I came in the night, shrouded in darkness, relying on my sense of smell rather than sight. What I smell is manure. Horse and cow shit, to be precise. This is not the SoCal of my childhood, this is Norco. A working-class horse town, dirt and gravel riding paths rather than sidewalks, Norco is an a fascinating oddity in the zooming, car-worshiping bustle of Southern California.
There is a small grey bunny cowering in the middle of my aunt and uncle’s lawn, and I am glad that my kids are not with me this time. Had they been, they would have begged me to catch it. When morning comes, I find myself surrounded by horses and horse people. This town looks to have as many horses as people. This wouldn’t be so odd if only there were a working ranch nearby, maybe a large cattle industry. But no, these are pleasure horses. Some are to ride, some are company, and some are company to horses. It’s only a few minutes to Riverside, a short drive further to the chaos of Los Angeles, yet this is a town of tack stores, feed stores, trailer stores and small churches, everything in a western theme. It is as unreal as Epcot Village, a dusty oddity that is charming in its stuccoed glory. Had I to choose, I’d rather have the dust and dirt and stucco and smell of horses of the million-horse town Norco, though. I can see sandstone hills from here, covered in trails. There are horses being ridden along the riverbed, along the dusty downtown sidewalks, and through the neighborhoods. Not what you would expect for a part of California known more for its car culture. Nobody walks in L.A., and everybody rides in Norco. Awesome.
It is early November and everyone hopes for rain to kill the dust. Hot nights, hotter days, hard for a man acclimated to Northern Idaho to sleep. I spend my first day with a headache, but end it with a most wonderful Pinot Noir and a somewhat heated discussion of hope, politics, and the direction of our country. I am hopeful, but fully aware of the building dread of a possible McCain presidency. Four more years of hate, fear and divisiveness? No thank you. A gentle rain begins falling as we start our meal. I am the first to feel it, enjoying the occasional splash on my skin. I want to stay out and finish dinner in the rain, but am overridden. Oh well.
We take a short trip to the Farmers’ Market in Riverside that first day, enjoying the small but bountiful harvests displayed. Our market may be larger, but this one focuses on produce only, not crafts, which means more fresh food than I could ever hope for back home. Produce year-round would be nice, but I wouldn’t want the crowds of SoCal. And even with the decrease in smog over the last thirty years, I still prefer my air a bit fresher. Still, it is beautiful in the desert. I live on the prairie, desertification slowly eating at the nearby edges. Here it is straight desert, and still a lot more green. The cooling sea air makes it much more Mediterranean than the high desert of my Inland Northwest.
Sunday morning, we head north on the 10 (or is it west?), to PCH and up Topanga Canyon Boulevard. I’ve been this way many times over the past forty years, and it does not look that much different until you hit the outskirts of Topanga proper. The fish market and restaurant is gone, although the regular market and deli next door remains. Camp WoodWhatever is still there, its sign still in the same state of disrepair it has been in for decades. Topanga is busier now, bulging in the middle and showing signs of a growing wealth. To the right is the turn off to Elysium Fields. It is defunct now, but I spent many a naked day there in my childhood, learning quickly that the nudes are wrinkly. No risk of embarrassing erections, although naked tennis is a very tough sport for a self-conscious preteen. Way too may balls on the court.
Hillside drive and up to my grandfather’s. Changes have hit hard here as well. The box canyon no longer has a pond; it has filled in with silt and nobody is around to muck it out. An empty chicken coop with a “Caution Horses” sign makes me want to look for the world’s smallest horse. The bamboo is gone, but there is plenty of poison oak.
Opening the gate, I enter the green of the front yard and immediately discover three fence lizards feast on the launching ants, the lizards warily circling one another and taking turns munching at the ants before they fly off. The largest lizard darts at the sight of me, giving the smaller two a chance to snack. After a few ants, one of the smaller ones skitters sideways, tail raised, keeping an eye on me. Hey, I miss lizards.
I miss living near the ocean. Yes, it means more mold, but the smell of the sea, the fog and weather from living next to the ocean is a wonder. Some day, perhaps, I will return to the sea. For now, I am landlocked, a creature of prairie and desert.