Take a Picture, Itll Last Longer

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


Okay, so I am imperfect. I came to Santiago Oaks Regional Park as compromised as the adjoining countryside, as unrealistic as my idealistic expectations for the biggest old oak tree in Orange County. But I'm not tainted just because I arrived in a wannabe SUV and fitting the physical picture and psychological profile of the supraliminal, high-end-retail, urban outdoorsman—like Grizzly Adams if he had a desk job and a health-club membership and voted for Nader only when he was certain Gore would win California anyway, consoled by an ingratiating relationship with the salespeople at Adventure 16 but still a little self-conscious about the fact that he could never grow a full beard, although at least his girlfriend didn't like full beards and would honestly rather stay in hotels on vacation, anyway. Not just because of all that. Those things just make me me. My grossest shortcoming was the setup I concocted when I decided to search for the biggest old oak tree in Orange County: I knew beforehand that finding it would be a letdown. I had checked the maps and recognized that Santiago Oaks Regional Park was merely a bone thrown to nature; I could see it was besieged right to the lip of its boundaries. I had read the papers and knew that the gigantic Serrano Heights development is being carved into the hills to the west, that views from the park's other ridges would be fouled by selfish homeowners who decided their unspoiled view was worth the cost of ours. I knew the park was only 480 acres. Yet I showed up at dawn with my long checklist and snap judgments and began conveniently confirming all my worst opinions—of Orange County in particular, of humankind in general. It's a familiar formula, filled with things that keep me from being the real me—the ironclad evidence that prevents me from enjoying a moment. And, thus, I sat beneath a big old oak—all dressed up like the Happy Wanderer but wallowing in the dirge of the Volga Boatmen, using the backdrop of nature's most sublime scenery to pathetically revel in the sweetly sickening muck of my deepest pessimism.


Suddenly, there was a nearly combustible rustle in the nearby brush, and my thoughts latched onto the sign I saw as I walked into the park—the sign that warned of mountain lions and noted the last sighting was May 19. Immediately, I surrendered all my allegiance to wild things for the wish that the next mountain lion sighting wouldn't be moments from now. But it turned out just to be birds—quail, I think; the California state bird. And that piece of natural trivia made me feel better. The crickets, which went still during the commotion, resumed their rhythmic, bedspring squeak. I sighed and noticed the air was refreshingly cool—chilly, even. Hell, it was still early. The sun hadn't even come up over the park's eastern ridges. And, kind of automatically, I dragged my imperfect ass up off that bench, affectionately patted the biggest old oak tree in Orange County—it's the biggest one I've seen, anyway—and set off on a hike around Santiago Oaks Regional Park.


Walking along the bottom of the canyon is like being underwater. The sounds are distinct but contorted. My boots gave a muffled grunt each time they hit the hard earth that lies an inch or so beneath the soft sand pocked with the claws of hopping birds, the shoes of horses and the knobby streaks of mountain bikes. Climbing the steep trail unplugged my ears, for better and worse. The breeze sizzled through the dry sagebrush, and the cries of birds floated in from far away. But so did the machine-gun thunder of big engines, the labored sound of earthmoving equipment scraping forward over distant hills, followed by the obscene courtesy of the warning beeps that announce these machines are backing up in preparation to give the ground another shove.

The sky was getting spotlight bright as I approached the top of the ridge, where the sun behind the hills ricocheted off the high gray clouds. Looking over the other side, I gasped at the modern version of the sinfulness Moses saw when he returned from his first trip up Mount Sinai for the Ten Commandments. Hundreds of years of natural beauty were being drawn and quartered by henchmen straddling huge yellow machines—veritable golden calves spewing black smoke and bawling horribly—that had been dispatched from a long trailer bearing the name of the Ebensteiner Company. This was the massive Serrano Hills housing development, whose storm drains are rumored to be pointed toward tiny Santiago Creek. I hurried along the ridge, simultaneously trying not to look yet feeling obliged not to ignore the truth, as I sought the refuge of another canyon. Instead, the trail obscured my view by curving around a hill, climbing still toward Robbers Peak.

For two hours, I hiked along, in and out of places that alternately inspired, terrified and consoled me. My emotional terrain rose and fell and curved with that of the land, which would not let me ignore it or myself. It would not let me pretend. Eventually, my many scattered thoughts and feelings congealed into something like meditation. I considered the value of this place called Santiago Oaks Regional Park, the arbitrary nature of its presence. Why this canyon? Why not another? I thought about those benches and the bulletin board beneath the oak tree. I thought about those second-graders. What are those field trips really teaching them about the environment? That interpretive displays and mitigating slices of preservation are enough? That nature is just a collection of well-managed, undevelopable canyons? But it also came to me that the wilderness is not what I long for most, or even the days when Robbers Peak referred to greedy, reviled horsemen rather than insatiable, revered land developers. Mostly, I wished for the days of my parents' or grandparents' youth, maybe a half-century or 75 years ago, when perhaps man and nature lived a little more harmoniously—if not because of man's intent then simply because of his lack of numbers or gigantic earth-scrapers. I miss my own childhood, 25 or 35 years ago, when Orange County was more spacious. I've seen it a few times on this hike, when I've positioned myself just right, standing in places where I can't see any development at all, where I don't have to use my imagination to see what this land really looks like. I miss Orange County.

« Previous Page
Next Page »