This morning I woke up feeling pretty bummed out about my dad’s impending death and decided I needed to take a drive to clear my head. I really would have liked to drive down to Laguna Beach, find a nice outcropping of rocks along the shore to sit on and just enjoy the crashing of the waves, but I didn’t want to be that far away just in case I got a call about my dad.
Instead I decided to drive up old highway 39 into the mountains above my hometown of Azusa. Through the years I’ve occasionally driven up into the canyon but don’t go much beyond the main turnout above Morris Dam which is only about 3.5 miles up. My usual turn around point is about 2 miles up at what is now known as the Azusa River Wilderness Park. When I was growing up it was the site of El Encanto Restaurant and the old Canyon Inn. Today however but I drove all the way up to the end of the East Fork where the Bridge to Nowhere Trail begins. I’m guessing it’s about 16 miles or more. It’s the first time in over twenty plus years that I’ve been that far up into the canyon. It was really beautiful.
As kids we used to spend a lot of our time up in the foothills at the mouth of the canyon. Seems like we were always up at Seven Pines near Garcia trail and the big ‘A’ or hiking and exploring along the San Gabriel River. Afterwards we’d always go over to Foothill Dairy and curb our thirst with cartons of fruit punch or chow down on Hostess cupcakes, snowballs or push up ice cream. We had some great times but that was only the beginning.
Once we started driving we began to venture deeper and deeper into the luscious San Gabriels. I used to love driving my VW on old 39. I felt so at home in those mountains so at ease. That road liberated me. I loved to drive all the way to the end of the East Fork or to Crystal Lake which was much further up. In time I began to know the road well, we all did. We knew every curve and straight away. I used to love racing down the mountain always trying to beat my best time. It was so cool. It was a blast!
Driving that mountain road was so therapeutic for me. If I having a good day I’d drive the mountain and it made things even better. If I was feeling sad, blue, angry or lonely I’d head for the mountains. If I had problems with my girlfriend, school or my parents I’d drive the mountain. If I was annoyed or bored, I’d drive the mountains. They were my salvation. The drive never failed to relax me. I even practiced some primal scream therapy up there before I ever knew what it was. but that’s a whole other story.
As foolish as it was, the mountains also became one of our go-to places to drink beer and get high. There was nothing like a little late night party up near the old bridge at Cattle Canyon in the East Fork, or laying in the back of my old 59 Ford Wagon with the tailgate down getting stoned and gazing at the stars and talking about UFO’s. We used to spend many a night there. I know drinking and driving the mountain after drinking was a stupid thing to do but we were young and believed we were invincible! Actually we were pretty stupid. Thank God we all managed to survive. Yeah we were a pretty lucky bunch. I’m not sure but I think I was the only one who ever came close to getting into an accident up there.
As I drove I flashed on that near miss incident. I believe it was the summer of 69. One night a bunch of us were drinking at a friends cabin by the river up in the west fork. Around midnight we all hiked back to the road to begin our trek down the mountain. There must have been about four cars. I was following the lead car down and we had just passed the east fork bridge when just for the fun of it I decided to become Ricky Racer and made a move to pass the lead car. I remember speeding up and beginning to make my move when suddenly the taillights on the lead car flash on and off. I immediately pulled back into my lane. A moment or two later a large forestry truck came flying past us. I couldn’t believe how fortunate we’d been not to have been hit. If my buddy hadn’t flashed his lights we would have been killed. Guess it just wasn’t our time.
When we got back to Azusa I remember approaching my buddy to thank him for warning me about the truck, but he had no idea what I was talking about and said he hadn’t done anything to warn me and didn’t even remember the truck flying by. He was a little buzzed that night but to this day he swears he didn’t flash his light. I know those lights flashed. Even my buddy Steve who was sitting shotgun saw them flash. A timely electrical short maybe? I suppose it’s possible but I doubt it. I know someone was looking out for us.
As I neared Morris Dam I thought about the awesome swimming hole we used to go to back in the day. It was about a quarter mile down river from the spillway. We’d drive up, park alongside the road (something you can no longer do without a permit) and hike down to our spot using a thick rope I’d sorta borrowed’ from my dad’s work truck to aid in our descent. We had the rope tied to a concrete pillar that support the weight of the road and draped it down the side of the mountain. It worked perfectly, especially since most times we were hauling backpacks of iced beer down with us. It was a really sweet spot. I even stopped illegally for a moment to take a look down the hillside. The swim hole is still there but with the current drought conditions, it was bone dry. God we had some great times down there.
I continued driving and turned right onto the East Fork Bridge. There is some major construction going on, so there is only a single lane across it so I had to wait for awhile before I could get across. It looks like a major project, some sort of retrofit or something. I was finally able to slowly cross and as I did I wondered how many time I’ve crossed that bridge. I have no idea. I drove on for a few miles until I got to the old Cattle Canyon Bridge I stopped the car in the very spot we used to park my Ford wagon all those years ago to star gaze. It felt so strange to be standing there again. I can’t believe it was so long ago. Nothing much has changed really, in fact except for the addition of a porta- potty at the base of the trail by the bridge, it was exactly as I remembered it. I made a mental note to go back up there some evening and do a little star gazing.
From there I continued on to the end of the road then turned around and started for home. I made one final stop at Camp Williams on my way down. It was like I’d stepped into an episode from the Twilight Zone. It looks pretty much the way I remembered it. I stayed there for awhile reminiscing then started down the mountain.
When I got back across the East Fork Bridge instead of turning left towards home I turned right towards Crystal Lake. I ‘d flashed on another car episode that had taken place just a little ways past the bridge and wanted to return to the scene of the crime. The area looked nothing like I remember. There is about a half mile straight away before the road begins to wind again that I was interested in looking at. It was here in 1969 that my buddy Art and I did the unthinkable and illegally passed a long string of slow moving cars by off-roading on the wrong side of the highway.
We’d been up in the West Fork checking out the damage caused by the heavy winter rains. It was pretty bad. The road from Crystal Lake to the desert had to be closed and sections of the road to Crystal had been wash out. The half mile straight away was also washed out but a lane in each direction had been cleared so cars could slowly crawl across the area. Art and I were impatiently waiting to get across the section when I had a brainstorm! I noticed that there was a wide section that had been cleared outside of the two lanes for the heavy equipment and constructions workers to use. Since it was a Sunday the area was completely empty. I turned to tell Art my idea and apparently he’d been thinking the same thing and said “do it” before I even said a word.
With that I waited for an opportunity to cut across the oncoming traffic and made my move. Once on the outside track we were able to fly past the cars and managed to cut back across traffic into our lane. Yeah it was dangerous and stupid, and there were a few pissed off drivers honking and waving fists, but boy was it bitchin’! we flew the rest of the way down laughing and carrying on, passing any car that got in our way! Yeah it may have been crazy but boy was it fun!
The rest of my drive down the was uneventful although I occasionally got the urge to play Ricky Racer but held back. Now had I been driving a VW Bug I might not have been able to resist the call of the road. All in all my drive up old 39 was, as always, therapeutic, as well as nostalgic. I came away feeling much better and look forward to my next drive. I think I’ll be heading up to Crystal Lake. I haven’t been there in 45 years.
Just a Thought