I got outdoors for the first time in a while. I forget, like I suppose most non-rich natives of Los Angeles do forget, that there are beautifully wild areas in close to the city. So I went, for the first time in my life, to Rustic Canyon, on an outing with the local Boy Scout troop.
Los Angeles is a city of canyons. There's Runyon Canyon just above Hollywood were trendy folks jog themselves and their dogs. I've never been there. There are Topanga, Rivas, Temescal and a dozen other canyons of better and lessor repute as far as beauty and fire danger. Rustic is just nice and remote. Well, remote for me because I live down near the water - and well most everybody lives downscale of this part of West Los Angeles.
I've been cranking out 12 hour days in deepest darkest winter Cleveland where the temperature doesn't vary from day to night by more than 8 or 9 degrees. Out this way, the wind matters more than the sun. That's a very strange feeling. I'm accustomed to a high of 68 and a low of 46 around this time of year in LA which is about what we got this weekend. It makes us take an extra set of clothes or something and should explain much of the fashion consciousness of us Angelenos. We wear more variety of clothes because the weather demands it. So now you folks from the East can understand why San Francisco seems so cold to you. It's not cold, it's just night and it's supposed to get 20 degrees colder at night.
At Rustic Canyon, I wore shorts and sat by a babbling brook, and watched the equestrians go by. I raked leaves, big sycamore leaves, and I watched the sky through the oaks. I minded a passel of Scouts as they threw knives and tomahawks. I observed a parrot swerving to avoid the attention of a red tailed hawk. I munched on dried apricots and I shot a couple dozen rounds at 15 paces.
The highlight of the afternoon was twofold. I always enjoy speaking with my friend Bob about movies and politics and this and that. I learned, from another of the dads, what it is that cats like to eat, from the perspective of catfood engineers. So there was fun, non-work oriented conversation. But the singular defining event of the day was the lost knife.
On his turn, one of the younger Scouts wound up and made his final toss of a nine inch steel knife towards the mounted stump four paces away. We all had a good chuckle as he missed the entire target and tumbled forward on the strenght of his right hand's momentum. But that moment of laughter turned out to be a misdirection worthy of Houdini, for nobody saw where the knife went.
For the next 90 minutes, we pulled a mountain of leaves, rocks, sticks, grass and dirt from an area the size of a suburban bedroom. 17 boys and 4 men against a plot of land so small the most environmentally sensitive whackjob from Santa Monica wouldn't give it the time of day, except perhaps to park their Prius there. We raked, we shoveled, we poked and prodded. We found lizards, PVC pipe, golf balls, deer slugs, horse poop, caterpillars, sour flowers and everything but the knife. I honestly thought about how I might McGuyver my iPhone into a metal detector. It was useless; we were overcome.
I raked like a madman, working up the first sweat I can recall in months. I noticed something about everyone's work ethic including my own. I am the man who wants to be King, who turns to the man who should be and awaits the order. Hearing none, I bark out my own, heeding my own frustration and wishing everyone would work as hard as I. Sensing failure, I turn to a chuckling despair. I guess nobody wants to win so much, which is why I'm not in charge. And I retire silently to write my memoir, offering up a tasty morsel to those exacting critics like me - except I was there and you were not. It's not a flattering portrait, but there it is. Take the abstracted lesson for what it's worth - not a whole lot because what's written is only the narrative. Remind me to tell you about the dangerous falsity of narrative. I'm only recognizing it now myself, and so I have to undo 18 years.
I sat on the edge of the firing range's platform as the target stumps were moved to new ground and enthusiasm ginned up again to continue the sport. The group split into thirds, one throwing, one hiking, one napping. I scientifically observed the pattern of missed knives as they tumbled in the area beyond the targets. I had no idea how something thrown so straight could bounce so crooked. Another metaphorical lesson learned in the wake of defeat. And yet the boys kept throwing, and improving, and thoughts of the lost knife faded.
I left to take snapshots of the area. My target. The trees. The range. The leaves. The place itself. Rustic Canyon. As the sun stretched the shadows across the eastern hill, I observed the sunny top and the road back to Los Angeles. I had one day before I had to fly back to where I am now, 22 floors above Ontario Street.
While we ate the sandwiches prepared for us all by the patrol leaders, we spoke briefly about Haiti and our own fate. How long would it take us to be in the clutches of nature and unable to cope? I remember my rule of threes. Three minutes without oxygen, or three days without water, or three weeks without food. That's how far off we are from the abyss. And of course we forget. I recalled for them the additional rule of risk homeostasis, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell. When we find safety in one thing, we make up for it by being more risky in something else. And this explains why people from dangerous neighborhoods don't go in for bungie jumping, and as well why pursuit of the Dosh makes one humble and attainment of the Dosh makes one rude.
I know what kind of men I want around if and when it all goes to ruin. Today many are Boy Scouts. None of us have conquered the wild. None of us can. None of us ever will. We'll lose our tools, we'll always be humbled. But we know how to look out for each other, how to cook, how to shoot, how to keep God in our lives. We're a good group.