Going wild in the San Gabriels

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PINBALL machine production is way down. Theres one company left making them. Theyre being replaced by home video games and cell phones. The machines manufactured today go directly to homes not stores, according to the Friday New York Times article.

The story sent me back to my childhood in Long Island and that lucky machine in the back of a candy store off Newbridge Road. If I had some money from my paper route Id hop off my bike, go in and test my flipper skills and maybe enjoy a chocolate egg cream and a bonus score.

Today, kids rarely go out of the house to find entertainment. They flip on the flat screen and fire up the Xbox. Or they play across social networking sites at their home computer.

Its not like I ventured into the great outdoors alot, either, unless it was to attend a ball game. Youre talking to a kid who flunked scouting. But ever since a day 20 years ago, when I hiked into the eastern San Gabriel Mountains with botanist Ann Croissant on an assignment, Ive been hooked on wild plants.
Yeah, whod a thunk it? Me and plants. Its really not so shocking since I studied environmental science and took botany at Nassau College.

I had no idea, however, of the variety of species, nor the array of shapes and colors of wildflowers right here in our back yard.

The San Gabriels, a home to biodiversity! Who would have thought that a mountain range so heavily impacted by people and urban sprawl in Los Angeles County would retain its rank as one of the most biodiverse regions in America, was how Croissant so aptly stated it in her new book Wildflowers of the San Gabriel Mountains, (Stephens Press, 2007).

The window to the thriving world below my knees was opened. Croissant showed me purple thistles and orange-red paintbrush growing from craggy rocks. Later, I was the first to write about the discovery of the thread-leaved brodiaea along the Colby Trail in Glendora, an endangered plant that existed only in the intense flower oasis called the Santa Rosa Plateau, until this discovery. Glendora named it their city flower and celebrates its existence every May.

Blue dicks, chia, purple nightshade, phacelia, wild morning-glory, golden-yarrow are just some of my favorites. These and others are featured in her book, organized by color and spiral bound for use on the trail.

If you havent seen these flowers, now may be the best time. Plentiful winter rains have produced a rich bounty. Though the first bloom is ending, the second bloom the blues and purples are due in May and June.

And you dont need a course in botany. Just a desire to get off the couch, drop the remote and head for the hills. Start by checking out the roadway flowers (I love the ones next to the 57/10 interchange). Going to the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancys Web site (www.sgmrc.org) for info on hikes and nature center locations.

It (family hikes) is something that has been lost in the heritage, explained Croissant, founder of the group. A lot of families dont go out; it is a consumer culture.
Whenever she hikes with kids, either through scouting or the Hike It! program her group sponsors, she finds young people are absorbed.

You only have to take kids on a trail once time and it is amazing how much they pick up, she said.
And you dont have to be young or in excellent physical shape to go wildflowering.
It is for the kid in all of us, she said with a smile.

Torch run done right

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Torch relay press pass, 1984

WHEN I was 26 years old, I was one of those young reporters who believed that my next story would be bigger than Watergate.

I was, as we say in the business, hungry for news. As my mentor Gary Granville, a former investigative reporter used to say, I was looking for red meat. So when my editor at the Orange County Register told me to cover the Olympic Torch relay in Garden Grove, I thought this was vegetarian fare.
In fact, it smacked of a public relations event cooked up by the U.S. Olympic Committee to promote the upcoming games in Los Angeles, which by the way, were being boycotted by the Soviet Union and were being bashed from within and without as something that was dead on arrival due to LAs bad air and choking traffic.

Not to mention, a few days before, I covered the raising of Olympic street banners in Garden Grove, which was my beat and where the torch relay would travel. I remember the banners were done up in those garish colors hot pink and light green.

Needless to say, boy was I wrong. And so was the rest of the media prognosticators.

Not only was the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles one of the most successful in the history of the games, it was a shining moment for L.A. and Southern California. It had many storylines, including one of celebratory athletes and unmatched camaraderie among the U.S. swim team (gold medalists); joyous celebrations; free-flowing freeways; cleaner than imagined air and cooperative, peaceful fans all enjoying a nearly crime-free two-week event.

I believe the tone was set during the torch relay.
Southern Californians of all ilk came out of their homes to cheer on total strangers holding gold-plated torches burning a kerosene flames.

In Garden Grove, I watched a handicapped runner carry the torch his assigned mile to the cheers of well-wishers lined up three rows deep. Then, I witnessed something that melted my heart: The crowd spontaneously hoisted that young man on its shoulders and carried him several hundred more yards. I remember the ear-to-ear grin from his proud father. I have never forgotten that day, not even 24 years later.
I only wish I had kept the article. A search of the OC Register archives was fruitless. I dont even remember the runners name.

But the event touched me deeply. So deeply, that I broke a journalism cardinal rule: I helped the competition. Let me explain.

The next day, the torch was in Newport Beach/Irvine and my wife, Karen E. Klein, was covering it for our rival, the Orange Coast Daily Pilot. I got up at the crack of dawn with her thinking Id be a spectator. I stationed myself along the other end of Von Karmen, one of the sterile boulevards that criss-crossed the planned community of Irvine. Again, like magic, the people came out to cheer the runners and I was swept up, taking quotes and recording history, as they waved American and Olympic flags in a show of unity.

I have never seen that many people in the streets of Newport Beach or Irvine since. I have never witnessed a sporting event with such pure excitement like the torch relay of 1984.

There were no protesters. No police in riot gear. No conflict, really. Unlike today, when the torch relay for this summers Olympics in Beijing was marred by riots in Paris and London. And earlier this week, in San Francisco, where anti-China demonstrators had lined the Embarcadero Wednesday morning. The mayor changed the route at the last minute and the relay proceeded nearly without spectators.

The wife of local torch runner Eric Burke was kept in the dark and missed her husbands historic run. The Pasadenan was chosen for his work with at-risk students.

He enjoyed the experience, he told Staff Writer Kevin Felt, even though a few protesters threw water balloons in an attempt to extinguish the flame.

I am embarrassed for those torch runners, who were trying to unite the world and run for an ideal. I am all for protests, only this was the wrong venue.

I guess back in 1984, my news story did not change the world, not like Watergate or Iran-Contra. But it changed me. It taught me to be on the lookout for the American spirit it can surprise you. I only hope that now, in a much more cynical world, there are pleasant surprises left.