You sit on a mesa in the Santa Monica Mountains, enchanted by the vista and wishing you had paid attention to Henry David Thoreau in school. This is everything the poets say about Mother Nature. A hawk drifting slowly in the hazy blue sky. Decaying autumn leaves adding their fragrance to the chill air. The constant sound of rushing water. And across the wooded valley below, a sheer wall of rock streaked with grays and reds. Ah, wilderness.
Then, as one of those rare transcendental moments is about to happen, a shriek shakes you back to reality.
It is a sound that probably sends a lot of small animals scurrying for a hole. Startled, you look around for the source. It is somewhere among the tangle of great oaks. And it is coming toward you!
"Bruuuuuuuce!" it shrieks again. "Bring the stroller! Billy can't walk another step!"
City folk have entered the forest.
Although not as tame as Griffith Park, Malibu Creek State Park is no longer too rugged for the weekend adventurer. Toilet and drinking facilities, 15 miles of manicured trails and difficult-to-miss trail signs have turned the 8,000 acres into a family playground less than 10 minutes by car from the nearest Valley-area traffic jam.
On a recent Sunday, grandmothers, mothers with babies, lovers with coolers and blankets and fun-seeking boys paid $3 per car to see what Los Angeles must have looked like before it became covered with asphalt and subdivisions. They came in running shoes, long skirts and white pants to hear the crunch of soft earth beneath their feet and test their survival skills. Although there are still miles of tough trails for the serious hiker, the lower elevations have been made as user friendly as Disneyland. At any second, you expect to see a forest ranger dressed as Mary Poppins.
The happy hikers began their journey in a parking lot off Malibu Canyon Road, four miles from the Las Virgenes Road exit on the Ventura Freeway. They took a winding trail under a canopy of giant oaks, some old enough to have thrown shadows on Chumash Indians a few centuries ago. Less than two miles into the park, they reached the Rock Pool and stood on the bank, admiring a steep cliff across the water. To the right, a wide gorge offered a view of the mountains that you couldn't get at the corner of Van Nuys and Sherman Way.
"It's great to get away to a place that's nice and quiet and as beautiful as this," said Robyn Kreishers of North Hollywood, who was sitting on the bank with her husband, David, and 15-month-old baby, Sean. In the woods, modern couples bring backpacks containing their offspring. Sean wriggled to get out, and Robyn hoisted him into her arms.
Across the way, five boys in an Indian Guides troop were assaulting a rock wall and whooping it up. In the shallow pond, a couple of teen-agers swam and yelled and jumped off a large boulder, ignoring "no diving" signs. Laughter burst forth from the woods. But at least boom boxes were missing. Nice and quiet?
Robyn laughed. "Compared to the rest of the world, it is," she said.
The Indian Guides called it quits. "Little braves, why don't you lead us back," a big brave said. On the way, they passed a guy in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt who was living off the land with a package of Frito-Lay peanuts. A middle-aged couple strolled by in a romantic trance. They had been on their way to brunch at Geoffrey's in Malibu when they saw the park and decided to get existential, even though they weren't dressed for it.
"I'm from Houston," said Vince Guarino, wearing yachting whites and Topsiders, "and you can't do this in Houston. There's nothing to see there. The light is diffused by the heat and humidity. Do you realize L. A. is almost as far north as Chicago? You can see colors and textures on rocks. It makes me feel alive."
Farther down the trail, Malibu Creek bends around a multicolored rock formation. On the opposite bank, Caryn Roseman, nearly hidden under low branches, sat cross-legged and sketched the scene in watercolor. A frequent visitor to the park, she comes all the way from Santa Monica, two or three days a week, eight hours at a time. And she comes prepared.
"There are no dirt bikes or violent people, but when I'm alone, I'm always wary of this being a city park, that I'm not totally away from the city," she said. "I'm always aware that these are not the Sierras."
On a typical Sunday in the fall, 400 or 500 people will ignore the National Football League and venture into the park. Aside from an occasional graffiti tableau and discarded paper products, the integrity of the park seems to be respected by most visitors.
"The rangers are doing a wonderful job," Roseman said, "but every once in a while I have to pick up trash."
There's the notion that Los Angeles doesn't have discernible seasons, but Roseman, with her artist's eye, has noticed subtle changes over the past few weeks, "yellow leaves and foliage becoming violet brown," she said.