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Just Shut Up and Camp: Our Hike up Mount Wilson

by Denis Faye | May 7, 2021

illustration by Christine Gregory

Marilyne and I have been hiking our way through the Pandemic with a small group of friends. Every other Sunday, we pick a new destination, and show up in separate cars, and keep our distance during the hike—although we do all mooch Chris’ Fritos.

I typically get the ball rolling via group text on the Tuesday before (“Where we headed, folks?”), but I let the route selection and planning go to those with superior navigational skills; Guys like Kevin and Don who don’t, for example, frequently get lost in their own neighborhood during morning runs.

Simply put, Kevin and Don are the planners. I’m not the planner. Or, at least, that’s the way I planned it.

But I’ve felt self-conscious lately about my planning impotence. Specifically, I felt self-conscious on a Monday at 2am a couple weeks back, so I decided to be the guy to propose the actual route. I rolled over, grabbed my iPhone, opened the AllTrails app and found a route that looked interesting, a loop near Newbury Park called the Tripeaks Trail. I sent a link via group chat.

And nothing.

This made me sad, given my ego couldn’t do the math that it was 2am. I despondently set down the phone and went back to sleep. Technically, I laid there and stewed in my hurt feelings for another hour or so, but in my world, this is very similar to sleeping.

“Boring!” I awoke the next morning to Marilyne lying next to me, staring at her phone. An unusual wake-up for some, but a common morning salutation from my French wife. I lifted my head, “What’s boring?”

“This route you picked. It’s boring,” she’d clicked on the link I’d sent last night. “10.5 miles with only 3,097 feet of climbing.”

On one hand, I felt validated that she’d actually checked out my route. On the other hand, I felt a little defensive. I leaned into that second sentiment.

“But it was rated as ‘difficult’! And it has a waterfall!”

“Pffft,” she frenched, “it’s flat.” Marilyne was born in Chamonix, a legendary alpine sport town in the French Alps. Both of her parents are mountain guides. “Up” is in her blood.

As a typical American male, I held on to my frustration for several hours, gently fostering it so that it could fester and expand deep in my psyche. Later that day, sitting at my work-from-home desk, I hopped back on AllTrails and found the steepest possible trail ascending Mount Wilson, a summit just north of Los Angeles.

“I got your climbing right here,” I mumbled as I posted the route.

Again, no response. It was 11am on Tuesday, around the time I typically solicit suggestions, so this time I felt justified in my insecurity. I called Kevin

“This is Kevin,” he said.

“Yeah, I know,” I responded. We’ve known each other for over 16 years, but this is how he always answers. I’m pretty I’m in his contacts. “Should we climb Mount Wilson for our next hike?”

“Yeah, I saw that you texted that 45 seconds ago. I think we should.” I can always count on Kevin.

“So, um, I’m kind of having hurt feelings that no one is commenting on the group chat.”

“On it,” he assured me. Within the minute, he texted the group: “Mount Wilson sounds awesome.”  Even though we were only two of a six-person group, I decided that was a quorum.

Later that day, I asked Marilyne. She often ignores the group chat because it annoys her.

“Um, how about we hike to the top of Mount Wilson next weekend? Seven miles and 5,000 feet to the top, so 14 miles round trip.”

“That sound fun,” she smiled, “Let’s do it!”  Making Marilyne smile always feels a lot more gratifying than annoying her.

The Great Outdoors at a 15% to 45% discount!

Part of the reason we’re doing all this hiking is in preparation for a three-week hike along the John Muir Trail (JMT), a 220-mile trek across the Sierra Nevada mountain range, starting in Yosemite and ending at Mount Whitney. Our goal date is sometime in 2022.

To facilitate this training, Marilyne and I did what any good American couple would do and immediately threw down about a thousand bucks for ultralight backpacking gear. We soothed our consciences by utilizing a complex series of sales and discount codes to cut our spending by 15% to 45%, as to fool ourselves and impress our friends with our bargain hunting, but ultimately, we sank a lot of money into wool, space-age polymers, and goose down that would have otherwise gone towards our kids’ college educations. Or maybe towards top shelf liquor and fair-trade coffee.

Since all this gear was collecting dust in our garage, it only made sense to put it to use by expanding our Wilson trip to an overnight. I once again took command of the situation and found a “hike in” campground in the Angeles Forest near Mount Wilson called Henninger Flats that looked charming in the photos. (Instagram rarely lies.) The site is accessed by hiking 2 miles up a fire road called the Mount Wilson Toll Road. This would make for a mellow Saturday and an easy exit Sunday morning, allowing our legs to be fresh for the subsequent 14 miles up the mountain.

