By Vince Basehart
November 2 -- The Santa Monica Mountains are beautiful,
but not garishly so. They do not throw themselves at you like a
redwood forest or tropical jungle. It is not that type of wilderness.
Instead, this rugged coastal chaparral hides its delights like the
desert does. Its treasures must be discovered on foot and up close.
Late in the day is a magical time to visit. At the foot of any trail you will
find stands of aromatic eucalyptus trees draped with twirls of bark that seem
the very essence of California, but which were sent from Australia and planted
here well over a hundred years ago. Next to them, in the fall, white limbed
maple trees stand in a pile of their own, dried copper-colored leaves.
Enter the trail and hear the gravel crunch under your boots with each step.
In some places the trail will be narrow and deep, like a chute, its sides rising
up next to you, spindly brambles of scrub creating a canopy over your head.
The first minutes are steep. Step-like rises in the hard ground bring you to
a slanted, sand-strewn ramp, wide and open, that goes up and on until your heart
is pounding in your chest. The aromas from the tough, thorny, tangled plants
all around you are rich -- the smell you get from a jar of poultry seasoning.
You breathe them in deeply.
This is the kind of outdoors exercise Teddy Roosevelt preferred and it feels
If you fell off to your left, you would tumble all the way down, over boulders
and other hazards, a heap of scrapes and contusions. To your right is a wall
of exposed layers of rock which would tell a story of eons and epochs to a geologist.
By the time you’re gasping for air, the trail flattens out a bit, and
you turn around, get your breath, and take in the view.
Over that ridge the brown hills beyond could be Tuscany. That slope beyond
is hard and white and looks like the half-buried skull of a giant, patches of
scrub resembling tufts of hair.
On other hills you can make out networks of delicate tracks made by white tailed
mule deer and coyotes, stitched gently through the dry grass. All around are
networks of burrows dug by snakes and critters. In this late evening light the
clusters of silvery-grey sage look metallic.
You press on. The trail is steep once more as you move over the big shoulders
of the mountain, climbing higher. Chirping, chubby wrens flutter about, preparing
to settle in for the night.
Beside you are thickets of ancient, hoary cacti. Clusters of massive yucca
jab their thorn-tipped spires into the sky. A spider the size of a half-dollar
dangles from a web within the confines of the plants.
The minute white and red flowers creeping up through ruts in the trail and
clinging to rocks like lace handkerchiefs seem to be impossibly hardy. What
do they survive on?
Hike high enough, turn another bend, and suddenly your face is in sunlight
again, and the air swirls around you up here. A band of blue Pacific is visible
behind two hills ahead, a whole swath of it to your right.
You know you could hike further and see the whole Valley stretch out before
you but the sun is setting quickly now. Nocturnal creatures are stirring. It's
time to turn back.
The trek back down is a controlled jog down the gravel-strewn trail. Some primal
survival switch has turned on inside you. You become hyper-aware.
The underbrush around you now seems to be crawling with life. You feel eyes
of animals on you as the sun begins to set. The stick across your
path could be a rattler. You pass a bush and something sizeable
within it rustles.
By the time you reach the end of the trail and get back into your
car, it is mostly dark, only deep purple sky above. You turn the
key, pull into the traffic on Sunset, and bid our backdoor wilderness