by Matt Goldberg
It has been several years since I hiked through Malibu Canyon, but a familiarity resides within me as I ascend the rocky slope to my favorite view in California: a jagged crag shaped like a frog perched above the marine layer overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains as they slowly uplift and submerge from the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I grew up hiking these landscapes; I’ve memorized the trails. Every twist and turn, every rock and tree comes back to me with each step I take, like revisiting a childhood picture book. Yet the visions of nostalgic paths I remember are distorted, as I can’t recall a time when I’ve hiked through the trails during such an encompassing dry heat as this September morn.
Typically, I find myself visiting these hills during the height of spring, when the air is crisp, the grass is green and the mountains glisten with alpenglow in the warm damp April dusk. Now the earth is cracked and dusty, and the oak trees once laden with fruitful acorns and leaves now lay bare like naked arching bones. The trees look like buildings toppled after an earthquake (twisting metal stretching upwards). The peaks and mountainsides once blanketed with dense greens of drenched growing wildlife now show the true beige of sediment, bearded with dying brown husk and stock. The only living color dwells within the azure sky and the yellow painted faces of invasive wild mustard. Even the few leaves and plants that remain zucchini-colored and lush throughout the year are washed in a thin layer of brown dust, brought up from the hills by the harsh east-blowing winds. I clamber up the mountain in the hot dry autumn air as the wind blows me kisses and whispers secrets of a prospect in my ear.
Hiking up the hillside, awaiting the magnificent view I am close to witnessing, and the thoughts that are destined to reach me while alone upon the mountain, I feel an eerie interpersonal instinct to turn back. As if the hot wind herself orders me to stop climbing and return on another day. With only a mile or so to go before I reach the apex of the mountain I ignore my intuition and continue on, forging the hillside like a conqueror.
The heat consumes me. With each step I take upwards, the temperature rises equally and the air gets dryer and harder to breathe. The aridness suffocates my pores until my arms resemble, quite accurately, the cracked earth beneath my feet. The hike concludes with a small jaunt between two crevices and a relatively easy vertical climb to the top of the reptilian shaped rock formation about thirty feet in height where I intend to waste some time simply looking out. I begin climbing the sedimentary rock ledge with sweaty palms and short of breath. The wind picks up speed with my ascension in elevation to the point of having to halt my steps for fear of being blown to sheer death off the cliff side. But the picturesque scenery keeps me going for I know the view will become increasingly more beautiful the higher I climb. From this height I can see eternity in every direction. Endless rolling hills covered in blotchy brown brush like curly hair painted with a dry sponge. Each slope and ridge is exemplified by shadows of contrasting darkness against an otherwise bright and sunlit mountain landscape. Malibu Creek swims, spirals and knees around the base of heavy set bubbling pointy mountains beneath the offshore winds. The horizon is celeste at eye level and gets increasingly darker in hue the higher up I look, then reaches its climax of a palatinate blue and begins a descending cycle into lightness all over again behind me.
A heavy wind blows. A swarm of small grey birds, that I have not acquainted myself with, swoops above me and heads towards the coast. I hear a knocking sound from the other side of the rock like three drummers playing triplets on blocks of wood without much syncopation, followed by a sigh of breath almost human in timbre. Looking out with much curiosity, I watch a family of deer, a doe and two fawns, move with great haste towards the same direction of the birds, their hooves clicking and knocking on the rocky surface beneath. Watching the majestic mammals scurry down the hillside, my eyes begin to water and sting. My asthma picks up; I can’t breathe. A fever consumes my thoughts. A burning smell fills my nostrils and I realize why the deer are flanking down the mountain in such a sprint. I also realize that I need to head in the same direction or I will be in very serious danger.
