Mountains Among Us

Paul Haddad is a freelance writer and TV production executive in Los Angeles.

I met a woman in 2000 who had been living in Los Angeles for only a few years. A Philadelphia native, Suzie hadn't planned on staying, but she got caught up in an unexpected love affair with the local topography. "I love to hike," she said on our first date. "Now that I've been living here awhile, I don't see how I could live in a city without mountains."

Telling me this was like someone confessing to being ticklish. I felt compelled to exploit it. Subsequent dates followed, many of which, not coincidentally, took place in the Santa Monica Mountains. On a picnic in Franklin Canyon, I made sure to set up near a cluster of trees with yellowish-green leaves. After lunch, I reached into one of the trees and came out with a handful of California black walnuts, using a rock to smash open their hard husks.

"Dessert," I said.

Suzie tried one. Her eyes lit up. "These are better than regular walnuts," she gushed, cracking one open herself. "They're softer and don't have that bitter aftertaste."

I had scored my first points. That afternoon, as we left with a baseball cap full of wild walnuts, I silently thanked L.A.'s very own mountain range for lending a hand in a potentially blossoming love affair.

As a native of these parts, I appreciate the uniqueness of the Santa Monica Mountains. They're the single reason Los Angeles is home to the largest urban wilderness in the United States. In fact, L.A. is the only city in the world divided completely in half by a mountain range.

But maybe "divided" isn't the right word. It implies that the mountains form some sort of natural Berlin Wall, separating people against their will. Like a giant magnet, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area pulls in millions of Angelenos a year, luring them with an almost embarrassing wealth of natural riches. They're where a wilderness-seeking, material-weary city turns for hiking, running, camping, fishing, picnicking, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, dog walking, bird-watching, navel-gazing or, in this case, romancing.

On our next date, Suzie and I headed back to the hills so she could forage for plants to use in her recipes. Hikes took on a scavenger hunt quality as we looked for wild mint for her Moroccan chicken or bay leaves to put in her famous spaghetti sauce. She collected fennel buds and sprinkled their dry seeds over salmon. Once, while camping near Point Mugu, we found a patch of sage and started our morning with hot sage tea. For Christmas, of course, we decorated the table with toyon berries--the holly-like berries from which Hollywood supposedly derives its name--which conveniently bloom in December.

That winter and spring, we made it a goal to visit as many Santa Monica Mountain waterfalls as possible. Santa Ynez. Check. Escondido. Check. Zuma Canyon, La Jolla Canyon, Circle X Ranch Grotto. Check, check, check. Along the way we discovered new falls, such as the seasonal 20-footer that's tucked away in Bronson Canyon a few scant miles from Hollywood and Vine. (After this year's record rainfall, we found it raging with full abandon.)

For Valentine's Day, we rented horses at Sunset Ranch at the end of Beachwood Drive and embarked on the ranch's famous dinner ride, a 90-minute group lope through Griffith Park that begins at sunset and ends at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank. After steeling ourselves with a couple of the house specialties and margaritas, we climbed aboard our horses for the moonlight ride back to the ranch. Fortunately, the horses knew the way.

Suzie's birthday falls in mid-June, the end of spring wildflower season. I knew I could find California poppies at Mulholland and Laurel Canyon, Jupiter's beard above Lake Hollywood and wild sunflowers in Cahuenga Pass along the shoulder of the Hollywood Freeway. By the time I presented her with a bouquet, I had accumulated more than 12 types of native flora.

"These are great!" she said, breathing in some California lilac. "Nice to know you think I'm worth the risk!"

"Risk?"

"It's against the law to pick wildflowers. Didn't you know?"

I didn't, but by then I would have stolen Ft. Knox for her if she had asked. Suzie's shared appreciation for the bounty of the hills brought out the hopeless romantic in me, and I never worried that she thought I was too hokey. The Santa Monica Mountains had been a touchstone for our entire first year as a couple. Our mutual admiration for the mountains transcended the mountains themselves, and we married a year and a half later.

Home these days is in the mountains on a hill overlooking Griffith Park. On weekends, we take our 15-month-old daughter on hikes to the Hollywood sign, and at night, coyotes serenade us. Entire symphonies of them have emerged as major events at our house as we find ourselves racing outside to enjoy the show. Sometimes, when the moon is full, we can make out their profiles on an adjacent bluff, striking a classic pose as they howl against the pale night sky. Lifting their heads toward the heavens to wail their haunting cries, they remain the most direct sensory link to my childhood, when the most chilling sound in the world was waking in the dead of night to their frenzied yapping (and the occasional sound of a feline meeting its tenth life).

But now, listening to them as an adult, I hear a clarion call to a restless city's lost soul--reminders that it is, at its core, still a wilderness, both divided and held together by its signature range. With any luck, my daughter will grow up to connect these same hills to some milestones of her own. The coyotes already are leaving an imprint that will keep her connected to the past. Maybe, like for her dad, the Santa Monica Mountains also will be her first true love affair, and play matchmaker for her second.

John Muir once wrote, "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." My family is living proof of that.

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