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It Takes Creativity to Find Remaining Wilderness in the Urban Landscape


To hear the New Age gurus tell it, finding inner peace in this world is a rather simple matter. Breathe deep. Think positive. Let go of all toxic emotions . . .

Obviously, these gurus never set foot in suburban Orange County.

Breathe deep? With all that smog? Think positive? With all this overcrowding? Orange Countians are in touch, thank you much, with a host of toxic emotions. The rush-hour drive up the 55 is enough to deliver us all to the gates of Stressville.

It wasn't always this way, as anyone who's lived here 20 years or more will remind you, ad nauseam. Orange County used to be relaxed, wide open. Children rode their ponies into empty hills of Orange. Parents took their kids fishing off the silty sandbars in Newport bay. Folks rode their horses into downtown San Juan Capistrano (back in its one-traffic-light days) for their morning cup of joe.

Today, little of that seems possible, what with all the stucco in our midst. Adventure for most modern-day Orange Countians means piling into that sport utility vehicle for the monthly excursion to Costco. Exploration? That's something you do on the World Wide Web, is it not?

It doesn't have to be this way. The county is home to oak-lined canyons, bubbling streams, wind-swept beaches and waterfalls. There's real, live wilderness out there, folks. You just have to know where to look. True, getting there might require time and effort. So does finding a parking space at South Coast Plaza. The trick is getting off our duffs and out the door.

Now hold on, you're saying. Why go out and get my Nikes all dusty when I can make like a potato in front of my big screen TV? There's plenty of nature on cable. The real outdoors? What's in it for me?

Good question, which brings us to our 10-point plan. It's a primer for rediscovering O.C.'s recreational joys, developed especially for those whose spirits could use some reviving. We omitted the obvious--tennis, jogging, golf--suggesting instead more creative pursuits, ones that might better refresh the senses and stir the soul. We believe the gurus would approve.

Without further adieu . . .

* Paddle the sea.

Local real estate agents will tell you nothing beats an ocean view. Don't believe it. Staring at the big blue is one thing; slicing through its early morning stillness in a canoe or kayak is quite another. Paddling in local waters--be it off Dana Point, through Huntington Harbor or in the shallows of Upper Newport Bay--is a delight no resident should miss. Local harbor seals might even escort you as you glide by.

Need lessons? The Newport Aquatic Center, long a training base for Olympic-bound paddlers, is a good start. Don't get discouraged by a few dunks in the drink. Even the experts take a bath in the bay once in a while.

* Snooze by starlight.

Yosemite. Sequoia. King's Canyon . . . The Golden State offers some fine camping opportunities indeed, but you don't have to drive six hours to sleep under the stars. The county has a host of secluded sites. Caspers Wilderness Park is the biggest and wildest. You might catch glimpses of bobcat, fox and deer in the early morning.

Lesser knowns include San Mateo campground, a quiet, sycamore-dotted spot on the northern side of San Onofre State Park, and the back country sites (pit toilets, no water) of Crystal Cove State Park. The latter campsites, destroyed in the Laguna Beach fires, are scheduled to reopen later this summer. Check it out.

* Cycle a century . . . or parts thereof.

This one's for you, history buffs. In bicycling terms, a century is a 100-mile ride. This century focuses on points of interest in Orange County's past 100 years.

Start at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Head up the coast to Crystal Cove State Beach to see how beaches looked a century ago. Pedal up to Seal Beach, stopping at its Red Car Museum. Fill your water bottle with milk in Cypress--formerly Dairy City, home to 24,000 cows.

Practice your German as you spin through Anaheim. Cruise through Irvine, shedding a tear for all those orange groves, may they rest in peace. Then head back to the mission to give thanks--thanks that you didn't have to ride that route on bumpy, dirt roads. Like they did a century ago.

* Go owling.

Can't tear the kids away from their Nintendo? Tell them you're heading out into the woods tonight to search for alien pods. Now that you've got their attention, grab some flashlights and head to any large field surrounded by tall trees, the roosting place of owls.

Local owl expert Susan Doggett suggests searching the ground for owl pellets--Doggett calls them "recycled mice" or alien pods--then quietly shining your light into nearby trees. Orange County's full of owls; watching them swoop in the twilight for their dinner is an impressive sight indeed. Try the eucalyptus groves by Anaheim Hills Golf Course. Beats staying up half the night to watch grunion run, any day.

* Bike the canyons.

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