Happy In The Hills

Hello Everybody,

I’m 38 years old and I sleep on the floor of my friend’s home office…

That’s what I’ve been saying to myself in the mornings, lately, as I birth myself out of the rolled out mat and sleeping bag I call a bed. The phrase means something different every morning. Sometimes I love, it. I’m free of a whole bunch of Things that I don’t really want anyway, I’ll say with my head high. Or I’ll say something like, Jeez, I’m 38 and I sleep on the floor, got no real job, no wife, kids…did I do it all wrong? But most of the time it’s a little of both, and whether I’m free or delusional, on a path or totally lost, everyday seems to be pretty swell. I work hard when I got work. When I don’t, I write, play guitar, see friends.

Awaiting the feast.

Awaiting the feast.

I’ve also been hiking a lot in the hills behind the Griffith Park Observatory. I usually take the main trail up to the observatory, then a trail up to the hill’s peak, behind it. But last Friday, after entering the park, I went further up the main road, looking for a  different trail. I found a service road that wasn’t off limits. At its entrance stood a sign warning hikers to watch out for mountain lions.

I proceeded up the dirt road, hesitantly. Soon, the road dissolved into a trail. I’d yet to see any other hikers on the road, which concerned me. My eyes darted toward every little rustle of leaves or breaking of twigs. I know mountain lion attacks were very rare in the park, but for some reason, at any moment, I expected to hear the roar, turn toward the roar, see the fangs, feel the fangs tearing into my neck just before the Big Light went out. I stopped in the middle of the trail for a moment, debating whether to go back to the main trail. There was no City then. All around me were high hills. No sign of man. It was sunny and warm, but clusters of high light clouds covered parts of the sky. The tempurature would drop by several degrees when a cluster of them would pass between me and the sun. Hot, cold, hot, cold. I floated in the middle of the trail, park, world, for a bit, inclined toward no direction whatsoever, until another human appeared. A short Latino fellow was taking long strides toward me.

“You going up?” he asked.

“It’s OK to? It’s a trail?”

“Si, yes.”

20131204_132900I started walking again and by the time the man reached me we were walking at the same speed. Gradually, the trail grew steeper, with more curves. He took deep breaths, leaned into the incline, used his arms to propel the rest of his body. I did the same. At one point I turned and looked down. The City looked like a circuit board spreading clear out to the Electric Yellow-Blue Water of the Pacific Ocean. Up ahead, a flock of buzzards circled over something dead. On the edge of a cliff, even higher than the buzzards, was the observatory, shining white like some lasting monument from Antiquity.

“I take this trail,” said the man. “Most times. But I take one there,” he pointed to the right, toward the main trail to the observatory. “Or I take,” he pointed to the left, “that one way over there by the big sign…” he held his arms out wide, “…the Hollywood sign, you know.”

“Yep.”

“I like to go before work. Like to sweat before work.”

“Where do you work?”

“A liquor store. Down on La Brea.”

“Gotta work the whole weekend?”

“Si, yes.”

“I bet it gets crazy on the weekends, huh? The liquor store?”

“Oh, is crazy. Is crazy all the time.”

“What’s your name?”

He wiped his hand, held it out to me. “Felix.”

We shook hands. “Todd.”

“Nice to meet you, Todd.”

“You too, Felix.”

20131204_133742By now we’d reached the steepest parts of the trail, a switchback winding further up. I was sweating pretty good. So was Felix. For a long time all I heard was our breath and footsteps.

“You from here?” Asked Felix, as we neared the peak of the hill.

I shook my head. “Texas.”

“Oh, Texas. I come up from Texas. From Mexico. Through Juarez, to here. Long, long way.”

“Yeah.”

“You go home a lot?”

“When I can. I just did for Thanksgiving and will probably get down there around Christmas. Where is home for you, in Mexico?”

He held up two fingers. “Two hours from Mexico City, west. On the coast.”

“That’s cool.”

“Si, yes.”

“You get down there often?”

“I try. I come here. Work. Go back. Work at the liquor store. Or restaurant, or where I can. Then go back. I like it here. I like it there. Both places I like. But back there, I play music, you know, in my town.”

