24 February 2010

Mountain Tops and Malibu Canyon

We’ve all had those wonderful moments of being away from home and literally finding ourselves encamped in some (fairly) remote mountain top respite where neither work nor ex-spouses, bill collectors or pressures from law school, can intrude upon our time, sanity, and personal space. It’s being in that new (or familiar) place overlooking the valley of the shadow of stress that allows one to recharge the ole battery and gray cells and to rethink the current (or lack of) direction of our lives. Sometimes we’re ensconced in a luxury pied a terre, and other times it’s the cozy quarters of a 2-person tent. Sometimes God takes us there, (“Er, Moses, let’s you and I have a chat”) and sometimes we find the nearest peak and climb to its apogee because, like Sir Edmund Hillary (woops!) George Mallory said, “it's there,” sitting in the midst of our vista, and we thought, “sod it all; I’ll have that finished before my afternoon cuppa.”

The mountain top experience offers a new perspective to those now ant-like problems (and people and cars) waaaaay down below. We can look at those pressures and problems anew, with a step-back, one-two-cha-cha move that gives us a new rhythm and quick step to looking at nagging problems or problem people who nag. With renewed vigor we make those tough decisions about leaving certain relationships behind and move onward toward tomorrow where each day is no longer filled with the same fights over the same issues. With fresh ideas from that great new book we finished in Lake Tahoe we attack work with the giddiness of a new-hire out of grad school. The mountain top is a good place (I’ve never had a bad experience above 5,000 ft -- unless of course you count a Southwest Airlines cattle car 3-stop at 35,000 ft.) and the mountain-top experience is usually a good thing.

Some mountain top experiences do stink, however. When I was a 9-yr old kid, I can remember Marlon Brando coming to my neighborhood to give away a large parcel of land to a local American Indian tribe. I hiked/pushed my bike around the rim of the canyon that over looked our housing development in the Santa Monica Mountains and from my lofty perch spied the news vans that drove from the freeway off ramp -- waaaaay over on the other side of the canyon -- as they meandered through the tract to finally line up with the other news wagons and vans replete with all sorts of cameramen and news guys and gals pulling on garish gold and brash blue jackets (the ones with 7’s or 4’s or 2’s on lapels indicating station and channel no.). After a quick check of a mirror hung on an open van door inspecting hair, teeth, and lipstick application, they were preening for the “important” news conference where Mr. Marlon Brando was announcing his “gift” to the American Indians.

In the crowd, if memory serves, were Robert Blake and also Iron Eyes Cody who did some commercials with a tear running down his cheek, crying over the horrible white people trashing “his” America. Even as a child I saw the hokum of this sort of PSA, though to this day I have a visceral reaction whenever I see anyone throw trash out a car window (especially a moving vehicle, where trash lands atop tasseled moccasins). In the 1940s, thirty years before and one mile away, Iron Eyes Cody was at another ceremony, where a Polish immigrant constructed a rather large, 10-ton cement statue sitting atop “Mt. Estrella” (which was actually a smallish rocky hill, a crag really), sculpted with flowing headdress. To this day, the statue of “Chief White Eagle” stands overlooking the 101 freeway (which was just a 2-laner back then). I wonder if ole Iron Eyes had any reservations about that ceremony as well? Either way, his hand and foot imprints are said to be at the base of the mini monument. I haven't been up there in 20 years, but I'll climb up there with my sons to confirm.

Back to Brando. Turns out that Marlon was actually unloading a crappy piece of land, that was for the most part, undevelopable as it had a mortgage of several hundred thousand dollars, plus there were some back taxes owed as well. Knowing the reputation of Brando, I have no doubt that he figured he’d give the land away, land some nice national pub for his efforts, and then let the banks and/or tax authorities try to take legal action against the tribes. Talk about your real definition of Indian giver; Brando embodied the ultimate tool who decided to hang an albatross around the necks of our native peoples with an indebted real property imbroglio. Jackass says “what?” “What?” That’s what I thought, Marlon.
Some mountain top experiences are long overdue; about a century overdue. Not far from the Brando fiasco, stands the formerly named “Old Negro Mountain.” This week the LA Times reported the mountain has been renamed in honor of the man who settled there in the late 1800’s, from whence it’s racial slur nickname was derived. Mr. Ballard, a former slave, first came to Los Angeles in the mid-1800s after getting his freedom from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. After successfully setting up a business and working in L.A., he finally settled in the Agoura area, and he and his daughter homesteaded two fairly large contiguous parcels of land. These weren’t Spanish Land Grants, mind you. But, to have a 2,000 foot mountain named after you is pretty cool, nonetheless. His descendants, some of whom were in their 80’s, made the trek out to the Seminole Hot Springs area in Agoura and participated in a ceremony that saw this mountain renamed to Ballard Mountain.

There are two main canyon roads that lead down to the Pacific Ocean and each have tunnels. Ballard Mountain is located right near the first tunnel off of Kanan Rd. On the first tunnel on Malibu Canyon is the former home to another local legend: "the Pink Lady." She was painted by a female artist above the entrance to the tunnel, and for a few days her naked visage caused traffic jams on Malibu Canyon road the likes of which haven’t been seen since. She was eventually painted over by the county, and even today there is still a pink hue atop that tunnel reminding us of her birthday suit strut.

"The Pink Lady" and John Ballard. Marlon Brando and 10-ton “Chief White Eagle” (they are sometimes confused one for the other). These the few colorful individuals that make up part of the history of a sleepy little burb nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains near some canyon leading to Malibu. Bonus points if you visit the area and can find two of the three, Dear Reader.