Unlearning the Map

If December was the time to walk my home territory, it’s also the month those of us living outside our childhood geographies often head “home” for the holidays. Which of these “homes” belongs in quotes depends on you – and possibly your level of stress reading that first sentence.

I am one of the lucky ones, in that this annual pilgrimage is a choice freely made and immensely enjoyed. I look forward every year to boarding that tiny Horizon Air plane for the short hop to coastal Southern California and my parents’ unassuming hospitality. Traditional Christmas gifts make me uneasy; my presents are the presence of my family, the benevolent winter sun, and the comforting refuge of a quiet, familiar world.

Bouganvillea and fence

I’m fortunate also in my hometown. I’m from a military background, so there’s some competition for this title, but I went to highschool in a medium-sized town called Camarillo, and my parents live there still, so. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I couldn’t get out fast enough at age 18, but today I regard “my” corner of Ventura County with affection, even longing. Sure, some of it’s nostalgia: I had a happy childhood. But a decade plus of Christmas visits “back home” has also begun to reveal some of the area’s natural secrets.

I have a favorite, much loved and much more obviously the sort of thing you expect from me by now. I’ll show you some other time. Today I want to tell you a story about strolling in the suburbs. I want to work through this marvelous new knowledge of my hometown as a place I can’t wait to explore.

Camarillo Eucs

Camarillo has been a pleasant walking town as long as I remember. Wide streets, palm trees and ficus and eucalypts, deserty hills strewn with cactus and erratically terraced with an assortment of odd houses, old and new. Climb Mission Drive or East Loop on a crystal early morning, and actually gasp when you turn around: the view of the Oxnard plain and the ocean beyond, the Channel Islands close enough to touch, and the blocky purple Santa Monica Mountains is that good.

But it’s not a town built for walking. In spite of several nice parks, and a series of well-maintained rainfall channels and their service roads in pleasant neighborhood locations, there are few pedestrian paths worth seeking out. Regular walkers learn constant vigilance. ‘Share the Road’ is not a thing in suburban SoCal, planned and tarmacked in the undisputed Age of the Automobile.

I never noticed the City’s concerted efforts, between my high school years and now, to address the need for car-free recreational space. So for me, the Calleguas Creek Bike Path sprang into being, Athena-like, a few days after Christmas in 2015.

Calleguas Creek Path in Winter

My mother and I have a tradition of long morning walks together, dating back to my seventh or eighth year, when I would tag determinedly along on her pre-workday power walks. These days, we mostly stroll, and talk. Exercise both is and is not the point. Usually we walk out the front door and choose a direction, leisurely looping through neighborhoods for a couple of hours, stopping to sip green tea lattes at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf before the final mile home. But this time she brought the car keys, and off we drove to a place bearing a name entirely familiar, possessing a geography utterly unknown.


It was cold the day we walked the Calleguas Creek Bike Path from start to finish and back: cold and brilliantly sunny, with Santa Ana winds alternating between sly tweaks at our headwear and all-out anti-hat offensives. I walked with one hand on the crown of my head; the wind snatched our laughter and flung it to the west. Eucalyptus, usually a pleasantly rustling tree, clattered and slapped in its wake.

Sun through the Eucs, Calleguas Creek Path

The City has proposed to cut many of its eucs, shallow-rooted as they are, and prone to tipping over in these fierce winter winds. I see their point, but I will miss the trees when they go. Non-native and a bit of a water-hog, the eucalyptus has yet spent the past 100-plus years as a loved symbol of home in coastal California. Here on the Oxnard plain, tall, scented rows of eucalypts line farm roads and enclose city parks. There are fewer now than when I lived here, and someday soon I suppose they will exist only in photos, and that ‘old California’ style of oil painting I fall for every time.

A few native sycamores survive along Calleguas Creek, clinging to their last yellow leaves. Even joining forces with the remaining eucs, they aren’t enough to shade the path, wide and nearly flat, entirely paved, that curves gently with the river’s course.

Sycamores and Creek Bed, Calleguas Creek Path

The channel is massive, and that day it was bone dry: not uncommon, though worrisome at midwinter, in a long, long drought. If I saw this as a visitor, I’d be unsettled – where’s the water? – but to residents, empty rivers are part of an old pattern.

Calleguas Creek may once have been a natural river bed, but these days, floored with concrete, its banks formed of round boulders cemented in place, the prehistoric lay of the land is difficult to imagine. Rain in our region is a shy, ephemeral creature, but every few years winter throws violent, soaking tantrums, and our creeks and canals seethe with whitewater. It’s no good wishing for the willowed seasonal wetlands of decades past; the thousands of homeowners along Calleguas Creek thank their preferred deities for the illusion of control created by our concrete channels.

Living here, I noticed none of this. I was not a peregrinating child. Until my early 20s, I walked our neighborhoods incuriously; regular walking was just a thing my family did. I crossed that creek each day to and from high school, but I never did what I would immediately do today: climbed down the bank, sought out the inevitable creekside trails. You cannot drive along this waterway, and so it’s remained, for me, a relatively unknown feature of a landscape I know only by road.

St John's spire above Calleguas Creek

And there’s the heart of my new discovery. Although I understand my Portland home, and every other place I visit, as a layered geography, sculpted and reshaped and blended to its present, temporary form by wind, water, trees, culture, time, I didn’t think this way about my own place of origin until a few weeks ago. I already knew that place, see. I memorized it long ago, with a mind that hadn’t yet learned what is obvious to my older self: any boundaries we raise between nature and the civilized world are always and effortlessly porous.

Walking the Calleguas Creek Path exposed that blind spot. I may know my hometown, but I do not know the land, and so I do not know this place at all. Just like that, there’s a new layer on my mental map, vaguely sketched in here and there with trees, mountains, the course of this single creek. Undiscovered territory awaits in a place I’d never imagined; these streets I know stand revealed, so suddenly, as only an outline. I look forward to many years of coloring it in.

Windswept Calleguas Creek in Winter


The Calleguas Creek Path begins at the intersection of Flynn and Upland Roads in Camarillo, California, and runs about 3 miles directly along the creek to Village at the Park (which is just a development, and not as interesting as it sounds.) You can park in the residential areas on either end; parking is free and so is walking, but do be respectful of residents’ space. The path is paved all the way, well-maintained, and flat. ADA access has been thoughtfully ensured from streetside parking at the Flynn/Upland end.


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