It was 6:30 AM on a Saturday morning in August 1962, the promise of another sweltering southern California day rising with the morning sun. The first tentative rays of sunlight filled the narrow arroyo, bathing the concrete edifice of the Rose Bowl in its tawny light.
My legs pumped the pedals of a bright, taxicab-yellow bike; my rear end hardly touching the seat as I raced toward Devil’s Gate Dam and the Angeles Crest National Forest beyond. My snake bag hung from my left handle bar and a sack lunch from the right. A good knife and a canteen were belted snugly to my waist.
The traffic was sparse as I flew up Linda Vista Avenue. Looking into the arroyo, I could see the long shadows cast by golfers as they moved peacefully along the back nine in the growing dawn. Turning north, I crossed the 210 freeway then jumped the curb, taking a winding asphalt path through a pedestrian tunnel that ended at the road that crossed the top of the dam. Turning left, I aimed my bike toward Oak Grove Park.
I jumped the curb again and rode down a well-worn, dirt trail that led into a sea of oak trees. Sunlight flashed through a thousand branches and gleamed on the edges of a bazillion silver-green leaves as I wound my way past deserted picnic areas and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory complex surrounded by chain-link and razor wire.
I was going to hunt for lizards and snakes in the long abandoned resort of Switzer’s Camp located in the upper reaches of the Arroyo Seco Cascades. I rode as far as I could then stashed my bike in the brush.
I had never tried this trail and wasn’t sure I could find my way up to the main waterfall. But, I wasn’t concerned; I was in it for the solace of adventure. As I trudged up the trail lined with conifers and sycamores, I thought about my Mom and wondered if she would be worried. I wondered if she would find the hastily scribbled note; “out hunting snakes, back by dinner.” I wondered how hung over she might be and how long I could go on living with a drunk.
The sun filled the canyon, evaporating the morning coolness with its penetrating heat as I climbed the steepened path. It was a rough and tumbled trail that moved around and through a high running stream that surged between large rocks and boulders, where naked tree roots, like patient serpents, waited to catch an errant foot.
The Arroyo Seco was alive with the sounds of late summer. Crickets droned lazily as bright yellow tanagers flitted through the Mesquite and chaparral. Blue Steller’s Jays, like WWW I fighters, dove at one another, the rancor of their mock air battles resounding off the canyon walls.
It was noon when I reached the base of the 100-foot waterfall. Shading my eyes, I searched the canyon wall for a way up. Here and there I picked out the eyebrow of an ancient trail but getting there would require nerve.
I tied the snake bag, with my lunch inside, to my belt and began the rigorous ascent. As I climbed, I spotted something that looked like a small building, high up, clinging to the canyon wall. Continuing past the waterfall, I found the remains of a trail that led to the small stone structure.
I stepped into a small chapel big enough for twelve, the roof and window frames long gone. All that was left of the pews were the stone supports with rusted bolts sticking up like rotting teeth. The floor had fallen away where the pulpit use to be, leaving a view of the waterfall far below.
It was strange that this small chapel that was open to the sky didn’t feel empty or deserted. As the wind stirred, I heard a tenor voice softly rising from the desolation, slowly filling the chapel and the canyon beyond with sweet song:
"On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame..."
I knelt there on the rock strewn floor and thought of the God who created me, the divorce of my parents and the way my mother drank. I prayed my hardest that He would never stop loving me; I prayed my hardest that my life would always be worth living.
"For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
to bear it to dark Calvary."
[The stanzas of the song quoted are the first and last stanzas of “The Old Rugged Cross” penned in 1913 by George Bennard]
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