By John McKinney
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“The View From Sandstone Peak”
By John McKinney
When I was 11, it was the highest peak in the world. It was a place where eagles soared, mountain lions lurked, Chumash Indian spirits dwelled. Remote it was, and regal. The great shoulders of the mountain were perfumed with sage. A crown of red rock touched the heavens. Often the peak was enshrouded in fog, activating a tenderfoot scout’s already over-active imagination. It was a big mountain and more than a little scary. During my first trip to the top I shivered in my brand-new hiking boots.
From the summit I could see the whole world: Mt. Hollywood and the Los Angeles Basin, the Channel Islands and the San Fernando Valley, the Santa Monica Mountains themselves from end to end, and much more geography that my Scoutmaster patiently helped me match to the map.
It was a cruel disappointment to me to learn that Sandstone Peak (elevation 3,111 feet) was not the highest peak in the world, or even in the Los Angeles City limits, and that I couldn’t see the whole world, or even all of metro L.A. from the summit. By the time I was an experienced 14-year old hiker and an Eagle Scout, I had climbed 11,499-foot Mt. San Gorgonio, highest peak in Southern California, and many more two-mile high mountains. More than three decades of adult wanderings took me to the tops of peaks around North America and across Europe.
As the years passed, my memory of the mysterious peak hidden in the fog, and the long trail to the top of Sandstone faded away. Only the view stayed with me, a boy’s view of a Southern California that had no limits, of a land big enough, empty enough to accommodate every dream.
It was this view, from Scout days, that I carried with me one spring day to the top of Sandstone Peak. I wanted to compare my boyhood view with a view of today. I wanted to see how my part of the planet had changed.
As I headed for the hills, I managed to make myself feel a little guilty. If I was really a dedicated and serious eco-journalist I should be back at the office and reviewing the new Mojave National Preserve Master Plan, all 600 pages of it, and contemplating important questions: Should fast-growing Las Vegas be allowed to build another airport right next to a national park? How much of the preserve should be wilderness and how much wilderness is enough? Should mining for bastnasite, along with other rare earths with the science fiction sounding names of cerium, lanthanum and neodymium be permitted or discouraged? Considering some of the Mojave Desert’s environmental issues, should we really be worrying about “light pollution” of the dark desert night?
Shame on me, I should be down in the city taking meetings not up in the mountains taking a hike. I shake off the guilt, put on my day pack. As I hike up Mishe Mokwa Trail, the soft colors of the high chaparral—black sage, golden yarrow, red shank, woolly blue curls—bring back memories as surely as faded photos.
My spirits lift as I continue up the trail. Unlike so many mountain scenes from my boyhood memory that have been destroyed by the hand of man, this one has remained intact. I pass a striking red volcanic formation we scouts called Balanced Rock and a pyramid-like rock we called Egyptian Rock. The oak-shaded path brings me to the old trail camp and the old outhouse (the historic “four-holer”) and to another aptly named rock formation—Split Rock. We Scouts long had a tradition of hiking through the narrow split in the rock. I suck in my middle-aged middle and honor the tradition.
I push on to Sandstone Peak. Funny thing about that name; the summit is actually granite.
As I scramble up the rocks to the summit, I spot a blue flag. To my delight, floating in the Pacific breeze at the very top is an Earth Day flag—a portrait of planet earth as seen from outer space etched on a blue banner.
My view of the earth isn’t quite the cosmic one on the flag, but it’s mighty impressive. To the east is snow-capped Mt. Baldy towering over Los Angeles. I can see the sandy sweep of Santa Monica Bay, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Catalina Island. And I can see the San Fernando Valley, two national forests, the Channel Islands, and of course the mountains.
My mountains, the Santa Monica Mountains.
I was born on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains; in a quite literal way, these mountains are home for me. I’ve lived in the most urban section of the Santa Monica Mountains—the Hollywood Hills—and in one of the most rural parts—Topanga Canyon.
Maybe you can go home again if your home is a mountain range. Not even the awesome proximity of Los Angeles and its hundred satellite cities has succeeded in leveling the home mountains.
A fellow’s home mountains are where he goes on his first overnight trip with the scouts, where he learns to drive a car with a clutch, the isolated make-out spot where he kisses his first girl, and later in life as a meditation site for the great issues of his day.
The Santa Monica Mountains are the only mountain range in the U.S. that bisects a major metropolitan area. Portions of the mountains are a near wilderness within an hour’s drive of eight million people. Extending along the northern base of the mountains is a portion of the Ventura Freeway, by some estimates the busiest freeway corridor in the world.
