First week -- 3 runs in the canyon, 2 on the beach, and a hike through Malibu Creek State Park.
Day 7. Sunday. A day of rest, so they say.
I head out early - well, early for a Sunday - just for a quickie, because I haven't been in the canyon in two days. I start feeling out of touch, the whole project seems kind of foggy, unreal and far away if I'm not out there almost every day. But I want to try something new, something easy, deliberately calm and meditative.
My friend told me of another labyrinth, across the canyon from the one I know so well. Sunday morning seems the perfect time to take it for a spin.
"The trail's just up the hill," she said the other day, waving offhandedly in its direction, "you'll see it."
I drive around for an hour looking for the trail head, up in the steep and serpentine streets of the west side of the canyon.
No luck. It's 9 by now, and getting very warm.
I wind back down the mountain, back across Rt. 27, Topanga Canyon Blvd, and up the hill to a major park entrance near where we're living on the east side of the canyon. It's a weekend, so I know this part of the park will by highly trafficked -- not the relaxed, contemplative labyrinth experience I was hoping for -- and I 'll have to shell out 10 bucks to park, just for a short run.
Is it even worth it today?
I get lucky and find one spot of slightly iffy - but free - street parking, only 1/4 mile outside the park. I get out of the car and clip on my running belt, which holds, for all my canyon runs: a tiny notebook and stub of pencil, my car key, a sunscreen stick, and my phone (for taking pictures). As I zip it closed the zipper pull comes off in my hand and the bulging pouch reopens itself quickly tooth by tooth. My stuff tumbles out.
With a grungy ponytail holder found on floor of car I band the stuff together inside the broken pouch. This looks very classy and will probably hold for all of 15 minutes.
I set out, walk into the park and take the first trail I see.
Within five minutes I meet two women on mountain bikes, taking a breather at the junction of several trail heads. One of them is complaining elaborately about her boss at work and the other is nodding with, it's very clear to me, feigned patience.
I pick a direction, any direction, to escape this conversation. I jog the fire road till a narrow path with no sign juts off to the right. It's rocky and mostly downhill, which means an uphill climb on the way out, but again -- just going for a quickie, so no big deal. I can walk it if I want.
A small pack of hikers appears just ahead of me, two men and a woman, moving at a very relaxed pace. They move aside to let me pass. They're stymied at a small and unmarked crossroads at the top of a hill.
"Do you know which way to the waterfall?" they ask.
"Mmm. I'm not really familiar with this area of the canyon, but I wouldn't think it's this way," I say, pointing to the right, uphill, into an even smaller path.
They head left, downhill, and I go right to be alone. Immediately I realize that this trail is much too small and untended to run, so I turn around and head down after the hikers.
I excuse myself and pass by.
"Good to see you again," they say.
And I say, "That definitely was not the path."
I pass a man, a hefty guy, who is huffing up the hill, in a heavy sweat.
After only a short while, the trail begins to seem oddly familiar; I feel like I recognize the view from here, I've seen the canyon from this angle before. The path dodges left and ahead of me the rounded pate of a white rock outcropping appears. Around the bend, there it is -- the Quiet Place. I must have entered the same trail from the opposite direction.
I wedge myself against the rock and just relax, enjoy the breeze, the echo of nothing against my ears. I'm in a tiny spot of shade and perfectly comfortable. A mourning dove calls nearby, and is answered by a very noisy, talkative crow.
I sit still and think about how - having not found the labyrinth - the Quiet Place is a gift - a lovely little sacred spot for a Sunday morning. I can rest here awhile, write a few notes, then turn around go home, not having gotten much exercise, but having received an unexpected canyon encounter.
The three hikers finally catch up, smile at me as I sit there, and make their way on down the trail. Their voices disappear as they round the next bend. Just a few minutes later though, I hear talking again, and I look behind me for who is coming next. No one appears. I wait. Two female voices, loud and clear, but nobody on the path. I scan the canyon.
Far cross the gorge, a few hundred yards, "as the crow flies," as my mom says, of pure airspace, I see two small figures on the path -- and yet I can hear every word they're saying.
The Quiet Place, it turns out, is a sort of whispering chamber.
These women are coming from somewhere. So was the large man. The three hikers are headed to a waterfall. I've heard that there's one in here, improbable as it seems, and I kind of remember, back at the junction with the complaining woman, reading a sign that listed Waterfall 1.5 Miles along one of these trails.
And suddenly, as much as I have no real inclination to run any more this morning, I also cannot bring myself to stop here, to let others do more, see more, have an experience I wimped out of having for myself. I do love a waterfall. I mean, having grown up in Buffalo, nothing compares very favorably to Niagara, but still. 1.5 miles. It's nothing.
So off I go, down into the canyon, with no idea where I'm going, no actual directions, only hearsay that somewhere along this road there's supposed to be something wonderful.
It's actually a really nice jog for a piece, and of course I run into my hiker friends again.
"We have to stop meeting like this," I say, but since they had the destination in mind all along, I trust they have at least some sense where they're headed, and I'm glad to run slowly and keep them within earshot as the path goes deeper into the canyon.
