass.
The word “cajon” means “box” or “coffin” in Spanish, and I stood on the verge of a stupendous hole in the earth’s crust. The San Andreas Fault created this sudden chasm, splitting the land apart and raising the towering San Gabriel Mountains in unimaginably powerful acts of tectonic force. The sudden drop off, of at least a thousand feet into the fault zone, and the equally sudden incline of towering snow-capped mountains immediately beyond, created a majesty and grandeur almost impossible to describe. I stood on the edge for a few moments, drinking in the splendor, and then I plunged over the edge along twisting roads that snaked down into the canyon. I was in a new world.
Only a few hours before, I had said hello to old plant friends, and just as suddenly, they were no longer with me. Literally within yards of leaving the summit, the flora was entirely alien. Except for the manzanita, oaks, and cottonwood trees down in the wash bottom, I could not recognize any of the plants that surrounded me. They were lush and green, and verdure climbed the hillsides all around me. Many of the plants were in bloom, and green grass ran rampant up and down the hillsides. I had gone from desert to paradise, and I was a stranger in a strange land. I camped that night in the wash bottom, under a cottonwood tree. The air was heavy and moist, and had it not been for the roar of traffic from both the I-15, on one side of the wash , and the thundering and clanking of the railroad on the other side, I think the wonder of the new environment would have had a much greater emotional impact.
The next day, the 1st of February, I walked out of the canyon along old Route 66, and then I crossed the riverbed and followed I-15 through a string of low hills into the outskirts of the LA Basin. A spell of rain and wind had just ended, and the air was clear. I could see down to the snow-capped eminences of San Jacinto and Hemet peaks, and the system of valleys in between. Ranges of mountains coursed everywhere, all covered with grasslands and forest (and of course, houses, but I was still seeing everything with the eyes of a pioneer). The sudden display of terrain, after the monotony of desert, was a bit disorienting, but after I got my bearings, I was able to see how the Spanish Trail travelers made their way further down the slope than I was, and across the flats about where the Ontario Airport is, towards what are now known as the South Hills, and to the Mission San Gabriel.
For a minute, I walked through a tiny section of old California, with olive and orange groves, and quaint little frame houses, before I entered the suburban sprawl west of Lytle Creek. Now I was walking on asphalt and concrete, and I was doing it in tire sandals with no cushion. In a few miles, my feet were screaming in protest as I slammed them down on the unyielding stone-like surfaces of an urban environment. By five PM, I was done. I could’t walk another step. Concrete was one thing I had not taken an account of. Homemade shoes were not going to work here.
I had reached Rancho Cucamonga, which had once been an outlying branch of the San Gabriel Mission, and now was a sprawl of cookie-cutter houses. Luckily for me, the developers had made provisions for gravel bridle paths, which eased my foot trouble immensely. However, I thought it wise to call it a day. I had travelled 23 miles.
My sister Ashley lives in LA, and I called her for a rescue. We had discussed this earlier, but being the independent type, I had not really thought I would ask for her help. She was happy I had called and said she would battle traffic to reach me and bring me back to spend the night at her house.
Ashley lives in the heart of Los Angeles, in a quaint, artistic neighborhood of 1920’s style bungalows. She operates a cookie company, Action Cookies, and since she had a lot of errands to run the next day, I opted to hang out with her and take a rest day in the hopes that with a little encouragement, my feet would carry me the last 32 miles without failing completely. I met Ashley’s boyfriend, a really wonderful man named Jay, who gave me a pair of running shoes he said didn’t work for him any more. I put them on and said, “It’s like walking on clouds!” Humans have designed shoes that actually fit their urban environment. Back home, where I never walk on concrete, my homemade boots and sandals are ideal. I can feel the ground through the thin conveyor-belt soles, and enjoy great posture, back health, and balance. But as soon as I put on the running shoes, I knew these were the tools that would bring me success. The padding and cushioning, I could tell had been precisely engineered to protect the foot from the unyielding surfaces of a city.
On the 3rd of February, Ashley drove me back to the place she had picked me up, and I got out to walk as much of the remaining 32 miles as possible. We talked about it, and both of us agreed that I could leave my pack behind at her place. The goal was to walk the Old Spanish Trail, not add unneccessary burdens to the task! Freed from the weight of the pack, and armed with the amazing padded running shoes, I clocked a record-breaking 28 miles by the end of the day.
As I passed from Rancho Cucamonga through the towns of Upland, Claremont, La Verne, and San Dimas, I noticed that each town had its own distant personality. Rancho Cucamonga seemed just a little pretentious, with its bridle paths and new homes, while Claremont seems erudite and polished, because of the University there. La Verne was funky and amiable, with a cozy, 1950’s style downtown. San Dimas I liked the best, because the Town had crafted a rural atmosphere with wooden boardwalks and a pioneer theme complete with old wagons and farm implements. In San Dimas I was gratified to find and Old Spanish Trail marker as well as a bronze statue of Jedediah Smith, on the grounds of City Hall. I was on the right track!
By evening, I had reached Temple City, named after a prominent landowner and developer from the early part of the 20th Century. I was surprised to get a phone call from my brother Gardner. Gardner lives in Orange County, far to the south of LA, but he had decided to conquer the LA traffic to see if he could find me on the Trail. The amazing technology of GPS-enabled smartphones and roving maps allowed him to locate me and pick me up. By contrast, I was navigating by dead-reckoning with only a 1982 USGS topographic map that didn’t show any of the street names. Basically, I was just heading west and hopping for the best!
Mission San Gabriel Archangel: The End of the Trail
We all spent the night at my sister’s and the next day, the three of us set out for the final four miles of the Old Spanish Trail. Ashley said she would walk with me, and Gardner drove ahead to the Mission to wait for us. Ashley and I walked along, chatting about all sorts of things and reminiscing about old times. The four miles went by in a flash, and suddenly, we were coming around the corner to the Mission. Ashley took photos with her camera as I posed with a statue of father Junipero Serra, and in front of the famous belfry with its six bells.
Gardner introduced us to the Museum curator, John Lentz, who upon hearing my account of traveling the OST, gave the three of us a guided tour of the historic grounds and the museum, which contains interesting displays of mission artifacts, from old hand-forged iron implements to the silk vestments of the original Fathers, imported from the Philipines.
John told us that the San Gabriel Mission was the only Mission in California to not be abandoned after the Mexican government secularized the Missions in 1834. Stubbornly, the Fathers stayed on, and although the fortunes of the San Gabriel Mission went into decline, the complex never suffered the abandonment and destruction that overtook the other Missions. As a result, the San Gabriel Mission is the best preserved of all the missions in California. We saw grapevines, the oldest in the state, that were three feet thick at the base, and the Mission grounds were home to an amazing variety of beautiful agaves, cacti, figs, and other flowering trees.
And then… well, it was time to go. The ending of any trip, any adventure, has to be an anti-climax. The journey is important; the destination… well, it is but another point on a still longer journey. Later that evening, back in Los Angeles, we burned my battered straw hat in a little fire. It was enough of a ceremony. I think back on the journey I have taken along the Old Spanish Trail- indeed I have walked with ghosts, and they have told me many stories. The current Old Spanish Trail travelers, the highways, power lines and pipelines, will eventually crumble, fall, and become ruins that future travelers will look upon wonderingly as they too, find the easy path across the land that we know as the Old Spanish Trail. This Trail is not dead. Millions use one portion of it or another unthinkingly as they speed along its course in their automobiles, unaware that they roll across an amazing history. Millions more depend on the gas and electricity that travel its route, a route found by men who knew how to cross immense landscapes, and found again by engineers who unknowingly looked for the easiest path for a natural gas pipeline, and found the Old Spanish Trail. Someday, men will once more need to ride horses across the continent to trade and connect civilizations, and they too, will rediscover the Old Spanish Trail. As they trace their adventures along the route, they will give it their own strange and eloquent name. The rivers will remain, the passes, the rocky canyons; the sagebrush, and the stars. All these things will remain, and others will experience the singing story that is the Old Spanish Trail. It is a living Trail, and one I count myself lucky to have travelled.
STAY TUNED FOR PHOTOS!