Dark Behind It Rose the Forest ...
Into the beautiful Angeles we go, into the most dangerous national forest in America
By Randall Sullivan
Arrests are common in
Angeles National Forest
I'm barely half a mile from the Foothill Freeway, looking over my left shoulder at the gorgeous lie that is Los Angeles after a rainfall. I steal a parting glance toward the most magnificent racetrack in America, laid out in geometric verdure, its lush grounds fringed with palm fronds that wear sunlight like a coat of lacquer. I can't see the hyacinths blooming, but I know they are, in a hundred festive colors.
The government-green Ford Bronco in which I am riding (the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun hard against my thigh) continues its climb up Santa Anita Canyon Road along a center divider growing philodendrons with leaves the size of elephant ears. On each side of the road between cross streets with names like Hacienda and El Vista are low-slung, ranch-style homes. The lawns are so perfect they look as if they should be maintained not with mowers but with vacuum cleaners. In every other yard stands an orange or lemon tree, heavy with fruit. A white picket fence, freshly painted, surrounds the last house.
Just beyond, the road is straddled by a scabrous steel gate that closes each evening at 10 p.m. We pass through and enter a wide curve where I lean into a deadfall drop, looking down on red tile roofs and kidney-shaped swimming pools. The Bronco is still in second gear, but there's an abrupt sense of acceleration — almost of time travel — as the landscape is transformed in an instant.
Now entering America's most dangerous vacation spot
The blue shimmer of swimming pools vanishes behind walls of red clay and granite, spiked with yucca, spilling clumps of chaparral. The pavement narrows, unwinding into a short straightaway, and there they are: the dead skunk, fresh roadkill stretched out across the center line, and the red-capped vulture that is eating its brains. The carrion bird reluctantly raises its bloody beak at our approach and flutters aloft, flapping its wings just above the Bronco until we pass, and then descends to finish its meal.
The stink will be there a week later; the memory will last a lot longer.
We are perhaps 200 yards into Angeles National Forest. It stretches the point to describe these 693,000 acres as wilderness. Wild they are, though, without question.
It was just a bit deeper into this canyon, two and a half miles off the pavement down a dusty fire lane, that Mike Alt met Mr. Potato Head. Alt, an LEO (law-enforcement officer) with the U.S. Forest Service, was surveilling the access route to a large marijuana garden one night when a car, running without headlights, drove up the gravel road and stopped right at the trailhead. Two men climbed out and threw a large plastic bag into the undergrowth. A supply drop, Alt figured, excited that after four nights in the woods he at last was getting some action. The bag, though, just sat.
Alt radioed to his supervisor, Rita Plair, that something wasn't right. Go ahead and check the bag, Plair told him. Alt is a man who likes to believe that he long ago passed the point where anything can surprise him, but even he was taken aback to open the bag and discover a human head, along with a pair of feet.
Graffiti along the west fork
of the San Gabriel River
Unfortunately, Mr. Potato Head (the LEOs give names to all their cases) never would be fully reassembled. The two men who robbed and killed him were arrested a few days later, and one of them admitted cutting up the victim with a chainsaw but swore he couldn't remember what they had done with the rest of him.
Only the gruesome oddity of the Mr. Potato Head case was unusual, I am reminded by Chuck Shamblin, the LEO who is driving the Bronco up Santa Anita Canyon this morning. Discovering the bodies of murder victims is almost a routine thing for those who work in this forest, he says. (Two or three dozen such corpses turn up each year in the Angeles.) Of course, he adds, there's no way of knowing how many are never found. Careful killers bury their victims, and few are so helpful as that group of satanists who marked the spot with a large pentagram laid out in rocks, beneath which lay the remains of their human sacrifice.
They've been seeing more gang killings up here in recent years, Shamblin notes, and these too are ugly but obvious: a young man lying along the side of the road with a bullet hole behind his ear. Circling vultures and the stench of rotting flesh are usually what lead to the discovery of a dead person dumped close to the road. Shamblin wonders, though, about those who have been taken deeper into the forest, forgotten or overlooked.
"It would be interesting if all the bodies could stand up at once, so we could acknowledge them and do a head count," Shamblin observes. I nod; he's been described as a bit of a philosopher.
Fifty feet from the front door of Angeles National Forest headquarters in Arcadia, freeway traffic speeds east just above eye level, visible in fragmented blurs through a screen of eucalyptus and Canary Island pine. Not exactly my picture of a ranger station, I tell Shamblin when we return in the afternoon. He smiles. "Before, our offices were at the Hilton Hotel in Pasadena," he says. "This place is rustic by comparison."
At the very center of the building, in an office without windows, sits the desk where Rita Plair, one of two plainclothes special agents in the Angeles, has placed a large framed photograph of the LEOs under her supervision, all posing in camouflage (faces painted to match), brandishing shotguns and CAR-15 assault rifles with banana clips. Attached is a Post-it note that reads, "Prime Evil Forest."
