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Where I Live by Rachel Resnick

A different drumbeat

In the wilds of Topanga, free spirits roam and nature makes the rules.

September 04, 2003|Rachel Resnick | Special to The Times

After a year of living in a downtown L.A. loft, I started feeling oxygen-deprived. I dreamed about chain-sawed trees thundering to the ground, a river of concrete flowing like lava. This prompted a trip to Costa Rica, where I saw a flock of scarlet macaws cut through the sky like a ribbon of red.

Back home, on a whim, the boyfriend bought a hand-raised baby Severe macaw. The bird was jungle green, and I was stunned to learn that macaws could live 40 to 50 years in captivity. The boyfriend and I were not destined to last so long in our relationship cage. I called the bird Lima (one who speaks), and taught him how. Soon he had a 50-word vocabulary and spoke in complete sentences.

One evening, the boyfriend and I went to dinner at a home in faraway Topanga Canyon. Bounded by Valley Porn Central to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, Topanga was a tie-dyed trip to yesteryore. Or so I always thought when I drove straight through, freaked by the crystal shops, Birkenstocks and DIY shacks. But here I was. In the heart of the heart of canyon country. Fairy lights winked from pepper trees, coyotes yipped in the hills, tree frogs filled the night with cicada sounds. There was partial nudity, homemade wine and air so delicious you could drink it -- I was spellbound. When the boyfriend and I broke up, I moved to Topanga Canyon with Lima.

In those honeymoon days, six years ago now, my jury-rigged Japanese car barely made it up the steep hill to the small cul-de-sac I live on. With Lima clutching my left shoulder, I would walk 20 minutes down the hill. Then I entered the Mimosa Cafe, which boasts a "French atmosphere," portal to this new canyon cosmos. Inside, people were throwing runes to seek guidance for their day. If the runes didn't work, a 6-foot, bald German horsewoman wearing Ugg boots and a Pucci minidress pushed psychic readings while you drank your coffee.

Lima became one of the town's mascots, along with the cafe owner's boxer, Harley. "Best butt in town," said a regular, patting Harley's prize rump. She was part of a flock of wealthy, lusty divorcees always prowling for beaus. Out on the garden patio amidst pink bougainvillea and potted palms, you could often find Drummer, smiling in his camouflage jumpsuit and bare feet, sitting lotus position on the painted wooden bench. Lethally allergic to the insides of buildings, he lived in the woods with only a tarp to his name, and crafted customized drums for a living. A light-footed hippie chick glided over when I was writing an IOU, having forgotten my wallet. In the Midwest, her name used to be Mary, or Julie, but now she was Ishtar Butterfly. "Ask for angel money," she said, waving her fingers as if to pluck coins from the air. "It's everywhere if you know where to look." Over the pastry counter, I met a man dressed in purple sandals, a purple robe and a purple cowboy hat, who told me he'd trekked all over Africa, Asia ... and "other dimensions."

On the sweaty hike back up, I would pass Grand View Drive, where Charlie Manson used to park his bus. There was a dark side to Topanga too. Sometimes I faced off with Dollar Bill. Fresh out of the clinker with only a piece of string keeping his pants up, he would walk the roads, regularly exposing himself to young canyon girls. A year later he was busted and disappeared from the canyon.

For half a dozen years, I've lived off Observation Drive in the lower level of a house. My modest feng-shui disaster zone of a one-bedroom rental looks out on leafy green Topanga State Park, the world's largest wildlands within the boundary of a major city. No house in sight. An old torrey pine grows right through the deck, dropping pine cones as big as babies' heads, and sap thicker than tahini. Aggro hummingbirds buzz the windows of my office. Red-tailed hawks soar over the live oak treetops, scanning for spaced-out ground squirrels.

Topangans seem more bonded with the environment here. We can see the stars. Comets. Even UFOs. Across the street, they have parties to celebrate the solstices and new moons. Guests bring their bongos. All are welcome. "I need a place to grow pot. How big's your closet?" asks one man, a former Playgirl centerfold who paid bills for years by supplying sperm banks. Now he lives in a station wagon with five yapping dogs. In the yard, a skinny, blond goddess in belly-dancing finery and Egyptian makeup blows a mournful didgeridoo. A man wearing only a sheepskin loincloth writhes and twirls fire clubs that blaze hieroglyphs against a moonlit sky.

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