A couple of weeks ago I drove north on I-5, turned right near Magic Mountain and continued on to Antelope Valley to wander among the spectacular fields of poppies, an hour and a half from La Cañada. Last week I drove exactly the same route on I-5 but, instead of turning right, continued on to Frazier Park and turned left. In well under two hours from the start I was on the two-mile trail to the top of 9,000-ft. Mt. Pinos. It was springtime on both walks but the contrast of what that means in places so close to each other was astonishing.
The first is a warm, gentle valley, a soft wind playing with the grass, scarcely a tree in sight, a place to spread out a picnic cloth and relax among hundreds of other visitors. Nearby, the California Aqueduct winds its leisurely way through arid hills: you're on the edge of the once-dreaded Mojave Desert, though here because of irrigation you are in the midst of lush vegetation.
The second place, 50 miles away, is the summit of a forest of big trees, steep slopes and heavy precipitation. No one else was in the parking lot when I was there, no one on the trail, no one on the summit. A fierce wind was blowing but, deep in the trees, it was a menacing roar that for the most part I heard but scarcely felt. Much of the several feet of snow that makes this area ideal for challenging cross-country skiing had melted but was still deep enough to wipe away all traces of the trail. You're higher than 98% of the world's population.
Going up was simple: you just go up. Summit, after all, means the highest point. Coming down, however, presents a maze of choices, melting snow forming rivulets diverging from each other in bewildering profusion, and going down too far on any of the wrong ones would take you into a nowhere of thick and dangerously disorienting forest.
In Antelope Valley, a major accident would have help coming from every point of the compass. "Is there a doctor in the poppy field?" a hundred smart phones would have asked and an ambulance would quickly arrive with devices needed to treat everything from back pain from bending over to look at the flowers to a heart attack from getting too enthusiastic at the sight of whole fields covered in orange.
In the poppy fields, one can imagine the sighs of contentment as the first pioneers saw open country stretching to the horizon and dinner bounding over it in the shape of a well-fed young pronghorn antelope — in the mountains, their groans as they heaved their way forward looking for a piece of land flat enough to set up a log cabin before winter set in.
From the precipitous windswept rocks on Mt. Pinos you see land so calm and flat you could play pool on it, a contrast startling enough to bring to mind the feeling that down the ages migrating tribes from cold, cloudy Northern Europe have had as they crossed the Alps and saw the warm, sunlit plains of Lombardy below. We know Napoleon and his army felt that way, looking down and hugging themselves at the thought of all those palaces and churches that could be ransacked for their works of art.
The comparison isn't ridiculous: the transformation by irrigation of the Central Valley, which grows more than half of all fruit and vegetables in the U.S. and has enriched and prolonged hundreds of millions of lives, is as much a tribute to mankind's soaring ingenuity as the most valued Renaissance art.
With all this in mind, I think it is fair to tell friends who have the misfortune not to live in California that Nordic skiing in the morning (with a possible view of a condor from the nearby sanctuary) a world-class wildflower display in the early afternoon, a walk on the beach before dinner and Placido Domingo's opera at night is a typical day here.