I climb back down from my perch and gaze west towards the sea, but the ocean is invisible. The coast is curtained by a thick cloud of heavy grey smoke slowly melting with the fog as the accumulation spirals upwards, guided by the Santa Ana winds. The air becomes denser and heavier as I struggle to breathe. My eyes scorch as the smoke mixes with the sweat dripping from my brow, creating a sharp stinging adhesive that blurs my vision. The smoke gets darker and blacker in color as it quickly surrounds me the way colored die diffuses in a glass of water. My vision approaches near uselessness as smoke closely becomes the only visible entity. I keep my eyes on the trail; my white shoes are the only light. I move as fast as I can without running, for fear that if my heart rate gets too high I’ll begin to breathe heavier and possibly pass out from smoke inhalation. My head throbs as if my brain attempts to punch its way out of the side of my skull. There is a heavy ringing in my ears as every inch of my body goes into alert-mode. I tear off my t-shirt and tie the sleeves together in a knot around the back of my head, covering my mouth, hoping I’ll inhale less smoke through a cotton veil.
Before realizing the thin and porousness of cotton, I push my way out of the cluster of smoke following a tiny speck of blue skylight peeking through an otherwise deathly grey cloud. With my eyes away from the smoke for a moment, I frantically search the canyon for any possible sign of safety or survival. Gazing as quickly and efficiently as I can at the desert-colored wilderness I notice a small patch of meticulously planted splotchy green trees in the distance—an orange orchard—my life jacket.
I take one step off trail towards the row of living fruit trees when the fire finally catches up with me. With a gust of hot wind the flames surround me as if inviting me to stay. Perplexed and unaware of which way to head, I jump on top of a neighboring rock ledge to get a better view of my path to survival, also hopping that the rock will be fire retardant. I study the fire, trying to find a spot I might be able to run through and down the canyon and towards the orchard without burning to a crisp. The flames rise in height with each passing moment and heavy gust of wind. I try to keep a clear mind and focus on surviving but as the flames quickly approach, the ghastly images that invade my thoughts are so stony and horrid that I couldn’t possibly revisit them in words.
I feel the fire’s overcoming heat and deathliness as tears slowly rain from the corners of my eyelids, caused by a mixture of smoke irritation and fear of being burned alive, alone on a stone with only the thought of the ocean for company. Looking around for some supernatural savior, I notice a peculiar presence nestled near my left foot. The creature’s round shape and speckled fur is camouflaged so heavily with grey ash and dust that I can barely make out its figure and identify it. The shape scurries a few small steps closer to me and gazes upwards at my grandiose figure. I lock eyes with the mouse. His black-pool pupils reflect the glowing orange light as the fire dances around us, choreographed by the offshore wind.
The mouse’s terror lay in his eyes. They look as old as the hills, and as young, and as wild. I cannot look away: it is as if I am looking at a mirror image of my own fears and uncertainties; the sunken eyes, the scared expression is so human in nature that I shout my worries aloud, expecting the mouse to comprehend my command and follow through. “Run!”
Like a shot from a field gun, my own words kick in a mental obligation to survive as I sprint off the rock and down the hillside towards the fire—the only way out is in—warriors charging into battle. I feel the dominating presence of the fire as it swallows me whole. The temperature rises at an alarming rate as I smell the hair on my neck and eyebrows singeing and fiercely burning off. My shirtless body stings as if thousands of tiny needles pinch and poke their way through my roasting skin like tattoos of fire. Although I’m certain it can’t help, I jump and twist my body while sprinting around the flames, trying to avoid serious burns. With a final leap and coil, I break free from the clutches of fire and tumble down the mountain at speeds I have never reached previously on foot. I look back at my former settle; the hill is completely engulfed in flames.
By the time I reach the orange orchard, my coughing almost distracts the thought of being alive. I stagger through the rows of lush orange trees, heading to the center of the plot, hunched over and coughing my lungs out. Finally, after I feel like I am completely surrounded by trees, and safe, I collapse face down into the spongy soil, awaiting sirens.
After lying unconscious for an unidentifiable amount of time, I feel a tugging and pulling on the back of my arm, followed by a brushing sensation. I wait a few moments before investigating the strange feeling. Shortly after, I feel a light lump slide across my elbow, followed by sharp tingling sensations moving up towards my neck like a walking needle massage. I turn my head slowly in curiosity and notice, resting on my shoulder like a pirate parrot, the sunken black pool eyes of an all too familiar rodent. The mouse stares back at me with the smug look exchanged only among visiting old friends.