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Al Martinez

High on a Hill

August 28, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

There is a knoll in Topanga State Park, up an oak-shaded back trail, where you can see all the way to the ocean.

If the ridgelines in the opposite direction were lower it would be possible to see the San Fernando Valley too, simmering in its own heat.

But only at night, when the reflection of its lights glows in the sky over the mountaintops, do you realize that the Valley exists at all.

There is a beauty to that too, the brush of city lights against the sky, but if you visit the knoll after sundown, you lose the ocean.

It disappears into the darkness, indistinguishable from the night itself. You can't have both beauties.

Everything is a trade-off.

In any direction, the view of the Santa Monica Mountains is visual poetry, sweeping off into the distance in a symmetry of style and balance that dominates the world from the top of a hill.

And there is a silence on the knoll as sweet as sleep.

Almost every morning I trudge up the dusty trail to savor a moment beyond the clamor, to sit where the wind whispers and the sun rises, contemplating the moments in life that gratify and threaten us all.

The other morning, with dawn beginning to break through the mist that rose from the sea, I was contemplating a threat.

I discovered a few weeks ago that I was vulnerable.

I am speaking not of career or emotional vulnerabilities, because I always knew they existed.

I'm talking about a physical flaw.

I took what started out to be a routine treadmill test and ended up discovering that one of the arteries to my heart was partially blocked.

Subsequent tests revealed it was not a situation that required surgery, at least not now, but it did demand some life style changes which, naturally, I was prepared to follow.

It's the trade-off I was talking about.

I have to cut down on cholesterol-causing foods, lose weight and start exercising, which are not requirements likely to cause me great pain.

That isn't what bothers me.

What bothers me is the very notion that I am no longer what I was. What bothers me is a new awareness of the beating of my own heart.

This began, of course, with the revelation of the partial blockage but intensified when I began taking my own pulse during exercise.

Suddenly, that beat was everything, a throbbing confirmation of life that even started pulsing in my ears at night before I went to sleep.

I felt like a player in a Poe drama, hearing the telltale heart throbbing through the house.

I knew I had to deal with that.

Part of my exercise is walking, so I took to trudging up that back trail of Topanga State Park, trying different pathways that cut off from the main route, and it was there I discovered the knoll.

The view before me was almost unreal in its beauty.

I sat on the bald knob of the hill so long the intensifying heat of the day drove me back under an oak tree.

But then I discovered that by seeking shade, I lost the glimpse of the ocean through a break in the ridgeline, and impaired that grand and sweeping view of the Santa Monicas themselves.

So what I did in that case was give up a little sleep for view.

I learned that if I got up earlier I could reach the knoll before the sun had a clear shot at it, and I could sit there without need of shade and contemplate with clarity the mist that lay like a silver sheen on the ocean.

Trade-off. I didn't need the sleep. I needed the view.

There is something about the mountains and something about the ocean that places in tight perspective the problems that whirl around us like gnats on a summer evening.

It isn't just the massive thrust of the peaks toward the sun or the almost cosmic sweep of the sea toward its own elusive horizons, but rather a quality of age and endurance that dwarfs our life spans.

Here is something vaster and grander and higher and deeper than I am, something that has lasted through the ages of the Earth into the era of its primates, something wondrous, something breathtaking.

I sat on the knoll for a long time that first day, placing against the immensity of the view the beat of my own heart, and after a while I found I wasn't concentrating on myself anymore.

The small tensions and the burning hostilities faded, if only for that moment, and I could be at peace with that finite portion of the universe, aware only of the wind that touched my face.

That doesn't mean I'm going to join the priesthood or start wearing flowers in my hair, but it does mean that I know a place now where, when I become too conscious of my own heartbeat, I can consider the rhythms of the ocean instead, and the seasons of the mountains.

That's more of a confirmation of life than I ever realized before.

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