“Mariachi music?”

“Si, I don’t work, I just play.”

“That’s great.”

“Is good. Just the music.”

“You play guitar?”

“Si, yes.”

“So do I.”

“That’s good. You working here? In LA? That why you stay here?”

“Yes and no. I work when I can get it. But I’m just living here, too.”

“What do you do?”

“Build stuff, carpentry. It’s good. I don’t have to work all the time.”

“That’s good. No one should work all the time. Or too hard, you know. Everyone should be, like…happy, you know.”

“Yep.”

We’d reached the peak of the hill.

“Well, I go back down. To work. Buenos dias, have a good day.”

“Gracias, you too.”

“Si, yes.”

Felix jogged down the trail leading to the observatory which stood on a ledge below us. I walked around the peak and took a trail on the northern line of the hills, facing the San Fernando Valley.

I ascended a peak that gave me a nearly complete view of The Valley, another vast urban sprawl, stretching all the way out to the Santa Susana Mountains to the north. Another circuit board. Traffic flowed down the Ventura Freeway like blood through a vein. The faint roar of tires on asphalt reached me. It all looks so easily comprehensible from up here, I thought. Then I thought of something a friend of mine said earlier in the summer, “I’ve been all over the world, you know, but I couldn’t find my way out of the San Fernando Valley back I was drinking. My world was so small back then. Funny how you can get lost in small places.”

20131204_134152I turned around and began my journey back to Hollywood. It was only 3pm but the sun had already begun its race to the horizon. I was still sweating but would feel the chill when the wind came.

Joggers huffed and puffed up or down, there were a couple of horse tours, solitary dog walkers. I meandered most of the way down, thinking about nothing or a million things all at once, enjoying the onset of comfortable physical fatigue.

About halfway down, I saw a trail below the one I was following. I descended through the bramble toward it, jumping through bushes and across the old stone aqueduct that squiggled down the hillside. The same buzzards were high above but I never smelled anything dead. All around me were the cracking of twigs and the rustling of leaves but I wasn’t worried about any mountain lions. Usually it would be a couple of birds pecking around that would fly off when I approached. Moments after I’d made it to the trail, I was winding my way through the lawn near the entrance to the park.

Metaphorical, somehow...

Metaphorical, somehow…

I got home, ate a sandwich, sent out some inquiries for work, then played my guitar well into the evening. Later that night, I unrolled the mat and sleeping bag and lay in the darkness. The police choppers were flying lower than usual, probably chasing someone desperate enough to commit some crime. As I listened to the thwump, thwump, thwumps of the chopper, copious black globs of fear and doom floated just above me like a mobile over a baby’s crib. The urge to reach up and grab one or two or a thousand of them was there, but I haven’t gone hungry yet, I thought, and was content to let them all spin and twist above me. Anyway, I was asleep in minutes, tired from the hike. I slept like a baby and woke up early the next morning.

Be well…

A Necessary Animal

Hello Everybody,

Last Tuesday, I hopped on the subway to catch an all night bus to San Francisco at Union Station. A massive drunk man sat cross-legged in the aisle, talking to an invisible Jesus.

It was a barkin’ moon...

It was a barkin’ moon…

“I will run to you…always, m…m…m’lord,” he loudly mumbled, “And I knowyerwayssmilin’ a’meee…it’s only…youfermeeelord.”

We both got off at Union Station. His huge frame – draped in an oversized Dodgers jersey  – stumbled out of the subway car. He looked left and right, his eyes wildly searching as he shouted, “Jesus?!” over and over. I could hear his cracked yet heavy voice as I ascended the escalator.

As I waited outside for the Frisco bound Megabus with the other passengers, crazed Angeleno’s roamed about the bus bays, howling at the full moon, cursing, spitting, etc.

“Nobody can make me do a f#$king thing!” exclaimed one fellow. He walked back and forth in front of us, punching the crisp night air. Many enraged voices broke the city night – in between the roars of incoming and outgoing buses – but there was never any real meanness. All the angst seemed to be merely the general madness that comes about when a full moon visits an overcrowded metropolis.

