Not long after moving to Southern California, I was late for an appointment. Late in that L.A. way, when adrenaline fuels panic and panic leads to increasingly desperate navigation decisions. I was scheduled to interview naturalists and see Cold Creek Canyon Preserve, then as now the most pristine water-shed in the Santa Monica Mountains. The directions—405 to 101, et cetera—were rendered meaningless by yet another traffic disaster in the Sepulveda Pass. So in that pre-GPS era, when the Thomas Guide was my L.A. Sherpa (I lived on page 633, A2, near Crescent Heights and 6th), I began furiously flipping through its tattered, spiral-bound pages in search of an alternate route to the intersection of Schueren and Stunt roads. Past Topanga Canyon along PCH, I turned on the biggest road I could find and ended up driving through Malibu Canyon. Or rather, gawking through it.
Although the Santa Monicas run 46 miles west, from Griffith Park to the Oxnard Plain, my explorations had been limited to a few canyons on the city side of the range. Those outings hadn’t prepared me for a genuine mountain chasm, with striated sandstone cliffs and depths of 1,000-feet-plus. I was nearly half an hour behind schedule by the time I reached Cold Creek, but arrived with a renewed calm. The patient naturalist led me on a hike to cascades and grottoes, where California newts swam in shallow pools and Humboldt lilies, shaped like Portuguese man-of-wars dangling in the broken sunlight, looked as exotic to my Chicago-born eyes as orchids in a Hawaiian rain forest. L.A. was never the same for me after that day. I still loved what the city offered, but I was increasingly drawn to the Santa Monicas, lured by the range’s hidden places. Now I live in the mountains, on a suburban street in the San Fernando Valley at 1,100-foot elevation, with a huge stand of chaparral at the end of the block. I like knowing that a five-minute walk from my house leads to trails I could hike for days. And after 14 years, I’m still amazed that I can find silence and solitude, plus the occasional courting bobcats yowling at each other, right here along the edge of a metropolitan area of 10 million people.