In a wide-open grass field surrounded by trees, a majestic mountain range and the silhouette of horses crossing the top of that range, strangers walk past each other, exchanging "hellos" on a recent Saturday afternoon in Topanga Canyon.
It's easy to forget that you can stumble upon these casual, low-key moments in our sprawling metropolis, most of them played out in the nooks and crannies created by the region's canyons.
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, successfully taps into that magic in the recently released movie "Laurel Canyon."
Cholodenko, whose first film was the well-received "High Art," wanted to capture the artistic heyday of the canyon, when such artists as Joni Mitchell immortalized it in song and Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison called it home. And she wanted to capture the timelessness she felt as a kid traveling the winding road that linked the Valley and "the city" (as Valley residents referred to it).
"It had this dangerous and enchanting Land of the Lost feel," she recalls of her early impressions of Laurel Canyon.
"Then there's all the lure that goes with Laurel Canyon," she says. "I'm interested in music. I'm 38 [and] grew up in the early '70s, in that sort of folk-rock heyday. I came across a lot of stories growing up about people that lived in Laurel Canyon; the bohemian lifestyles that they lived up there. That sort of piqued my curiosity."
The days of Laurel and Topanga canyons as L.A.'s primary artistic hotbeds are gone, but the otherness that Cholodenko refers to is still palpable in the canyons.
For Angelenos who find themselves occasionally beaten down by traffic, smog or talk of war, the canyons can offer a welcome respite.
Nowhere is the feeling of escape stronger than at the Inn of the Seventh Ray, a restaurant in the heart of Topanga Canyon that's been around since 1975. A beautiful spot where diners have the option of eating creekside or in a cozy room reminiscent of a Rockwellian den, the Inn is an oasis.
Owner Lucile Yaney, a Topanga Canyon resident since 1969, has seen people seek refuge at the restaurant. One of her favorite memories is of a young law student who had just taken the bar exam and was waiting for the results.
"He showed up at our front gate at 11 a.m.," she recalls, "and he said, 'I either need to check myself into a mental institution or hang out at the Inn.' He sat at the Inn until 10 that night." (Incidentally, he passed the bar.)
What is it about the canyons, and the Inn, that can rejuvenate the spirit? Yaney, who moved here from Massachusetts' Berkshires in '69, believes it's the combination of elements.
"There's enough nature, water and mountains that there is a special feeling," Yaney says. "People get uplifted by being in the canyon and around nature."
Indeed, there is something special about hiking through Topanga State Park, being surrounded by waterfalls, creeks and the shade of trees, then being able to ease back into the city by stopping for a peaceful meal and enjoying the majestic drive through the canyon.
Scott Saul, an English professor at the University of Virginia who grew up in Laurel Canyon and attended Harvard prep school (now Harvard-Westlake in North Hollywood) at the edge of Coldwater Canyon, finds that same blend in Laurel Canyon, where picturesque scenery and history are also part of the canyon's magic.
"One interesting contrast in Laurel Canyon," Saul says, "is that it's both a nature refuge and a place of social privilege. You hear stories of raccoons drinking from swimming pools or deer nibbling on painstakingly well-tended rosebushes."
Six Ways to Experience the Canyons
Inn of the Seventh Ray
128 Old Topanga Canyon Road, (310) 455-1311
701 Stone Canyon Road,
A hidden treasure that's an elegant spot for tea, lunch or a weekend retreat.
Coldwater Canyon Park
Coldwater Canyon at Mulholland Drive. Visit www.treepeople.org for more information.
The home of many events, including summer performances at the South Mark Taper Foundation Amphitheatre and workshops at the horticultural training center. But it's the hikes that make it special.
Escape on Horseback
2623 Old Topanga Road,
What better way to see the canyon than on horse?
2100 Laurel Canyon Blvd.,
Italian dining in a cozy setting.
Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.,
New York has Shakespeare in Central Park; this long-standing haven for the arts provides L.A. with Shakespeare (and more) in a beautiful natural setting every summer.