November 25, 2013

Echo Mountain, The Hard Way

There are few trails that I'll do over and over again in LA, since there are always so many other new trails to be explored. (Or, at least, those that are new to me.)

But of the few hikes I will repeat, Echo Mountain is at the top of the list.

Situated at the top of the former Mt. Lowe Incline Railway, which took passengers from Rubio Canyon in Altadena up to a resort area once called "White City," where they could transfer to the railway that would take them around the mountain to the Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern, Echo Mountain offers amazing views of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena, and even the Downtown LA skyline, as well as a number of industrial relics (train tracks, machinery) and building foundations left over from White City, now a lost city.

The most common way to summit Echo Mountain is via the Sam Merrill Trail, which traverses the Altadena Crest Trail and zig-zags around Echo Mountain, two and a half miles up various dry and dusty switchbacks, without a lot of shade from the sun. It's a workout, but I've now done it twice: once in 2010 when still a novice hiker, and once with a group to celebrate New Year's Day.

In my two visits to the Cobb Estate (notable on its own merit as a likely haunted private estate in ruins at the bottom of the mountain), I'd noticed that there was another way up to Echo Mountain, that looked much harder. It piqued my curiosity, knowing that some hikers are even daring enough to hike the actual former path of the incline railway, straight up the mountain - the hardest way possible. But there was no question as to whether or not I would join when invited on a Sierra Club-led group hike up Echo Mountain "the hard way": I was in.

Meeting up in Altadena at 8 a.m. on a misty, foggy, downright rainy fall morning, I was excited. "You know when you're going up the regular trail and you look over and wonder who those crazy people are climbing up the ridge over there? Today, we're going to be those crazy people," our hike leader said.

"Yay!" I said.

The hike starts off the same, up the old paved access road inside the gate of the Cobb Estate, once a dwelling for the Marx Brothers until taken over by miscreants and ne'er-do-wells, prompting authorities to raze the property (though the land was still owned by the Marx estate until auctioned off in 1971).

At the turn-off for the Sam Merrill trail (which goes right), we kept up the trail going more-or-less straight until the old estate grounds gave way to wilderness, in an area often referred to as "The Haunted Forest."

We passed the Cobb Reservoir, owned by Las Flores Water Company which provides drinking water to the Altadena area. I'd seen this reservoir from above many times, and wondered where the hikers who passed it where going. Now, we were following in their footsteps.

After the reservoir, the trail gets serious. Our hike leader encouraged us to start removing layers and drinking water because, as he said, "It doesn't get any easier after this." He'd also encouraged us to put away our trekking poles because, he said, "You might want to use your hands."

Uh oh.

The first steep climb took us above the reservoir, where we could see the Sam Merrill trail zig-zagging up Echo Mountain across the way. After a brief rest, we started climbing again, each stretch steeper than the last. After all, we were going to hike an increase of 1500 feet in elevation over the course of the five mile hike, but really, all those 1500 feet would be climbed only on the way up, in just 2.5 short miles.

I quickly started lagging behind the group, not having gotten enough sleep or had any coffee for such an early morning excursion, getting wetter with rain the higher we went, already feeling the strain in my  lower body, wishing my hydration pack weren't so heavy with water.

My breathing was labored and my pace was slow, but I was OK. When the Sierra Club sweep behind me (since I was the last one in line) checked on me, I said, "I know I can do it, I just have to take my time."

This was a major accomplishment for me, having previously turned away from trails (granted, by myself) because I couldn't do them (though, in the case of Brand Park, later returning to conquer them successfully).

At the apex of the power lines, looking down at Lake Avenue which stretches from Altadena all the way down into Pasadena, I thought I'd conquered the hardest part.

I was wrong. It wasn't going to get an easier. Not yet.

This is not a camera trick or an optical illusion. I climbed up this thing in the rain, using my hands.

Looking down at the transmission towers, I marveled at how high we'd gotten in such a short period of time.

I sighed relief, taking in the view, all the while keeping my eyes on Lake Avenue to orient myself. I regulated my breathing, and tried to slow my heart rate to a more healthy cardio conditioning pace.

And then I turned around, and saw where the rest of my group was going.

"We're going there?!" I exclaimed, unable to even spot an official trail carved into the mountainside. "Where?!" But by now, there was no turning back. It had been too hard to climb up as high as we had, and I knew it would be a lot harder going down, feet first, vertigo kicking in, the certainty of falling sabotaging a safe return.

And this is where I started to cry. As I recall, I've only cried one other time on a hike: when I got left behind on the way back from the Bridge to Nowhere, a hike that exceeded my skill level and endurance, and ravaged my feet with injuries that persisted for nearly a year after. It was clear to me, looking at that next climb ahead, that this hike, too, was way beyond my skill level, and was putting my phobias and fears to the ultimate test. The stress on me emotionally and mentally was immense, and expressed itself through the tears that started to stream down my face.

Our hike lead advised us to space out, leaving lots of room so as not to get rocks kicked in the face by the hiker ahead. I waited in the back of the line as long as I could, until the sweep prodded me. "Gimme a minute," I said, "I'm just freaking out."

Still, in that moment, I knew I could physically do it. I was scared as hell, and I didn't necessarily want to do it, but with the help of those around me, I was pretty sure my body could make it.

But could my mind?

I trudged on, giving the hiker ahead of me an extra-long headstart, because I knew that once I started climbing, I wouldn't want to stop. But, given the difficulty of the scramble, it was inevitable that someone ahead would pause, get stuck, not know where to go, and hold up the line, forcing me to freeze in place, rendering me a cat caught in a tree, unable to figure out my next move, terrified to relinquish my foothold.

As I paused to collect myself, listening to the sweep behind me urge, "It's OK, take your time, there's no rush," I heard another, strange voice, calling out from down below, with intensifying urgency as it got closer.

"YOU'RE GOING TO FALL!" it said.

A local couple and their dog had come up the trail behind us and, not knowing we were the Sierra Club, must've identified us as a bunch of reckless novices, because the guy kept insisting, "You don't belong here! You don't know this trail! It's too difficult! You're going to fall! You've got no business being here!"

And, having already sniffled halfway up the cliff, I burst into tears.

Because if he said I was going to fall, wasn't I going to fall?

As he climbed closer to us, he shouted stories of other hikers who'd fallen into the canyon and languished down there for hours until being airlifted out, a certain fate, he said, unless we used his ropes.

I didn't know what to do, because I was there with the Sierra Club and wanted to follow the steps of the hikers before me, and the instructions of the sweep behind me, but the path of least resistance - as well as the path to safety - seemed to be to do as I was  told, by the guy that was yelling louder than anybody else. So, after he tied a nylon line around his waist and tossed the slack out to me, I grabbed it, wrapping it around each of my hands, and started climbing only with my feet, letting him pull me up.

I'd used ropes like this before for climbing down into and out of the grotto at Circle X Ranch, but the dirt and rocks were so loose here, it seemed like a bad idea to raise my center of gravity and just "walk" up the mountain. Besides, as scary as it was, I'd gotten into a bit of a rhythm of crawling on all fours, and every time my foot slid down the side of the cliff in a cascade of dirt and gravel, I instinctively attempted to save myself by grabbing any nearby boulder or sturdy rock. (The problem was, whenever I grabbed anything, it moved.)

By this point, I was sobbing, and my hike lead had heard the yelling and had come to investigate, climbing back down to position himself directly behind me. He patted my hiking pack, comforting me with, "I'm right here behind you. You're not going to fall." My feet kept slipping on the slick rocks and loose gravel on the way up, and I teetered and swung like a pendulum hanging off the line tied to the know-it-all hiker trying to help me.

But all the while, I didn't know what to listen to: the self-fulfilling prophecy of certain doom, or the reassuring comfort of possible delusion. The thing was, I was either going to fall or I wasn't. If I believed I was going to fall, I probably was going to fall. Although the climb was precarious, I didn't think I was actually going to fall. I was just scared. And I don't like being yelled at.

Once I hit the top of that last climb, I was fine, though still sniffling from the cold and rain, and embarrassed over the scene that this guy had made over my inexperience and low skill level.

