Picture -- In the Fashion You Choose -- a Very Special Wild Place

In the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. | Photo: Randy Son Of Robert/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Time is running out to enter your photos in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area's 2012 "Spirit of the Mountains Contest." Specifically, you have until October 6 to, as the Park's poetic flier puts it, "let your photographic imagination capture the essence of this hidden jewel."

This is a wonderful premise. Like the best of poetry, it is also accurate. You might think it is hard to hide the world's largest urban national park (153,075 acres of whispering oak, soaring mountain, and stolid prickly pear cactus), but as it is with many park lands the SMNRA (as those who tire of key strokes prefer to call it) still manages to slip past many. Once at a social gathering I met a gentleman from Calabasas, which coincidentally is where one of the Park's two visitor centers is located. When I mentioned how much I enjoyed his local park (a jovial nature joke between outdoorsmen) he looked at me blankly. "The Santa Monica Mountains?" I said, trying to help him along. "Ah yes," he said after a long moment. "Isn't there a college there?" True California State University Channel Islands nestles at the western edge of the SMNRA, but his method of identification seemed to me a little like pinpointing Yellowstone by an outhouse at the entrance.

In case you are not a student at CSUCI (please see key strokes), the SMNRA is quite the chunk of land on many fronts. It includes state and city parks and conservancy areas and it stretches all the way from near Griffith Park in the east to Point Mugu in the west, running through both Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Officially I'm only supposed to write about Santa Barbara and Ventura County, but if I sit on this column until the last minute my editor will have to ignore my lapse in boundary. More important, like my Calabasas companion, there are likely people in Los Angeles who don't know about the astonishing wilderness so close to their front door (there are trailheads 15 minutes from downtown L.A.). I prefer to think of it as doing a favor for many, while ignoring the stodgy rules of one.

Whatever your zip code, if you live in Southern California you should know the SMNRA. Not just know it, but plunge into it, inhale it, let it stretch your limbs and your spirit. It is hidden, as Nature often is, and that is its glory and you should ferret it out.

The SMNRA isn't just a lot to land. It's a lot of really unique land. The SMNRA is a Mediterranean biome. For those who fell asleep during biology, there are eight major biological communities on our planet. The Mediterranean community is characterized by mild temperatures, alternating wet and dry seasons, and low-lying vegetation accustomed to wildfire. It's found in only five places; the Mediterranean (you get one gimme), South Africa, southwest Australia, the southern tip of Chile, and Southern California. It is the smallest and most endangered of all the biomes. Roughly 18 percent of its original global acreage remains. Since I don't have the exact statistic, let's just say it is only slightly more common than cooperation in politics.

But these are just words, probably the very reason you slept through them in the first place. If you go into the Santa Monica Mountains you will understand the importance of the place and the beauty too, probably why the Park will not lack for "Spirit of the Mountains Contest" entries.

My very first encounter with the SMNRA was a memorable one. Writing an article on ultradistance runners, I hooked up with three of the best. Jim Pellon, Jussi Hamalainen, and Teri Gerber had each established themselves as stars in a sport long on miles and suffering and short on recognition, which is why you've probably never heard of them. So I will tell you they were three very nice people. When I called them, they immediately invited me on one of their training runs in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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I accepted, a measure of my then youth and stupidity (please refer to youth). We started at the entrance to Sycamore Canyon in Newbury Park. We chased up and down terrifyingly steep trails. I stopped often to gaze at the scenery, to pee, to scribble in my notebook, to, well, rest. Perhaps sensing my struggle, Pellon began to tell rattlesnake stories to distract me. Pellon had many stories; rattlesnakes apparently enjoy the Mediterranean biome. Talking easily as he ran, he told me they encountered rattlers all the time, thus a trail rule of thumb. Should a group of runners cross paths with a rattlesnake, the sun-doped reptile probably won't come to its full senses until the first two runners have passed. Math is not my strong suit but I can count to three. Shortly after Pellon recounted this story, I stopped again to admire a panorama. When we started up I made sure Gerber and Hamalainen were behind me.

We saw no rattlers on our run, but though twenty-five years have passed I remember that day as if it were today. We ran and we ran and we ran, and then we stopped on a small knoll at a fork in the trail. The path ahead looped down and back in the direction we'd come. To the left, the trail curved up and away; off in the distance I could see it switchbacking its way up a steep ridge. Pellon, Gerber, and Hamalainen offered no suggestion. We stood in the gauzy summer evening light, the wind carrying the faintest whisper of nothing, the world around us nothing but wild. Heart soaring, I made the right decision.

Hopelessly smitten from the first, I have returned to the Santa Monica Mountains many times. I have hiked and mountain biked. I have clambered up boulders with our sons, then rested (well, I did) in shaded fern grottos. Once I followed a ranger over many hills and dales as he tracked mountain lions wearing radio collars. We saw no mountain lions but we heard a tremendous amount of crackling while working up an even greater sweat. Mountain lions do pad through the SMNRA wilds and beyond, but when they do not wish to be seen they aren't. Then we both got in our separate cars (this is Southern California after all) and in ten minutes we were on a grid-locked freeway.

The so-called Balancing Rock in Circle X Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. | Photo: thefost/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It is wonderful weirdness, this natural glory so close to civilization. Some dozen years back I had the pleasure of speaking with Arthur Eck, who was then the superintendent of the SMNRA. He told me about taking a group of hikers up to the Hollywood Bowl overlook at night, where they stood at looked out at the sea of lights that is Los Angeles.

"There were four or five coyotes that were singing," recalled Eck. "You really couldn't hear the city, but you could hear the coyotes howling. It just presented such a contrast. It was an unforgettable experience to see the natural world and the urban world right next to each other."

I liked Eck. His job wasn't just a job.

"It's so important to preserve the pages of natural America for the American people," he said, as we parted. "You feel compelled to try and do something to keep at least a little bit of that remnant of pioneering America."

Of course this is not easily done in Southern California, making the SMNRA all the more precious and, in an odd twist, making the experience that much more special.

Charles Siebert, author of "Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral," sums it nicely.

"It's often more edifying to walk among trees and grass and meadows assigned to hold the concrete at bay than it is to walk in the wild," Siebert once wrote. "You appreciate it more."

It's likely not part of the SMNRA's charter to give concrete the finger, but it's pleasant to me that it has.

So with time ticking down, I would encourage you to snatch up your camera and plunge into the SMNRA, which is indeed a jewel. Should you take first place in one of the "Spirit of the Mountains Contest" categories, you'll be published in "Outdoors", the Park's quarterly magazine. The magazine will look natty on your coffee table, opened randomly to the page with your photo. But if you don't win you'll still be a winner, for you will have had a taste of a very special place.

I won't be entering the contest. I never carry a camera. This is something of a fault, but even if I didn't tend to lose everything I still doubt I'd bring a camera with me. For one thing, I know plenty of other people will take better photos. I can admire them after I emerge from a world of grasslands, oak forests, and ridgeline vistas, savoring them slowly, freshly showered, cold beverage in hand. I've always believed it's not the pictures that we take with our cameras that matter, it's the ones we take with our minds.

In my mind I see that long ago summer evening knoll, the world around us wholly wild.

This is Southern California. These wilds could very well be something else.

I feel my heart soar again.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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