The comments section on AllTrails mentioned something about the campsite being closed due to COVID-19. It also mentioned the Mount Wilson Toll Road was either closed or you needed reservations to access it. The USDA Forest Service website confirmed this, but I called bullshit. It’s a National Forest! I had an annual National Parks Adventure Pass! The outdoors are free, man! (Once you’ve paid for your Adventure Pass.) And who believes the comments section anyway?

I pitched the idea to Marilyne, leaving out the “closed” and “need a reservation” conspiracy nonsense. I suggested we keep it to just the two of us, like a romantic thing. She loved the idea. Friday night we packed our matching, orange 58-liter Osprey backpacks (REI Outlet purchases), unpacked them, discussed how we should have packed them, repacked them, half unpacked them, debated if we should entirely unpack them, repacked them again, and we were ready, except for the stuff we had to additionally pack Saturday morning.

Also of note was the small Gerber LST pocket knife I made a point of slipping into the pocket of my Kuhl Radikl hiking pants (20% off coupon). My mom bought me the knife in 1984 as a souvenir from a trip to Alaska. The blade is embossed in commemoration of “25 years of statehood.” Like any young teen given a sharp object by their mother, I cherished the knife, taking it everywhere, including church, sporting events, and school. (These were different times.)

After a couple months, I lost it. Needless to say, I was crushed, so my mom bought me a duplicate knife on a subsequent trip to Alaska. Fearful of losing it again, I placed it in my “box of special things” for the next 36 years. Congratulations, Alaska, on 61 years of statehood.

Over the years, I’ve been tempted to use it, especially when my dad and my brothers-in-law got into the habit of keeping a pocket knife in their pockets. The knives never proved helpful and my dad lost his at the hands of the TSA, but hiking seemed like a logical time to carry a pocket knife, so in my pocket it went.

The fine like between walking on dirt and hiking

We arrived at the trailhead at around 8am. The seven-foot-tall, concertina-barbed-wire-topped gate was firmly closed with COVID closure warnings slapped all over it. I thought about waving my National Parks Adventure Pass around in case it triggered some unseen magnetic entrance card reader, but the multiple paddle locks suggested this would not bear fruit.

As we sat in the Subaru pondering our next step, an old couple wandered by, clearly local, veteran hikers. He was tall and lean with a black bandana as a mask. She was shorter but equally lean with a wooden walking stick. They wore matching Patagonia fleece vests. (Unsure if they got a discount.) I couldn’t help but imagine that they looked a lot like Marilyne and I will look like in 25 years, provided we reduce our cheese intake in the near future.

The couple explained that the gate had been locked for months, but that we could access the trail by making a free reservation at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center a few miles up the road.

We thanked them and drove to the Nature Center, where we found two Millennial volunteers waiting outside a gate, checking reservations. They were both firmly planted on folding chairs. Marilyne had her phone out, trying to make reservations online, but I thought it more productive to go right to the source, so I hopped out and approached the gate keepers.

“Good morning!” I said.

“Hello,” said the woman.

“So, um, can I make a reservation to get in?” I asked.

“Yes,” she responded.

“Great!” I said. We stood there for a moment in silence. I waited for her to pull out a reservation book or passes or something.

“You need to make them 24-hours in advance,” she finally offered. While she wasn’t rude by 21st century standards, her tone with flat and guarded, a stark contrast from the effusive old couple.

My shoulders slumped in defeat, I turned to the Subaru, ready to go home for a third cup of coffee. But I could see my industrious Alpine wife inside, the child of the mountains, the runner of eleven marathons, sitting in the passenger seat, dead set on finding a workaround. If I didn’t find a solution, she would. I didn’t want that to happen. This was a worth-proving moment.

It seemed strange that the 700,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest would only have one entrance. I pivoted back to the sedentary millennials.

“So, is this the only way to get to trail leading to Henninger Flats?”

“Yes.”

“That’s quite a racket.”

“Yes. I mean, you can access the Mount Wilson Toll Road using the Altadena Crest Trail. That trailhead’s a couple miles up the road, but then you’ll need to walk on the trail a couple extra miles…”

She stressed the “couple extra miles” as if this walking was inconvenient. In my mind, “walking on the trail” and “hiking” are similar activities, so this didn’t feel like a deterrent. I thanked her and went back to the car, where I found the Altadena Crest Trailhead in Google Maps. I then discovered a street entrance at a halfway point in the trail off of Tanoble Drive, shaving a mile off our pre-hike walk. Bursting with an unnecessary amount of self-worth, like a Labrador proudly retrieving a slobbery, punctured tennis ball, I presented my solution to Marilyne.

