Vacation enables reconnection with people, land

John Pepin

“Down on the coastline, Highway 1, people headin’ out for the sun. That’s where I found you, long time ago.” — Neil Young

With the terrible news of tremendous fires blackening thousands of acres of the Golden State of California, we circled high above the flames, eventually finding our way down to earth in La Ciudad de Los Angeles — the City of Angels.

Here I would spend a few days returning to old haunts, climbing the rugged heights of the San Gabriel Mountains, combing the sunny beach at Malibu and walking around Mount Hollywood on a beautiful late afternoon.

I would also reconnect with dear people whose company, faces and kindness I have missed.

There were also a few people I met for the first time. One was a new traveler on this walk of life — a rare beauty just six weeks into her journey, but seemingly already old enough to hold the heart, soul and meaning of the whole world in her blinking blue eyes.

The biggest of the fires was burning off to the west, up the coast, with the smoke billowing high into the sky blown out over the Pacific Ocean by the Santa Ana winds.

These winds stoked the blazes threatening southern California — from Santa Barbara to San Diego — as they picked up speed and heat as they rushed down through the mountain passes from the high desert.

At the mouth of Big Tujunga Canyon, near Sunland and Shadow Hills, I stopped to see if canyon wrens that were nesting here among the cholla and prickly pear cacti in the late 1980s were still around.

The flames of the Creek Fire had clearly rushed through this area over the past couple of days. Much of the ground was ashen and the desert-type plants — from the smallest cactus to the tallest agave — were scorched.

I found no wrens, but I did see some fresh nests had survived the fire. The blaze destroyed dozens of homes, killed and consumed horses at a nearby ranch and forced people, like the wrens, to flee their homes.

In all, the fire had charred more than 15,000 acres.

A couple of days earlier, when the fire was raging, I was high up in the hills above the blaze, watching the boiling clouds of smoke from Mount Wilson. In the shadows of the observatory and the telecommunications towers, the gravel there was painted pinkish-red with flame retardant dropped a season ago from a firefighting aircraft.

The forests here were tinder dry, with no real rainfall recorded in the area for several months.

At Chilao Flat, a trickle of water dripped from a spout into a catch pan. The sound of the water attracted numerous species of birds. I made a short video showing the pygmy nuthatches, mountain chickadees, lesser goldfinches and an oak titmouse that allowed me to approach closely.

White-headed woodpeckers were also here, beautiful birds I had hoped to find on this trip. They too were old friends whose faces and company I had missed. At least half a dozen of these birds flew between the water and the Coulter pines.

I also found Steller’s jays, white-crowned sparrows and clown-faced acorn woodpeckers, while a short distance away, Lewis’ woodpeckers and phainopeplas flew between the trees.

Higher in the sky, a roaring fire plane banked to the south, heading back to the Creek Fire.

In the background of the video I made, behind the soft chirping sounds of the birds, the sound of the winds rushing loudly through the pines is heard — a haunting reminder of the danger below, belying the beauty and wonder of this mountain oasis.

The next day, the scene at Malibu Lagoon also appeared far removed from the blistering flames of the fires ravaging the coastal communities farther north.

Royal terns laid on the beach watching beginning surfers learn to ride the waves, with snowy egrets standing nearby. Red-breasted mergansers and western grebes dove for small fish with snowy plovers on the beach, peeping and running in short bursts.

Just looking at the sky and the sea made the day warmer. The water was cold and refreshing. Nearby, at Point Dume, the seascape was breathtaking. Hiking high above the green ocean waves splashing along the shore I made another video.

The scene is very relaxing to watch. It appears to be in slow motion, but it isn’t.

On the final day of my short trip, we brought the infant traveler — my precious granddaughter — to the zoo. However, she was more interested in eating and sleeping than watching the peeing kangaroos, bored monkeys, humping gazelles and other animals we saw there behind cage bars.

Afterwards, I took a walk at the Griffith Park Observatory, the site of the filming of numerous motion pictures from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “La La Land.”

Like the birds at the water drip, countless people were drawn to this place to take in the scenery, the science and the setting sun. Their widely diverse languages filled the air like the songs of birds, captivating to hear.

Narrow stone stairways lead to the roof of the observatory where the city and the ocean are laid out before you, while the Hollywood sign stands on the hills behind. I had my picture taken at the bust of James Dean.

With the sun going down, and the sky lit up in a tremendous pallet of colors, much of which could be attributed to sunlight hitting the fire smoke in the air, I recalled an old Neil Young song, walking down the winding road back to the car.

“I remember long ago, how I wondered where I’d go. While the blizzards, cold wind and snow, pounded outside my window. California sunset, going down in the west. All the colors in the sky. Kiss another day good-bye.”

Twenty-four hours later, I would be in plane touching down on a snowy Upper Peninsula runway. The temperature outside was 16 degrees, with gusting winds and snow, the warmth of that California sunset and the friends I’d left behind still in my mind.

Walking through the jetway, the cold air rushed around my body. Feeling for the car key, the airport doors slid open and I ducked out into the nighttime.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the DNR on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.