Warren Miller: Revisiting So. California Mountains Circa 1924
I was introduced to the Polar Palace ice arena at the age of 12 and spent the next six years at least once a week making left turns for 25 cents for three hours.
When the Pan Pacific ice arena opened, I was 16 years old and it was much larger than the Polar Palace. I graduated to speed skates, wound up qualifying for the 1942 Herald Examiner Speed Skating Championships, and managed a third place in the class B finals.
During those years I split my time between weekends on pack trips with the Boy Scouts in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains and learning to ride a surfboard. I built my first surfboard in 1937 in junior high school woodshop and at the same time bought my first pair of skis for $2 without metal edges and never have looked back.
Before they brought water to Southern California from the Eastern Sierras, it was a desert with lots of sand and gravel. Once the water arrived, Southern California was turned into the massive orange orchard it became before it was paved with concrete in later decades.
Luck always has been on my side because at the age of 12 when I joined the Boy Scouts, my scoutmaster took us on a pack trip to a stay in the nearby mountains to the east, every other weekend from mid-December until late March. In those days it seemed as though those mountains were snow-covered every winter.
I can honestly say I was only cold once in all of the time I have spent in the mountains and never really been cold since. I learned my lesson early when I spent a sleepless night under a thin cotton blanket in Big Tujunga Canyon. From that weekend on I always had too many blankets in my rucksack.
I have always believed that being cold is a state of mind.
Most of you readers know that Ward Baker and I spent two winters living in the Sun Valley parking lot in a trailer that was 4’ x 8’ with no heat. We can honestly say we never were cold even though that first winter the temperature dropped to as low as 28 below zero.
Before setting out on this trip we had both been smart enough to buy two Army surplus mummy sleeping bags that, according to the label, were designed to be comfortable at five below zero. We wisely figured that one inside the other would protect us from what seemed astronomically cold temperatures and so they did.
During those early learning years we also learned to be comfortable or uncomfortable regardless of the temperature. The temperature is what it is and you can make your mind and body adjust to it or be upset about it. But there’s nothing you can do about it except put on enough clothes so that you don’t get cold.
Some people could argue that I learned to stay warm or pretend I was warm when I learned to surf 15 years or so before the invention of the wetsuit. Southern California ocean temperatures range around 50 degrees so we surfed before wetsuits because we really wanted to.
Not being cold, on the other hand, could be directly traceable to the abundance of adrenaline that I started producing on that sheet of plywood sliding on green grass so many years ago.
In those sliding-down-every-hill-I-could-find-days, the scepter of World War II was on the horizon but so far removed from Southern California it had very little effect on our enjoyment level. After all, there was the Atlantic Ocean and 3,000 miles of the North American continent separating us from what was going on as Germany went on the march.
I did not know at the time that my life was changing forever when in 1936 the Union Pacific railroad invented the chairlift in a railroad yard in Omaha, Nebraska.
The first time I stood up on a pair of skis and slid across a small snowfield instead of lying on my stomach and sliding on green grass everything that happened in my childhood in Southern California came into focus and I have had a cold wind in my face ever since.
When the first chairlift arrived on Mount Waterman less than 50 miles from where I was born in Hollywood, I was in the Navy stationed at the University of Southern California, and I was riding on the chairlift every Sunday they had snow.
Skiing had a very special appeal to me that surfing didn’t because in those early days the surfboards were so heavy that no woman rode them. I know I was one of the dumber surfers because my board was 11 feet long 24 inches wide, made of mahogany and weighed over 100 pounds. But skiing had a greater appeal, as there were lots of ladies who skied. I’m not dumb.
It is easy to say that Southern California has changed dramatically since the 1930s but rather I think the people have changed dramatically. The surfboards are smaller, lighter, easier to ride, and wetsuits keep you warm. Another substantial change is that instead of two chairlifts in the state of California today there are literally dozens and dozens of them.
Where Universal Studios is today, there was a ski resort in 1937. Granted it was just a rope tow and they skied on pine needles but they were making turns and inspiring other people such as myself to do the same thing.
The main difference in Southern California when I was born in 1924 was that there were barely 1,000,000 people in the Los Angeles basin. Today there are approximately 15,000,000 people in the same area.
If you want to enjoy Southern California the same way I did, set your alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. so you can find a parking place when you get to the ski resort or the surf. It’s up to you to enjoy every day of your life.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)