Saturday, October 15, 2005

Places Lost...

There are places I don't go anymore, places that were special to me once but have now become different kinds of places.

One of those places is where I grew up, the West San Fernando Valley on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

When we moved there from Santa Monica in 1949, I was four, and the West Valley was a rural agricultural area, sheep pasture, row crops and orchards as far as the eye could see, broken only by dirt roads, small farmettes & chicken ranches. Old barns and tractor sheds dotted the landscape and the Los Angeles River, running through the middle of it all, was a meandering creek teeming with wildlife. My dad had a small backyard chicken ranch and an egg route he delivered out of the trunk of his '41 Chevy.

That's all gone now, replaced with a sickening smoggy sprawl of freeways, parking lots, apartment houses, strip malls and big box discount stores, the rich living earth buried beneath concrete, asphalt & crapboard slums, while the magic river of my childhood, home of dragonflies, pollywogs, frogs, butterflies, snakes and birdsong is now a cement box flood control channel.

I try not to go there anymore.

Long ago I moved to the mountains, first the Santa Monica's, until the 1970s Yuppie boom priced me out, then on to Big Bear in the San Bernardino's, which I then called "The place that time forgot".

But somewhere during the past 25 years time caught up with Big Bear which, now of course, is just another ski resort boomtown well into its own ruination.

This is still a very special place though, in that we're surrounded by hundreds of square miles of National Forest, where the beautiful solitude of nature is only a short walk in any direction.

Yet there are places here that I don't go to anymore either, places like Crystal Mountain.

Crystal Mountain is no more than a knob of shattered, decomposing quartz debris overlooking the Mojave Desert from a 7,000 foot vantage point.

A few yards off the Pacific Crest Trail, at the east end of Bear Valley, Crystal Mountain languished for decades in close proximity to a ramshackle little paradise once called Shadow Ranch.

I don't know what they call the place now and don't care.

Shadow Ranch consisted of what looked to be an old bunkhouse, situated all by itself on several acres, at the end of a dirt road in a small secluded valley. There was a dog that barked from the porch whenever someone hiked past on the trail, and a chicken coop that housed a few hens & a rooster.

Behind the house & chicken coop was a large outcropping of granite, covered in bright shades of yellow, orange, green and purplish lichen, and atop this pile of painted rock, facing the desert, sat a rickety aluminum lawnchair with a beer can holder.

I never saw anyone sitting in it.

I dreamed of owning Shadow Ranch, of living there and taking in tired hikers on their way from Mexico to Canada or vice-versa...

...and of kicking back in that lawnchair drinking craft beer & losing myself to the immense vista of the Mojave and the mountains beyond.

But all that's gone now, replaced by a 5,000+ square foot McMansion, a paved road, mercury vapor lights and a stable of SUVs.

I haven't seen it because I won't go there, but my fiddle-playing wildlife biologist friend MaryAnne described it all to me in excruciatingly painful detail.

Eleven years ago, when I still owned four wheels with an infernal combustion engine, I drove to the PCT trailhead at Highway 18 and took my last hike to Crystal Mountain.

I wrote more in those days, and what's written below is my journal entry from that morning.

I don't know why I'm sharing this today, except that it's another Fall and I was thinking about the place.

Crystal Mountain Sunrise

Has it been half an hour since I parked the truck in fading darkness and wandered onto the gainly curves of the Pacific Crest Trail?

The minutes have been lost between here and the highway, evaporated into a perfume of damp sage and pinyon.

Nonetheless, I remain involved in the friction back where distant radials slap steel belts to asphalt, broadcasting their hyperactive drone through the stillness of dawn to this crag where I wait for the sun.

An airbus churns a curdling howl from the atmosphere above, its vapor trail narrowing to a needle of cold aluminum splashed in a bath of golden firelight. People sit up there in the morning glow, peering from microscopic windows into a wild blue haystack, as I look down to the brass sun-pendant strung by rawhide from my neck. Cast by the hands of my stepfather the pendants pointed rays frame the finely carved features of a womans face, and I’m drawn into the blank stare of her ball bearing eyes transfixed eastward in metallic meditation.

With equal contempt for all that is sacred, the racket of man’s machinery intensifies its assault, blaring from the west, from Bear Valley’s roadways, runways and subdivisions, through horse-trail, footpath and beyond to find each secret quiet place where man has never been. The roar rises, then fades, leaving only the breath of the wind raking toward the desert, ever cleansing our smoky stench from the air.

Sipping hot coffee amidst the quartz debris known as Crystal Mountain I contemplate the crumbling rubble.

Slowly the disintegration continues, glittering in endless shades of white, pink and beige until rock again becomes fine particles of soil for nurturing lacey webs of textured flora.

In this shallow crystalline graveyard of impossible hues, a closer look reveals tiny fungal lives clinging to stone, clothed in fuzzy earthy ochres, olives, grays and rusts and harmonizing perfectly their combined energy to create a living aura of great complexity.