Developers say mountain slopes and canyons are ideal for subdivisions, which could be connected by a trans-mountains freeway. The National Parks Service says my home mountains are important because they’re a sterling example of a Mediterranean landscape, the only such terrain in the nation in the agency’s care.
I often take my son and daughter hiking on the mountain trails. Children talk to you on the trail, confide in parents in a way they don’t back home in the city. My wife and I remind ourselves that nature is nurture, a classroom without walls, and that even the youngest spirits sometimes need the restorative powers only nature can bring. I have no doubt that scientists will eventually discover that human nature is linked to the natural world in ways more powerful and profound than we currently recognize or even imagine.
I often walk solo, too, into these mountains to shake off my tension, to relax. Sometimes it’s the summit view that inspires me, sometimes the walk itself, but always I return to civilization with a slightly different perspective on modern life.
From Sandstone Peak, I can see my shore, the Santa Monica Bay, some 40 miles of coastline. Half mountain man-half beach boy that I am, it’s always given me a charge to look down from a mountain at the home shore.
The bay view, from this mountaintop anyway, has changed little from my youth. The pollution of the bay, the unfortunate sewage discharges, are not visible from afar. I rejoice that I do not look down upon Malibu Nuclear Power Plant, once proposed for construction in a landslide-prone and seismically active canyon just inland from Malibu Beach.
Below Sandstone Peak is County Line Beach. It hasn’t changed a bit. Oh, the surfboards are lots smaller and the radios lots bigger than their 1960s counterparts, but the vibes, the good vibes, and the waves, the good waves, are still the same.
From Sandstone Peak I can see my valley, the San Fernando Valley. It’s changed a lot since Spanish explorers walked through in 1769 and from 1969 when my parents packed up the family station wagon and journey out beyond the last citrus groves to visit what seemed like every new subdivision.
Today the view of the Valley from on high is of a 24-mile long, 12-mile wide rectangle that has been almost completely urbanized, suburbanized. The view is of an almost endless suburb, of green lawns, glistening swimming pools, imported trees and shrubbery, parking lots and shopping malls, a strange combination of tidiness and unseemliness.
As seen from Sandstone Peak, my islands, the Channel Islands—Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel—are a series of blue-tinged mountains floating on the horizon, out there in the Pacific where I want to be, 14 to 60 miles away. “America’s Galapagos,” some scientists call the islands, which are habitat for many endemic plant species and what may be the largest elephant seal population on earth.
There’s much more—both paradisiacal and polluted—to see from Sandstone Peak. I contemplate the orange cloud of mustard gas that hangs over downtown Los Angeles; it’s nearly the worst air in the nation. I look over the Los Angeles Basin and think how we residents curse the bowl-shaped topography responsible for our stinging eyes and scratchy throats. (This, of course, is misplaced criticism, like holding the shape of the bottle responsible for the quality of the wine.)
I have a condor’s-eye view of the Los Padres National Forest backcountry, where biologists are attempting to reintroduce zoo-bred birds to their rocky kingdom. I wish these flying relics from the Pleistocene era God speed and hope our efforts to save the condors from extinction are not too little and too late.
I look down on the Oxnard Plain and question the wisdom of converting some of the most fertile farmland on earth into suburban housing.
I sure like the view from Sandstone Peak, but I guess if I lived in another of the planet’s great cities, I would climb whatever mountain was nearby to get a view of the world near my home.
But Sandstone Peak is my place to view the home mountains, home shore, home valley, home islands.
The Earth Day flag flutters over Sandstone Peak, over the whole earth.
And I’m not doing anything out here to make the planet a better place. I should rush back to the office, read the gargantuan “Los Angeles River Report” and study how a river might be restored. Can the L.A. river become a source of pride instead of a dirty joke? A greenway instead of a flood control channel? Can the river banks become a lovely collage of homes, shops, paths and parks? Can the river be restored to link symbolically, sociologically and ecologically the diverse neighborhoods of the metropolis?
I really should get to those three long articles about the greenhouse effect and those books about the rainforest piled on my desk. Surely I should be back at work writing some great socio-economic-environmental-political treatise that will solve one of the great man-in-nature issues of our day and move governments to action.
No, I’ll just stay atop Sandstone Peak for a while longer, reconciling the present with the past, predicting the future from the present-day panorama at my feet.
Surely one of nature’s greatest benefits is the room, the space it gives us to think about…well, nature. Here I am at the Sandstone Peak Think Tank and Environmental Research Center. Hiking to the edge of the city and beyond reminds us that there is another way: Nature’s way.
When you’re 11 years old, you think every peak is the highest in the world. You think you can see the whole world from a place like Sandstone Peak.
Maybe you still can.
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