Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Beacon

From high atop Mt. David, the panorama stretches as far as the eye can see. For hundreds of years, a place later known as "The Beacon" has been a landmark in the San Gorgonio Pass. When skies are powder blue, you can see clear to Hemet and San Jacinto, the Interstate 215 grade at San Bernardino State University, Moreno Valley, Banning, and east to Cabaon. Many have found inspiration, adventure and serenity nearly 3,000 feet above the city lights and everyday life.

On the lookout

Some, like Leslie Rios, remember Pass history classes at Beaumont High School, where students learned about Native Americans keeping a lookout on the mountain top for settlers' wagon trains and the U.S. cavalry. During the 1930s, Easter sunrise services on the mountaintop drew the faithful who took in the early morning light that played across the mountains. In the early 1950s, David Valdivia remembers hiking up to "The Beacon" and heading deepin into the mountains south of Beaumont. He and other youngsters sought adventure in a world all their own. They bagged rabbits with .22 rifles, camped in tents and roamed the nearby hills. Like the wayfarers of old, they came upon many wonders.

Secret spots

They chanced upon an ancient rock cave in the side of a granite mountain. Dropping to their knees one by one, they crawled inside for about 20 feet and felt the air growing colder and colder. They wondered silently who might have lived in this cave through the ages. on another odyssey, the boys stumbled across a deep hole in the ground-probably six feet across. They crept over the edge and peered down into the inky blackness. Then, the boys took turns tossing rocks into the pit and waiting for the muffled sound of a stone to hit the bottom. Valdivia's older brother Arthur was fearless. He would lie on his belly, clutch a rock, and scoot his way over to the lip of the black hole. With friends clutching his feet, Arthur would shoot his arm out and drop a rock. It seemed that whatever the young adventurers threw down, the abyss swallowed right up.

The Beacon's call

As decades passed, the environment changed atop "The Beacon." In the early 1950s, there was only a single red "beacon" light blinking on and off to warn low-flying aircraft. With technological advances, many began wanting space on the high mountain. Today, the Beaumont Police Department and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department have radio equipment atop the mountain summit. Cell phone companies have their own towers. But on a starlit night in Beaumont, "The Beacon" still calls to us. It's always been a special place and remains so today.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Silent Oak

Around the world, giant oak trees are thought to have mythic power and influence. Many centuries ago, legend has it that Robin Hood hid out from his enemies amid the gnarled branches of the Major Oak deep within Sherwood Forest. In ancient times, Celtic culture believed that a huge oak tree could be a “door” or a “gateway” to other worlds. The San Gorgonio Pass has its own towering, majestic oak, with branches the size of tree trunks and leafy, green foliage that cascades to the ground. For generations, the oak has served as a gathering place for teenagers—their faces lit by the soft glow of a campfire—to reveal dreams, lost loves, and secrets.

Gathering spot

As a Beaumont High School student in the late 1940s, Evelyn Salley (now Olson), remembers piling into cars with her friends and driving Cherry Valley’s twisty roads way up to the “old oak tree.” Her daughter Karen Thompson, now the City Clerk of Beaumont, took those same roads in the 1970s with her own friends as did her future husband, Mike Thompson. Mother and daughter say the oak tree has been part of growing up in Beaumont for generations now.

Over the decades, little has changed about the teenage ritual of gathering ‘round the giant oak tree. Young people park in a circle around the tree—whether they were driving big, heavy Fords and Chevrolets in the late 1940s or tooling around in 1970s “muscle cars” like the Chevelle SS or Olds 442. Like a scene from a James Dean movie, teenagers would go from car to car as they laughed, talked and danced the night away to the sound of car radios. In the 1940s, they listened to Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Eddie Fisher. Over the years, word spread about the gathering spot overlooking the Pass. In the late 1940s, maybe two dozen kids would hang out around the tree on weekend nights. By the 1970s, more than 100 teenagers could be seen crowding around the stately looking oak, listening to Aerosmith, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Led Zeppelin.

Local landmark

The regal looking coastal live oak dominates a plateau area about seven miles north of downtown Beaumont. The tree is located along Avenida Miravilla at the entry to Mile High Ranch. A narrow dirt road heads off to the west, which you can follow to see the grandest oak in the Pass. Hidden beneath the branches is an old stone cabin, a big fireplace and a campfire ring.
Local nurseryman Christopher Layton recently surveyed the imposing oak tree. He estimates the tree is 60 to 70 feet tall and that its canopy on top is about 100 feet across. The oak has always had a special place in his heart. During the mid-1960s, Layton remembers family picnics beneath its branches, and how much everyone enjoyed his mom's bread and butter sandwiches and homemade fried chicken.

Keeping watch

Just as it has for decades, the oak is a destination out on the plateau, where car radios reverberate and young people take in the panoramic view of city lights below. Off in the distance, they spot the blinking antennas perched atop Mt. Davis and a sliver of white light in far off Orange County. And so, for a new generation, the steadfast, silent oak keeps a lonely vigil over a slowly unfolding tomorrow in the Pass.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Highland Springs' Patriotic Oak

Standing guard

With its majestic crown of shiny, prickly leaves and ripening acorns, the grand old oak shields dozens of tiny American flags in the hometown memorial. The stars and stripes flutter in the breeze and pay homage to the sacrifices of those who served in Iraq and around the world. Since the memorial went up in the Pass area five years ago, thousands and thousands of cars have streamed by. Many of those drivers—patriotic and perhaps a little curious—have pulled off along Highland Springs Avenue just past Oak Valley Parkway and caught a glimpse of the neat rows of flags—standing guard like watchful sentries. It’s a bucolic setting where range cattle graze from behind barbed-wire fencing. Taking just a few moments from their daily lives, people are lost in moments of profound gratitude for the men and women who have served—and sacrificed their lives—in faraway lands.

The ultimate sacrifice

Those taking in the scene soon spot a prayer for Staff Sgt. Anthony R. Griffith, 3rd Infantry Mechanized Unit and all the troops who have served in Iraq. Only a few steps way, they catch sight of a laminated poem tacked to the graceful oak. It gives the tree’s history and its purpose in life:

“I grew up here all alone; you know, so spindly, small and frail,
‘Twas nicer here way back then, a horse and buggy trail
By the side of this country lane, I stood only four foot high,
I hardly got a sideways glance from folks a passing by
I am an oak, a scraggly oak, not mighty and not tall
I’m approaching 80 years; I’ll be 80 in the fall…
‘Twas first a flag, then two more, I did not understand
And then I heard the prayers of those come praying hand in hand,
Each flag is for a mother’s son who went to meet the call,
I’ve seen the tears and heard the prayers for those who gave their all,
And so my job, both night and day, protect these many flags
Shade those who come to mourn their loss and do the best I can
I’m proud to be out here, there are no other trees to guard the many flags that
Stand and flutter in the breeze.”

Saluting the troops

On this day, Sept. 11, 2010, let us gather under the shade of this spreading oak and give thanks to our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, and sisters and brothers, who serve us so faithfully across the globe.