Because she works with dogs for a living, Marilyne knew to respond enthusiastically. She navigated me to the street entrance a mile away. We threw on our backpacks, locked the car, and headed up Tanoble Drive.

Then I returned to the car to double check it was locked and removed my backpack to make sure I had enough water, then threw my backpack back on and caught up with Marilyne on Tanoble Drive.

Horticulture and other bloodsports

illustration by Christine Gregory

The access point to Altadena Crest Trail was a steep, short path across from a tidy Craftsman house. The occupant meticulously washed his kid’s little BMX bike on the sidewalk out front as I approached him for directions. I think living there must be quite an acid test. Either you’re stoked to be living a few feet from some of the most beautiful hiking on Southern California or you’re chronically annoyed at the constant stream of hikers and runners walking by your house. He was friendly enough, but he also gave us the completely wrong directions to Henninger Flats, so I’m not sure into which camp he fell.

The trail was steep and rutted in a fun, interactive sort of way. We quickly rose up to get a good view of the homes below. I wish I could wax poetically about all the greenery around us, but horticulture has never been my strong suit. For the most part, I can only identify plants that have causes me pain at some point, so I’ll talk your ear off about cacti, rose bushes, or lemon trees, but other than that, they’re all just green and pretty. Some have flowers, making them extra pretty.

After winding through the hills for thirty minutes, we found ourselves at a T intersection with Mount Wilson Toll Road. Marilyne automatically turned left towards Eaton Canyon Bridge. I, on the other hand, checked the map and consulted a few of our fellow hikers, eventually learning that, if we turned right, the road ended in about 300 feet, where the padlocked gate we’d first encountered was in plain view.

Marilyne knew I’d eventually reach this conclusion, so she hadn’t waited. I ran across the bridge to catch her.

Mount Wilson Toll Road hasn’t been a conventional car roadway since 1936, even though the rangers and other forest personal drive it. It narrows enough to feel intrepid as it twists and turns and switchbacks its way up Mount Wilson. Marilyne and I hiked at a quick clip, passing other hikers but getting passed by trail runners, discussing their footwear and looking for a place to camp should Henninger Flats prove a bust.

As we continued up the road, the views of Altadena, Pasadena, and Los Angeles became increasingly impressive. At one point, I was mentally noting a bench facing out over the urban sprawl that might provide a helluva sunset when Marilyne suddenly handed me her hiking poles. She pointed to a steep little wash on the mountain side of the road leading up to a big yucca plant. (I’ve tangled with many a yucca, so I know the spikey bastards on sight.)

“There’s a place to put our tent up there,” She said.

“I don’t really see anything—” I began, but before I could finish, she’d scrambled up the bank and navigated around the sharp spines of the yucca, out of view.

“Yep,” she called out from the brush. This is perfect for a tent. Wanna see?”

“I’m good,” I called back, content to avoid yuccas whenever possible. I stood at the bottom of the wash, ready to help her as she tumbled down. She admonished me to get out of her way.

We continued up the path.

Office supplies do not stand up to the elements

Henninger Flats was pleasant enough. Plenty of places for tents, water spigots everywhere, picnic tables, benches, bbqs, bathrooms, a few historical structures. All the mod-cons of a car campground without the cars, but also very closed for the Pandemic.

The bathrooms were wrapped in police tape and “No Camping” signs were posted in a couple spots, printed on white computer paper and inserted in plastic, Office Depot three-ring binder sheet protectors—excellent for protecting a resume or a seventh-grade social studies report, but not effective against the elements. The signs were bleached out and barely legible. So hard to read, in fact, that if one were caught camping close to the sign, one could argue that one had mistaken it for a misplaced middle school essay about the Louisiana Purchase…

Still, the place had a weird vibe. Not where we wanted to camp. That said, it was a nice enough place for lunch, so we staked out a bench in the sun. We took out almond butter and Marilyne-made fruit jam on Marilyne-made sourdough bread. (She didn’t make the almond butter, but nobody’s perfect.)

After lunch, the sun wandered around the mountain and the wind picked up. We chased the sun across the bench for a few more minutes, then gave up. We decided to head back down to Marilyne’s secret spot.

Man versus yucca

We arrived at the bench. The sun beamed down pleasantly with only the slightest of breezes. It was hard to believe we were only a mile or so from windy, uninviting Henninger Flats.

