So Close, so Far Away

All day the heat had been barely supportable but at evening a breeze arose in the West, blowing from the heart of the setting sun and from the ocean, which lay unseen, unheard behind the scrubby foothills.
—Evelyn Waugh, describing Hollywood in the heat, The Loved One

Oh summer in L.A.! The dry desert climate. Night-blooming jasmine. The dusty palms and smoggy skyline. An exodus of immaculate SUVs crowds the highways and byways, the sun stays hot and lawns go brown, and your crazy old neighbor sits in her orange housedress, fanning herself on the porch. And then there’s you, plugging away at work, hearing tales of vacations planned and gone by, family reunions and holidays spent at faraway tropical Edens. You say you’re happy to stay in town, to save the cash and get things done. But every summer season there comes a breaking point, usually after the rush-hour 405 or the 605 or the 101 has chewed you up and spit you out. When you have two cigarettes left in the pack you swore you wouldn’t buy that morning after the margarita hangover never quite went away, and the grease-bomb falafel you choked down at lunch is still playing nasty tricks on your innards, then you’ll realize you need a relaxing getaway. A quick one anyway. Because you’ve forgotten how traumatic and sweaty L.A. can be in the summer. You’re barely capable of remembering what dry cleaner you dropped your clothes at, let alone able to purchase airplane tickets, reserve hotel rooms, get a dog sitter, stop the mail and pack, for cripe’s sake. The reality of getting away on vacation could drive a hard-working, road-ravaged, bitter Angeleno to consider . . . camping.

Now don’t get all fidgety. We know you have visions of paved trailer parks in your noggin. But of course there’s scenic camping in L.A. — where do you think they filmed Little House on the Prairie and Fantasy Island? Why not set out to find a favorite getaway in any one of the Southland’s parks, beaches or forests? At $12 or less per night, a simple camp-out beats the record amounts of dollars Americans are going to dish out this summer on resorts and the like. But even more than the thriftiness and easy access of a camping getaway, there is something to be said about gathering up onesupplies, choosing a spot and setting up your things there. Your little borrowed tent, your lawn chair under the tree, your old blue Frisbee flying in the breeze . . . this is how the grown-up world plays house. It’s why we always wanted to camp in the back yard, and now, Mr. or Ms. Urban Camper, here’s your chance.

All you hear is a faraway plane, and rock crunching under your shoes, when you take the Muscke trail through Topanga State Park. This one-mile hike leads you to a tall grassy grove, where you’ll be singing the phrases of "The Sound of Music" and twirling free, Julie Andrews–style, across the rolling hills. The best part is . . . odds are no one will see you. This isn’t the most accessible spot in the world, and not a lot of people go, especially during the week. Take the 101 to Topanga Canyon Boulevard and go north to Entrada Road. Park in the Trippet lot, where you’ll find the trail-head and a box of nature pamphlets explaining the surrounding flora and fauna. Stay for a few days, or just overnight. The quiet of the surroundings will creep into your head, and you’ll wonder why you don’t do this more often. P.S. Your cell phone works here.

The same goes for the Angeles National Forest, where there’s plenty of peace and quiet, blue sky, fresh air and natural beauty — and, sans hike, it’s easier for the novice urban camper. Take the 2 freeway to Angeles Crest Highway and go 30 or 40 miles to either Buckhorn, Blue Ridge or Big Rock campground, where you can drive right up next to the site, pitch your tent and throw everything else in your lovely vehicle. This way you can "rough it" and still plug your hair dryer and coffee grinder into your car’s cigarette lighter. Some say this is the wrong way to camp. We say, with coffee in hand and styled coiffures, "You’re just jealous!"

If you don’t want to leave the city, but want your lions and tigers and bears, a dozen times each summer the L.A. Zoo’s Sundown Safari (contact Andrea Chis holm for in-formation at 323-644-4253) gives singles and families of all ages a chance to explore the park at night. These lucky campers actually pitch a tent and sleep on a grassy patch of playground in the zoo. They can see nocturnal critters that the day visitor misses. Then it’s back to base camp for ’round-the-fire stories and homemade s’mores. Let the roar of a tiger send you off to sleep, or a peacock’s caw, or a coyote’s howl that echoes through Griffith Park. The city just kind of floats away, and you’ll find yourself in the heart of the jungle. Minus the raccoons.

But we understand that you may require more physical distance between yourself and the daily grind. So for the camping recluse, we suggest Catalina. L.A. County’s only natural island is 26 long, watery miles from any general angst that may be associated with your daily routine. Away from Avalon, at the isthmus of Catalina, Two Harbors Campground is a cozy place with showers, equipment rentals and helpful rangers selling firewood. There is a small "village" with a restaurant and convenience store close by, but don’t rely on it for all necessities: Man cannot live on chili cheese-flavored Fritos alone. Pack some of your own favorite eats, and remember, it will get chilly, so bring those warmies. For more info, call (310) 510-1520 or visit

Seasick? Back on the mainland, there are Thornhill Broome Beach, Sycamore Canyon Campground and Leo Carrillo State Beach. These are some quick and easy getaway alternatives, and are accessible by car. Take Pacific Coast Highway north past Malibu and Zuma about 15 miles, to Point Mugu State Park. Although the adjacent Santa Monica Bay’s "seawater" is a bit too close for comfort here, you will escape the heat of any Valley neighborhood or non-air-conditioned apartment. Plus, you get to fall asleep with waves lapping at your toes. One word of advice: Sea gulls will eat your food. So before you leave your site to build that sandcastle, pack up the comestibles and put them in the car. The crafty sea fowl of Leo Carrillo State Beach have been known to steal an entire cooler full of beer and Trader Joe’s snacks.

Urban campers with a soft spot are needed as volunteers for this summer’s series of The Boys and Girls Club of Pasadena’s weeklong excursions to Big Bear at Grace Valley Ranch. The good people at Grace Valley would really appreciate your help. Participation as a camp counselor requires a background check and training. Not your cup of tea? No time to train? There are loads of other opportunities for good-deed doers. For instance, on the weekend of June 4, 5 and 6, Grace Valley will host its volunteer-run "Work Weekend" at the camp to prepare for the thousands of kids it welcomes every summer. (Contact Paul Franklin for information, at 909-585-7225.) So pick up a hammer. And make sure your SPF is at least 15.

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