Take a Picture, Itll Last Longer

What do we want from whats left of Orange Countys open space?

Photo by Jack GouldMay He not hurt us,

He who made earth,

Who made the sky and the shining sea?

Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

—Veda

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My wander through the wilderness in search of the biggest old oak tree in Orange County took about 15 minutes. That's nearly as long as I spent in the Villa Park Coffee Grove Espresso Cafť picking out fancy bagels to go with the double latte I took on the trail.

I'd anticipated something more challenging. Up before daylight, I arrived at Santiago Oaks Regional Park decked out in lots of the cool gear I'd bought for the High Sierra backpacking trip I took last month with my brother and his wife: navy-blue, midweight, long-sleeved, moisture-wicking Patagonia T-shirt; khaki pants that convert into shorts via zip-away leggings; thick Thorlo socks; and heavy-duty, high-topped, all-leather Vasque boots. I'd even taped the places on my toes and heels where I tend to blister. It was 7:04 a.m. when I fed a couple of bucks into the park's automatic entrance gate; at 7:20 a.m., I was tossing my empty coffee cup into the dinged-up trash can that sits beneath the massive, gnarled, centuries-old limbs of the biggest old oak tree in Orange County—right next to the four rows of benches and a bulletin board the rangers use for second-grade field trips.

So much for my long, mettle-testing pilgrimage. And I would have reached the tree even faster, except I started my hike by turning onto the wrong trail. What can I say? It's been a long time since I was in the second grade.

Then, a couple of days after I got back, I learned that this tree in Santiago Oaks Regional Park isn't the biggest or oldest oak in Orange County after all. "There's a bigger one at Caspers Wilderness Park," Tim Miller, superintendent of the county Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, informed me as delicately as possible. So the whole thing was kind of a letdown.

SOME QUESTIONS

What do we want from what's left of Orange County's open space? What do we expect from what passes for its wilderness? Inspiration? Do we preserve these parcels of unpavement to serve as natural chapels, places where we can take a break from the technological world we are erecting nearly everywhere and draw from the divine plan of plants and birds and rocks and things? If so, what for? Just so we can stock up on the spiritual sustenance we'll need to finish our construction job? Entertainment? Do we set out to see the biggest old oak tree in Orange County with the tourist attraction mentality that draws us to a Sleeping Beauty's Castle—whether it's the one Tinkerbell flits around during Disneyland fireworks or the one Jan Crouch skulks about during Trinity Broadcasting Network programs? Are we capable anymore of drawing a meaningful distinction between the heritage of Robber's Peak, where bandits used to wait above Santiago Canyon for unsuspecting stagecoaches, and the re-created Calico Ghost Town at Knott's? Validation? Have we conserved these few wild places so we can give ourselves a little pop quiz, test ourselves against the self-sufficiency scale—hiking, climbing, camping—that determined human survival through most of history? Isn't this the same as admitting that wilderness camping has become an earth-toned urban vanity—that the only camping skills with any pragmatic purpose anymore are those employed by the homeless? Delusion? Is traipsing through a pristine canyon—even if it isn't exactly pristine anymore—supposed to convince us that we're doing a good job of balancing the man vs. nature equation? That there is plenty more open space where this came from? It's been 110 years since Congress officially announced the end of a true American frontier. But can it be that our national identity has subsequently come to cling more desperately to the frontier's romantic myth than it ever did to the harsh reality?

These are the kinds of questions that come to you when you're sitting disconsolately on a bench next to a trash can beneath a silent, solid, shady oak that was already a tree when the Spanish explorer Portola showed up in 1769. The answers quickly become too big to figure. So you seek understanding from a more personal question: What the hell was on my mind in the early morning darkness as I was turning the key to my Toyota RAV4, clicking on the headlights, popping on the radio, swinging past the coffeehouse and lighting out in search of the biggest old oak tree in Orange County?

The honest answer: I hope I've left early enough to miss morning traffic.

But the chagrin of that admission isn't the only reason I began to smile as I sat beneath that big old oak tree. It was also the warm memory of my gliding drive eastward along the Garden Grove Freeway—uncongested, the way God intended freeways to be. I realized it had been my first full joy of the day. Now I began to experience some others. I relaxed a bit and considered the girth of the tree trunk beside me, followed the twisting reach of its motherly branches, wondered absently how many bedroom sets or living-room hutches could be cut from a plant of this size. Gradually, my attention shifted to the sounds of the canyon surrounding me. First the crow squawking like a rusty hinge from halfway up a eucalyptus. Then the chirp of jays swooping through the clearing. Finally, I became aware of the gushy flow of Santiago Creek and the soft whoosh of the breeze through the trees. I wondered why these sounds seemed so familiar. Then it struck me how much they resemble what I hear every night at my home: the breathless rush of tires on the nearby freeway.

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