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Onward and outward

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AS ITS NAME SUGGESTS, the Gabrielino Trail is one of the oldest -- and perhaps most distinguished -- trails in Southern California. Follow this path north of the sprawling JPL campus into the Arroyo Seco and you are deep inside the forest, walking beside nearly 100 years of history.

I hiked here a little more than two years ago when the Outdoors section was launched, and I returned on a Saturday last month when I learned that the section would be closing. The trail is a touchstone for me. And this -- well, this is the last issue of Outdoors.

The Arroyo Seco is one of the most majestic canyons in the Angeles National Forest. As you rock-hop a dozen or so stream crossings and wind through groves of white alder, canyon oak, sycamore and eucalyptus, words you’d forgotten -- ferny, sylvan, Arcadian -- come to mind. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the place or its contrast with the modern world. I can’t say, but the feeling here is slightly archaic, and you soon think of yourself as merely a guest. Such a reverie will be cut short, however, by the oncoming clip, whir, shouts and footfalls of mountain bikers, runners, picnickers, equestrians and dogs, charging past you.

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Historians refer to the early part of the 20th century as the Great Hiking Era. It is a judgment that does little justice to who we are and what we do today. I’ve edited Outdoors for a little more than a year, and during that time, I feel I’ve met everyone who hits this trail -- whether they know it or not.

On that Saturday last month in the Arroyo Seco, they were the runners, shirtless and conversational in stride. They were the Boy Scouts who stepped aside so promptly and then moved ahead, single-file, like a beautiful blue centipede. They were the equestrians, one of whom asked me if I had a light for his cigarette, his jet-black Arabian reined in, yet amped up. They were the bikers, tearing into the stream, and the dopers, bucking the twilight.

My favorite was the father who let me take his picture in the morning light as he and Audrey, his young daughter, rested beside the stream, she in the crook of his arm munching trail mix, white alders around them, green leaves like medallions riffling in the breeze.

I have hiked many places -- Greenland, Scotland, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and the Sierra -- but these mountains will always be home. Memories from childhood infuse the dusky sunlight, the turning sycamores, even the smooth river rock and the motley parade that breathes it all in.

Just up from the first bridge -- the one with balusters -- is a small meadow, shaded by oaks and dotted by Spanish sabers. Wander off the trail and you’ll find a monument bearing the words “Pasadena Hunt Club” and an inscription, “Presented by Edmund Dockett.” (At the base is an exquisitely rendered relief of a retriever with a duck firmly planted in its mouth.)

I remember reading that the hunt club opened a lodge here almost a century ago. As for Edmund Dockett, well, he’s a mystery, and though he’d no doubt be shocked by the democratic turn this wilderness has taken, the message here is clear: Trade jodhpurs for cargo pants, a canteen for a hydration system, and Edmund just strode by.

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This is why I like the Gabrielino Trail. It is a reminder of possibility and change, a route so filled with ruins of the past -- an old road, stone foundations and straggly nonnative plantings -- that I see it as a reminder of passing time, rekindling our connection to a world that cannot be digitized, post-modernized, fragmentized or atomized.

A great enthusiast of these mountains, Will Thrall, who wrote a hiking column for this paper in the 1930s, believed there was “nothing which gives so much of living for so little in cost, as hiking our mountains and hill trails and sleeping under the stars.”

These mountains, this world beyond our doors, will always be our dreamscape -- rooted, if only by a sliver of memory and a few chunks of concrete, in an experience of Southern California where we can see ourselves in others and where a purposeful backward glance helps us imagine the future. Here, obligations of life and twists of fate disappear; here we are defined by just what we see, feel or hear.

Bliss has always been at the heart of Outdoors’ enterprise. Whether you hiked, fished, surfed or skied, Outdoors was a portrait of magnificent obsession, an exhortation -- at times with a nudge, at other times with an open-palmed shove -- to see and appreciate everything that surrounds us.

As much as we invited readers to sit beside our weekly campfires, they too invited us to sit beside theirs, and their insistencies, anger, delight, encouragement and appreciation enlivened our work. And we hope the process will not end -- for the work of the writers and photographers that appeared in Outdoors will continue to run in the pages of The Times. The world they covered is simply too wedded to the identity of Southern California to ignore.

So never mind the business decision that shuttered this section. Realize instead that although Outdoors provided a magnificent frame for this world, its message can never be dimmed: The urge to get outside -- to climb, to surf, sail or walk -- is more than just a reflex or a calling, and if we spend time with this impulse, this lure, we will understand something more about our world and, if we’re lucky, about ourselves.

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Thomas Curwen is the editor of Outdoors.

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