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Exiting the System

Used to enjoy flying, I did; enjoyed airports, even. And Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle reruns after school. Enjoyed the crude stench of diesel-soaked air overcoming me as doors from baggage claim opened into the street; the relentless repetition of Gertrude Stein’s epic “White Zone Is for Immediate Loading and Unloading” issuing forth from somewhere nearby and above but unseen as, unwittingly mesmerized by its pulse, citizens below rush all Samsonite elbows and anger into queues for tickets and gates and bathrooms; the standing-room-only waiting areas drenched in that familiar stew of fermenting Old Spice and English Leather — ungodly, sinus-searing; and the defiant snores of the exhausted who, having collapsed between stacks of coffee-stained newspapers, have missed their flights and will soon be fired and divorced.

Where once I would enjoy a half-empty flight to anywhere that would have me, I can no longer bear spending six hours listening to the Patriot™ buckled in beside me explaining why, even though I have no money, I should borrow $50,000 to invest in his inflatable-Jacuzzi company in Pittsburgh, or at least consider joining his (“Here’s my card!”) sales staff.

So I began experimenting with traveling directly upon the planet’s surface. Trains, buses, cars. Mostly cars. Half a million miles and more I’ve roamed, suffering hundreds of failed town-leaving attempts. Drove north, drove south, east, even west into the water and along the ocean’s floor, but every artery I could find was clogged with idling Avalanches, Navigators, Explorers and Expeditions. And Excursions, Rangers, Rovers and Mountaineers — all barely in motion, burning a million barrels a minute, waiting in line for refuge from each other’s presence; escaping to the same Elsewheres. The average law-breaking citizen could once shoot up Interstate 5 and arrive in San Francisco in under six hours (this at a time when San Francisco was worth driving to); the same drive today can take as long as six hundred hours, and cost an equal number of American Lives™. Gradually the citizen began to notice that wherever he drove, by the time he arrived at his destination there’d be some of the same artery-cloggers there, too. And when we returned, it was at the likely peril of meeting up with ourselves yet again, in just the same way — as toxin-spewing motorturds crawling through the desert, burning a despot’s ransom in fossil fuels for the privilege of reading each other’s bumper literature. (This week’s finest: “IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU’RE NOT THE PRESIDENT.”)

I’ve found that one of the most productive ways to spend life is sitting on a small bridge in the rain, dangling one’s legs over a stream, facing a waterfall. To spend time in such a place I’d gladly travel by air or sea, even by bus or car; by any means necessary.

But I’d rather just walk. That way I can get home in time for dinner.

On sunny summer weekends, when the sky is blue, when the winds are light and clear, when everyone everywhere is healthy and optimistic and never has to work and has plenty of everything he’ll ever need and more — on these sorts of weekends, stay away from the Temescal Loop Trail. Because all of these plenty-of-everything people are already there — in droves, if not hordes or throngs. Many of them, for reasons unknowable, are off-duty attorneys and TV-commercial directors wearing hip-mounted CD players, with headphones blasting Queen’s News of the World, Bad Company’s Bad Company, Styx’s The Grand Illusion or that Frank Stallone song from that film about John Travolta doing aerobics (can’t recall the title; forgive me). You might as well be hiking at the airport.

So go on a rainy weekday; late morning’s best. Quit your job (it’s really not what you want to be doing with your life, anyway, and the sooner you realize that the happier we’ll all be) and walk from anywhere in Southern California until you reach the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Temescal Canyon Road. Shouldn’t take more than a day and a half. Head uphill into Temescal Gateway Park via the Sunset Trail (the dirt path alongside the asphalt road and the parking lot). A quarter-mile up and off to the left, where the parking lot ends, where the foliage grows wilder and more promising, quaintly rough-hewn signage and a roll of Ralphs doggie-poo bags mark the trailhead to the Temescal Loop.

It took about 180 million years of planetary fidgeting for some nameless deposits on the Pacific Ocean’s floor to rise above the sea, to be quaked and flooded and wind-carved into what we now call Temescal Canyon, whereas hiking the Temescal Loop Trail should take no more than three hours — the same length of time most of our employers allow us for our summer vacations. Apart from the generic pleasures of escapist exercise, the Loop Trail, which comprises two subtrails — the Temescal Ridge Trail to the northwest and the Temescal Canyon Trail to the southeast — affords breathtaking views of poison oak, newts, rattlesnakes and the Pacific Ocean. Depending on your eyesight and astrological forecast, you might see mud, mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, and even stoned Palisades High School students emerging from the underbrush, reeking, asking you for directions. (Answer: just around the bend, up that way maybe half a mile, tops.)

As the term loop implies, your vacation will end at the same trailhead from which you embarked, which means you can embark in at least two directions. I prefer starting up the steeper northern route — the Temescal Ridge Trail, which ascends about 1,000 feet in the first mile. Gorgeous arcades of coastal chaparral. Incredible views of the Pacific. Just over the crest, the Ridge Trail intersects the Canyon Trail. If you’re not yet ready for the downhill, the shade and the waterfall, you can continue another half-mile along the ridge to Skull Rock, a boulder resembling no particular skull; and if, at Skull Rock, you’re still not ready to return, I believe there’s access to the dreaded Backbone Trail, which cuts all the way to Topanga. Knock yourself out.

Better yet, screw Skull Rock; head downhill, into the thick shade. Perhaps a quarter-mile down the Canyon Trail, you’ll hear — unless it’s still raining — the waterfall, and soon you’ll be there, dangling and meditating and so on. If you followed the no-weekend rule, you’ll probably have very few human visitors, and these will most likely be benevolent. Everyone seems to be friendly near waterfalls.

If you’re an experienced hiker or an inexperienced thrill seeker who’s lived a long, full life and has enough money to pay for the emergency airlift, you can lower yourself off the downhill end of the bridge and onto the rocks upon which the water falls; you can then clamber upstream to a few more waterfalls and trails to the south and east that dip down into Will Rogers Park.

After you’ve had your fill of the waterfall, the lazy green Canyon Trail will guide you gently 1.2 miles downhill through a densely wooded path along the banks of the stream. Ancient towering sycamores, oaks and eucalypti; cross-creek boulders and hopping stones; sage . . . something that looks like rosemary but isn’t . . . something else that looks like mint but isn’t . . .

And ticks. If you go climbing trees near the stream, you might, as one of my friends discovered a few weeks back, provide a last meal for some down-on-their-luck ticks, which, upon discovering, you might wish to burn to death with a hot knife or needle, or suffocate with a handy blob of peanut butter.

When you return to Sunset Boulevard, the rain will stop, the clouds will part, your shoes will dry. The sky will grow blue, the winds light and clear, and everyone everywhere will have plenty of everything. Another alarm, another traffic jam, another long, long way back home.

How to get there: Take the 10 freeway west to the Pacific Coast Highway. Turn right on Temescal Canyon Road and continue one mile to the trailhead; or take the Metro 2 West from anywhere on Sunset Boulevard to Via de la Paz and walk one long block northwest.
What to do: Hike, picnic, enjoy the view.