Once we hit the fire road, thankfully there was no more climbing, and we hit what was, for me, the coolest part of the hike: the dirt path of the former Mt. Lowe Railway that I hadn't seen when we drove up and down the private, gated road to the top of Mt. Lowe two years ago.

Stay tuned for more photos from that (much easier) part of the hike.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Heartpounding Hike to a Lost City
Photo Essay: Mt. Lowe Railway's Rubio Canyon
Photo Essay: The Bridge to Nowhere, and Back
Photo Essay: On Shaky Legs Down to the Grotto
Photo Essay: Brand Park Trails

November 20, 2013

What You Don't Know

One of the biggest signs of my maturity is being able to admit what I don't know.

I'm constantly peeved when I ask someone a question, and they guess at the answer. When I hear responses like "Well, I would think that..." "I'm pretty sure that..." and "It's definitely got to be...", more often than not, I rudely interrupt them and say, "But you don't know."

More often than not, they continue to try to speculate.

I can guess at an answer better than anybody else. If I'm asking you, it's because I want the actual answer. Not something that might be the answer.

There's no shame in admitting what you don't know. But most people don't like to hear that. When someone asks me a question, I think about it, and if I don't know the answer (which, hey, sometimes happens), I might say something like, "You know what? I don't know" or "I don't know, but I'll find out" or "I should know, but I don't" or better yet, "I don't know, let's look it up."

But these circumstances usually relate to facts, trivia, tidbits of information - names, dates, times, weather forecasts, hours of operation, driving directions, etc. - that can easily be verified by some public information resource - a book, library archives, the internet, some human expert. It's not always about how much you know, but whether you know who to ask.

It's different when it's about how to do something. And if you want to move ahead in this world, sometimes you've got to do things you don't know how to do. You either learn it quickly in advance, improvise your way through it, or learn it on the job. If you don't already know how to rollerskate (which of course you do), you've got to figure it out pretty quickly once you strap those wheels on your feet.

A few months ago, during a week I was feeling particularly underemployed, I accepted a job offer to be a production assistant on a guerilla-style commercial shoot, during which I'd be assisting the director, DP, and two actors, doing whatever was needed from fetching coffee, marking marks, and slating the scenes to fixing hair/makeup/costumes, recording sound, and even holding the camera way above my head while steadying my footing on the Venice beach with a hoodie draped over my head so I could see the display screen, while the director, DP and actors were all on screen.

I knew that I was up for anything and everything that day, but I didn't really know what I was in for. "Just tell me what you want me to do," I told the director, who I consider a friend, but don't know that well. "Don't be shy about it, just tell me, because I won't necessarily automatically know."

I mean, I'm an actor. I'm used to being on the other side of the camera. I usually just listen for "Action!" and don't pay much attention to "Roll Sound" "Sound Rolling" and all of the other commands and confirmations that are called out on set by multiple crew members.

I'm just talent. What do I know?

I tried really hard, but I don't think I did a very good job. I had a good attitude and arrived on time and did everything I was asked to do, but maybe I could've picked up the rhythm of the set better, been more helpful, grown more arms to hold more pieces of equipment... Towards the end of the day, trying to juggle my production duties with getting camera-ready myself for my own small on-camera role, I found myself apologizing.

"I'm sorry," I said, "I just don't know how to do everything. I've never done this before."

And that's a hard thing to admit.

But even I have never done everything, and will never be able to do everything. There just isn't time.

But I'm grateful for the experience, and even for the money - which, for a 15 hour day, is usually what I make in one hour for my dayjob as a marketing consultant.

I think I did just fine as a PA, but of course I'm never satisfied with anything below excellence. But I didn't drop anything. I didn't break anything. My actors got sunburned but so did I.

And now, I know how to do one more thing.

Related Post:
The Pretender

November 19, 2013

EVENT: Explore the St. Francis Dam Disaster Site & LA Aqueduct

A long-time fan of their website, I've just become a field agent for Atlas Obscura's Los Angeles Obscura Society, the exploration arm which takes people to many weird and wondrous places in and around the LA area (including Pinball Forever, the Bunny Museum, the Moore Lab of Zoology, and many more).

