Paranormal folklore tends to crop up when folks of a certain age get to talking in the woods, on the outskirts of a sparsely populated village, amidst the widespread wilds of the San Gabriel Mountains. We’re waiting for Robby Ellingson, General Manager of “Southern California’s most epic mountain,” at the base of Southern California’s most epic mountain.
Mt. Baldy stands as the highest peak in the San Gabriels, surrounded by the Angeles National Forest and bordered on the north by the San Andreas Fault. Ann Croissant, Ph.D., President of the San Gabriel Regional Conservancy, tells me that, “As a young and growing range, the San Gabriels are seismically active and peppered with hazardous conditions, including unstable hillsides prone to earthquake damages and multiple safety issues.” At any given moment, a massive tectonic shuffle could essentially collapse the mountain and send the entire Los Angeles basin furling into the Mojave like a fist.
The Mt. Baldy area earthquake activity is “significantly above” the state average, and 4,060% greater than the national. Additionally, in 2008 an EF-2 tornado crossed I-215 and lifted a semi-truck about 40 feet off the ground. There have been a number of wildfires, floods, mudslides, and blizzards. In nearby Lavic Lake, there’s a volcano.
In other words, it’s risky up here. But, according to Tamara Hanson, member of the environmental preservation and activist group Keep Baldy Wild, “I would definitely say that the people who find themselves here love it, so any kind of inconvenience or risk, they’d say it’s worth it.”
Robby Ellingson shows up and explains that a Beatles tribute band, The Beatunes, will be playing tonight at the Top of the Notch Restaurant, a chairlift ride up Mt. Baldy’s summit. Ellingson strikes me as a tireless explorer, the kind of guy who keeps a low profile but still knows how to have a good time. He has pale eyes, a strong jaw, and an intense scar running the length of his left forearm (skateboarding accident, jutting bones, skin graft). He grew up in Mt. Baldy before moving to Oregon for college, “and to chase a freestyle skiing career.” But he later returned, and after a 5-year stint as National Sales Manager at Boardworks Surf in Encinitas, he came home.
“Mt. Baldy is a surfer’s mountain if there is such a thing,” he tells me. “Much different and groovier than the surrounding mountains.”
Lilly and I board the 62-year-old chairlift, and I look over my shoulder at the Los Angeles basin’s gauzy sweep. This was John Muir’s turf, and in his 1918 book, Steep Trails, the naturalist and Sierra Club co-founder described the San Gabriels as “pure and untamable as the sea...rigidly inaccessible…fairly dwarfing the utmost efforts of human culture out of sight and mind.” He went on to say that “in the very heart of this thorny wilderness, down in the dells, you may find gardens filled with the fairest flowers… Bears, also, and panthers, wolves, wildcats; wood rats, squirrels, foxes, snakes, and innumerable birds, all find grateful homes here, adding wildness to wildness in glorious profusion and variety.”
We reach the Notch and order our first pitcher of Claremont Craft Ales Double Dude IPA (8.5% ABV), which goes quickly.
I ask The Beatunes’ drummer, Matt Garrett, what kind of music he likes.
“Death metal,” he says.
The vibe here is exactly what you’d expect from a ski lodge built in the 1950s—high ceilings cross-hatched with exposed wood beams, a wraparound porch with staggering views, black-and-white portraits of the smiling dead.
We order another pitcher and head outside to the fire pit. The Beatunes have started belting out “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It’s lightly raining, a soft static hissing in the trees. It occurs to me, staring out at the sunset and the traceries of distant mountains, that I am alive. Not in some hokey, spiritual sense, but literally—feeling my heart, my bones, all the tissue and organs, the trillions of cells, all working to keep me upright, for the most part. I drink some more beer. The world out there, too, is alive—inversion layers in the atmosphere, all the natural watercourses and sluices that feed the earth—and it’s as if I can sense the g-force of the planet’s rotation, hear the network of beasts large and small scratching around in the shadows, the plants, even, recoiling in the absence of sunlight, and the forlorn ghosts, too, lost in a temporal void. It’s almost like I can hear the earth’s rumbling cry somewhere far below, a loaded sound that holds in it the following promise: If you hurt something, it will react.
Inside, we join Robby Ellingson in his little office by the kitchen. “Back in the day,” he says, “they used to teach ski lessons here in the summer, on hay. These days, we’ve got hiking, biking, camping, and live music. Next summer we plan to add a zip line.”
The phone rings.
“Uh-huh. Okay. Well, is it on fire?”
After some delegation about contacting the Mt. Baldy Volunteer Fire Department, Ellingson hangs up, and says, “Lightening struck a transformer down below, and the thing burst into flames.”
“Is it an emergency?” I ask.
Up here, I’m thinking, everything has potential to be an emergency. Heavy rainfall, light snowfall, the odd electrical storm. This reminds one of the transience and fragility of all things, life’s inevitable mutability, matter’s continuous flux. Two days after Lilly and I leave the mountain and head back to Los Angeles, a violent flashflood will tear through here, badly damaging several homes and killing one motorist.
At some point, we share a toast with Robby’s grandma, Ann, one of the largest shareholders of the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts. At another point, we’re all on the dance floor, moving in a way that feels natural. We’re I-don’t-know-how-many-pitchers deep, and Lilly’s dancing with a hunched geriatric. This is fun, I’m thinking. This is what being alive is all about. But when Lilly gets down and starts twerking to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” I decide it’s time to leave.
The chairlift ride down the mountain is the most peaceful experience I’ve had since moving to California. It’s dark and silent, serrated horizon against the moon, light rain on my face. I pull Lilly closer. Even the ch, ch, ch of the ropeway seems to quiet. And so we leave it all behind—Mt. Baldy and The Beatunes and all the good people braving disaster for their little swath of mountain peace—sinking deeper and deeper as we go, swallowed by darkness.