The bus pulled into the dock just before midnight. I, along with the other passengers were herded into the frigid double-decker. Teeth chattering conversation occured between strangers as we wrapped up in blankets, sweaters or whatever one had packed in their carry-on. When the lights went out and the bus pulled out onto the street, all talking stopped and everyone stared into their smart phone, laptop, ipad – surrounded in their own dull antiseptic glowing cloud.

One by one, as the clock tick-ticked into the wee hours, passengers powered down and slept or stared out the window. The moon lit up the flat land. Orchards, groves, vineyards. Way off in the distance, the black spine of mountains could be seen. But as the moon lowered, the land grew dark, and only the lights of far off towns could be seen, glowing like clusters of phosphorescent plankton in a black ocean.

The cold kept me from sleeping, so I was able to witness the gray Bay Area morning rise. Soon the bus was creeping through the rush hour of San Francisco. I could see down in the cabs of cars. The workforce commuters stared ahead, rigid, both hands on the wheel of their four-door or two-door micro-realities.

Gray morning in Frisco.

Gray morning in Frisco.

After arriving in downtown San Francisco, I took the BART (Bar Area Rapid Transit) out to Berkeley. Minutes later, I was walking down Shattuck Avenue toward my friend Gerry’s house. The high old hills of Berkeley were covered in tall green trees and I felt calmer, more serene, than I did in San Francisco. Young, currently hip students and old, retired hippies crossed the streets whether there was a walk light or not. No one was waiting, but no one was rushing, either. Everything seemed to be moving just as it should. The clouds began to lift as I neared the campus of UC Berkeley, and when the sun finally burst through, everything was just fine.

“I’ve lost six or seven real close friends in the last couple of years,” Gerry said, as he slowly wrapped prayer beads around his wrist, just before we his left his apartment to go hiking in the hills. Gerry was an actor with a long, successful career, but had devoted the last several years to studying Buddhism. In his sixties, Gerry was still an intense fellow, but the Buddhism lay a soothing tone to his overall nature. “And let me tell you,” he continued, while donning a San Francisco Giant’s cap, “those motherf#$kers don’t come back, man. Getting old’s no joke.”

Gerry’s altar.

We went up to the Science Center of UC Berkeley and took a trail leading into the hilly forest behind it. We spent the first mile or so catching up with each other – it’d been about a year since we last met. Then we discussed writing a play together, an idea we’ve had for some time. Further down the trail, Gerry told me all about acting on broadway and on TV and movies, told me about working with Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Sissy Spacek, Jim Carrey, and others. “I had a great time. I never got an Academy Award or anything like that, but you know…”

Buddhism came up next, along with his travels to India. “My rimpashey (spiritual mentor) treated me with nothing but kindness for 10 years. Then all the sudden – this year – he’s laid into me, man. I guess he’s trying to teach me something, but I don’t want to learn it that way. I tell him so, but he just smiles and nods his head. I don’t know, man. But damn, he’s been on my ass and it’s not fun.”

We turned around as evening approached. As we made our way back to civilization, talk drifted to our dead fathers, how we were raised by them, forgiveness, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, exhaustion, nervous breakdowns, war, hatred and evolution.

“Sometimes I think, Gerry,” I said, “that it all comes down to big brains versus animal bodies. Our mind tells us there’s something more than just the fear-based reality we’re in. But like all the other animals in the jungle, we always rely on our fear to survive. Maybe we can transcend fear someday, but I think our brains are going to have to get bigger. But if they do get bigger, will we still be human? Do we need to transcend fear, to evolve as humans? Or will Life need to transcend humanity, to evolve beyond fear?”

The peaceful path.

Gerry silently walked next to me while I tapped myself on the back for making such a profound philosophical statement.

“I don’t know, man” he finally replied. “But I can say that, when my daughter was born, and I saw her wiggling in the little crib in the hospital, and I saw me in her and my wife in her and my parents and my wife’s parents in her…when I saw everything that had ever been in that little baby…I was filled with an emotion I have not been able to explain to this day. But I did know then that…” he thought for his next words as we crossed the street, “…that humanity is ultimately a good thing, and that we are necessary.”

