I am walking up a mountain. I used to live here. It is getting dark. Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains envelop me, take me. They are silent and watchful, careless of my meager problems and insecurities. Neither knowing nor caring that a solitary human among them hiked these hills thousands of times and felt at one with them.
And yet I love them. They do not love me because they are only rock and moss and the action of uplifted and subverted fault line tectonics. Beautifully profound and yet existentially indifferent.
Why, after not living here for over a year, did I return to the San Gabes at sunset? Partly to reminisce. I arrived in Southern Cal as a scrawny, inexperienced 17-year-old. I moved to Altadena in 2001 because it reminded me briefly of home in New Jersey and because of the extremely tenuous geographical congruity: Like New Jersey, Altadena is on the northeast edge of its parent. It seemed a natural way to preserve my link with my homeland. Unlike my home, northeast greater Los Angeles is a land of mountains and warmth 12 months of the year. These mountains that form the LA Basin mark the northernmost—and most rugged—boundary separating “Southern California” from the High Desert. Beyond it is only uncertainty and poverty and no stars nor stripes. To the west, the Pacific. To the east, the real world.
I used to live only a few miles from here. When I first mounted these hills I was barely in my twenties. I got lost, but a guy named Marco told me to take a path down to his home, where a long-haired guy would refill my water bottle and give me a power bar for the hop back to the valley just below JPL. I ran into llamas from a local farm and imagined the terrain along the trail teeming with drooling Uruk-hai. On a trail up to the higher grounds I came up with a story about a swordsman who opts not to kill a foe after winning a duel—the opponent winds up becoming a wicked king and thus the question is asked: Was the swordsman’s mercy at all beneficial?
Mostly, though, I recall these mountains and hiking them with A. In these mountains we argued and laughed, we explored and walked until the sun went down. In this present moment I stop at a spot where we once made love standing up in the dark with the lights of Pasadena below us.
I don’t miss her. I do miss the mountains. But I don’t belong here. I lived here for 15 years and yet never once felt that I truly belonged. I was always a visitor and a foreigner in this land of sun and fun. My friend Screenwriter once said that the great illusion of L.A. is that there is no sense of time passing. When every day is sunny and 70%, there is only one continuous burn of narrative without time passing.
But I am older now. I moved to Altandena barely 23; now I am 33. When I think back on all that has happened to me in those ten years—good, bad and ugly—I stand now here amongst these rapidly darkening crags and ponder all that went wrong. All the wrongs that were done to me. All that I forgave and all that I’ve forgotten.
I am at a turning point. After 15 years in the Land of Sun and Fun, I left last fall. I moved back into my childhood home with my rapidly aging parents. Back home is where I am from, where I “belong” but not where I “should be.” But the truth is that there is no “should”; there is only is.
It is darkening and the fallen sun turns these rocks red with extinction. I have cheated death numerous times—by car, by train, by plane—and yet some dark part of me almost believe it’s near. No one gets by forever.
I’m not sure I’m ready to go. With only the silence and the dark of these dying mountains for company, I come down. I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go, but I’ll go there anyway.