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A pioneer who made his mark on the mountains

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Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

Scaling Mt. Everest can be arranged nowadays by a travel agent, but in the early 20th century an assault on the 10,805-foot peak of Mt. San Jacinto overlooking Palm Springs could be plausibly described as “heart-breaking.” The time and place are evoked with authority and a certain sentimentality in “Will Thrall and the San Gabriels,” a biography of an important if now-long-forgotten pioneer of mountaineering in Southern California.

Thrall arrived in Los Angeles in 1888, when the population was still under 50,000 and the San Gabriel Mountains still could be called a wilderness. But urban development was already underway -- Switzer’s Camp, the first “resort” in the San Gabriels, had opened for business four years earlier. Where once roamed “Indians ... bandits, explorers, hunters, and prospectors,” biographer Ronald C. Woolsey explains, orchards and pastures, highways and railroads, suburbs and subdivisions were invading the foothills.

Woolsey reminds us that Southern California was, then as now, a place where people came to reinvent themselves. Young Thrall grew up in New England, “slight of build and sickly as a boy,” but his early experiences as an adolescent at large in the San Gabriels changed him: “[H]iking along mule trails and faded Indian paths, crossing streams, camping among cedars, occasionally encountering a flock of sheep or a lone mountain man,” Thrall turned himself into a vigorous and accomplished outdoorsman.

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“He was a parent to a timeless child, and it spawned within him a passion and commitment that would shape his life for the next seventy years,” Woolsey writes. He was no mere amateur adventurer. Rather, he was “a self-appointed guardian, historian and preservationist” who embarked on a lifelong project “to document mountain history, a lifelong odyssey that led him to photograph the region, amass artifacts, interview countless mountain residents, and gather a wealth of newspaper accounts on important happenings.”

Thrall earned his living at a variety of jobs -- mail carrier in Orange County, citrus picker in Riverside, a hotel clerk in Perris, a day laborer on the railway that once climbed Mt. Lowe above Pasadena, and later a manager of general stores and grocery stores. One day on his mail route, Thrall shouldered his rifle and shot an attacking bobcat but only wounded the animal and had to fend off “the onrushing bobcat with his bare hands,” the author writes. What he knew about the outdoors he learned through hard experience, and he devoted himself to studying history, anthropology, geology and ecology.

Woolsey is forced to concede that Thrall conjured some “provocative” theories about the earliest occupants of the wilderness, “despite little evidence to support some of his conjectures.” Thus, for example, he posited the existence of Indian settlements where no remains were found, and “found it odd there were no rock paintings of major battles given the frequent skirmishes that occurred through the Cajon Pass [and] across the San Bernardino Mountains.”

By the 1930s, Thrall was a prominent figure for people who focused on the literary life and outdoor adventure in Southern California. He was editor of Trails Magazine and author of Today’s Hike, a column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He frequented Dawson’s Bookstore, a gathering place for like-minded adventurers and proto-environmentalists. And, like earlier and later generations of hikers, he regarded an outing on a local trail as an elevating experience in more than the literal sense. “Like an evangelist of old,” Woolsey writes, Thrall exhorted his readers and audiences to commit themselves to preservation “as if they were disciples of a holy crusade.”

“There is no exercise so beneficial, physically, mentally, or morally,” declared Thrall, “nothing which gives so much of living for so little in cost, as hiking in our mountain and hill trails and sleeping under the stars.”

Some of the best moments in “Will Thrall” are provided by historical photographs and documents the author has extracted from private collections and public archives, including the Thrall Collection, now at the Huntington Library. We see plentiful examples of the adventurers, coots and eccentrics who wandered the San Gabriels over the last century or so, and every detail of the cover of a 1939 issue of Trails Magazine featuring Thrall and a view of Mt. Baldy richly evokes the time and place in which he lived and worked.

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Toward the end of his life, Thrall became a curiosity -- “the little man with the boots and floppy hat” whom hikers might encounter on a remote mountain trail. Later still, a series of strokes prevented him from taking to the hills, and he died in 1963 at 89. His name is preserved in Thrall Peak, a summit in the Angeles National Forest. It is Woolsey’s aspiration to rescue Thrall’s life and legacy from obscurity, and at that task he has succeeded.

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