This blue sky actually hurts. Adjectives aren’t helpful right now: I say things like wide, empty, piercingly…blue. I’m hiking with my mother, who declares it “severe clear.” I have to ask.
“Haven’t you ever heard your father say that?” My father is a retired Naval aviator; I’ve picked up a number of linguistic oddities from him, but not this one. I learn later it’s a sky blue to infinity, free of clouds, perfect for flying. And that’s about the size of this big bowl of sky over Wildwood. I’m about to fall into it and fly away.
‘Wildwood’ is an odd name for this Southern California sweep of desert ridge and stony canyon, the dividing wedge of undeveloped land between two prosperous suburban communities. It’s wild enough, but of woods there are few: sycamores and oaks down in the canyon, invisible until you make the descent. The shape of the place runs right to left in my mind: upslope, ridge, downslope, valley, canyon.
From the main entrance, your first sight is the wide open valley: suspended between rocky promontories and rippling with wild grasses. I saw it for the first time around fourteen, fresh from about my tenth reading of Clan of the Cave Bear. Its sweep and scale translated themselves in my mind as prehistoric. No matter how many people in brightly-patterned fitness gear fill the main trail by late morning, that first meeting is imprinted. Every time I crest the first hill from the parking lot, it’s like pausing on the edge of a time warp.
The park – it’s technically Wildwood Regional Park – is big enough that I tend to visit different sections over several days. First, I want to climb. The ridge is called Mount Clef; the distinctively shaped outcropping at its far west end is Lizard Rock. Either makes a fine lookout. I come here to survey the bones of the Conejo articulated on all sides, wrapped in their green winter skin.
This year so far the rains have failed, and we ascend on crumbling khaki tracks through scrubby chaparral – mostly grey; sweetly, sagely scented. Our most verdant companion is the Opuntia cactus. (Think of the kind that bears prickly pears.) It’s a common sight, and one I love: the flat spiky paddles a particular peridot green that pops against blue.
The trail we’ve chosen barely pauses before dropping over to the northern side of the ridge, and we follow its nearly flat course for perhaps a mile. Views of the well-settled – and well-heeled – Santa Rosa Valley fall away to our left, with sharp-peaked, snowless mountains behind. We leave the main path to climb back over the ridge, descend between white stucco homes and wind along the base of a blasted brown butte, full in the mid-morning sun. We should have brought more water; I’m grateful for my hat. The butte trail ascends gradually, culminating in a pass that, like the valley below it, seems high and epic and wild, in spite of the enormous human population barely out of sight.
I visit my ‘home’ in Southern California no more than once – if I’m lucky, twice – each year. I don’t come primarily to explore; I carry a list in my head of experiences I need to repeat. Wildwood for me is a place to enjoy, but it’s also a ritual.
Which means tomorrow I’ll be back, and we’ll visit the canyon instead. It can’t be too deep, but like the rest of this place, its topography seems more extreme than a map would show. Hidden from direct light until midday, the canyon is a different world from the sunswept uplands.
The north fork of the Arroyo Conejo waters this secretive world year-round. It’s a talkative creek, even in a rainless season. For most of its length, oak trees cluster around the banks, distinctive for their rumpled grey skin and small spiny evergreen leaves of dark and glossy hue. I cannot tell if they are live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), canyon oaks (Quercus chrysolepis), or something else – perhaps a hybrid. Beneath them, the shade is deep and pleasant – on a winter morning, almost cold.
Arroyo Conejo has its moment in the sun, too. As the canyon narrows, the big trees retreat, and a series of pools sparkles its way westward, a favorite foraging ground for local waterfowl. The trail that parallels this starkly pretty section is a good one for lingering, if you’re alone, but there’s a further payoff: the glassy pull of the creek taughtens suddenly, then slides down a 70-foot cleft in the wrinkled rock.
The pool at the base of Paradise Falls may be shallow and brown and fringed with algae, or deep and blue as the sea. In my memory, it most often shows itself as black, a round flake of obsidian dropped among grey boulders, pensively watched by branching sycamores. It’s an odd place; I can never decide if I like it. But I always return.
Indeed, I return to Wildwood in particular, and coastal Southern California in general, out of the kind of desire that carries a hint of compulsion. Fledging, I left this arid landscape as soon as my circumstances allowed, craving forests, rain, surroundings ever-green. I dislike heat; my pale skin shies from the sun. I fought with this land when I lived here, a frustrated teenager in exile from the cool northern forests of her heart’s home.
I struggle with instincts and rarely recognize gut feelings; my perceptions build in slow layers, my intuition a limestone cave instead of a flashing stream. Landscape is no exception. I tend toward deep connections, but I do not always see them forming. I left warm, dry, sunsteeped Ventura County for greener, rainier pastures. It’s in my periodic returns that I first felt the tug of belonging.
Today, I acknowledge love for this sharp, sun-soaked contrast of cactus green and desert brown, set against the severe clear blue of sky or sea. It’s the same thing I feel for the mist-wreathed ridges of conifers that define my Pacific Northwest. The two landscapes cannot coexist; I cannot claim both as my dwelling. Yet I will continue to claim them both as my home.
What if I cannot fly south one winter? Or ever again? If I cannot migrate there, does a loved landscape fade? What will I lose, or gain by that? The devotee of several such places, I’ve chased these questions all my life, and all I’ve learned is that I cannot answer them.
Better to ask: What do I love? With whom can I share it? Answers easy for some, a struggle for me. Finding them is a way of living, not a quest I can check off the list. Certainty is a rare gift, but these – not the least of things – I know will guide me well. I love Wildwood. Here it is: I hope you find joy in it, too.
Wildwood Regional Park can be accessed from the main (intersection of Avenida de los Arboles and Big Sky Drive) or any of several smaller entrances in the city of Thousand Oaks, or by climbing Mount Clef ridge from Camarillo’s Santa Rosa Valley. It’s a short side-trip if you’re traveling US 101. There is no fee for use or parking.
The park has many miles of trails; if you live nearby or if you’re staying in the area, it rewards multiple visits. Spring means wildflowers in the valley; winter usually brings a brief and glorious green flourish beginning in January or February. If you only have one day, try a moderate loop that visits both Lizard Rock and Paradise Falls in under 5 miles. You can pick up a basic map from a kiosk at the main entrance.
It can be very warm here, though some nice coastal breezes do wind their way up into the canyon. Even on cooler days, the sun is relentless. Carry water, and wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen. I got heat exhaustion once climbing the Lizard with none of that essential gear; it’s unpleasant, so don’t do it. It can also be very cold here on early winter mornings, so don’t be shy about sticking some gloves in your pack.
Bring a picnic if you’re staying a few hours. Several shady spots on the canyon floor have tables scattered among the oaks, and one (Hogeman’s Hollow) even has decent toilets.