Joshua Trees and Pinyon stand from their beds of stone defiant of the coming winter as if they were statues eternally bronzed in the shock of sunlight now squeezing through low cracks in a horizon of fleeting clouds.

A light rain fell here yesterday and the musty fragrance still flows around all who care to notice.

Sailing dark and proud the remnants of the storm hang about bending rainbow light through myriad spectral prisms, and closely huddled, they seem to mull the option of one last shower as the second day of September is born.

The droning, the friction, and the wind accompany me to a precipice.

From my seven thousand foot perch I gaze to the northeast, across the Mojave, where a pastel haze softly mixes desert with mountain and moving sky to paint a terrestrial landscape of planetary dimension. In the east, the sun finding another hole, sends a fan of luminous rays to kiss the rock good morning while a clump of drying sage tries for resurrection and chartreuse splotches of lichen look on hopefully.

A gentle breeze moves through it all, smoothing the edges of dead wood, of stone and the hard noise of man.

And now, a dog barks to the crowing rooster over at Shadow Ranch.

September 2, 1994

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Blogger said...

I found your story to be quite refreshing. Sounds like you guys really live the good life! Good luck to you! *smiles*

4:33 PM  
Blogger Walter Jeffries said...

Wow, Jim! That was an excellent read... Sad and well written.

6:24 PM  
Blogger robin andrea said...

So beautifully written, like a eulogy for something that shall never be again.
I have always thought that for those who see clearly, vividly and closely--even the smallest changes will be perceptible. How do you steel yourself for the large-scale defilement that happens on this poor, sad earth?

7:40 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

rexroth's daughter-

I don't.

I allow myself to feel it.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, if you ever were to publish your writings in book form, I would be honoured to own a copy.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Madcap said...

This is like a kick in the gut. I've been trying for the past few weeks, to seek out someplace beyond the sound of engines, and I can't without being more the curse than the cure. What will happen to inward contemplation when outwardly there's nothing left worth contemplating?

10:18 PM  
Blogger Ontario Wanderer said...

Greetings from Ontario. Thank you for your note the other day re my daughter. I am glad that your son had a happier, even if very painful, ending to his car crash adventure. I don't know how anyone could survive a fall like that.

Meanwhile, back at your blog, I really enjoyed the Great Blue Heron photos and hearing about your book and CD collection. We too are addicted to books and have a library somewhat larger than yours but then we were both elementary school teachers before retirement, as well as being almost constant readers and books are so hard to get rid of....I am envious and impressed with your CD library.

3:03 AM  
Blogger shaidrules said...

very good jim...i used to hang and bang out there too when i was younger...too much has changed for the worse im and peg and jimmy and jamie are the best...please keep in touch...shaid...

2:33 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

Beautiful writing, Jim. I felt like I was there, and it makes me sad knowing I won't have a chance to experience it in the way you did.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Lené Gary said...

It must be terribly painful to have so many places dear to your heart be deeply disturbed--some so much so that they sound barely recognizable. I especially enjoyed reading the journal entry you included.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


Well, let's just say it's instructive, and if you make it to 60, or hopefully much older, you will know many such places.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


I seriously doubt that I'll ever get anything published, but you're more than welcome to save anything you like from the blog, and I'd be honored for you to have my writing.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


But you are experiencing a whole life too and so many secret places that I will never really know either.

So I hope you'll remember and continue sharing stories about them like you did the other day after you drove past your old house, so we can all think about what we are losing and maybe, just maybe, things will be different someday...

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love this story my grandfather owned shawdow ranch it was my childhood vacation home i was devestated when he and my grandmother sold it! i am glad someone else feels as upset about it as i do!

11:54 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


How wonderful that you found my story about this special place that was such a memorable part of your childhood. I would love to hear your stories about the place that I only loved from a distance.

Do you live here in Big Bear?

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No i do not live in Big Bear but i was born there and visited every year as a child. and going to shadow ranch was our escape from city life =0) the house had no electricty so once it got dark we would go out front to a bench my Grandpa had right at the end of a cliff and we would listen to old war of the world tapes and look at the stars. i loved it there i am so upset it is now just all a memory. i remember the old out house and our little barn looking room behind the main house that was full of bunk beds. we never stayed in that room only because there were always a bunch of scorpions and other creatures lol. i wish i could find my pictures of the place i will have to ask my grandmother for some so i can post them up for you. i am glad you loved Shadow Ranch also. i know it was built in the 1800's sometime but grandpa bought it in 1950 something his name was Edward E Abbott he took so much pride in his shadow ranch and used to love taking us there and being about to shoot his old gun at the shooting range.once he became to old to take care if the land anymore my grandmother decided to sell it. amd now there is a huge house on the land it makes me so sad to think about it. soon after my grandmother moved from Big Bear and Grandpa passed away. he wrote a Book of poems some about shadow ranch i would love to possibly send you a copy if you would like. take care

2:54 PM  

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