The Forest Service officers who enforce the laws in this national forest are not exactly spokespersons for its recreational opportunities. I ask Plair about the best places to camp in the Angeles. She looks startled for a moment and then says, "You're asking the wrong person. I wouldn't take my family anywhere in there."
The devil's work: Plair and Shamblin
Lots of people do, though. Sixteen million people live in communities on the boundaries of the Angeles, and 30 million visitors a year make it the most heavily used — and abused — national forest. On some weekends, 90,000 vehicles crowd the roads into the Angeles, not all of them driven by people looking for traditional forms of recreation. Last year, 3,159 arrests were made in the forest, and crimes committed here reached double digits in such categories as murder, rape, carjacking, and arson.
"In almost every other national forest, the LEOs spend most of their time enforcing federal natural resource laws," Plair observes, "investigating things like illegal off-roading, tree cutting, theft of forest products, contamination of streams and rivers. We, on the other hand, spend most of our time enforcing state criminal laws. The way we put it is, 'Anything that happens in the city, happens here.'"
For instance, drive-by shootings. "We had one last summer where two groups came to the forest for an outdoor excursion," she recalls. "But then homies from one gang saw homies from another. Words were exchanged, shots were fired, and the next thing you know there's a high-speed car chase through the forest, people shooting at each other through windows." Two young men were wounded, but no one was killed. However, another gang shootout about a month later did rack up a fatality. "A couple of gangbangers got in a fistfight, and one of their friends pulls out a gun," Plair explains. "He fires off a shot but hits his own partner. So to make things right, he shoots and kills the other guy. The place was filled with picnickers, all screaming and running for their lives."
Even most natural resource crimes in the Angeles are subsidiary to some form of felonious activity. Mobile methamphetamine labs, operating mostly out of motor homes and travel trailers, have taken to using the back roads of the forest as places to cook, and their operators have poisoned several mountain streams with chemical waste. "We recently had one above the town of San Dimas where the guy had been dumping his chemicals for years into the reservoir that serves as the main water supply for the surrounding area," Plair recalls. "As it happened, we didn't have a strong federal case against the guy for drugs, but we got him big-time for natural resource contamination."
Top of the world: break time on the Angeles Crest Highway
Hidden Springs and Big Rock Campground are favorite spots for gatherings of white-power groups with a membership base in the nearby communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, and there have been at least two cross burnings in that part of the forest during the last several years. Plair, who is black, has decorated most of one wall in her office with such items as a "White Power" poster that depicts a German soldier riding a Panzer tank like some hideously inflated skateboard, a White Patriot newsletter explaining that the Klan is not a hate group, and a photograph of graffiti that reads, "Niggers say 'OJ.' We say McVeigh."
Arson, which ranks second to marijuana cultivation cases in the number of man-hours consumed, seems to fascinate, confuse, and unsettle the LEOs more than any other crime they investigate. In part it's that they take this crime more personally; every one of the Angeles LEOs worked as a firefighter upon first joining the Forest Service. The deeper reason, though, is more mysterious, something the LEOs can barely indicate, let alone explain.
The majority of fires in the forest are deliberately set. Pyromaniacs, nearly always men, seem literally driven by demons, forces inside that flicker in their eyes and twitch under their skin. As Plair puts it, "Usually they have sexual problems they won't talk about." The second most common variety is what the Forest Service calls "grudge fires," blazes set by people angry at the government.
The 12 LEOs and two special agents who cope with these crimes, and whose jurisdiction encompasses a quarter of the most populous county in the United States, are but a tiny contingent even within the Angeles National Forest staff of 360, yet they face the same big-city problems as their 18,000 urban counterparts elsewhere in Los Angeles County. They are obliged also to investigate the $6 billion in pending civil claims against the Angeles, plus an array of criminal offenses that city cops never see — wildlife poaching, illegal mining, and marijuana farming on a vast scale.
Chuck Shamblin, a long-limbed man whose 54 years are belied by straw-colored hair and the appetite of a teenager, is not unfamiliar with adapting to difficult situations. In Vietnam he was one of the Army Special Forces soldiers known by the euphemistic job description Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. A lot of people who were in Southeast Asia during those years will tell you the LRRP Green Berets, or "Lurps," were either the craziest or the bravest people on the scene, and certainly among the scariest.
When he left the military and joined the Forest Service back in 1970, however, Shamblin considered himself "a romantic." A national forest was one of the few places, he figured, where you could work outdoors, belong to a team, and serve what was truly a higher good. It seems incredible to him now, Shamblin admits, that until the early eighties, hardly any Forest Service employees carried guns. "In the whole state of California we had only a couple of armed officers," he recalls. "Our traditional mentality in the Forest Service was like the one I came in with, and this made us a little less realistic about dealing with what society had in store for us."
East Fork Canyon baptism
Recent experiences, for example, have taught the LEOs to make eye contact with virtually every woman they encounter in what Shamblin calls a mixed-gender situation. "To see if she has terror in her eyes," he explains. Carjackings, thefts, and sexual assaults often unfold sequentially, according to Shamblin. He has found "a number" of rape victims wandering on remote roads in this forest. "The most recent one started in Whittier," Shamblin says, "where the guy carjacked this woman, forced her to take money out of her ATM, then brought her up here to rape her." Before he could attack her, however, the woman escaped by jumping out of the car as it sped along Highway 39. "Bruised and cut, but not seriously injured," Shamblin recalls. "You want to tell someone like that how lucky she is, though she probably doesn't want to hear it."
These are circumstances that don't generally appeal to those who choose a career with the Forest Service. "When there's an opportunity to transfer to this forest," Shamblin concedes, "people are generally not receptive." After 27 years in the Angeles, however, he has learned to be a romantic and a realist at the same time. "We have to adapt to the world we live in," he explains. "All we can try to do at this point is protect the good things from the bad people."
If the LEOs tend to doubt that civilized values and scenic beauty can survive in this forest, the man in charge at headquarters, Michael J. Rogers, insists that the Angeles is the ultimate proving ground for the theory that nature can be saved from humanity's onslaught. Rogers, who has been forest supervisor since 1990, is an environmental evangelist for whom the glass is always half full — even when it's nearly empty. This forest is not merely a slow-motion apocalypse, he argues (often to members of his own staff), but a laboratory where those who hold the public trust can test themselves against the host of troubles that will eventually confront every park and wilderness area in the country.
In the Angeles, however, the future is now.
Write-up off Highway 39
Angeles National Forest is spread mostly along the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains, massive granite edifices that form the dramatic backdrop of Los Angeles in official photographs of the city (all taken on wind-scoured winter days when the smog is thin enough to permit a vista). The cluster of bare peaks that extend above alpine forests to form the San Gabriels' spine rises to more than 9,000 feet, an upsurge generated by the stupendous power of the San Andreas Fault, which continues to push this entire range north at the rate of two inches per year.
The amorphous sprawl of the most horizontal city on earth seems shockingly close when you look down on it from a southwest-facing vista point in the San Gabriels, yet impossibly far away for those who venture off-road to encounter its surviving herds of bighorn sheep or its large (and growing) populations of mountain lion and black bear. In this forest there are thousands of coyotes, bobcats, and gray foxes. There are western fence lizards and Pacific rattlesnakes, red-tailed hawks and band-tail pigeons. Those who make the drive to Pyramid Lake during nesting season can see dozens of majestic blue herons. The Angeles even harbors ringtail cats, creatures so elusive that few humans have seen one. Beginning in March and April, the meadows in these mountains become blooming fields of paintbrush and monkey flower, golden yarrow and bush lupine. At higher elevations, hikers can even find the rare red snow flower.
The traditional recreational opportunities offered by other national forests are abundant here. Camping, mountain biking, backpacking, and fly-fishing all draw devotees by the thousands. Every summer, scores of hikers ascend the highest peak in the San Gabriels, 10,064-foot-high Mount San Antonio, and in winter skiers can ride lifts all the way to the top of Mount Baldy.
Wholesome activities aside, Angeles National Forest is also the city's necropolis. The city being Los Angeles, of course, aspiring serial killers and soon-to-be-famous dead people receive far more media attention than the anonymous corpses that turn up in the woods with numbing regularity. Randy Kraft, the Claremont College graduate convicted of killing 16 people during the seventies and early eighties, dumped victims in the Angeles. So did the Hillside Strangler, Angelo Buono. Ron Levin, the fabulous Beverly Hills con man who became the first Billionaire Boys Club murder victim, was buried amid the chaparral and scree in Soledad Canyon, where coyotes found him before police could. Emmy Award-winning newsman Jeffrey Webreck was buried in the forest in 1991, killed by a soldier who claimed he was offended by Webreck's sexual advances. The legendary swindler Arthur Lee Evans, who once owned the largest brokerage firm in Orange County, was discovered in the Angeles — or at least his headless body was. The remains of the most recent celebrity victim recovered from the Angeles, model Linda Sobek, were found by Mike Alt and another LEO, Ken Harp, in a shallow grave near the Mount Pacifico Campground.
Disturbing as the discovery of a murder victim is, the LEOs clearly have been more shaken by those who come into this forest to kill themselves. The worst for Mike Alt was the man who made him his witness. It happened early one morning when Alt pulled into a turnout along the Angeles Crest Highway and saw a man standing on the edge of the precipice, holding a paper bag and taking in the view. "He waves at me," Alt says, "and I wave back: 'How's it goin'?' He looks at me for a second, then all of a sudden pulls this Smith & Wesson .357 out of the paper bag. 'Oh, shit!' I draw down on the guy, thinking maybe he's gonna kack me. I yell at him to put the weapon down. He looks right at me for a couple seconds, then puts the gun to his chest and pulls the trigger, right through the heart. He did it over his girlfriend."
