"Welcome to the Overlook Hotel!"
It all started out innocently enough. My friend Jim and I had decided to go on a hike on Christmas Day. We hadn't seen each other in a while, nor been hiking together in even longer. I suggested a couple of local trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, but Jim wanted to go up to the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. He'd taken me up there a couple of times before, once to a place called Echo Mountain and another time to Henninger Flats, which by the way, is not flat at all. Those hikes were a little more challenging than my local favorites, but well worth the effort.
So, on Christmas Day, I packed up my supplies: camera, water, almonds, poetry journal. Plus a couple of awesome turkey pastrami sandwiches on this amazingly dense dark rye bread made with whole rye meal and black strap molasses, and my special ingredient, spicy hummus! I put the sandwiches into a handy insulated bag I'd picked up at a yard sale on one of our previous hiking trips.
When I got to Jim's house, he was rarin' to go. First, we drove his roommate Matt to a relative's house for a family Christmas party. Matt often goes with Jim on his hikes, but not today. Also in the car with us was Donza, Jim's dog, named for Aldonza a/k/a "Dulcinea" the peasant girl who is idealized by Don Quixote. Donza is part Labrador Retriever part Pit Bull, and all sweetheart. She was a "rescue" and still has a somewhat nervous demeanor around strangers and other dogs, but once you get her out on the trail she's one happy pup.
We took the 10 east and turned north on Santa Anita Ave., which runs right up into the mountains where it winds through Big Santa Anita Canyon, ending up at a place called Chantry Flat. Again, not flat. We circled the parking area, which was completely full, and found what appeared to be the last available spot on the side of the road leading back down the mountain. Chantry Flat has a large picnic area, a Ranger's station, and a pack store for outfitting hikers and backpackers. There are several trailheads branching off from Chantry Flat including one that goes all the way up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory. We were planning on taking the Upper Winter Creek Trail that runs along the canyon wall to a camping area called Hoegee's Trail Camp, then returning along the canyon floor along the Lower Winter Creek Trail, about five miles round trip.
We got out of the car and I grabbed my camera, my almonds, my journal and some water. I decided to leave the sandwiches for after the hike. Jim was pulling some things out of the trunk. I asked him if I needed to lock the door, but he said he would lock up. I shut my door and Jim closed the trunk. Then he looked at me.
"I think I left the keys in the car."
I looked in through the window and sure enough, there they were, hanging in the ignition. I tried my door thinking it was still unlocked. But it wasn't. Jim tried the other door. It too was locked. We were locked out. On a mountain. On Christmas Day.
"It's okay," Jim said. "I can call Triple-A. Oh, wait, no I can't. I left my phone in the car."
I'd left my phone in the car, too. In one of the pockets in my handy insulated sandwich bag. We looked around for a pay phone, but found none. We checked the pack store, but it was closed. So was the Ranger Station. There were a few private residences but they looked abandoned. The picnic area was swarming with people, though. Kids playing, people grilling. We thought about asking one of them to borrow a cell phone, but then decided we'd wait until after the hike. It was still early and we were only going five miles. We'd be much more disposed to sitting around waiting for a tow truck after we'd had our exercise. So off we went.
Jim led us up a fire road that turned into a trail. Soon we were deep into the canyon surrounded by trees and rocks and a trickling creek. It was really beautiful. I was glad we'd come up here. What a great way to spend Christmas Day. I'm not religious, but I've always said if you want to get closer to God, you have to go outside.
We talked about music. Jim and I were in a band called The Buzzards a few years back and we both consider ourselves songwriters. Another friend and fellow songwriter had recently sent out a list of his favorite records of the year. We discussed some of his choices. I told Jim all about a CD I'd been listening to lately that was inspiring me to write more songs.
We passed a few other hikers here and there. It was good to see other folks enjoying the trail on such a beautiful day. Chantry Flat was built at a time when Angelinos were flocking to the mountains to enjoy the natural beauty outside of the big city. A rustic resort called Sturtevant's Camp was constructed a little further up the trail from where we were going. Walking in the woods used to be a popular way for people to spend their leisure time. Nowadays most folks only seem to go for walks in shopping malls or on treadmills. But, happily, on Christmas Day there were plenty of people enjoying the trails of Big Santa Anita Canyon with Jim and Donza and me.
When we got back to the car, I still had a few almonds left and even a little water. We asked around to see if we could borrow someones cell phone, but it turned out that there wasn't any service up there. We hadn't thought of that. We scouted around again to see if we could find a pay phone. Still no luck. Outside the Ranger's office, I saw a guy throwing some stuff into a dumpster. I called to him, asking if he knew if there was a payphone around. He said there wasn't, but we might be able to get cell service if we walked down the road a bit. I told him we'd locked our phones in the car, so he offered to open the Ranger's office for us. But, when I went to find Jim, he'd already gotten access to land-line at one of the private residences and was on 'hold' with Triple-A.
When he got off the phone, Jim told me someone would be up to help us within an hour. That didn't seem so bad. We went back to the car to wait. By this point I kind of wished we had those turkey sandwiches I'd packed. We ate a few almonds and sat on the low stone wall across from the car. It wasn't late, but the canyon was in full shade already. And the wind was picking up. It was definitely getting cooler. I had a long sleeved shirt and a windbreaker in the car. Along with my cell phone. And those sandwiches. With the dark rye bread, made with black strap molasses. And spicy hummus.
Over the next hour, we saw many cars heading back down the mountain. Not too many coming up, though. The wind was blowing pretty steadily and it was cold. I jumped up onto the stone wall several times to try and keep warm, but my legs were kind of tired from the hike. We decided to move back across the road to get out of the wind, but it didn't make much difference. At least I had my poetry journal. I could always write a poem about how two idiots froze to death on Christmas Day in the middle of a National Forest.
Jim went back to call Triple-A again, while I waited with Donza. She was not thrilled about sitting around doing nothing while other dogs were off frolicking and smelling each other and such. But we had to keep her restrained or she'd try to mix it up, and that would spell trouble.
Jim returned with not-so-good news. The Triple-A Operator had said they sent a guy up to Chantry Flat, but somehow he didn't see us. Which was ridiculous, because we were literally the first car you would see if you drove up there. The Operator also said that they wouldn't be able to send another truck up the mountain because the road was closed due to a forest fire. This was also ridiculous because Jim was standing next to the Forest Ranger at the time and he said there was no fire. Nevertheless, the best she could do was call the local police and maybe they would come up and help us.
The whole phone-call process had taken about a half hour, during which time it had gotten darker and colder. Jim suggested that we might have to break a window. During our earlier scouting expedition, I had noticed several tools up around the pack store that might be utilized for breaking into a vehicle. I was in favor of prying open the trunk and climbing in through the back seat, a technique I'd seen work once before. Smashing the window seemed extreme to me. But Jim thought that prying the trunk would cause more damage and cost more money than simply replacing a window. We decided to wait a little longer to see if the cops showed up. We'd feel pretty dumb if we smashed the window two minutes before the cops arrived.
Over the next forty-five minutes or so, we saw almost every car exit the Chantry Flat parking area and not a single one come up the road from town. It seemed that maybe the Triple-A Operator was right and the road was closed. We were both pretty cold by now. My teeth were chattering and I was too tired to jump up and down anymore. I was out of almonds and water and the wind was getting relentless. Time for desperate measures.
I walked up the trail to the pack store, where I'd seen an axe leaning against a stack of wood. On the way I passed a woman who was grilling steaks. I don't really eat red meat anymore, but those steaks smelled awful damn good to me. I got to the parking lot for the pack store and looked around for the axe. It was pretty dark and I couldn't remember exactly where I'd seen it. Luckily there was a nearly-full Christmas Moon shining through the trees. I poked around an old shed that had a 'No Trespassing' sign on it, then went over to the front of the store. Suddenly, a bright light blinded me. It must have been on a motion sensor. It lit up the whole parking lot, including the stack of wood where the axe was. I grabbed the axe and headed back down the trail.
As I sauntered down the trail towards the car, I heard a gaggle of teenage girls waiting by the entrance to the main parking area. For a moment, I pictured myself from their point of view, hunched over and shivering, stumbling down the trail in the moonlight in a nearly deserted picnic area on Christmas Day -- carrying an axe. "Welcome to the Overlook Hotel!" I could see the headlines: "CRAZED AXE FIEND TERRORIZES INNOCENT SCHOOLGIRLS IN NATIONAL FOREST." I wondered what would be the proper course of action. Should I try to hide the axe from view by holding it behind my back? Or would that just make matters worse? Should I swing the axe freely by my side, devil-may-care, its sharpened blade glinting in the silvery moonlight? It seemed like a no-win.
Fortunately, the teenage girls paid no attention to me whatsoever, and I slipped by without incident.
When I got back to the car I held out the axe for Jim, but he declined, asking me to do the honors. I really didn't want to be the one to smash his car window. I'd never smashed a window before. At least not on purpose. But I'd seen it done on TV and it didn't look so hard. Besides, my sandwiches were in there.
I picked up the axe and swung for dead-center. Not too hard, but with a clean, firm strike. CRASH! The window exploded into a thousand nuggets of glass. I was shocked for a moment. It really had been easy. And now we were in!
Jim unlocked the doors and got into the car. He tried the ignition, but... nothing. The battery was dead. He had left the ignition in the "on" position. No problem, we could always give it push start. But first we tried flagging down a driver to see if they had any jumper cables. I think it was the van full of teenage girls I'd passed earlier. They had no cables. At about the same time, another van came up the road and went into the parking area. Jim and I were talking about how to push-start the car when the other van came by again. I flagged him down.
"Can you give us a jump?"
"It's the least I can do."
It was Triple-A. He had just made it up the road.
Turns out, this was the second Triple-A van that had been sent up the mountain to rescue us. The first one had literally burst into flames halfway up the road. The driver pulled over and jumped out just in time. The road had been closed for the past two hours while they put out the fire. The driver was unharmed, but apparently his wife was pregnant and due to go into labor any minute.
A few minutes later we were back in the car, engine running, heat on full, and headed down the mountain. I took out one of my sandwiches and handed half to Jim. I'd been describing them to him for the past three hours and he was looking forward to them as much as I was. They were delicious. Whole rye meal with black strap molasses, turkey pastrami, and spicy hummus. Best sandwich ever.
As we wound down the road back to civilization, we came upon a crazy sight. Blue, red and yellow lights flashing. Three fire trucks, two State Troopers, an ambulance, the Triple-A van, and another van that was little more than a burned-out shell. We stopped. The owner of the Triple-A van came up to our window with one of the Troopers. He asked us if we were the ones who had called for assistance, as if to prove to the Trooper that he was telling the truth. The Trooper just nodded and told him not to worry about it. I asked about the first driver's pregnant wife. The owner said she was fine -- she hadn't had the baby yet.
So that was nice.
We drove back down the winding road towards home, enjoying the rest of our amazing sandwiches, guided by the wondrous light of the blessed Christmas Moon.