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Left Coast Just Right to Enjoy Living on Wild Side

May 23, 1997|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hymon, an editor with The Times' Valley edition, has written frequently on the outdoors

There is a place in the High Sierra I've pretty much decided is my favorite place on Earth. It's a slab of granite, smoothed by water and the ages, alongside the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, not far from Mammoth Mountain.

The light up there is usually golden, the air heavy with the smell of pine. There is no noise--at least not human noise--other than the sound of the swift-moving river gurgling around boulders. Although this particular place isn't far from a popular campground, few people pass by.

What I love most about the place is that it's out there. It's wilderness. Not plugged into anyone or anything. Touched by man, but essentially unaltered.

I grew up in the suburbs of Ohio. The subdivision where I lived was previously occupied by a tree farm and a pond, but the developers and their bulldozers took care of that.

It is not without some irony that I learned the true meaning of beauty after I moved to Southern California. After all, as my friends back home in the Midwest are keen to say, our air is filthy, our cities covered in concrete like a doughnut dipped in chocolate and, despite a pleasant climate, no one walks anywhere.

What seems lost on those friends is our wilderness. In the area I define as Southern California--everything more or less south of San Jose--there are five national parks, seven national forests, the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States and, to boot, more than 700 miles of coastline. And that's only the browsing menu.

Think of all the things to do in Southern California! Backpacking in Yosemite. Kayaking the sea caves of Santa Cruz Island. Fly fishing the Owens River or chasing dorado and tuna off San Diego. Whitewater rafting on the mighty Kern River--or climbing its source, 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney. Scuba diving the shipwrecks near Catalina. Camping under the redwoods of Big Sur. Rock climbing at Joshua Tree. Skiing the local resorts, or even better, Mammoth Mountain, one of the largest ski resorts in the United States.

That's a list so short it's criminal.

Look in your own backyard: Orange Coast College has one of the premiere sailing programs in the country. Visitors to Caspers Wilderness Park are required to sign a waiver because mountain lions are occasionally seen in the area. Mountain biking in the Santa Ana Mountains and whale watching off Dana Point will leave you breathless. The surfing at Huntington Beach is some of the most celebrated, the wetlands at Bolsa Chica among the most disputed.

Think of the richness of Southern California environment--even in its sometimes troubled state.

The giant sequoia trees of the western Sierra are the largest living things on earth by volume (I refuse to acknowledge Michigan's giant underground fungus) and average 2,000 to 3,000 years old. But in the White Mountains near Bishop, there's a tree that makes the sequoias look like teeny-boppers: The ancient bristlecone pine forest's Methuselah Tree, which is more than 4,000 years old and is the oldest tree on earth.


On San Miguel Island, there's a beach where six species of seals gather--the only place in the world where they do so. The sand dunes known as the Devil's Playground, in Mojave National Preserve, are some of the tallest in the nation, depending on which way the wind blows. Speaking of wind, some people hook small buggies to kites the size of a small living room and reach speeds of 60 mph on the dry lake beds of the Mojave Desert.

Nine all-tackle fishing world records have been set in California over the years. In 1991, Santa Monica's Mike Arujo almost set a 10th when he caught a 21-pound 9-ounce largemouth bass--just 11 ounces shy of the 65-year-old world record--at Lake Castaic in Los Angeles County.

"Looked like a bowling ball with eyes," said Tony O'Connell, who helped Arujo land the fish.

On the subject of critters, bears raid backyards in the foothills of the San Gabriels, which are only 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles as the crow flies. A woman who runs a motel in Three Rivers, just outside Sequoia National Park, told me she saw a bear riding a dumpster down the middle of the street. Swears it's true. I believe her.

I rounded the corner of a canyon in Death Valley about 7 a.m. one January morning and found myself face to face with three bighorn mountain sheep, who seemed every bit as amazed as I was.

That was nothing compared to my first run-in with a tarantula in Topanga State Park. Despite being a first-class arachnophobe, I managed not to go home, pack my bags and high-tail it to the state line.

In 1995, two women were killed by mountain lions, one in San Diego County's Rancho Cuyamaca State Park. Yet, a state proposition which would have allowed the lions to be hunted was voted down the next year. It was a remarkable decision in a state where environmental brouhahas often are fought on an epic scale.

One of the combatants in those battles is usually the Sierra Club. Founded by John Muir in 1892, the club is based in San Francisco and, with more than half a million members, is the largest environmental organization in the world.

The great outdoors were not the reason I moved to California. But the sea, mountains, desert canyons, the things that inhabit them and the sunsets (of which Southern California is the undisputed champion) are just a few reasons I'll stay. Never again do I want to be far from the wilderness.

Environmentalist David Brower wrote: "[The wilderness] connects us all to each other and to everything that has come before and still lives on the planet. That is some magic, and it was formed in the wilderness."

My friends in Ohio ask, "How can you live there?"

How could I not?

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