The Last Rodeo

After a five-year battle with the state parks department to stay where they are, the last dozen or so Lower Topanga holdouts faced their final eviction on January 31 by partying like there’d be no tomorrow.

I wandered down the hill to poet/artist and party host James Mather’s notorious Rodeo Grounds compound just before 8 o’clock Saturday night. The party was already jumping. An artist and Lower Topanga fixture who calls herself Crusty Soup greeted me at the gate with dilated pupils and silver fairy wings.

I wandered over to a Lower Topanga stalwart dubbed Toilet who was wearing his best thrift-store suit and charcoal around his eyes.

“Are you under the influence?” I asked, because with Toilet you never can tell.

“I dropped six hits of acid, but otherwise I’m totally sober.”

Various DJs set up camp in front of the art studio, which was kitty corner to the makeshift bar, taking turns spinning on into the morning while throngs of revelers tripped and wiggled under a hundred million tittering stars.

Lower Topanga is composed of about 1,700 acres of land that extends from the Pacific Coast Highway two miles up into Topanga Canyon. For decades, the Los Angeles Athletic Club owned the land, considered unsuitable for development because it lies in a floodplain, and leased low-cost homes to a thriving artist community. The parks department purchased the parcel in 2001 for a mere $48 million, ostensibly to return it to its natural state, and the eviction process began. Many here call the plan to restore Lower Topanga ludicrous (about 80 percent of the existing flora is scheduled to be exterminated) and insist something more nefarious, like eventual commercial development, is at work.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the air of an era’s end, the compound was packed. I’d never seen so many people at a Rodeo Grounds party (and I’ve seen some doozies). There were kids and old people and fancy people and fuckups, hippies and lawyers and trippers and artists and Creek rats and surf bums and suits and pond scum. No one lost his or her shit. Everyone was happy.

Some of us were huddling in the kitchen, giggling and gnawing on dried mango, when a dark and handsome young man wearing a yellow hooded sweat shirt and an extra-wide grin approached us. He slipped a bottle from his pocket and asked us if we wanted some acid. When questioned about the ubiquity of LSD at this party, Handsome went on to explain that because we Earthlings are in desperate need of some higher vibrational downloads, the FDA was loosening up its restrictions. I was about to challenge Handsome’s theory when a man wearing a black suit appeared, presented me with an outstretched deck of cards and proceeded to wow us with his sleight of hand.

Hours later, while taking five beneath the spiky fronds of a yucca tree, Mr. Magic again approached me.

“I just washed my hands. Can I touch your teeth?”

Frolickers were still arriving as late as 3 in the morning, reporting an endless stream of parked cars winding their way up the canyon, and not just rusted-out Volvos and dented VW vans — new cars, fancy cars, luxury cars, gleaming SUVs.

The band, four young guys called the Animatronics, set up their equipment under the arundo arch, where the ghost of James Mather’s Airstream loomed sad and sentimental. The Animatronics jammed their instrumental grooves into the chilly ocean air.

At 6 in the morning, the Animatronics were still blowing everyone away, the DJ was still spinning and the revelers were still reveling. People bundled up in twos around the fire, coming down, cuddling, trying to warm up, not wanting to leave. The woman next to me, a local with wild red hair and a satin striped djellaba, caught herself mid-laugh as she squeezed my waist and rested her head on my shoulder.

“I’m having so much fun, I almost forgot this was a wake.” —Dani Katz

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