It's totally dark. You're in the woods camping, just you and your wife alone in your tent. Thankfully, the three party animals in the next campsite manage to turn off the stereo before passing out. You settle back and just before you fall asleep, you hear--what?--a scream? A scream! But before you can make sure, the sound is muffled by a jumbo jet screeching through the black night.
Dawn finally comes through a canopy of oak trees in the Santa Monica Mountains. You unzip the tent and look out across a gently sloping valley, see first light glance off the ridge of a distant range. The air smells fresh and clean. With daybreak, incidents of the night seem less disturbing, trade-offs attendant with the convenience of a park that is within just a few miles of millions of people.
You're staying in the newly opened campground at Malibu Creek State Park, which is only four miles south of the Ventura Freeway on well-traveled Las Virgenes Road and a scant few minutes from the heart of the Valley. You wanted pure wilderness but knew that the perfect outdoor experience is almost impossible outside of Alaska, especially at a California state park in the middle of summer. You almost expected the highway hum and the obnoxious neighbors. Even the almost incessant air traffic wasn't out of the ordinary.
But Malibu Creek is unusual, even by state park standards. The freeway provides quick access to L. A., turning the campground into a sort of budget motel for people seeking jobs or working here for a short time or sightseeing in Hollywood. State rules let them camp for 14 consecutive days and 30 days in a year.
"There's a slightly different urban mix here," says Marc McCulloch, the camp host who lives in a trailer on the campground, where campers get hot showers, clean toilet facilities and some of the best views on the planet for only $10 a night, "probably the cheapest rent you can find," McCulloch says.
For people who just want to camp and hike, going to Malibu Creek is like running out to a mini-mall. Convenience camping. Just toss the gear in the car. If you forget anything, zip over to the nearby market. Do lunch in Malibu. Invite a friend to drop in for cappuccino in the morning, when Malibu Creek becomes a kinder, gentler park.
You get out of the tent and see cars driving along the crest of Mulholland Highway, maybe two miles away. Thinking about people in three-piece suits going to the office, you sip a cup of hot coffee. A state park ranger comes by and you talk to him. He is on his way across the campground to investigate the screams you heard a few hours earlier.
"Someone complained that a guy was beating his wife," says Ranger Frank Padilla Jr., a peace officer who carries a revolver and has the power of arrest.
You ask Padilla what kind of problems he's seen at the campground. "Valley kids," he says, "underage kids drinking beer. Transients, too. They bring their problems with them, get drunk, and we make arrests. We've also had to boot out live-ins."
Padilla drives over to the campsite where the alleged wife-beating took place. He talks to the couple and evicts them from the park.
You walk through the campground. Meteor-shaped boulders guard the entrance to every site. The sun rises overhead and the summer heat comes on. Of the 60 sites, about 20 are under the cooling protection of California live oaks. The rest--most in a barren field--offer no shade, although the state Department of Parks and Recreation is considering installing ramadas over the wooden picnic tables.
You notice that the campground is mostly empty. There are perhaps six sites being used, all of them in the upper end of the horseshoe-shaped campground. Since opening May 1--after a year of delays to improve the park entrance on Las Virgenes--Malibu Creek has never been full, even on the weekends, in contrast to almost 100% occupancy at other state parks. Depending mainly on word of mouth to increase public awareness, the state plans to put the campground in the computer listings next year, meaning that reservations will be taken and the overflow from other parks diverted to Malibu Creek.
The campground sits in the southeast corner of the 6,000-acre park. The trail head for the best hiking trails are to the west about 1 1/2 miles away. You brush off the ubiquitous sweat flies and decide to hike to Century Lake a mile farther into the mountains. Despite its heavy use, the park is kept cleaner than most back yards, its sandstone walls having somehow escaped the attention of graffiti artists.
You pass through what looks like a prairie of desolation, vegetation so dry that it couldn't possibly be alive, but then you see thriving gum plants and milkweed and lavender thistles hanging from brittle branches. Life is everywhere. You look up. A plane is circling, white vapor trailing behind it. Sky graffiti. The message, probably intended for beach-goers a few miles south, says "Think Bic."
Crossing Malibu Creek, or what's left of it after months of drought conditions, you take a fire road into the mountains. The park is almost child proof. Warnings signs keep visitors on the right trails and off the wrong ones. But because of a lack of cooling ocean breezes in the summer, hiking can be deceptively difficult without water. There is a welcome drinking fountain at Century Lake.
But the lake is a disappointment. A portable generator clatters away on the shore. The state is employing divers to fix a valve in the damn. They report zero visibility in the water. You start the return trip and see a mother shepherding four young children to the lake. They are tired, hot and thirsty. You tell them about the noise and absence of ambience but they trudge on. The kids want to fish.
On the way down the mountain, three cowboys on horseback come trotting by. They are riding to Malibu Lake, "a nice, easy ride," one of them says. "You can drink beer and not worry about your horse jumping off a cliff."
You take a shortcut down a steep, narrow trail and stop at a picnic area for lunch under an umbrella of pine. You watch scrub jays fight over your crumbs. They finally leave and you hear a woodpecker in the distance, then silence. No generator or plane with earshot, nothing but the outdoors, as primal as ever.
You go home and wish the park was always that perfect. You ask McCulloch about it.
"We don't have any big problems here," he says, "and the rangers are cracking down on rowdy activity. We only want good people. We want them to get away from the city and have a pleasant experience. That's the magic of being this close to an urban area."