By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Re-posted on Amigos de los Rios 10-18-15
No one likes sitting through speeches by politicians.
This time, the squirming in your seat became endemic because the distractions were everywhere. Behind the podium in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument’s East Fork Oaks Picnic Area Friday was a backdrop of gigantic proportions:
San Gabriel Canyon stretching into the cotton-ball clouds like a skyscraper in the city. Beneath the wall of granite, the East Fork of the San Gabriel River gurgled, playfully running between sand bars. Even the flies hovering around your face were welcomed.
Then Irvin Barragan hit the platform.
He wore the blue shirted uniform of the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, the group of young people hired to comb the monument for trash and rebuild trails, etc.
Barragan, 24, grew up in El Monte on Mountain View Road. I’ll let him take it from there:
“I found it ironic I lived on a street called Mountain View and that was all I could do was enjoy the view,” he began.
I was tracking with Irvin. He was the human element from a press conference marking the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama declaring 346,177 acres of the Angeles National Forest the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
And he nailed it.
“See, my mother could not afford a car,” he continued.
Barragan is like many from El Monte, or Compton or East Los Angeles who can see the San Gabriel Mountains from their street, but have never been there. Never experienced the sound a river makes. Never saw those puffy clouds stand out like a backdrop, or heard the screech of a red-tailed hawk, or felt the sweat drip down your neck while catching a slant of shade in a darkened canyon.
It was good theater hearing him tell about the new kinds of experiences he’s had since joining the group, hiking the trails and performing the required tasks.
“We met some new friends, like Stanley The Bear Cub who regularly visits these parts. The red-tailed hawks that circle the skies overhead, the tarantulas the size of a fist and the occasional diaper or two,” he said, keeping the audience’s attention.
Really, Barragan’s experiences were new to him. But anyone who ventures into the forest experiences the same thing. No matter how many times I hit a mountain trail, I’m still surprised. And it’s all the things Barragan said on that rainy Friday that makes me and him not so different.
He said he found lots of things during his time with the CCC. But most important, while resting near a stream one day, he found himself.
“My mind began to clear and the thoughts of uncertainty began to lift,” he said, describing what I’d call a hiker’s moment.
Nothing cures the cluttered ramblings of city boy’s mind than a jaunt up Monrovia Canyon or Chantry Flat or the East Fork. Barragan knows it now. And if you don’t know that feeling, why not? It is yours for the taking in less than an hour’s drive. (If you own a car).
Barragan’s meeting with nature meant more to him. His time with the CCC led him into a career path. He wants to become a wildlands firefighter.
“Tomorrow I will begin my first Fire Tech class at Rio Hondo College. It is my first step to my ultimate goal — becoming a forest firefighter,” he said.
This may be destiny for a kid who grew up on Mountain View Road. It’s also a story of what the land can do to you. If you let it.
Steve Scauzillo covers the environment for the Los Angeles News Group. He’s the current recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing from The Wilderness Society. Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.