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Walking legends

Two guidebook writers wrote the books that got L.A. hiking.

March 15, 2005|Vernon Loeb | Times Staff Writer

On his way to San Gabriel Peak, John Robinson pauses to point out how deceiving the San Gabriel Mountains appear to those who haven't set foot on their rugged flanks. They look "round and easygoing," he says while hiking toward the sheer south slope. "But if you look up at the peak, you'll see the San Gabriels are not as gentle as people think. It's quite a face."

Since he wrote "Trails of the Angeles" in 1971, thousands of Angelenos have found that out for themselves.

Indeed, Robinson's classic guidebook -- and Milt McAuley's "Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains," which followed nine years later -- are credited with helping introduce Los Angeles to the backcountry in its own backyard.

The peaks that many saw from their cars went largely unnoticed until Robinson, 75, and McAuley, 85, came along more than a quarter of a century ago and mapped out almost 200 mountain hikes that city folk could do on a Sunday afternoon.

"Other mountain ranges in California are higher, more jagged, more bedecked with ice and snow, more breathtaking, more primitive," Robinson writes in his best-known work. "But no other is so accessible to so many people for so little effort -- and year-round."

Robinson walks to an overlook called Markham Saddle and peers down on Pasadena, its street grid spread out before him like a vast motherboard.

The hike to San Gabriel Peak from Eaton Saddle about 14 miles north of La Canada Flintridge is No. 30 in the book -- which has become so widely used in some hard-core hiking circles that one need only say "30" to conjure the whole three-mile route.

Robinson, a hale man with a broad, pouchy face and ruddy cheeks, marvels at the sight, even if he doesn't take notes anymore. All these years, writing the guidebook was a labor of love. Now, it's over. Or is it? "If you write a novel, you put your pen down and you're finished," Robinson says. "If you write a guidebook, you're never finished. It's a full-time job."

"Trails of the Angeles" has been through seven editions over the last 34 years. The eighth edition, due in bookstores in April, will appear for the first time with a double credit, by John W. Robinson with Doug Christiansen. The new author is an airline pilot and avid hiker from Arcadia who has agreed to take up the pen and keep the book fresh for years to come.

Robinson grew up in Long Beach, the son and grandson of Methodist preachers. He answered a different calling, one he first heard as a boy, camping in the San Gabriels. A stutterer as a child, he found his speech gradually improving as he spent time in the mountains, gaining self-confidence. He felt such freedom, such happiness, that he forgot about his stutter. In the mountains, he could say anything.

Later, hiking in the Sierra Nevada as an adult in the late 1960s, Robinson got the idea for the hiking guide and pitched it to Thomas Winnett of Wilderness Press in Berkeley. Today, no self-respecting local hiker doesn't know of the book's thoroughness or admire Robinson's dedication to the project.

A self-effacing man, Robinson takes no credit for helping to draw Angelenos into Angeles National Forest. Nor does he worry too much about the future, except for the litterbugs and a washed-out access road to Chantry Flat, one of the forest's most popular trail heads.

He is, when all is said and done, a hiker, not a crusader. "I've been on some of the trails many, many times," he says. "I don't get tired of them."

Sitting at his cluttered kitchen table, Milt McAuley excuses himself and disappears down the hallway of his ranch-style house in Canoga Park. He returns a few moments later with a faded, framed letter.

It's the rejection he received in 1979 after he submitted the manuscript for "Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains" to Winnett, Robinson's publisher.

"We judged the writing to be of insufficiently professional quality," Winnett wrote. "It is hard to find people who are able and willing to hike and who also have a way with words, but we want to try to find them. Who knows -- maybe you will become one."

It was a gauntlet that McAuley picked up, borrowing from a life insurance policy, forming Canyon Publishing Co. with his wife, Maxine, and publishing the book himself. It's now been through six editions and sold more than 100,000 copies. Like a rushing mountain stream, a torrent of guidebooks -- six more in total -- flowed from McAuley in the next two decades about different parts of his beloved Santa Monicas.

Born in Dunsmuir, a town in Northern California, McAuley grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore. He studied forestry in college and prepared for a life as a ranger when a detour arose: World War II. He wouldn't return to the trails again full time for a quarter-century, after a career as an Air Force pilot and an engineer in the aerospace industry. He gravitated first to the San Gabriels until the gasoline crisis of the 1970s forced him to look for trails closer to home. Thus began his love affair with the Santa Monicas.

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