Most of them do, says Alt, who finds especially infuriating "how fucking polite some of these bastards are." One in particular stands out, a man to whom Alt had given a traffic ticket one Saturday afternoon. Early the next morning, Alt recalls, he received a call to check out a complaint from some campers: A person parked in a van nearby had stayed up all night playing Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" over and over with the volume turned way up. Alt arrived at about 6 a.m. and found the man lying in the back of the van, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. On the front seat the man had left four items: separate letters addressed to his ex-girlfriend, his mother, and his brother, plus the ticket Alt had given him the day before, a $20 bill attached to it with a paper clip.
Tending to an injured motorist
The officers' involvement in a murder or suicide case is usually confined to the discovery of the body, since the investigations that follow are handled by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies. Forest Service officers are left to deal with some grisly images, however. Like all cops, they use gallows humor to deflect the emotional consequences. Their connection to the land, though, seems to leave the LEOs haunted by the horror that accompanies the desecration of a serene landscape with mangled and bloody human remains.
Balzac's consummately cynical line about how behind every great fortune lies a great crime has been borne out better in Los Angeles than perhaps any other city on earth. And from the ridges above Soledad Canyon, in what is known as the Front Country of the Angeles, one is confronted by damning evidence of its truth.
This is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, flashing silver on the northern horizon as water siphoned from the streams of the eastern Sierra tumbles down through metal gates on its way to the lap pools of Bel Air. Beginning 84 years ago, this conveyance of water from rural Owens Valley to a desert city 233 miles to the south — one of the grandest thefts in U.S. history — not only made possible the development of the San Fernando Valley, but also created the fortunes of the Chandler and Huntington families, whose wealth and influence would dominate Los Angeles during most of the twentieth century.
The light in Soledad Canyon is so harsh it hurts to look at the sky. Dry gulches and desiccated ridges cleave the earth in all directions. This barren ground seems ancient, like the humped back of some enormous prehistoric lizard lurking beneath the sod and asphalt that cover the valley floor, a sleeping beast that will awaken someday to remind the people below where it is they are living.
Turning south, I see the towers of Century City gleaming in the distance. I think of Joe Hunt, the Billionaire Boys Club leader and the most compelling criminal modern Los Angeles has produced. As a child, Joe hiked alone all through these canyons on the western end of the Angeles, creating a private domain along a streambed in Indian Canyon below Sugarloaf Peak. During the early eighties, Joe used to lead BBC members up here on "hunting trips" that were a kind of initiation ritual. From high ground, he invited his companions to look down upon Los Angeles and understand the city as a mirage of plentitude imposed upon a landscape of drought and erosion and seismic violence, a place where nothing is real except what people want. It was here, very near the spot where I am standing, that Joe and the Boys dumped the bodies after they began killing people to cover looming cash-flow problems.
My meditation on Joe Hunt is broken by gunshots, a short, static spit of bullets that seems to echo in broken reverberations through the arroyos and ravines all around me. My knees jelly for an instant, but when I hear the gunfire again, I feel certain it isn't close. All of the "designated shooting areas" in the Angeles Forest were closed by authorities in June 1996. So now people continue to shoot, anywhere they please. This at least has redistributed the devastation.
"Devastation" seems a paltry word, actually, when I consider Pigeon Ridge, for years the most popular of the free-for-all shooting areas in the Angeles. I first visited Pigeon Ridge more than 15 years ago, as a journalist in the company of the CEO Shooting Club, a group of corporate executives who prided themselves on owning the most lethal weapons available.
The noise, the chaos, and especially the trees are what I remember most about Pigeon Ridge. The black oaks and sycamores growing there had been literally shot to pieces; most of their lower limbs were missing, and the upper limbs were reduced to stubs. What was killing the trees, though, was lead poisoning, caused by the hundreds of bullets that had lodged in their trunks. In an entire afternoon at Pigeon Ridge, I saw exactly one pigeon, which was blasted out of the sky moments after its appearance.
When I return from Soledad Canyon to forest headquarters in Arcadia, Rita Plair tells me that more than a few people were killed at Pigeon Ridge before the designated range was closed. She recalls one shooting death she was summoned to investigate: "I arrive, and as usual it's chaos. Then I see these four gentlemen standing in a group, with a fifth man lying dead on the ground beside them in a pool of blood from a massive head wound. These four, though, are all still firing away, just like the 150 other people up there. I get one of the men to stop shooting and I ask him, 'What happened?' 'Well, he shot himself by accident.' They were his neighbors — one lived right next door — and they said he had pointed the gun at his head and fired, believing the trigger was on an empty chamber. So I call it in on my radio, and while I'm waiting for the coroner to get there, this man's friends, and everybody else up there, go back to shooting.