Some of my readers have been asking me for the opportunity to join me on one of my adventures, so here's your first chance: visiting the St. Francis Dam Disaster Site, and two other key locations along the LA Aqueduct.

Here's the official invite and description. Tickets are on sale now (and, considering the difficulty of finding the sites and arranging access through the DWP, are totally reasonable in cost).
Come discover the remnants of the greatest American civil engineering failure of the 20th century 
Minutes before midnight on the evening of March 12, 1928, one of the worst disasters in California's history (and the greatest American civil engineering failure of the 20th century) occurred: the St. Francis Dam collapsed. Second only to the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, the dam break claimed over 450 lives (perhaps many more) as a flood of billions of gallons of water rushed down San Francisquito Canyon, from Santa Clarita all the way out to the ocean.

Much of the path of the water can still be traced today. On December 7, field agent Sandi Hemmerlein [that's me!] will take us to three main sites surrounding the disaster, all key points along the Los Angeles Aqueduct which celebrates its centennial this year. First, we will explore the exterior and interior of Power Station #1 (which survived the disaster) on an exclusive tour guided by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power staff for Society members only. 
Next, we will visit the disaster site itself, where remnants of the dam's 200-foot concrete wall can be seen from a decommissioned road, or up close (hiking optional). Finally, we will visit the St. Francis Dam historical marker at Power Station #2, whose building was completely swept away by the flood and was be rebuilt in ornate Art Deco style shortly thereafter. 
Both stations are essential to the LADWP's efforts to convert gravity-fed water along the aqueduct into usable power. 
- Please bring valid photo ID for security clearance. You'll be asked to provide ahead of the event as well as on the day of.
- Wear comfortable shoes, ie sneakers or hiking boots.
- Bring plenty of water.
- Carpooling is highly encouraged.
- Meeting location will be shared upon registration - appx. 35 miles north of Los Angeles.
- Plan ahead, the trip should take you 45-75 mins depending on where you are coming from in Los Angeles.
- The trip is on a Tuesday during the daytime, please be advised.

Here's your chance to explore history, take a tour of a municipal facility, do some urban exploration and some hiking (if you want), all in one excursion just north of LA!

Hope to see you there.

Making It Anywhere?

"If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere..."

I'd say I did make it in New York.

Sure, I eventually left, calling it quits, let me up I've had enough, but I made it through fourteen years of New York, New York.

So...aren't I supposed to make it anywhere now?

Why haven't I made it in LA yet?

How long will it take?

I remember thinking it took me three years for New York City to feel like home, when I didn't feel unsafe every night out by myself. But the truth is, I was unsafe, and got my wallet stolen, harassed on the street, and forcibly intoxicated into grayzone rapey scenarios. And that was three years into living in a new city in the same state I grew up in, with the same job, the same roommate, and lots of familiar faces from college.

What have I here? Familiar faces I never get to see. Unstable, transient job assignments. A depleted retirement account. A whole new, exotic coast with its own history and culture.

But I also have a fabulous apartment I love, wide open spaces, a set of wheels and at least a half tank of gas - all in the Land of Opportunity.

I don't know how long I have to give LA before I have to give up on it. I love LA but I don't think it loves me yet.

Then again, I don't think it knows me yet.

Plenty of people who've lived here for a lot longer than me hate it here, yet they stay. Those are the people that should probably find somewhere else to sleep.

Related Posts:
Wanting the Want, NYC Edition

November 18, 2013

Good, Just Good.

Sometimes something good happens...
...and you don't feel anything bad about it.
No premonitions or predictions,
no anticipations of an avalanche 
of hurt and disappointment.
You just let it happen.

It's just good. Not just good for now. Good.
And you're not used to good.
So although you know it's good... don't think it's real
and you wait to wake up,
you wait for someone to wake up,
because surely you're in someone's dream
if not your own.

And you wonder why it took so long to find something good,
wasting too much time on the comfortable bad,
waiting for something bad to become good...
...or at least be good enough 
usually isn't very good at all.
And bad doesn't ever get better.
But good sometimes becomes great.

