July 20 - Canyon days - Part 4:
After the Rain
When I wake this morning, the canyon is missing.
Has David Copperfield come in the night and made it disappear?
The fog is so thick I can't see much beyond the back yard. The mist is at the window, in a thin white film. The larger window is wide open; it doesn't seem like a screen could keep this fog out, so I look around the room half expecting to see a cloud drifting across the bedroom.
It's 6:45. The whole house is sound asleep. Not even the dogs want to get up this morning. They lift their heads slightly and snuffle at me as I pad by them in my bare feet, thump their tails a time or two, then fall immediately back to snoring.
I take my coffee and my lap top out on the patio. The air is cool, and all is wonderfully still. The fog seems to muffle the morning sounds, even while it intensifies the particular smell of the wet canyon, and lifts it right up to our windows.
It's terribly unoriginal to say you wish you could bottle the scent of something, but I'm a perfume junkie, and if I could capture Topanga in a wearable fragrance I would. Two distinct fragrances, actually -- the canyon on hot sunny days, and the canyon after a rain. Topanga wet and Topanga dry. Those are awful names for perfume. How about Topanga Rain and Topanga Shine? Topanga Mist and Topanga Sun.
The dry canyon scent is warm and straw like, with notes of sand, burnt sage, hot rock, sweet and nutmeggy, like something freshly baked. The canyon after a rain smells like mud and mint, cool stone and damp cedar.
It's that minty smell that's wafting up on the fog this morning, reminding me of my run day before yesterday-
The day after the heavy rain, I venture out on an entirely new route. I don't really know where I'm supposed to enter. I cross Topanga Canyon Blvd and find a small path behind an old fence that seems to indicate it was, at least at one time, a real trail. I've heard there's a whole network of great hikes back in here, though this doesn't seem to be a major trailhead.
I come through some bushes and out onto a tawny meadow, whose color is deepened by the damp. The ground is soft and spongy, and at first the path is mostly flat, so it's very comfortable running.
It leads me gently downhill, heading south for awhile, through clumps of wet trees and brush, still dripping from yesterday's downpour, especially when I come along and disturb the birds. I'm wet, and grass sticks to my legs. This valley, on the morning after a rain, feels more English countryside than parched SoCal canyon.
The path is so pretty and feels so kind on my legs that I want to let go into an all out downhill run, but... well, I may have understated, a couple posts ago, just how deeply phobic of spiders I really am, and how it can hamper my enjoyment of situations like these. Every time I approach a cluster of trees or thicket, I stop and panic a little, my breath short and shaky. Even when I look hard, it can be difficult to see them, the large brown widows, strung on sticky webs between the trees, or the little gray spiders in the grass. No matter how careful I am, I can always feel stringy bits stuck to my perspiring shoulders, and caught in my eyelashes.
So I came up with a system. I carry a stick, preferably with some little twigs fanning out at the end, and wave it in front of me, broom like, whenever I am approaching a danger zone, bringing down webs and their tenants. I look ridiculous and feel a little ashamed that I'm not a more intrepid and respectful outdoors woman, but there it is. I'm overcoming major fear to enter the scrub areas at all.
The path winds around, still headed generally south, then takes a sharp turn right, and heads up a hill, going north. I'm relieved to be in the open, on the grassy hill, out of arachnid territory. But here the path really shows evidence of the rain. Unlike my usual path which is sandy, this trail is dirt, and I can see where little mudslides have formed. I start chugging up the steep slope, but my legs, which had been feeling so good, soon grow sluggish, and the hill feels disproportionately hard. I look ahead; it's a long way up. I take a quick breather and get on with it. Again though, right away I feel so heavy, the incline feels unmanageable.
I'm mad at myself for tiring out so quickly; why am I not in shape to conquer these hills, right out of the gate? I want to be able to hear the Rocky theme thrumming in my head every time I summit some new slope in the canyon. Also, if possible, I'd like my legs to be demonstrably thinner and stronger every day.
I struggle up the hill, increasingly annoyed because, not only are my legs giving out on me, my running shoes are caked with mud. It's not just up in the treads, but squishing up around the outsoles and onto the mesh fabric. Every time I stop to catch my breath, I try to scrape the mud off in the grass or on a rock, but it's sticky and clings to itself -- the more I gather, the more I gather. Each shoe, no lie, is now dragging at least an extra pound of soggy dirt, and its only getting worse. I keep trundling on up, but am now seriously encumbered by the mud, and my own almost inexplicable exhaustion. I decide I must allow myself to just walk as necessary. I honestly can't figure out why this run is so hard.
The route is one of the loveliest I have taken, much more out in the open, and yet the path itself small and hidden, untravelled, with stunning views from angles I haven't seen before. The air is full of the minty smell. But I haven't really been paying attention, I've taken no pictures. I realize I've been so mired in my frustration, my disappointment in myself, that I've been missing much of the beauty on the way. I stop for a few minutes and take it in.
I've come to the the top of this hill, and as I start moving again, just fifty feet beyond where I've been standing, the path very suddenly, unexpectedly comes through some trees and out onto a broad dirt road, a major artery, a well-maintained hiking trail. I have to laugh that this has been right here all the time. It must be the trail I've heard about.
People walking dogs, joggers, day hikers with little backpacks and walking sticks go by in both directions. They seem to be taking the hills in stride. It looks like a right turn will take me back to the boulevard. I pound the mud off my shoes and turn left to follow the trail up over the crest of the hill, to learn more about where it leads. But the incline proves very difficult. I'm almost forty minutes into my run, and the last 20 really wore me out. Not knowing how long I would have to keep going up in order to see the other side is too daunting; I decide that for today, I must turn for home. I'll come back this way again soon, on a dryer day; maybe take the main road first, and venture from there down into the more adventurous trails.
On the way out, there's some relaxing downhill, and then a bunch more grueling uphill before the trail finally deposits me on the busy canyon boulevard, at the "Top of Topanga Overlook," not a half mile from home. I rest on a bench at the vista point, and make some notes. I take one picture: my muddy, scratched, tired legs to remind me of this morning.
At home, I describe the frustrations of my run to Eric and the kids, and Eric comments on the sorry state of my sneakers.
I say, "Gosh, it's really hard to run in mud."
Hutch and Eric, in perfect chorus, reply, "Of course it is."
Of course it is. Of course it is! I'm not just out of shape and lazy. That muddy hillside path was a bitch.
If I'd taken the main road, it would have been a challenge, but I probably could've made it. It's clearly marked and heavily trafficked, well-drained and maintained, navigable by GPS; and it has some great views, and probably leads to some magical places I'm eager to find. It's a good road. It's mud free. Then again, it lacks some things I cherish about the way I came: the minty wet smells, the bronzed grasses, the mysterious turns, the brambles full of songbirds, even the spider webs. They're just different kinds of challenges.
I've spent a lot of time in the last few years feeling bad about myself for not being where I think I "should" be in my creative pursuits, for not making enough money, not being able to precisely quantify my work and "career," and at the same time feeling like I've sometimes been too creatively ambitious and frustrated to be fully present with my family.
Sometimes I forget to cut myself a little slack, on account of the mud.
There are, no doubt, more straightforward paths, ones where hard work and tenacity would almost certainly lead somewhere, a known goal get accomplished. Mine is a twisty, turny, spidery, sticky unsure path, uphill a lot of the way, I can't always see where I'm going, and for long stretches, my only creative output is mud pies with the kids. Oh believe me, I want the path to lead somewhere, the journey to have a destination, demonstrable results to be achieved. But if I'm honest with myself - and this is true for me, not for everyone, and that's as it should be - isn't this exactly the way I would choose again and again?
Of course it is.