Grass Mountain in July View from the top of Figueroa Mountain
Michael Jackson, the mega pop star, continues to live in the hearts and minds of millions even to this day. You may wonder how this story has anything to do with hiking or climbing, but if you bear with me, it will become clear. Here's the story.
About a month prior to Aug 29, 2010, my wife and I were invited by friends to drive to the top of Figueroa Mountain in the Santa Barbara back country. What caught our attention on this drive was a stunning, pyramid-shaped mass called Grass Mountain. My wife and I knew we had to come back for Grass Mountain. A month later in pre-dawn hours, we tried to do just that. Unfortunately, "try" is as far as we got.
Grass Mountain is located on Midland School, Michael Jackson's kids went to school there, property where we had to acquire a permit to use its trails. A notice on the registration box, however, informed us that the school was not issuing any permits for a period of ten days, including the day we arrived. Puzzled and disappointed, we decided to drive up Figueroa Mountain Road anyway and take sunrise photos.
A short distance up the road from Midland School, my wife and I noticed people tying gold and white balloons onto a short fence next to a huge steel gate. I recognized the gate as the formal entrance to the famous Michael Jackson's residence for a number of years, Neverland Ranch. We stopped for a short time and watched some young women chatting with the security guards across the locked gate. We thought to ourselves, "Wow! People are still coming to see where Michael Jackson used to live." Our plans for Grass Mountain foiled, it was time to continue driving toward Figueroa's summit. Since the gate to the final stretch of the winding, dirt road was open, we were able to drive all the way to the top.
As we pulled into the wide parking area of the summit, we were surprised to see four cars and a large group of young women—and one lucky man—milling about. They all seemed very tired, very cold. Some shivered visibly, evidence of a long, sleepless night. It was still early—no later than 6:30 a.m. in the morning. What were all these people doing up here? we wondered.
The moment our car came to a stop, we were approached by a disheveled young girl wrapped in a blanket.
"Do you, by chance, have a pair of jumper cables, Sir?" she asked, peering through the window hopefully.
"I think so," I replied.
As I rummaged in the trunk of the car, I noticed that everyone's attention seemed to be locked on us. The pile beside the car grew; my wife and I pulled out picnic food, extra clothing, hiking sticks, auto tools, and finally the emergency gear. I raised a clear plastic bag containing jumper cables over my head trumphantly and waved it back a forth. A loud cheer broke the quiet of the dawn.
"Okay, which car's battery needs to be jumped?" I asked.
"That van," they pointed.
I walked first to the van, and it started right away. By now my wife and I were very curious about this strange gathering of young women and one opportunistic man.
"Are you guys members of a church or something?" I asked.
"Yeah, we are members of "Michael Jackson Church," a girl wrapped in a beach towel answered playfully.
"Okay," I answered, as if it was an expected response, "but what are you doing up here, and now?"
"Oh, it's Michael Jackson's birthday!"
It was beginning to make sense.
"Are you all from this area?"
"Oh, no. Most of us are from the LA area, but that girl over there is from Texas, that girl there is from New Zealand, and she's from England," one explained, nodding in the direction of her friends. "We all met on the Internet."
My curiosity had peaked by now.
"But why are you here so early in the morning?"
"Well, we all got together in LA last night and met at his grave to celebrate his birthday. Then around eleven we decided to caravan up here and see if we could see Michael's Neverland Ranch. We got here around 2:30 a.m. and have been waiting for the sunrise, listening to Michael Jackson songs on our car radios. I guess that explains why our batteries went dead."
"Say, is it possible to see Michael Jackson's house from up here?" another Jacksonphile inquired.
I had no idea.
As the sun was getting higher in the sky, one of the girls squinted hard in the direction of Michael Jackson's ranch. "You know, I think I can see a building way down over there."
I looked and could not see anything.
"Wait. Let me get my binoculars."
I quickly came back with a pair of binoculars and handed them to the girl. She looked "way down over there" and nearly screamed, "It's the train station! It's the train station!"
Within a few minutes two more girls had spotted the building. By now, my curiosity had peaked again.
"What do you mean by train station?"
Silly question. The girls had the complete layout of Michael Jackson's Ranch seared in their memory without ever having visited it. I stood aside letting everyone take as much time as they wanted to look at the titilating train station. The sleepy gathering had come to life, laughing and chatting and celebrating the remarkable feat that they had actually gazed upon Michael Jackson's Neverland with their own eyes. They had breathed the same air that blew across his ranch. They were almost on it!
Somehow the euphoria was lost on my wife, but the group dynamics amused her. At long last the girls thanked us one by one, hugged us, called us "heros," and then, well satisfied, loaded into their vehicles and headed down the mountain. As they drove away it became clear to us that, yes, Michael Jackson in the flesh was long gone, but his memory is alive and well in the hearts and minds of millions.