"After a while I can't take it anymore, so I approach this group again and ask, 'Doesn't it bother you?' And one of his friends says, 'Well, he can't hear us.' Another guy tells me, 'You think it's bad for you, we have to go back and tell his wife.'"
Mike Alt, temporarily off patrol
The LEOs are acutely aware of how well armed America has become. "In the entire time I've worked in this forest," Plair says, "I have never once stopped a car and not found a weapon in it. Not even once. Average people carry them because they think everybody else has one. And the awful part is, they may be right."
The Angeles LEOs have assigned one another nicknames drawn from the computer-animated movie Toy Story. Rita Plair is Bo Peep, and Chuck Shamblin is the Elite Green Soldier. The whole thing started, the others explain, when they realized Mike Alt was really Buzz Lightyear, the Toy Story character who thinks he's a real person but in fact is only an action figure. His return to the job after severely injuring his neck and shoulder last autumn in a fall off a backcountry canyon rim to the base of a waterfall has only added to his legend. Not long ago, Alt worked seven-day weeks for four months straight; his wife of 18 years, who had long been threatening to divorce him, finally did.
At 47, Alt's square-cut build is starting to soften a little at the corners. Yet he still looks like a man born to wear the stiff cop's mustache that is his most prominent feature. He runs the drug investigations in the Angeles. What this means is "a lotta walks in the park," or "ground recon."
Alt refuses to carry "camping gear," as he disdainfully refers to it, on his overnight forays into the forest. His bedroll is a military poncho with a liner, carried on his belt. He insists on cold camping — no fires — and dines exclusively on MREs (military "meals ready to eat" rations). Such rigors seem to suit a man who has spent most of the past 30 years in the bush, beginning with his first tour of duty in Southeast Asia, where his work with Air Force Special Operations and "another government agency" during the Vietnam War is still, he says, classified.
Alt left the military in 1972, so disheartened that his only goal was to take the year's pay he'd saved up and "see if I could drink my way across the United States." One of his first stops, though, was a bar in Glendale, where he met another vet who had gone to work for the Forest Service as a firefighter. "He told me, 'It'd be perfect for you, man. Small teams, small unit, out in the bush.' I decided it was better than my first idea of becoming a professional alcoholic." After working his way up to fire captain and then turning to arson investigation, Alt joined law enforcement in order to keep doing what he does best: "Humpin' 16 hours a day in 90-plus degrees, with 50 pounds of gear on, over the steepest and most rugged terrain you can imagine, sleepin' in rocks or curlin' up in a sand bed," he explains with thinly disguised relish.
The heaviest concentration of marijuana gardens in California — and possibly the country — can be found in the Angeles. According to Alt, Latin American crime families own and distribute most of the marijuana harvested here. They are the sort who don't expect but rather demand a return on their investment.
It isn't hard to find field hands. "A day laborer hired off the corner is gonna get $5 an hour to bust concrete," Alt observes. "When El Jefe pulls up in his shiny new truck and offers $100 a day, plus food, for work that isn't real difficult and will last weeks and months at a time, that sounds pretty damn good."
Almost all of the pot is planted at the midelevations of the Angeles, where oak, sycamore, and laurel can be trimmed and then rigged with ropes and pulleys to form a canopy that closes or opens with a couple of cranks on a hand winch. This makes spotting a marijuana garden in the Angeles from the air all but impossible. With chainsaws and machetes, growers can clear areas as large as the five-acre plot found last summer in Lost Canyon. Field hands carry in bags of potting soil and manure, working the ground by hand with shovels, and then install water lines, either flexible hoses or plastic pipes.
Gunplay in Burro Canyon
A total of 28,000 pounds of pot was seized by law enforcement in the Angeles last year. "We took 4,300 pounds of pot out of one garden," Plair recalls. Alt concedes, though, that they miss a lot more than they find. "You can walk a mile off the road, from almost any campground, and find a dope garden," he says.
People whose image of a Los Angeles canyon summons up one named Laurel or Coldwater have no concept of how rugged the landscape of the San Gabriels can be. From turnouts along even the paved roads in the Angeles you can stand on cliffs above near-vertical drops that disappear through thickets of undergrowth into ravines so deep they appear bottomless. "We've been in places here where you could literally throw a rock and hit the other side of a canyon, but it takes you four hours to get across yourself," Alt says. Yet field hands who tend the big pot gardens manage to transport 500-gallon water tanks and full sheets of plywood into even the most remote areas.
