The Nostalgia Factory

It occurred to me as I tossed and turned in bed in the small hours of Friday morning that I had fallen out of love with Los Angeles. And so, when the only light on Hollywood Boulevard was the flashing neon of The El Capitan, I hatched a plan.

Exactly ten years ago, in May of 1997, I flew in San Francisco, rented a convertible, and drove PCH1 to LA. It was an astounding trip, punctuated by the massive evergreen cliffs of Big Sur, the lush, rolling hills of Santa Barbara, and finally, the dusty, grubby Santa Monica Range.

I drove the entire length of Sunset Boulevard that morning, both ways. Just before I made it back to the mighty, diamond-strew Pacific, though, I pulled into a park, changed into my running shorts, and went for a run.

I didn’t know it then, but I was in Temescal Gateway Park. The park encompasses 141 acres of oak and sycamore canyons, ridge top views, and access to miles of trails in Topanga State Park, Will Rogers State Historic Park, and the 20,000-acre “Big Wild.”

Which is the remarkable thing about Los Angeles. In fifteen minutes, you can be a thousand feet above it all.

Los Angeles is, after all, a city best appreciated from the heights. The constant hiss of traffic fades away. The jumble of strip malls, sun-beaten pavement and bad architecture melts into a broad, u-shaped basin that almost seems orderly. And you can see the Pacific, there at the end of it all like a great, undulating blue punctuation mark.

In the early part of this decade, I thought I might move to Los Angeles. (Perhaps you remember. The experience was captured on my most popular record, “Almost Home.”) Sure, I’d met a girl (see also “Intent On St. Paul”). And sure, I was a little intoxicated at the prospect of being some sort of Hollywood player. But moreover, it was the natural beauty of the place that got me. And it all began that day above Topanga.

And so, mere moments after Paris was sentenced, I headed north on 26th. I turned west on Sunset, and followed it winding through the manicured but mudslide prone hills of Bellaire. I was on autopilot now, blindly feeling my way towards the coast. I knew I’d know the park by site, but in rush hour traffic, and with a plane to catch, was worried I end up in Malibu.

I get this feeling often that I know where I’m going, but I’m lost. Invariably, then, an internal monologue begins. “Turn around; you’ve gone too far,” is followed rapidly by “Trust me; we’re almost there.” And invariably, I push onward. And — as was the case tonight — find myself exactly where I want to be.

I stepped out of my rented Mustang, changed into my running shorts, stretched, and then headed for Temescal Ridge Trail. I jogged at first, my calves straining against the steep incline. Within seconds I was struggling for breath. The trail looked familiar. I pushed onward, trudging slowly up the mountain.

Perhaps it was dusk’s shadows, but the hills felt haunted. I heard voices, whispers. A dog barked in the distance. Then a rustling in the underbrush.

I had two worries.

First, I kept hearing the replay of my beloved sports doctor, triathlete Mark Klion, after last fall’s knee injury. “You’ve definitely increased the likelihood of rupturing your quadriceps…”

Second, I remembered the helicopter rescue Stephanie and I had assisted just a few miles north of Topanga a few years prior when young mother had twisted her ankle. I carefully considered every step.

The air was dry and cool, and smelled at once sweet and pungent. At points, bushes and small trees grew over the trail, creating long, dark tunnels of branches and thorns. Soon, the switchbacks became less frequent, and the vistas more spectacular. Santa Monica lay just below, Venice and Long Beach further on. A 747 lumbered out of LAX below me, looking as if it might fall from the sky. To the east, I tracked Wilshire clear to downtown, spotting Nakatomi Tower (Actually, Fox Plaze, 20th Century Fox’s headquarters) through the haze.

Soon, though, my quads and calves were burning. And though I was cognizant of time, and the setting sun, there was plenty of mountain still above me. And so I began walking. In slowing down, I began to notice details I had missed: Tiny flowers, a bird on a branch, small clicks and pops in the wind.

At the summit, I paused, spun around to take it all in, then stared into the sun. My heart settled, my head cleared, my soul saved just a little bit, I pointed myself downhill and began heading home.

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