The Bridge to Nowhere — Page 3

Ruins of The Highway

A Mystery

As I have come to better know the trails and canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains, I find myself puzzled by a mystery that has gradually presented itself.

Almost wherever you go in the San Gabriels, you will encounter the remains of an apparently once-formidable hiking, camping, and outdoor recreation infrastructure that existed some fifty or more years ago.

Fishing the San Gabriel River San Gabriel Canyon Sign More Ruins Portion of Asphalt

But where has it gone to now—and why did it vanish in the first place?

That's not to say that the San Gabriels are today abandoned. But clearly, there was a golden age of usage that is now long past, so the question remains: what happened?

It is hard to believe that Americans of the early Twentieth Century were more passionate about the great outdoors, or that they had more money to spend on outdoor recreation, than their modern counterparts (that is to say, us).

Certainly there were far fewer people in Southern California then as compared to now. It would therefore be reasonable to expect to see many more people today in the San Gabriel wilderness.

Instead, the opposite is true.

And in addition to a decline in the outdoor population, the most dramatic reversal lies in the vanishing of camps, buildings, and resorts (such as they were).

What is often surprising is how deep this infrastructure penetrated. Camps and lodges existed throughout the range, often in places that are today far removed from roads.

When passing the ruins of these structures, I always find myself imagining them in their heyday: filled with the smiles and laughter of people who have themselves vanished.

And as I puzzle over their disappearance, it seems to me that not one but many factors are the culprits. If we assume the golden age to have taken place in the years prior to and perhaps including the second World War, its decline corresponds to a dramatic shift in the wealth of Americans, during the post-war boom.

In the 1950's Americans saw a huge increase in mobility brought about by improvements in roads and vehicles—they suddenly had the means to travel farther and the money to do so. Perhaps this led to a shift in expectation, from vacationing close to home in the San Gabriels, to farther destinations like, for example, the Sierra and the central coast.

What else was taking place in this era? As the 1960's began, a national environmental movement was gaining traction, leading to the creation of wilderness areas that were off-limits to development. Finally, no doubt the harsh environment of the San Gabriels themselves is to blame. Fires and floods wreaked havoc on man-made structures wherever they were built.

With Americans increasingly driving to farther destinations and rebuilding becoming ever more difficult in the face of tightening environmental regulations, perhaps it is no surprise that the camps of yesteryear are no more. Still, it is hard to shake the sense that something special has passed along with them, even as the land inexorably returns to its rugged, unaltered beauty.

next: Crossings

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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