The first time I walked up Mt. Islip — an 8,000 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 50 miles from my house in Northeast Los Angeles — I came down by moonlight sort of by accident. I tend to get a late start on a lot of my hikes, mostly because I enjoy weekend mornings zoning out on my porch listening to Francoise Hardy, drinking a cherry-walnut smoothie and watching my cat Spider run around in the yard.
The trail is an easy three or four miles one way, and I arrived at the top just as the sun was starting to set, barely making out the towers of downtown Los Angels through the orange haze. I hung around on the peak — bald rock with four chunks of cinder block, the foundation of a long-gone fire watchtower from the 1930s — until the light was mostly gone. It wasn’t until I was making my way down in the dusk when it occurred to me that the woods were still crawling with hunters. It was the heart of deer season, November 5, 2006, and the Islip Saddle parking lot had been full of pickup trucks and camo-sporting Latino dudes hanging out with their freshly-killed deer carcasses rather than the usual crowd of white granola-types and their Subaru Outbacks.
The moon came up over the mountains about an hour after dark, illuminating every crooked branch of the trees on the fire-scarred ridgeline above me. It glowed and sparkled silver on the rock that sloped up from the fire road I was walking, and it shined in the arc of pee that I sent running down the closed, two-lane blacktop highway that I’d followed to the trailhead. (The Angeles Crest Highway has been closed with a heavy gate at mile 64.1 for months now, I think because of some rockslides further east.) I was singing a jolly country song about a guy who killed a woman in Tennessee and was now running for the Mexico border when I realized that two hunters, sitting by the side of the road, had been watching me from a distance as I ambled along, dancing and urinating gratuitously in the middle of the road. Yeesh. “Buenas noches, cazadores,” I said, remembering the word for “hunters” from a tequila bottle. “Uh-huh,” they replied, understandably unimpressed. They asked me if I’d seen their friend, who was long overdue at the parking lot. I told them I hadn’t seen anyone, and walked on.
I raved about the moonrise that night to anyone who’d listen, but it wasn’t until a few months later that it occurred to me that I could take pictures in the moonlight. A cursory internet search lead to a few pages of strange moonlit train tracks and windmills. I decided that Islip might be a good place to give this a try. The peak offers 360-degree views of deep canyons, towering peaks as well as the lights of West Covina and Pomona to the south, Palmdale and Lancaster to the north. Plus I knew how to find my way down in the dark. The full moon was actually on Friday, June 29, so I decided the first day of waning gibbous would suffice.
There are two ways to start up Mt. Islip. The first — as described in Jerry Schad’s Afoot and Afield, the guidebook that pretty much anybody who ever took a walk in Griffith Park owns — starts a mile and a half west of where the Angeles Crest Highway is closed at Islip Saddle. It’s an easy walk to a gated fire road that hits the Pacific Coast trail about a half mile up. One can also jump on the PCT at the saddle, which is a shorter, though steeper, ascent. (P.S. if you’re actually gonna do this — or any other trail that I talk about here — you should not rely on the accuracy of my descriptions. Get a map.)
The trail up to Islip is shady, and since it starts at around 6500 feet the temperatures are tolerable even in July and August. I started at 4pm, taking the PCT route. I saw three pairs of hikers coming down, and stopped to chat with a quartet of backpackers — J. and friends — catching a buzz in the shade of towering pine trees.
The trail winds through pine forest and hits the Little Jimmy Campground after about two miles. There’s also Little Jimmy Spring — which I’ll talk more about in another post — at the end of a short side trail. The last section of the trail before you hit the peak is slowly recovering from a huge wildfire from four or five years ago. All the trees are withered with burns, some are towering skeletons of sun-bleached wood. But the air is buzzing with bees pollinating white and purple flowers blooming across the hillside.
I arrived at the peak around 6pm to find six granola yuppies sitting around talking loudly about e-commerce and internet porn. Fellas: this type of thing might work when you’re walking your dog up and down Runyon Canyon, but having a meeting about monetizing interweb masturbation up here is kind of missing the point.
After the porn meeting adjourned I had the peak to myself. There are the remains of a cabin up here where the fire lookout used to sleep while on duty. I poked around it for awhile, eating some organic beef jerky and tried to ignore the occasional pangs of anxiety I was feeling about my decision to hang around an abandoned hut on a remote mountaintop until long after dark. Eventually I lie down next to my backpack and pull my hat over my eyes, napping and listening to the wings of swallows searing through the still mountain air.
Sunset comes and goes just after 8pm, the light spilling over passes and through gaps; dust and insects drift and spin and buzz through the last light of the day. The wind starts to howl as the sun disappears down a long corridor of green mountains, the backbone of the San Gabriels. The darkness is what I think of first as far as things that are creepy about being alone in the woods at night, but it’s the wind that really makes me feel a little tickle of panic. Especially hearing it rustling in far off trees, howling over rock faces and up to the ridge. An ancient sound that brings up thoughts of mortality and the near-eternity of a mountain’s age; and memories of all the other times I’ve sat out alone — or with the small group of people that I’ve spent time with in wild places like this one — listening to it moan and thinking about time passing and the rocks and dirt and air that stays the same. Do I only take on these lonely hikes because of the profound sense of relief I feel when my car starts before I drive home?
There’s really not much to be frightened of up here: Yes there are cougars and bears, but they usually don’t bother people and there aren’t many of them to begin with. Still, I jump at the jingle of my keys when I move my backpack. And I worry about getting lost in the dark or tumbling over the side of the trail and slipping down the hundreds of feet of scrabble into the canyon below.
A father and son with the Boy Scout troop that’s camping down below the peak arrive just moments before the moon rises. They are friendly — the dad is severely winded, gasping for air and soaked with sweat — but the moon crests the ridgeline to the east at 8:50pm and I immediately jump to my camera. They watch the moon for awhile, but eventually we’re all distracted by what looks to be a helicopter search and rescue mission taking place in the canyon to the west. After they leave I’m creeped out by whispering voices — an adult and child — that carry up the steep, trail-less west side of the mountain.
I didn’t really know what I was doing with these pictures. One friend gave me a tripod to use, another told me to use the timer function so that the image wouldn’t be disrupted by my snapping the shot. Beyond that, I maxed out my little Canon Powershot A95 at 10-15 second exposure times. Considering I spent the morning reading the manual, I’m pretty happy with these almost-indiscernible lunar light snapshots.
After awhile alone up top, J. and the three backpackers I met on the trail came up to scope the scene. We traded stories of meeting strange squatters out in the backcountry, and I swapped info on how to acquire cheap hot springs slots at Esalen up in Big Sur for J.’s instructions to hot springs on Mount San Gorgonio. He and his friends offered me their plastic jug of Bacardi and Crystal Light, and everyone was feeling good and high. We watched the headlights of a group of half a dozen mountain bikers careening down from Mt. Waterman to the west. Fireworks explode over Lancaster to the North. Air traffic over Los Angeles’ eastern suburbs is continuous to the south. The air is still here though, deep in the mountains under a blazing yellow moon. Venus and Saturn sit next to each other above the western horizon.
I packed up and headed back to the car around 11pm. The hike down was darker than I expected, and at one point something big moves and runs through the trees up above the fire road I’m walking on. I turn and instinctively make this weird hissing noise that’s loud enough to set a dog at the campground I’d passed a mile back to barking.
The rest of the trip down is uneventful. My car starts without incident and I roll down the mountain listening to the Grateful Dead, “Mountains of the Moon.”
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