Introducing my good friends to the Bridge to Nowhere trail was something I anticipated with great joy. I knew they’d fall in love with its calming waters, riparian greenery and imposing geology. The weather was warm and the hike itself was simple as we cooled off in the river and found one of the many small camps where we put up the hammock and enjoyed the peace offered by the San Gabriel Mountains.
The brutal summers take a toll on the river. The sunken levels mildly reroute the trail and expose banks of sand and granite that would be otherwise hidden. I painted as my friends skipped rocks across the shallows. I’ve been hiking and painting this trail for years, but this particular season was disconcerting. I have never seen the river so low. This painting is aptly titled “The River Survives”, done in oil on 10 x 8″ canvas panel.
A few weeks later I returned to the same trail for a second date with my now-fiance, the river sinking even lower than I’ve ever seen it, the iconic swimming holes dark with still and murky water. We set up camp about half a mile past the bridge. He caught a small frog and we observed tiny, vulnerable fish fry hiding in the shadows of fallen leaves, sheep tracks left along the trail close to the banks, tenacious yucca holding on to late, unopened flower buds. Tiny, fleeting signs of life drawn to the ebb and flow of the river.
The Bridge to Nowhere trail is one of the first hikes I’ve ever done and a trail I return to time and time again. I’ve come to know the changes and seasons along the river well, exploring tiny side-trails and bushwhacking along vague use trails as the forces of the seasons erode and reroute the way. For every weekend or quick weekday on that familiar trail I could have explored someplace else. Southern California offers a wealth of trails and adventures, after all.
But I keep returning. As the seasons change and the storm clouds start to gather my memory recalls high, rushing waters and chilly, dark nights.
Somewhere along the way a handful of places have become a second home, and the San Gabriel River is one of them. The dynamism of the trail offers a reassuring unpredictability. The places that become a second home become a refuge. Packing takes no thought, plans have become habit, and this sort of familiarity offers space for the mind to take in minute details. This trail is known to be heavily-trafficked and oppressively hot, but I’ve come to discover the quiet of early mornings, the sudden solitude past the bridge as the trail narrows and winds precariously along steep, crumbling granite faces, the early-morning sightings of bighorn sheep on the crown of mountain ridges, the places that would welcome a tent and provide a good night’s rest.
For the landscape artist this slow and dedicated exploration of the land is particularly beneficial. Cezanne said:
Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations.
Only time can unfurl the breadth and depth of sensation found in the natural world. Only through repeated observation can we come to appreciate the ebb and flow of life and the clash of the elements of nature against its own dynamic forces of change.
Knowing a place well enough to discover the patterns and changes of the land offers a peace of mind and stillness of thought that constant, high-adrenaline exploration rarely does. As important as it is to discover the new it is also important to learn well the familiar. The familiar peals back to reveal the intricate unfamiliar.
So return to a place over and over. Learn how to move easily and seamlessly across the land. Observe as the world around you changes. Find quiet places to rest your feet and soul. Create a second home.