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Low-pressure ridge

Shake off the flatlands on the Mishe Mokwa.

October 07, 2003|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

It's elementary why some of the longest-lived folks on the planet -- Caucasus Georgians and Azerbaijanis, Andean Vilcabambas and Pakistani Hunzas -- are just settling into adolescence at about 105. These spry mountain denizens, capable of breaking into wood-chopping without warning, are under a fraction of the pressure that us lowriders are at sea level. For every thousand feet of elevation, there is an inch less of barometric pressure, so that's about a foot less of dead weight on the craniums of these highfliers.

When sea level has me in a headlock, I head for an altitude adjustment that can quickly offload 3 inches of needless, lowlife pressure: my favorite Santa Monica Mountains ascent, the Mishe Mokwa Trail. I hang a right off the Coast Highway just past Neptune's Net, that roadside shrine for Harley-riding fish-and-chip pilgrims, turn up Yerba Buena Road and get ready for liftoff. Within a mere 6.3 miles of twisting track up the canyon, it will unfold before me; flatness will be transformed to looming ridges out of some other geologic realm and the dull murk we are deluded is sky will dissolve into the real thing: a razor-sharp, intense blue I used to think I had to go all the way to Frazier Park to behold. I've punched through to some kind of parallel topographic universe, a cross between Sedona and an escarpment in southern Africa.

With the air cleared, so is my head of the extraneous circular angst swirling the flatlands. I nod to the sentinels lining the ridge ahead -- Exchange Peak, Boney Peak -- and pay my respects to the Sleeping Indian, a rock with the outlines of a Chumash man that folklore holds took this last resting place to avoid the clutches of Western civilization. These hills are alive with crags crafted by a volcano that majored in landscape art some 15 million years ago, as well as a host of flora and fauna, from the rare red shank and dudleya -- both with a talent for growing out of sheer rock -- to red-tailed hawks, bobcats and deer. It's no surprise that there's a cave down the road where Chumash hunters took shelter on grocery forays from the coast.

Mishe Mokwa has everything I like in a trail -- varied topography, shade breaks, comical formations, elevation, sweat grade (the 6-mile loop is rated "strenuous" by the National Park Service) and several payoffs, including Inspiration Point, which offers a view of the Pacific and the Channel Islands, and Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains, at 3,111 feet. The first dividend comes early, right after the steep intro, when Carlisle Canyon opens up for a widescreen pan no multiplex can match, starring assorted Zion-like monoliths and an inlaid wall of colossal stone blocks that look as if they were cut and fit by Inca artisans on growth hormone.

The scale of natural miles can restore a certain magic lost in pavementville: wonder, releasing the mind from the brainlock of autopilot to take in the bigger picture. Wonder is the doorway to belonging -- to something more than a Verizon mailing list -- and I savor it up the ascending canyon, ducking under floral archways and past cedar-like shank, lighted with tufts of lime-green cotton candy (in the spring this whole rim is bursting with wildflowers). Across the ravine, Southern California's premier acrobat, Balanced Rock, is doing its equity-waiver act. The SUV-sized stone has been dangling off a cliff for eons free of charge. There's a slice of air several feet wide between the overhanging base of the rock and its pedestal. It's always a comforting sight, reminding me that dancing over a chasm is a perfectly natural condition -- the balance of nature.

The sense of being a part of the course of natural things is everywhere out here, and that lops off a few more inches of pressure. The Chinese sages believed that there is an organic pattern to which we all fit in our own asymmetrical way, even when we lose our balance, as I once did after executing an involuntary half-gainer on the slope to Split Rock, at the halfway mark of the trail. I can see that here because, off the habitual circuit, I'm actually looking -- beyond my own self-awareness and hurry-worry's everyday surface of perception. The continuum from basalt to darting Western fence lizards is all there on the trail.

It's called the Mishe Mokwa Connector, because it hooks up with the trans-Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail, but what it really connects for me is a vast network of interior trails leading to a pulse rate closer to those senior youngsters in the Caucasus, as visualized in the payoff of this trek, Inspiration Point.

I like to sit on a ledge that juts out from the cliff and trance on the Pacific, the tidy, rolling green hills below and a world that seems perfectly ordered in its asymmetry -- when you rise above it all.



An altitude adjustment

Directions: Take Highway 1 to Yerba Buena Road, 1 1/2 miles past Leo Carrillo State Beach. Turn right and follow the road a mile past the Circle X ranch. Look closely, the parking lot is on a rise to your left.

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