At An Age When Most Folks Are Over the Hill, Trailblazer Ambrose Zaro Is Still King of His Mountain

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ambrose Zaro was only 12 when he fell in love for life. He was perched on the roof of his grandfather's Los Angeles boardinghouse, peering idly through binoculars at the surrounding stucco and cement. Suddenly, far to the north, he spotted the majestic, snowy peaks of 5,710-foot Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. To an untraveled city boy, the sight was beauty incarnate. "I told myself then, 'One day I'm going to get over there,' " says Zaro. " 'I'm going to climb that mountain.' I've loved it ever since."

He has more than fulfilled his childhood promise. For the past 34 years, Zaro, 87, has served as main caretaker of the 7½-mile hiking trail that snakes its way from the Little Santa Anita Canyon in Sierra Madre, Calif., to Mount Wilson's windy summit. Working without pay, he has braved rain, snow and swarms of bees to beat back underbrush or clear off storm debris. Just 5'3", with a round, merry face and hands that have begun to tremble, Zaro looks more like a sprite out of the Brothers Grimm than a hardy mountain man. But year after year, he gets the job done. "Without Ambrose Zaro," says Jan Reed, editor of the Sierra Madre News, "I don't believe there would be a Mount Wilson trail."

Every Sunday, Zaro rises early for the 21-mile drive to the mountain from the house in Maywood, where he lives by himself. He never knows what challenges will await him: eroding slopes to be shored up, rainwater troughs to be built, stray rocks and branches to be pushed aside, roots of felled trees to be hacked away. After last October's earthquake, he found giant boulders blocking the path. "Three of them, and they weighed close to a ton in all," says Zaro, with a satisfied smile. "Another man helped me use a big six-foot crowbar to pry them away."

That sort of heavy labor, he admits, has been taking more out of him lately. Sixteen months ago, while digging rain trenches, he suffered a heart attack—at least, that's what the doctors tried to tell him. "I still claim it wasn't really a heart attack," Zaro says. "My heart's always been in good shape." The doctors also said mountain work was out, but after four months of rest at his daughter Dorothy Oliver's home in Placentia, Mountain Man Zaro, as the locals fondly call him, was back on his trail. His only concession involved cutting back work to one day a week to appease his three worried children. "I knew the city of Sierra Madre would be sponsoring their annual marathon race in May," he explains. "I had to get it cleared up for them."

Over the years the mountain, as demanding as any other love object, has taken its toll on him in ways large and small. His still-muscular arms bear the scars of countless bouts of poison oak. A tiny line on his forehead is a reminder of stitches he received after an 80-foot tumble down a rocky embankment a decade ago. For the most part, though, Mount Wilson has treated him gently. He has never broken a bone nor caught so much as a cold from his hours in the elements. "That trail has kept me in wonderful shape," Zaro says. "It's given me back so much."

Ambrose, a milkman's son, was 14 when he made his first visit to Mount Wilson way back in 1914. After helping out on his father's predawn rounds one cold winter day, he boarded the train to Sierra Madre instead of the bus to school. That day he spent hours exploring the mountain, coming home to a parental scolding he was too elated to mind. As the years went by, he returned to hike whenever he could get away from his various jobs, as riveter, welder or machine-shop security guard. He married Zola Nugent in 1921 and brought her and later their children, Bill, John and Dorothy, to the mountain for picnics.

It wasn't until 1954, after a blaze had leveled much of Little Santa Anita Canyon, that Zaro realized the mountain needed him. "The forestry department closed the trail after that big fire," he says. "Put up signs that said, 'Trail closed. Impassable.' I decided to take a personal interest in getting that trail open. I went over there with my ax in my backpack and got to work." He came back the next week and the next, and kept showing up regularly. Even during the years that he cared for his ailing wife, who died after a lingering illness in 1985, he always managed the trip at least once a week. "Zola understood how I felt about it," he says.

Not everyone does. Sierra Madre residents, grateful as they are for Mountain Man Zaro, sometimes wonder what it is that attracts him to so Sisyphean a task. "It's unrelenting and disheartening," says forest ranger George Geer. "A year's work can be wiped out in one day by rains and runoff. It must be an internal satisfaction he gets from it." Zaro isn't much for detailed explanations. "I've never done this for the recognition, I'll tell you that," he says, though he has won countless community service awards and holds a place of honor in the community's annual Fourth of July parade. "I never wanted any money." So it must be as simple and unfathomable as love. "I think about the day I won't be able to get over to the mountain," Zaro says. "But as long as I can walk and shovel, I'll never retire, because I think no one will take care of that trail like I have."

—By Kim Hubbard, with Suzanne Adelson in Maywood, Calif.

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