Down quite a ways, the landscape changes from dusty and scrubby to relatively verdant. A rocky creek bed runs through the gorge - though completely dry. It seems impossible that there's a waterfall back here at this time of year, let alone after several years of drought. Still, I hear the hopeful hikers behind me just as I come upon a trail marker that says WATERFALL. With an arrow.
So I follow the arrow.
Remember what I said a few posts ago about my relationship to maps? Apparently the same is true of arrows.
After a few minutes the trail I'm on somehow doesn't feel quite right -- but I followed the arrow! And I hear the hikers behind me, so this must be the way.
The path is increasingly narrow and choked with overgrowth. And by overgrowth I mean, in the main, Poison Oak. I am Very, Very Allergic, so my run slows to a walk and then to a paranoid, sidestepping, make-myself-as-skinny-as-possible, vaguely forward motion. I break a branch off a fallen tree and beat back the vines before each step. It's slow going.
It occurs to me after a bit that if those women and that big guy had been this way within the hour the path would not look like this, and now I realize, I don't hear those hikers anymore.
I am clearly not "exactly where I need to be."
What the heck? I couldn't have gone so far wrong -- did I or did I not follow the arrow? And I'm not far from the creek bed, which I feel it's reasonable to assume, should have some relationship to the waterfall. It's just over there to my right... somewhere.
The wind in the trees can sound deceptively like rushing water, and this soothing noise becomes my Fool's Gold, an auditory mirage drawing me onward. Yes! I think I hear it! Right beyond this curve.
There are definitely no fresh footprints at this point. But I'm way in. Should I turn around now and take that same blamed path in reverse, fight the poison oak the whole way back? Give up on seeing the waterfall? (Seriously though, there's no way there's a waterfall back here. The creek is dry, baby.)
And speaking of dry, I set out only for a quickie, remember? I didn't bring water and I'm getting quite thirsty and now it's 10:30 and the way out is going to be very hot. And not for nothing but I'm quite sweaty and my underwear is bunching up in a very unpleasant manner indeed.
I'd really like to hear some people about now. I'd settle for the complaining woman.
I come to an intriguing small hollow in a huge rock. There's some graffiti inside, including what I'm pretty sure are my initials.
Thanks, Topanga, that's thoughtful. Almost as if you knew I'd get lost this morning. Send me way wrong with some unclear signage and then let me know you were expecting me, Jenny Elizabeth Sheffer(-Stevens) here in the middle of nowhere. Cheers, mate.
I keep walking. Eventually this useless path dumps me off at the creek bed again, and though there's still no sign of the other hikers, I feel a bit more confident.
And then sure enough, there is a little dampness at my feet.
What? Really?! Have I taken the road less traveled and somehow still made it to the waterfall? Or the water trickle as the case may be? At this moment, any vaguely dripping geologic formation would be to me the 8th Wonder of the World.
I follow the damp ground, littered with mucky fallen leaves. The ground beneath my feet feels firm. I realize then I'm standing on... cement. I look around. The whole area is paved.
To my left, there is a faint dribbly sound and I follow it. Though there's still no running water to be found, the concrete ground is wet.
And then I see it.
Not a waterfall but a watershed. An ugly, manmade, municipal, mudslide prevention system, with a fetid pool of slime and weeds and mosquito larvae at its base.
You've got to be kidding me. Is this it? The apocryphal waterfall? Where are the hikers, those poor deceived suckers?
I leave in a huff and keep going in the same direction because I hear voices up ahead. A hundred yards later I pop out in a posh neighborhood in the Pacific Palisades. Some enthusiastic folks have just parked along the road and are applying sunscreen, donning hats, adjusting their fanny packs and stuffing in water bottles.
Almost comically dejected, I turn around and my exit is now an entrance. There's a sign at the beginning of this path that says
Waterfall 1.8 miles.
WTF? Is this some kind of joke? A koan?
There ought to be a sphinx sitting here.
I consider the possibilities:
a) I inadvertently ingested some funky mushroom spores along the path and am having a bona fide Alice in Wonderland moment.
b) I am on the set of a David Lynch film.
c) I am in an updated version of my recurring childhood nightmare, in which I find myself in the parking lot behind a mysterious building on Main Street, where the Methodist church should be; it has two points of entry both of which say "entrance only," and being a hopelessly literal child, afraid of violating any of the Rules, I realize I am stuck for all eternity, and may in fact have been kidnapped. (We can unpack all this in a Jungian context at a later date.)
Forget it. I've missed it, whatever or wherever it is or is not. The Waterfall. The big attraction.
I have no choice but to turn around and go back the way I came, though this time I follow the broad creek bed and not the poison oak path.
I'm thirsty and grouchy, and there's the thing with the underpants, but otherwise the way out is not too bad. A lot of it is shaded, and only the last part will be a genuinely hikey kind of hike. I even run some.
Unencumbered any longer by the onus of searching for the improbable or impossible -- even the remote prospect that I'll discover a big Wonder along the way -- the hike out is just an invigorating jog in the park, time to be alone, ponder something or nothing, enjoy the canyon. Somehow, a relief.
When I leave the creek bed and emerge onto the hot, sunny, sandy trail, I can see the Quiet Place across the air and high above me.
"Hey!" I say, in a normal tone of voice, just in case anyone up there can hear me.