It was "resource damage" that first involved the Forest Service in marijuana investigations here. Those five acres in Lost Canyon once were covered with old-growth sycamores. And because rats and rabbits eat marijuana, the growers in the Angeles scatter the ground around their gardens with poison. Field mice and squirrels eat the poison also, and then pass it on to the red-tailed hawks and coyotes that hunt them. Larger animals are simply shot if they come too close. "At one garden last year we found a bear and seven deer, all shot dead," Plair says. "You go in and see something like that, it really affects you."
The Angeles LEOs are no less affected by some of the better-concealed hazards they discover. "The booby traps keep getting more sophisticated all the time," Alt notes. "Last year we went into a grove site and found ammo cans filled with C-4 explosives attached to detonation cords. We've found rat-trap shotguns and even pipe bombs."
Most of the weight Alt carries when he ventures off the forest's hiking trails consists of weaponry. On patrol in the bush, the LEOs arm themselves with CAR-15 assault rifles and sometimes shotguns, yet still often find themselves outgunned. Workers in the employ of El Jefe will use any weapon at hand to protect their crop.
Despite the risks of his job, Alt delights in matching wits with the endlessly ingenious pot farmers. Moreover, it is a curiosity of the Angeles that this stalker of men — a person who boasts he can "crawl up on you while you're eating lunch and put a gun to your head between bites" — knows the Angeles in ways most of the rangers assigned to the district stations never will. Motion and sound are what give you away in the forest, he explains, "so you're always moving real slow, and you're moving real quiet. And you walk into stuff. Like a couple of summers ago we're out on a three-man patrol and we step right into a herd of Nelson bighorn sheep. These big rams are standing all around us, 12 or 13 of 'em, less than ten feet away. They stayed right there until we tried to take pictures and the shutter on the camera set 'em off. Went straight up the vertical sidewall of the canyon."
It pleases some historians to report that barbarism existed in the San Gabriels long before Anglos came. After converting the native Tongva people who lived among these mountains in wickiups from hunter-gatherers into mission Indians, the Mexican Californios were mostly indifferent to the high country, except as a source of fresh water. The early hildagos, in fact, sent their caballeros into the mountains for only one purpose: to stalk grizzly bears. The horsemen lassoed the grizzlies and dragged them, slashing and lunging, into the grubby little empire of adobe huts and sandy wastes known in those days as El Pueblo de Nuestra Se±ora la Reina del los Angeles de Porciuncula. The purpose was to stage a public amusement, an extravaganza of gore that pitted bear against bull. The bear always lost.
White people did not show up in numbers in this high country until 1854, when a series of large gold strikes were made along the gravel shores of the San Gabriel River's East Fork. A boomtown was thrown up almost overnight, a ramshackle collection of sluice boxes and saloons, Long Toms and whorehouses, that stretched out for more than a mile along the river's edge. Eldoradoville, as the miners called the place, thrived for eight years and then was obliterated even more quickly than it had appeared, swept away by the unprecedented floods of 1862.
The mine entrances can still be seen along the river canyon walls, black holes that are especially vivid against a lurid background of graffiti tags. "4 Lokos Crew" and "Flaco Duarte" appear to have been especially active, I'm thinking, when Rita Plair, at the wheel of the Bronco this afternoon, remarks that she can't remember when the canyon walls have looked so clean. "I've seen it many times where you could drive up here and never even once see the faces of the rocks," she tells me, "just solid paint, layers and layers of it."
The Graffiti Clean Up Patrol completed its annual sweep of San Gabriel Canyon just two days ago, sandblasting the rocks and slapping fresh coats of paint on the public buildings. Already, though, dozens of new graffiti tags have appeared.
A tall, slender woman of 35, Plair seems almost fragile, until she shows a little of the tensile strength that made her an outstanding middle-distance runner who still competes in half-marathons. In this forest, Plair has been menaced by guns, knives, and anonymous death threats; she's faced down blacks who said she was a sellout and whites who called her a nigger. There isn't a flinch in her, though she winces occasionally.
A peaceful high-country campsite
The San Gabriel River, once filled year-round with trout, she points out, now yields a bounty of hypodermic needles and disposable diapers when its bottom is cleaned each year. Volunteers still talk about the year they pulled an entire dinette set from the river. "During summer, the stench in this canyon is overpowering," Plair says. "It's human waste, mostly."
On weekend afternoons during the hottest days of July, August, and September, "you'll see cars parked and double-parked all along Highway 39 for 25 miles," Plair tells me. "People just bail over the side down by the creek bottom to picnic, practically one on top of the other. It's truly a sight to behold — 15 people in a pool of water the size of my desk. And what's in that water with them, you don't even want to think about."
Back when she was growing up in Georgia, Plair recalls a moment later, "My mother told my sisters and me, 'Tell me now if you plan to become a productive member of society. Because I would rather go to prison for homicide than turn another fool loose on the world.'" It isn't her own approach to parenting, Plair says, but 14 years in this forest have convinced her it works better than a lot of others.
