Almost a year ago (to the day), I met the the ruins of the “White City” at the top of the San Garbiel Mountains. My companions and I took a path, at times narrow, and with soil like sand, and then, one sharp turn later, a path hard, wide, and true with overhanging trees, and sharp views of the ruddy-colored ravine. Sun blazed upon my shoulders. My camera strap burrowed into my skin, the camera weight unbearable, until I reached the top. The crisp, clean air welcoming me home. “Hello, helloooooooooooooo!” My voice kissed the mountains. My ears reverberated with the sound, not of my voice, by my echo. Humbled, I imagined people younger than I experiencing these sensations for years to come.
Now, as of this past Friday, due to a special order by President Obama, these San Gabriel Mountains are a National Monument. The order promotes access for all, according to Obama.
When I told my college students the news, I received quizzical looks. First, many had not heard the news. Then, some wanted to know, “But why?” Earlier this semester our readings and research touched on climate change, and the California drought. We talked about the scarcity of water. The challenge of access to clean air. Somehow though, the conversation did not include access to the mountains for the purpose of recreation. Nor, for that matter, had we discussed the beach as a land formation accessible for the sake of recreation.
When I asked how many of my students had hiked the San Gabriels, fewer than half raised their hand. But why? How could this be, I wondered. I was led to believe that part of California lore is the notion that one can seek adventure whenever and wherever, from the beaches to the mountains, often in the same day. “Manifest Destiny” is the cliched term often attached to this notion of elite adventure. Why elite? Because such presumption of access demands a lifestyle not in conformity to work hours. Manifest Destiny implies freedom. Yet, this phrase comes with the baggage of colonization.
In order to prepare for our discussion about the San Gabriel Mountains, my class and I read the essay, “My Indian Daughter,” by Lewis Sawaquat. In this essay, Sawaquat, a former U.S. government worker, tells the story of growing up in an American Indian community before joining the army. I also selected for this discussion, Dorothea Lange’s photo “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1935, the same year as Sawaquat’s birth. We concluded with “This Land is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, only rather than focusing on the music, we analyzed the song’s lyrics and found novel ways to replace words in the song with similar words, a move designed to enhance fluency.
From these in-class assignments, we learned about the fragility of American communities. We learned that some residents in towns such as Harbor Springs were treated differently than others based on their ethnicity to the extent that their appearance in public faced scrutiny. We learned that American citizens were displaced from their land due to environmental changes beyond their control. We learned that while most of us grew up singing that catchy tune about our nation’s pride, the land, we did not learn learn the parts of the song that refer to poverty.
Democracy cannot live without freedom, Aristotle teaches us. The announcement that part of the nation’s wilderness was now protected, came as surprise to us, but a surprise that came with the responsibility to learn more about the context for such an act. Students of English exercise their freedoms through decoding stories and images carrying messages about the past.
I Learn from My Students
My first Fall teaching English at a bustling community college just outside of the City of Los Angeles lends means, I too learn. I learn about a California struggling with the concept of identity. What does culture mean? For the majority of my students, who are kind, eager, and ready to help others, the Manifest Destiny lifestyle of beach-to-mountain adventure comes with the added challenge of negotiating jobs, family demands, and changes in lifestyle. Therefore, a five-mile, 1,500-ft. hike might not be at the top of the to-do list, for most of my students. However, in time and with added attention from the Federal Government, I hope that recreation for community college students will become a priority. This would include trips to the mountains. This would include the addition of courses in cultural studies, ecology, sustainability, health and wellness, and creative arts.
To bring the good life to the classroom means eliminating the ideological barriers to growth. It means practicing inclusion, but with the expectation that today’s students are tomorrow’s designers, and cultural leaders.
Journey to the Place of Low-Hanging Clouds
Dry air heading up the mountain combined with white-bright sunshine made the task seem unbearable. But after my first experience hiking the San Gabriels, my courage grew. My desire to access those challenging trails coincided with a desire to re-fashion my entire calendar. I wanted to re-make my life to coincide with experiencing the pure mountain air. Was this simply a desire to escape reality? I struggled to understand. One late, cloudy morning, I hit the trail yearning for nature’s air conditioning. About 20 minutes on the trail, I noticed a small group of laconic youth socializing off trail. I think they were as surprised to see me as I them. The mountain ravine served an alternate purpose, an interpretation of Manifest Destiny different, perhaps, from that of students whose lives are removed from the challenges of adding homework assignments and school projects to a calendar that is already jammed with responsibilities, familial, and work-related.
When does anyone have time to enjoy the splendor of their own back yard? I hope my students do have the time to enjoy the San Gabriels.
I sought to recreate the initial experience with a hike on a cloudy day, alone, enshrouded in low-hanging clouds. Here I am. My chest expands with cool clean air. A hike, 1,500 ft. high, on narrow trails bordered by valley and mountain taught me to appreciate this treasure. Life. The San Gabriel’s, are a respite from the smog-laden air of Los Angeles, where beauty surely exists. Yet, the San Gabriel Mountains, now monument, await me even when I have reached my limit. Step-by-step, I know I will make it to the top. I need to overcome aching feet and legs. Legs weak from dehydration and from sitting at the library, hours upon hours, reading about ordinary people who changed the world. I needed to reconnect with trees, wind, and fog. I tried hard to go all the way, and then, wind and freezing rain nudged me back down the path, down toward street parking. Exalting in my joy at going it alone, I performed some jumping jacks, smashing my iPhone on the craggy asphalt. A spider web faced me as “Wrong,” by Everything But the Girl blared in response to my shattered expression.
There, confronted by my arrogance, I remembered I was introduced to the majesty of California by someone special. There were times when I wanted to give up. Get back in the car. “Come on! Come on,” was the reply. Whenever my foot landed upon a spot in the trail that I thought might give way, my strength grew. My strength grew, even when my ankles felt weak. Survivors know that even when they feel like giving up, the next turn in the trail may reveal something new.
Fewer than half of my Saturday-morning writing students said that they have hiked the San Gabriel Mountains. As President Obama noted in his speech declaring the mountains a national monument, these mountains are within miles of many students’ homes, yet most of the students have not had the experience I have had, that of someone leading the way up the mountain, making sure that mountain air and mountain streams are as much a part of my vocabulary as the freeways. The awe of experiencing nature, unscripted, that is the joy of hiking the San Gabriels. Yet, my students’ own experience of Los Angeles is just as valid. Still, I am awed that our nation’s President has named these mountains a national monument. My students have the opportunity to expand their recreational options and lexicons.
Los Angeles rocks. Yet, the mountains demand stillness. Welcome!