by T. Duren Jones
A Boyhood Adventure in Bailey Canyon
Just an accident. Full of life at one moment. Gone the next. A slip on gravel, a miscalculation of distance, or not knowing if the ground was solid enough to support its weight, and, in a microsecond, it was all over.
As canyons go, Bailey Canyon is not particularly special. This smallish canyon is just a short, rugged gap along the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. But, as a kid, it had been a place brimming with life and full of possibilities for exploring. Its size had no limits on adventure for my friends and me.
My parents had built a typical 1960s, one-level stucco home on Grove Avenue in the small community of Sierra Madre, literally a block away from the Bailey Canyon trailhead. My friends and I considered this our own private hiking and climbing canyon—and, in many ways it was. This was before it became popular, before it became the Bailey Canyon Wilderness Park, developed with a parking lot, public restrooms, a fire pit, picnic areas with barbecue grills, and surrounded by a groomed nature trail. My boyhood canyon was still wild wilderness.
One early summer day my buddies and I headed up to Bailey Canyon on our bikes, with playing cards in the wheels making that wonderful faux motorcycle noise. The canyon had been known by that name for some time, but we called it 12 Falls Canyon. We had hiked here before, many times, but not so early in the morning, and not with this cloud cover. In Southern California, the weather forecasters called it “June Gloom.” Moisture would gather over the Pacific Ocean the night before and then roll inland up to the foothills, creating a dismal grayness that sometimes burned off by noon, other times just mixed with the smog for the rest of the day. We didn’t care—the atmosphere added to the adventure.
We didn’t really know if there were 12 distinct waterfalls in the drainage. Looking back now, I think that a legitimate waterfall would have to be something more than a trickle from a seasonal creek; a bit greater than a small stream spilling over a boulder. But, hey, we were just kids. Someone had counted at one point—12 Falls it was called, and the nickname stuck for us.
A fog had settled in on the foothills. Visibility was about as far as we could throw a Beatles 45 record. Familiar surroundings now looked ominous, clothed in the wet mist. Tree branches seemed to reach out at our little group of explorers like skeletal specters; spiked willows grabbed at our denim pant legs to protest our ascent. This was not the happy lark of a hike that we had enjoyed other warm summer days.
The slippery rock spillways offered little traction. We hiked past (and counted) six of the falls, staying to the side of the stream and avoiding the poison oak lurking along the trail. The canyon became narrow and craggy. At some point we stopped counting waterfalls. We knew that when we spied the big one, we would count it as the 12th fall. The waterfall was about 20 feet high but seemed much larger from our young vantage point. This really was our destination, as climbing from this point on for us was very difficult and nearly inaccessible.
As we rounded the final turn to our goal, we were both fascinated and repulsed by what we saw. A good flow cascaded over the large fall; more water than usual splashed up from the rocks at its base. But a large buck lay across boulders about 30 feet downstream, soaked from the spray of the waterfall and rain.
“He must have fallen … from up there,” someone finally said, pointing up the cliff wall. “Slipped at the edge and came crashing down.”
Just an accident. Full of life at one moment. Gone the next. A slip on gravel, a miscalculation of distance, or not knowing if the ground was solid enough to support its weight, and, in a microsecond, it was all over. Our young minds didn’t go all philosophical about the shortness or seeming capriciousness of life. We just wanted to poke the deer with a stick.
Being curious boys, of course we had to give this a detailed examination. We deduced from the lack of serious rigor mortis (from analytical stick poking) that this incident had not happened that long ago. We walked around it and could see no obvious cause for its death, other than the fall. A creature so surefooted had just made a mistake, we concluded.
Nature has a way of taking care of its own—its fallen are recycled. When we came back months later, most evidence of the deer’s demise was gone, except for a few bleached bone fragments. The body had gone back to the land, its home, one way or another. And life goes on.
For the complete story, please consider purchasing my book, Tales from the Trails, available from Amazon.