Not so long ago, the part of her job Plair loved best was hiking into The Narrows, an area just off the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, to check on the "recreational" miners who congregate there. "But now, because of all the insanity we have to deal with right along the road, the days I could spend in the backcountry have disappeared," she says. "I used to forget I was right on the edge of a big city. These days, I have to remind myself I work in a forest."
As many as 30,000 people a day visit San Gabriel Canyon on weekends, and all of them, of course, come in automobiles. Plair's experiences with the teeming mass of day-trippers has made her, in the context of Forest Service orthodoxy, something of an environmental radical. The only way to keep an area beautiful, she now believes, is not to build roads there: "People who really love the land and nature are the same ones who don't mind hiking there."
Los Angeles at the end of the second millennium is perhaps the most multicultural city in history. Virtually every race, nationality, and ethnic group claims a constituency — and a competing interest. The metropolis that continues to spread beneath and beyond this forest is one where racial cohesion and ethnic cooperation are its best hopes for survival, and yet at the same time one where politically correct pieties serve only to obscure the real issues. It is a city where black males commit violent crimes at a per capita rate exceeding that of white males by more than ten to one, where the fastest growing ethnic groups are Asian and Middle Eastern. The coalition of Westside Jewish liberals and black councilmen from South Central that has controlled the political apparatus for nearly 20 years senses that the end of its time is near. The middle-class homeowners of the San Fernando Valley, feeling overtaxed and underserved, are in open revolt, threatening secession, while Latinos, who already constitute the largest ethnic bloc in Los Angeles (and soon will possess an absolute majority), are only now beginning to comprehend how little voice they have, given their numbers.
The forest, like the city, is overwhelmed. By early in the next century, the Angeles will contain more than 90 percent of all the undeveloped land left in Los Angeles County. As development saturates the surrounding landscape, the prospects for the kind of cultural amity and environmental awareness that could ease the overuse and crime in the Angeles seem increasingly remote. The Angeles LEOs see the forest deteriorating all around them, with no relief in sight, and the indifference they meet every day tempts them to a sense of futility. It seems remarkable to me that they have in their midst a true idealist, an impassioned preacher of hope. Stranger still, he happens to be the boss.
Forest Supervisor Michael J. Rogers is a native of Altadena, on the edge of the Angeles, and he hiked all through the San Gabriels when he was growing up in the forties and fifties. It was a magnificent place back then, he remembers, a sacred refuge from urbanization. As a college student, Rogers fought fires in the Angeles with the Chilao Hotshots, and he went on to work his way up the Forest Service ladder in a string of jobs in various forests in California and a stint in the national office in Washington, D.C. Rogers, now 58, lives in Altadena once again, and he still loves the forest he's in charge of. He has come to understand the Angeles, however, not as something separate from the city below, but as an intrinsic part of it. Which is why, he explains, he has devoted more and more of his energies to "the reforestation of Los Angeles."
"We've got generations of people now who have been totally removed from the natural environment," he tells me when we meet at forest headquarters in Arcadia. "The world they live in is concrete from one end to the other. So how can we expect them to appreciate and understand the forest?"
For several decades, Rogers acknowledges, the national forest has been doing less and less to provide environmental education to children in inner-city schools and to inspire kids with ranger-guided hikes and campfire talks. The current $15.7 million annual budget for the Angeles is $5 million less than it was receiving in the early 1980s, and burgeoning paperwork requirements have pulled employees off the trails and kept them deskbound. "We don't have a presence anymore on the ground, where we have a chance to interact with the public," Rogers says.
With less money to spend, Rogers has become an ardent advocate of community outreach. The April 1992 riots following the Rodney King verdict were a wake-up call for the Angeles, he argues: "We were not connecting well with the urban population, reminding them that the forest is where our water comes from, that trees clean the air." With the help of organizations such as the California Environmental Project, Rogers has poured his energies into an ambitious campaign to plant trees all over greater Los Angeles. He becomes emotional as he recalls the day the first trees were planted along Martin Luther King Boulevard in South Central. "Tom Bradley said he never thought he'd live to see this day, but when he saw the trees going in there were tears in his eyes."
And there may be some fiscal relief in sight. The Angeles,together with three other southern California forests, has begun to require that visitors who drive into the forest pay a $5-per-car daily user fee. Such user fees have been bitterly contested elsewhere, but virtually every public-interest group with a stake in the health of the Angeles has endorsed them here, where the money will go directly to the sites the public is visiting. "This will bring us back to a level of service we had a long time ago," Rogers enthuses. "I'm talking about back in the sixties."
Hearing Rogers talk in a rush about education and new programs and collective awareness, it is easy to be swept up in a wave of optimism. "Young people are starting to understand," Rogers declares. "I don't just believe, I know that if we reintroduce nature into these neighborhoods, we can restore this forest and transform this city."
