A Peak Experience : For Kenyon DeVore, His Life and Love Is the Mountains
Strapped into a box on a burro’s back, Kenyon DeVore first rode into the San Gabriel Mountains as a toddler 80 years ago. He was headed with his parents into the forest, where they would build from scratch a trout-fishing and hiking resort.
On the same foothill he traversed as a baby, DeVore recently braked his 1978 white Cadillac to let two mountain bikers pass on the serpentine road leading to Chantry Flat, north of Arcadia.
“People laugh at me for driving so slow,” said the 6-foot-4 DeVore, dressed in a tan Stetson and green U.S. Forest Service khakis. “But I still like to enjoy the scenery.”
A living legend of the Angeles and one of America’s oldest Forest Service employees, DeVore first came to the forest in 1913, two decades after it was declared a wildlife sanctuary and long before there were mountain bikes or anything except the most primitive roads and trails.
He has been there ever since--first growing up at his parents’ resort, later as a burro pack-train guide, a U.S. Forest Service patrolman on horseback, a county dam operator and a county hydrographer, and now as a Forest Service weekend host to visitors at Chantry Flat.
He witnessed this century’s devastating floods and fires in the national forest. He still can recall precise details about the disasters, especially the Great Flood of 1938, which destroyed his family’s resort.
Perhaps more than anyone else, DeVore seems to know every canyon, every ridge of the 693,000-acre Angeles.
“He’s Mr. San Gabriel Mountains,” said local historian John Robinson, author of several books on the mountains and a longtime friend.
“He’s incredible,” said Shawn Lawlor, a manager in the Valyermo District of the Angeles who was inspired by DeVore 20 years ago to begin a Forest Service career. “You don’t come across too many people that have that kind of knowledge of the forest.”
To show what his life was once like, DeVore opened a scrapbook on the kitchen table of his two-bedroom house in Arcadia.
Faded black-and-white photos tell the story of a life without electricity but lots of adventure, far from the city. DeVore grew up in a cathedral of alder, sycamore, oak and towering Big Pine spruce, with a river running through it.
In one picture, his parents, Ernest and Cherie DeVore, are on a burro on their wedding day, July 4, 1910. For their honeymoon, they packed into the wilderness.
“There were no campgrounds, no tables, no stoves,” he said. “You camped where you threw your bedroll.”
Another picture shows a forest ranger. “Later, he was killed by a poacher,” DeVore said.
Other pictures show the first resort his parents built on 10 acres along the San Gabriel River, Camp West Fork, and then a second resort constructed upstream, Valley Forge Lodge, on five acres. With land leased from the Forest Service, both resorts were a collection of rough-hewn buildings, about 2,900 feet above sea level.
To get to the resorts, people would travel by auto or streetcar to Sierra Madre and hike or ride a horse or burro 15 miles north, a four- to six-hour trek. “People walked more back then,” DeVore said.
Schooled at home for years, DeVore learned to read from the books kept beside the fireplace at the resorts, which were official Los Angeles County Library branches.
“We never had a hell of a lot of money. But we had a hell of a good time,” he said, speaking of the age before television and radio. “People would sit around the fireplace and sing.”
He learned about science from Mt. Wilson observatory astronomers who came to fish during the day and play poker at night. He and his family became close friends with one of them, Milton L. Humason, a self-taught astronomer who started as a Mt. Wilson janitor and eventually did pioneering photographic work on the galaxies.
As a boy, DeVore led pack trains carrying supplies to resorts, Forest Service firefighting outposts and even scientific endeavors such as a short-lived observatory northwest of Mt. Williamson.
When he was 15, DeVore moved to Los Angeles to go to high school and live alone in a tiny apartment. Weekends and summers he still helped his mother, by then divorced, run the Valley Forge Lodge and lead pack trains, but in 1935 he left the camp for good. That year he graduated from Pasadena City College, married a movie actress he met at the resort and began his 35-year career with the county’s flood control district.
While working for the county, DeVore lived throughout the mountains: at dams, along the rivers and for 17 years in San Gabriel Canyon. It was there that he became friends with filmmaker Jean Renoir, who visited the mountains often.
“Naturally, I know where things are in the forest,” he said. “It’s not that I’m so damn smart. It’s just I’ve been here so long.”
DeVore and his first wife, Gertrude Sutton, were divorced after eight years. His second wife, Genevieve, died 12 years ago. Both women shared his love for the forest.
“For all the years I lived in these mountains, there is still much for me to learn, about geology, the plant life, the animal life, the history,” he said.
In the mountains, he has never been seriously hurt, bitten by the countless rattlesnakes or run into any trouble with the array of unsavory characters who sought refuge in the forest.
But DeVore is still haunted by one incident.
When he was 15, he and a friend were leading a pack train along the narrow Rattlesnake Trail near Mt. Wilson. One burro lost its footing and its two back legs slipped off the trail. “We tried to hold onto it but couldn’t. He rolled all the way down the mountain.”
DeVore, who had no gun, had to reach the dying burro and put it out of its misery. “That was a nasty experience. And I don’t want to go into how I killed it. I had to do what I had to do.”
Each burro’s name was painted on its wooden saddle. “There was Hank, Pedro, Worthless, Bunch, Bill, Jim. They all had names and personalities, just like dogs.”
But as he spoke of that dark time, he could not recall the name of the burro he killed.
Today, a painting of DeVore--commissioned by his mother and depicting him on a horse leading a pack train--hangs at the Chilao Visitor Center of the Angeles.
Arthritis and recent surgery have prevented DeVore from hiking. But that hasn’t stopped him from serving as a font of information to the lost, the hot, the tired or the curious who find their way to Chantry Flat on Saturdays and Sundays.
He acknowledges only a little trepidation about seeing the forest go from an inaccessible place to a back-yard playground for millions. “It bothers me that people are littering and vandalizing. We’ve always had that. Of course, it was to a lesser extent than today.”
As he walked around Chantry Flat under a bird’s-egg-blue sky, DeVore surveyed a scene that never bores him: the peaks of Santa Anita Canyon.
“I get a lot of consolation out of these mountains. There is so much upset in the world. It is refreshing to one’s soul to get out on the trail to walk, even if you walk just a half mile.
“When I look at the trees, the birds, the mountains themselves and see how they were created, it borders on a religious experience,” DeVore said.
“I feel a kinship and friendliness to all living things. It took me a lifetime to come to this. I loved the mountains as a kid. But I didn’t have the appreciation I have now.”
Later that day at his house, he looked out a kitchen window to see the San Gabriels.
He clicked off names of the peaks in sight: Mt. Harvard, Mt. Wilson, Monrovia Peak, Clamshell Peak and Mt. Bliss.
He has hiked nearly all the peaks in the forest with the exceptions of Mt. Zion, Mt. Harvard, Condor Peak and Mendenhall Peak. “But my hiking days are gone. That’s OK.”
It is satisfaction enough, he said, to look out at the mountaintops and to know they are there for others to climb.
“Every morning I look out the window and I am just thankful that I can have another day and enjoy the beauties of the Earth. But if I drop over in the next 15 seconds, I have nothing to complain about.”