I don't think I've ever been great. But I might, one day.

Related Posts:
When Pretty Good Is Good Enough
The Best I'll Ever Have?
The Best I Ever Had

Photo Essay: The Lighted Windows of La Cañada Congregational Church

I became intrigued by the La Cañada Congregational Church when I heard that it was, for a time, called "Church of the Lighted Window."

The original wood church - known then as La Cañada Congregational Church - opened in 1898 and soon became kindling. It was rebuilt after the fire and reopened, again as the La Cañada Congregational Church, again using wood, but this time covering it in stucco to reduce flammability.

The new church, which was dedicated in 1924, reopened with exposed wood beam ceilings that could be viewed from the inside, and plain, functional windows that were replaced one by one by a variety of stained glass. One glass window in particular - which now hangs above the current chancel area, once the front entrance to the church - was lit from the inside, and, when viewed from the outside at night, inspired poet laureate of California Congressman John Stephen McGroarty to immortalize it in one of his poems.

Although the poem only referred to a church with a lighted window, in 1954 the church congregation was so enamored with the artistic association that they adopted the new name, "Church of the Lighted Window."

Although the church does have a stunning array of stained glass windows in a variety of styles, the new name caused confusion to those outside their congregation - including some who thought the church was actually worshipping a window - and so finally in 2008, the church's name was reinstated to its original, La Cañada Congregational Church.

But the architectural glass remains.

One entire side of the sanctuary features stained glass designed by Ateliers Loire Chartres, the Paris studio founded by famed glassmaker Gabriel Loire, now run by his sons and grandsons.

The art glass is unusual, done in the dalle de verre or "glass slab" style, which uses thick pieces of colored glass set in an epoxy resin instead of the traditional lead came.

Unlike the traditional techniques from the Middle Ages, these pieces are not painted...

...nor are they cut with a traditional glass cutter.

Instead, they hammered with a marteline, breaking them into pieces of faceted glass with a cleaved effect.

The facets are particularly effective in reflecting and refracting the light.

This faceted glass technique rose to fame in the 1950s and 1960s (some of the windows here are dated 1946, the year the studio was founded), but since has been criticized for its structural instability, and difficulty in restoring.

The messages - and depictions - on the Loire windows are simple and easy to understand.

Their bold colors attract the eye to that side of the sanctuary.

But on the other side, there are more windows - these more traditionally made with painted glass and lead came - two local stained glass studios:

...LA Art Glass...

...and, like another of LA's congregational churches, Judson Studios.

Judson has been in business for 116 years ("and counting"), but these windows are also dated 1946...

...and have a much more medieval feel compared to the Loire glass...

...with overtly religious messaging and portrayals.

I spent quite a bit of time in the sanctuary alone with those windows...

...understanding how they could inspire poetry...

...feeling not particularly religious, but, perhaps, exultant.

Maybe it's just the color and the light that entranced me, or how the one window buckles, creating an undulating effect when viewed from below.

(Lead came does have a tendency to sink over time.)

Maybe it's just my love for art.

But if it's the stained glass that keeps drawing me into churches, sometimes even staying for the services, somebody had the right idea.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: First Congregational Church Architecture Tour
Photo Essay: Judson's Historic Glass Studio
Stained Glass (Photo Blog) - Loire windows also found in Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic cathedral (Casablanca, Morocco)

Photo Essay: The Wall of Toys at the Garden of Oz

There's a tiny garden, tucked away in Beachwood Canyon, that's so private, it's only opened up for local children and families.

Behind a yellow gate lie mosaic pathways...

...which the signs encourage visitors to see with their hearts (meaning, no taking photos).

But there's a whimsical part of it...

...that's visible from the street...

...a little gift to passersby.

The property owners want less publicity and not more, so it's hard to find any information about the garden's creator Ashely Boone, or the Garden of Oz itself.

So in lieu of any explanation or historical background or folk art analysis, I simply present to you the Garden of Oz's Wall of Toys:

Trust me, I tried to get inside the gates.

But some things you can only see from the outside.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Mosaic Tile House, Venice
Photo Essay: Hoppy Holidays from the Bunny Museum