A hike that taught me to never take nature for granted.
On the morning of August 20th, 2009, I reluctantly went hiking. I had difficulty sleeping the night before and didn’t get to bed until nearly 2:30 in the morning, so waking up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 seemed on the brink of insanity. I had been trekking in the Eastern Sierras five days ago, a lifetime ago considering the amount of hiking I need to get done this year. The number of hikes I still needed to complete to reach 100 by the end of the year weighed heavily on me that morning.
Millard Canyon is one of the first places I discovered after catching a mild case of the hiking bug in 2002 (unlike my full-on case I’ve got today). I returned from an odyssey abroad penniless, looking for inexpensive ways to enjoy life while working low-paying jobs. I soon learned that it costs next to nothing to hike, so I began to explore the trails of the San Gabriel foothills, my new backyard. A few times a month, I’d hike either the Sam Merrill Trail up to Echo Mountain on days when I felt in the mood for nice views of the Los Angeles basin, or into Millard Canyon when I preferred a quiet retreat through a lush canyon.
But I wasn’t feeling it on the hike that early morning in August. The lack of sleep made it tough to find my pacing. I had hoped to make it all the way up the canyon to Dawn’s Mine, an on-and-off gold mine from the late 1800′s all the way into the 1950′s, but my energy level was low. I found myself stopping a lot and sitting down to rest.
But it was these moments of rest that will stay with me for my life. I was the only one with the notion of a morning hike up Millard that morning. My constant stops allowed me to take a good look around undisturbed. Sitting on a rock or a fallen tree, I was given a chance to hear the canyon wake up. The birds started jumping around in the trees or picking at the fallen leaves for insects. A gray squirrel traveled from branch to branch up the canyon in some sort of acrobatic commute, stopping only to voice its apparent dislike of my presence in its canyon. The air was so still that pools of water became mirrors, reflecting the morning sunlight which streaked through the elders and oaks. The stream ran slowly, filling the canyon with the pleasant sound of running water, like a bathtub being filled.
Of all the things one can do with their morning, I found myself there, in Millard Canyon, listening to squirrels, birds, and running water. In an hour, I would be back at the trailhead parking lot, where my car sat alone in an empty lot, proof that I had the canyon to myself. I wish that I understood the importance of the hike at the time. In a video I made during the hike, as I’m calling it quits and starting back towards my car, I comment on how this has been a “blah morning” and I “never really got into the hike.” I end by saying that “I’ll just have to come back and hike here another day.” Little did I know that it wouldn’t be possible.
Nine days later, this canyon as we know it would be gone.
Flames born from the hand of a deranged person would scorch these canyon walls, transforming beauty into cinder. The Station Fire, as it would be named, would burn uncontrolled for 82 days and destroy 251 square miles of forest before being extinguished, making it one of the largest forest fires in California’s recorded history. The maelstrom of flame weakened the canyon walls and they could no longer hold the rock and soil in place after roots of trees and bushes were reduced to ashes. Fire storms were replaced with rain storms, and more damage was done to Millard. Without the foliage, water powered through the canyon, pushing trees and boulders with it. After one storm in late October 2010, the flooding was so strong, it sent a 62-ton boulder down the canyon like a pinball.
Even today, in the early months of 2011, Millard Canyon is still closed. It will be a long road to recovery, and hopefully will again be a place of beauty and solitude. I’ll never forget how that “blah hike” became a cherished memory, one I hope not to soon forget.
Here are some of the last photos of Millard Canyon before the Station Fire of August 2009.