I scrambled up the yucca wash. After surviving the spike gauntlet, I arrived at a small clearing. The tamped-down grass and empty Coke bottle suggested we weren’t the first to camp here. It was perfect. Marilyne scrambled up after me. We set up our tent and headed back down the bench-with-a-view to spend a lazy afternoon in the sun reading and napping. On the way, the yucca took another poke at me, so I decided to even the score, using my little Mama’s boy knife to prune the plant’s spikes. It was a manly moment, protecting my family from danger like this, not all that different from fighting a bear or a shark. Same sentiment.

The bench proved a fine base for the rest of the day. We set our ultra-light Coleman camping stove up between us and made afternoon tea, followed by a porridge made out of ground lupini beans and dehydrated vegetables, followed by evening tea.

It was, as expected, a fine sunset. The sun created a travelling light show by bouncing off various windows across Greater Los Angeles as it descended, turning the sky orange and eventually vanishing behind a hill.

I waited for the nighttime city lights to equally impress. In my early twenties, my friends and I used to drive up into the hills at night to take in the view. We would sit on the side of the road, drink beer, and stare at the lights for hours, quietly plotting how we’d take over the world. But tonight, the lights weren’t shining. The landscape just washed into gray and fading into nothing, just like my twentysomething plans of global domination.

A few lights made a feeble attempt at glowing, but it was mostly dark. Maybe the skyline was another victim of the Pandemic. Maybe the offices were vacant and nobody at home bothered to turn on their lights when watching Netflix. We gave up and scrambled up to the tent.

World domination optional

After brushing my teeth, I shuffled past the now-impotent yucca for one, last pre-tent pee. As I relieved myself, I could see lights twinkling through the trees. We’d given to soon. I called Marilyne and made my way down to the bench, where all of Los Angeles, a sprawling, shallow city that I’ve never really loved yet had been my home for the last two decades sparkled before us, neighborhoods; office buildings; a giant, flickering screen we agreed had something to do with the Staples Center. It was beautiful.

The lights brought me back to those boozy nights in my twenties and the fact that I definitely have not taken over the world. At fifty-one, it’s unlikely I ever will. Maybe this is because I get lost in my own neighborhood and view shrub pruning as the apex of my masculinity.

As self-pity set in, Marilyne took my hand. I looked at her and smiled. Luckily, she has very little tolerance for my existential angst so I’ve learned to keep it to myself. That’s a good thing, frankly, because nothing good comes of my ego dismantling. It’s is akin to pulling a thread on a knitted sweater, so I’m grateful she doesn’t indulge me in that kind of psychic unraveling.

I pulled myself together so that we could enjoy the view together. After a while, we went to bed in the tent, where we couldn’t really snuggle much given the confining nature of our goose down mummy sacks (Hers: REI Outlet; Mine: 15% off discount code) but we still giggled like kids and made out a little bit. Screw world domination. I like it here, in the tent, with my wife.

Coyotes howled for a while and, just as we feel asleep, a very large bird screeched right above the tent, but none of that felt scary for some reason.

We woke at dawn. I broke camp as Marilyne made us some watery coffee and thick oatmeal. Both tasted fantastic.

Quite a few runners and service vehicles traversed on the trail at that hour. Although what we were doing was legal, probably, we still felt naughty, so we waited until the coast was clear before scrambling down onto the wash.

We made it to the Subaru without incident and arrived at our arranged meeting point with Kevin right on time. As it turns out, he was the only other one who could make it that day—but that was okay because he’d brought Fritos this time. He waited patiently as we transferred our gear from our overnight packs to our smaller day packs, unpacked the day packs, and repacked them again.

Then we began our hike up Mount Wilson.

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One thought on “Just Shut Up and Camp: Our Hike up Mount Wilson

  1. Brendan

    Great story, really enjoyed reading it, especially the existential struggles stuff. Glad you gave up on that world domination thing, man, is it expensive and time-consuming. I’m sad/disgusted with how so many state, municipal and other public agencies have indefinitely closed all the things that could make us healthier and happier during the pandemic, even while they collect their salaries. Too bad we have to feel guilty about doing the right thing. I ran into those young volunteers at the same gate a month ago, and diverted to the Altadena trail also. I was tempted to walk right past them and go around the side of the gate, but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. The county couldn’t find an actual park ranger to police the gate, but sent kids to defend it? Like The fall of Hitler’s Berlin? [That’s right, I went Hitler in less than one diatribe paragraph.] In any case, that Mount Wilson trail has been tempting me for years, hope you enjoyed it. And after seeing many elderly Korean ladies ascending it from the Mount Lowe trail (sometimes even when it’s snowing), I have a feeling it is doable by us less-elderly.

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