Beauty is only skin deep, they say, and last week I had a horrifying confirmation of it. I was on my usual hike in the Angeles National Forest along the dirt road to Mt. Lukens. For a mile or so the road is within a bowl of mountains of steep slopes, bare peaks and narrow gullies. You are in a different world from the busy urban scene you left just a few minutes before.
A mile and a half from the trailhead you come to the overlook where I turn around and, though I’ve done it literally a thousand times, my senses always quicken as I take in the view. A huge sweep of Southern California is spread out in front of you: from the mountains and headlands of Orange County, past Catalina Island and on to the mountains near Santa Monica.
On that day there was an extra thrill: a thousand feet below was a layer of gossamer clouds, orange tinted from the early morning sun. It stretched to the horizon under a faultless sky on a warm and windless morning, the kind of occasion that the word “ethereal” was invented for: in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “something extremely delicate and light in a way that seems to be not of this world.”
But, as another old truth has it, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At that very moment Kobe Bryant, his radiant 13-year old daughter and seven others were preparing for their fateful journey through the very scene that lay in front of me.
For them those surroundings proved to be not ethereal at all but a soggy, cold, all-enveloping — and, as it turned out, lethal — gray mass. I don’t think I will ever again see cloud cover from that viewpoint without thinking of the Bryant party and how close they all came to going home safely on that otherwise beautiful Sunday morning.