The next day, Gerry and I went into San Francisco. It was hot as we wandered down the city streets, but once we got to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific breeze came on and it was very cool. It was also rush hour. We had to lean in close to understand each other as the cars rushed along the bridge. Gerry talked mostly about his kids – the paths they took, how the divorce affected each one, or how the thought it affected them, and how the only thing he can really do for them is to support them and the coices they make. That, and send them money. “They can have my money,” he said, “I don’t need it. When I had a bunch of it, I was worried about losing it, worried about getting more of it. Always worried.”

We took a break from walking when we reached the first of the bridge’s towers. I stared out over the bay, toward San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge always deceives me. It doesn’t look very big or high, even when I’m on it. It seems as if it would be so easy to jump off and swim to the shore, until I look straight down and see a little boat or tiny windsurfers pass under the bridge. Then I’m suddenly aware of distance and gravity and the fragility of flesh and bone upon meeting water at high velocity and I get a queasy, tingling feeling. More people kill themselves on the Golden Gate per year than anywhere else in the USA. But at first glance, it seems like a harmless little leap.

View from The Bridge.

Gerry and I made it to the other side of the bridge then turned around. A vast fog bank was making its way in from the ocean, and by the time we left the bridge the fog had made landfall. Suddenly, it was cold, dreary. Night fell as we road the bus back into the city, and it was late when we got back to Berkeley.

“You know,” Gerry said, just before turning in for the night, “being journeyman character actor, some stars are nice to you because they don’t want you to say anything bad about them. They know you work with a lot of directors. But most of the them were genuinely supportive. They want you to do well, and will help you if you if you ask them. They support you as much as you support them, the good ones. I miss that a lot, I had a great time through it all and I’m proud of what I did. But one day my daughter sat me down to tell me how she felt about all the bad stuff that happened in our family when she was growing up…and there some bad stuff. I didn’t defend myself. I just listened. But she finished up by saying she was grateful to have a father that followed his passion, no matter what. She said by doing that, I’d taught her to do the same. That’s what I’m really proud of, you know, that my children saw me as a passionate man, and that they are passionate people, too.”

I said goodbye to Gerry the next day, just before Rachel picked me up. I didn’t know Rachel, but I connected with her through the online ride share website, zimride.com. Then we picked up David, a young student also heading to LA. In no time we were chatting away comfortably, listening to music as the golden California hills passed by.

California

After the hills were gone, the orchards, groves, and vineyards appeared again. The sea breeze no longer reached us and heat came through windows and vents. Rachel wanted an ice cream cone, so we pulled over at a truck stop. David went in with her to get a sandwich. I walked behind the store, out onto the dusty flat land to get a look at the mountains, far off in the distance. By the time I came back, Rachel had finished the ice cream cone.

“It’s so hot out here,” she said, “I don’t feel so well, ice cream was not a good idea.”

This world and The Real World beyond...

I offered to drive and she gave me the keys. Soon we were zooming along I-5 South. The music of Radiohead slowly ached out of the speakers. Only a few songs had played before Rachel and David were fast asleep. With one hand barely touching the wheel, I did what I always do when I’m driving long stretches: meditated upon freedom in search of an exact definition of it. I want to believe freedom is the act of constant motion, because I feel real peace and a disconnect from fear when I’m moving. But it’s not only that, there is another ingredient. It’s that unknown ingredient I try to discover when I’m rocketing through the flat spaces of solitude. I know it’s not wealth, or security, or anything else that makes it so easy to jump off bridges. It could be love, but I assume love to be  a main reason that leads many to take that little leap off The Bridge…but maybe what they feel is not love, but more like a craving to not be lonely, and when one craves “not” to be something, instead of passionately going toward something, then…

The hills came back and soon we were speeding through the mountain pass that would deliver us into LA. The traffic was thick but fast, so I stopped meditating and gripped the steering wheel with both hands, sat up straight, eyes and ears alert. Just another animal in The Jungle – but a necessary, passionate animal.

Be well…