But the LEOs smile with closed lips, shaking their heads, when they hear Rogers say that he already sees some small improvement in San Gabriel Canyon. They admire this man, recognizing implicitly that only someone like their own Mr. Rogers could ever change things for the better, yet at the same time they wonder if his vision of salvation would hold up under the psychological pounding they take every day. The cultural decay is so advanced, the criminal depredations so extreme, the environmental abusiveness so endemic, that pulling out of the downward spiral seems an implausible dream.
Rogers counters that healing by faith may be the only alternative to accepting defeat. "More and more national forests are going to become urban," Rogers tells me. "If we can't do it here, in Los Angeles, where the problems of the whole world have collected in one place, then we aren't going to do it anywhere."
What I know for certain is that visitors to the Angeles who love beauty and crave serenity should for the time being seek higher ground.
That means driving the Angeles Crest Highway. Despite all that exists at lower elevations, this road remains among the most spectacularly scenic in the country. It begins just above the affluent communities of Flintridge and La Canada, on a steep, winding climb that passes for miles through chaparral and an "elfin forest" of stiff shrubs and stunted trees. Above 4,000 feet, stands of digger pine and Douglas fir begin to appear among the live oak and California laurel. Higher up, these conifers are superceded by Coulter pine and incense cedar.
Alone in an open convertible, I drive for 20-minute stretches without seeing another vehicle, passing though granite narrows into vistas as breathtaking as Yosemite's. The air up here is thinner than down in the flatlands, of course, yet seems immensely richer, so thick with aromas that I begin to taste each breath.
The San Gabriel Timberland Reserve, later Angeles National Forest, was established in 1892. California's first federal forest preserve would be venerated during the years between 1895 and 1938, a period environmental historians call the Great Hiking Era. It was a time when people from the cities came to the mountains in unprecedented numbers, tramping in groups of two and three dozen over trails that previously had been little more than deer paths. Huge resort hotels were constructed in Rubio Canyon, atop Echo Mountain, at Crystal Springs. They've all long since closed.
I'm driving among stands of white fir and sugar pine by the time I reach the startlingly steep road that leads to the Mount Wilson Observatory, once considered the best place in the country for viewing the night sky. Above 6,000 feet, I begin to see Jeffery pines, magnificent trees that give off an odor like vanilla, hung with cones the size of watermelons.
I reach by far the finest campground in the Angeles, Chilao — "the one place in this forest where I'd consider spending the night," Plair admitted to me — set among thousand-year-old trees and expansive meadows, with superb views of the Big Mermaids and Strawberry Peak. Nearby is access to the Silver Moccasin Trail, the best hiking path in southern California.
After lunch at Newcomb's Ranch, where redwood logs six feet thick serve as bumpers between the gravel parking lot and the front door, I continue my climb, though it isn't far now to 7,018-foot Cloudburst Summit, where for the first time I can see lodgepole pines on the mountainsides.
Half an hour later, I begin my descent in rapture. For one who's flown into L.A. from a colder climate, the sheer sensual ecstasy of feeling the sun full on your face as you ride in an open car at elevations above 7,000 feet makes the trip worth the trouble. I reach the ridges of Upper Big Tujunga Canyon before it dawns on me that I haven't seen another human being in more than an hour.
It's another 30 minutes before I can comprehend that I'm still in Los Angeles County. This realization comes suddenly, though, when a yahoo in a Japanese sports car comes at me off a curve just below Red Box in a two-wheel drift, passing so close I can see the combination of belligerence and panic in his eyes.
A weird sight rises up about a mile above Switzers, where I pass a road crew filling potholes with fresh asphalt. One of the workers, I notice, is wearing a black leather sport coat and loafers with tassels. I know I'm not far from the city now.
By the time I reach Clear Creek, oak and laurel outnumber evergreens. Cars are coming the other way every few minutes or so, and more often than that as I descend below Dark Canyon. Everybody's driving so much faster down here than they were up in the mountains. I begin to feel the pressure, remembering that time is short.
"All rushing nowhere," I tell myself in an effort to keep the mood. It doesn't work, though; I feel dreadfully sober by the time I reach the chaparral, where for the first time I see trash thrown onto the side of the road.
For no reason I'm aware of, I start replaying my conversation with Mike Rogers, and after a few minutes I recover at least a little of the high I was on an hour earlier. Like him, I believe that the great drama of the nation runs along lines of tension formed by a blending of races and cultures, the balance of public interests with private ones, an ambition for transcendence in the finite context of our natures. If it's true, I can't imagine a better backdrop for the stage it should be played on than Angeles National Forest.
Five minutes later, I'm back on the freeway.
Randall Sullivan is the author of The Price of Experience: Money, Power, Image, and Murder in Los Angeles.
Photographs by Antonin Kratochvil