"It is the end." The words had been scratched in the earth with a stick next to the bench on the Mt. Lukens fire road. The letters were strong and stern and deeply etched into the ground. The person who wrote it meant it.
The bench, at almost 3,000 feet and 1.5 miles from the trailhead, with its sweeping view of the whole of Greater Los Angeles, is where I turn round on my daily hike.
So on one level he was right: This is the end for me.
However, its terseness shows the messenger had a more doleful end in mind. To him, the Day of Reckoning is nigh and all those who pass this way need to cleanse their souls PDQ.
History is littered with such predictions, of course, so except for my usual reflection that if you don't have the outlook to enjoy your life here and now you are unlikely to enjoy whatever is to come either, I didn't pay any particular attention. Not until one early one Sunday morning a couple of weeks later, that is.
That day I had started off before dawn on the Hoyt Mountain fire road, which starts a few miles along Angeles Crest Highway from Foothill. As usual, everything was perfectly still. Walking alone, however, you are alert, without realizing it, for any unusual sound. More than once I have whirled around thinking I was being followed, only to find that a bushy tree was stirring in the breeze or a few particles of rock were sliding down the steep slopes.
That day, however, the sound was coming from above. It became louder as I climbed, unlike anything I had heard before on any of these forest roads. As I went on, it resolved itself into a sort of chanting and then I heard recorded instruments. "Oh, no," I thought, "has the last place that can be relied on for silence become the scene for another rock group?"
Nearer still and through the twilight I saw a group of men, a dozen or more, standing and swaying by the old circular water tank, which is the only structure of any kind on that road. They were close to the wall of the tank just like people at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and never ceasing in their chanting. It sounded like a primitive religion.
I stopped, curious, but not wanting to disturb them, motioned to one of them who was standing apart from the rest that I would like to speak to him. He seemed surprised to see me in the gray light, but came over. He spoke only Spanish, but his 12-year old son at his side spoke up confidently: "We're Christians," he told me and they planned to spend four more hours in prayer around their makeshift church.
"Do you come up here to be closer to God?" I asked.
"Many people think God is in the sky but he is all around us," my small spiritual guide admonished me. "We are giving thanks for everything we have — for our lives, for my father — and we come up here because nature is all around us."
They were very gentle and patient with me, and then I walked on and out of their lives. It seemed a strange mixture of rituals and a world away from the condemnatory "It is the end."
Unwittingly, I may have added one more element to the mix. Many years from now their scriptures may tell of a fleeting visitation by a white-haired old man who said he was was going on into the Dark Canyon, as it is known locally. I wonder if in those far-off times my exact words will be pondered over to tease out whatever comforting message they contain to keep the faith alive. As I remember them, what I said was, "See you later."