There was no parking at the trail, so we had to park at the bottom of Beechwood Drive and walk a mile and a half up a steep street before our feet even touched the dirt. By the time we had the sign in our sights, she was complaining about the heat, about her shaking legs, and we still had nearly two miles to go. She cursed at me, told me she hated me and would never hike with me again, and when I gave her the opportunity to give up, she relented and carried on.
To distract her, I told her the story of Peg Entwistle, the Welsh actress who jumped to her death in 1932 because of her failed movie career. After working on Broadway, then following her fancies of becoming a movie actress, she was finally awarded a part in a Hollywood film. Her part was eventually cut, and days later, she took a walk up to the crest of Mount Lee, climbed up the workman’s ladder to the top of the H, then after looking down at the city that deceived her, that devastated her, she jumped.
“That’s sad,” my daughter said. “Why did you tell me that?”
“Because it’s history. And it’s a good story.” Still, I wasn’t able to elicit even the slightest smile.
When we reached the summit, we were yards away from those forty-foot letters that looked down at the city below landscaped with dreams and delusions and glittery stars on the Walk of Fame. I expected to see my daughter gasping, sweating, out of breath, but she was smiling and taking photos of the panoramic views.
“What a beautiful place to die,” she said.
“And an even more beautiful place to live,” I said, thinking that perhaps if Peg Entwistle had spent a little more time on the top of Mount Lee, ruminating on her life instead of plotting to end it, she would have eventually found a different perspective and maybe wouldn’t have jumped, since many problems are solved at the tops of mountains.
There’s something inherently enchanting about being in nature, even if it’s only steps away from one of the world’s most bustling cities. The sounds, the smells, and especially the visual beauty of the scenery temporarily detaches you away from your problems, and a gives you new life, new breath.
I recently had lunch with a friend from Kenya who owns a safari camp outside of Nairobi. I divulged that I had always dreamt of going on a safari and how there was something so raw and romantic about being amongst the most wild of beasts, communing with nature at its very core, seeing a glimpse of the wild beyond the veil of a television screen.
“If you come to Africa you’ll get an innate sense of who you really are,” he said to me. “That’s why people love to visit.” He then went on to explain that according to his beliefs on evolution, (and recent scientific research) we are all descendants from fifteen original humans who once walked the jungles and plains of Africa. “That’s why so many people feel a deep connection to the place,” he said. “Especially those with an open heart and an open soul.” According to him, whether we want to admit it or not, it’s our ancestral home. Everyone’s.
Neitzsche once said, “Invisible ties are our strongest threads.” Those original threads were first spun millions of years before us, branching out into a beautiful web, dispersing the ethereal chord to the far corners of the planet, changing shape and color. We are all still connected by those invisible ties, yet somehow along the way, we started to fight that, we tried to create webs of our own, and that was when the intolerance began.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I despised being in the wilderness. I loved the concrete and the chaos, the crowded bars and bistros and beaches. They were a distraction from the inevitable task of looking into my soul, of figuring out what was innately wrong so I could work on it, fix it instead of drowning it out with the noise of a clamorous city. And it worked, but only for a while.
After I had kids I moved to Pacific Palisades, up a canyon with trails teeming with asters and golden yarrow, creating a fairytale-like path through the pass. And my first few years living there, I took advantage of none of it. Once I walked with my newborn through Will Rogers Park and I had a panic attack, thinking a mountain lion was going to come after us. Even the idea that snakes were hiding in the bushes was enough to paralyze me, let alone actually seeing one.
Once, when motherhood, wifehood, divorce and a lack of freelance work overwhelmed me, a friend suggested I sit somewhere in nature for an hour every day for seven days. I don’t have time for that, I told her who does? And I refused at first, but then, my desperation for a quiet mind and a quieter life won out and I took her unusual advice. The first two days, I sat at the beach hoping for nothing to distract me but my own mind. But it’s nearly impossible to find a deserted beach in LA County. So on the third day, I took it to the mountains.
It was unsettling at first, but I soon fell into the rhythm and the spell of the wildlife around me – the songs of the magpies and goldfinches lulling me into a state of repose – the sweet scent of the sage and the horse droppings as they dried up under the chaparral sun. It was there in the hills where I first learned to meditate, the first time I was able to quiet my mind and feel at peace. Since then, whenever I’m stressed or upset or if I’m simply having a bad day, I retreat to the mountains just outside my front door and hike to the summit so I can look down at the city below where I left all my problems. It’s a little like being an omniscient narrator, it separates me from the story, even if only temporarily.
For me, hiking is more than a rigorous form of exercise, it’s a moving meditation. There’s nothing more calming, more reflective than climbing the gradients that were once tramped by deer and coyotes and mountain lions and possibly Native Americans. There is no one next to me competing to lift their leg higher or dip their squat lower. Up in the mountains, there’s an equality that isn’t felt anywhere else in the city. Instead, every living thing is perfect.
Hiking has not only become an essential form of exercise for me, it has become my salvation. When I hike, I understand what my friend from Africa was talking about. No, the Santa Monica Mountains are not the Masai Mara or the Serengeti plains, it’s an oasis secluded from the urban jungle below, and it’s there where I feel I can truly be myself. The coyotes don’t care what car I drive, the cougars up there don’t wear Jimmy Choo. In the mountains I feel connected, even to my fellow hikers, by that invisible thread Neitzsche spoke of. I no longer jump at the sight of a rattlesnake, I no longer scream when I see a tarantula. Up there, three thousand feet above the Pacific Coast Highway speckled with rush hour traffic, beyond the screen of smog settling over the views of the valley, we are all one and I feel it, strongly.
The Santa Monica Mountains Recreational Area is the world’s largest urban park. It consists of over 153,000 acres that houses a diverse array of flora and fauna and stunning views of the city of Los Angeles and the California coast.
The following is a list of resources on interesting, off the beaten path trails and advice on how to hike safely: