Stunt Road & Saddle Peak: A Wee Personal History

With the rainclouds dissolved into big fluffy cumuli and the sky utterly washed clean and crystalline, I decided–right in the middle of all my holiday errands–to make a drive I haven’t made in a couple years. Stunt Road is a winding, rapidly ascending old road that climbs westward into the Santa Monicas from Mulholland, cutting back and forth into the mountainside with stunning views threatening to distract you into driving right off the edge with every hairpin turn. It dips through this little sylvan vale that, I think, is actually called Sylvan Vale (could be wrong), weaves its way upwards through autumn-bronzed sycamores into the sky, and abruptly reaches an apex at a cut through the top of the mountain–the “saddle” of Saddle Peak.

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(…a beautiful sycamore on the way up…)

Here a traveler can stand facing west and see the Pacific, from Malibu in the north, sweeping south across Catalina, Palos Verdes, and into a curving vista of Santa Monica; and, turning to face east, you can see the folding and crumpled mountains spreading away from you like a topo map, the shadows of clouds moving lazily across, the sheets of limestone carved into mountainsides in vertical patterns, and you wonder how the primeval ocean floor could possibly have been heaved into that sideways position; and the West Valley spreading all the way up into Northridge, the Chatsworth sandstone hills, and beyond that into Santa Clarita.

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(the “saddle” of Saddle Peak…)

I take the drive slowly at first, pulling over to let locals in their SUV’s and Beemers pass me; with Mew blasting out my open windows and the chill air whipping into the car, sending icy gusts into the cab so my legs feel the cold through my jeans. The music’s great and I’m high off the ozonic tang of the post-rain air, so I accelerate faster and faster, curling Ariel the Wonder Car around each tight curve in the road, until I reach the top, where the Pacific lurches suddenly into view and the world at large–previously only visible from my driver’s side window–suddenly becomes panoramic…

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(looking west…click to embiggen…little gold Ariel is on the far right…)

I hang out at the top a while, long enough to say hi to a dad who’s brought his preteen daughter up to the top to show her the view; witness some complete idiot inscribing donuts in the intersection, sending up a gust of exhaust; and smile to myself as a carful of hungover teenagers, sucking down cigarettes and giggling, pulls up next to me and set off up the hill for a hike. Half of them return after two minutes, leaving only one boy and girl to disappear around the path to snog in privacy. (I know, I used to do it too.)

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(looking east…click to embiggen)

My family had a ranch up here but it burned down in the 70s. I first traversed through this pass with my father, on the way to the beach, when he’d take me surfing. I was too small and the ocean scared me; I never learned to stand up on the board, but I loved going with my dad. Later, when I was in high school, I would take advantage of free periods to shoot up the mountain and down the other side to get coffee by the sea in Malibu. I could have gotten it anywhere, but I loved the drive. I had a ’69 VW Bug at the time, and its drum brakes would become completely useless by the time I slid down the other side at PCH; I’d always have to grit my teeth and come to a sloo-oo-oo-w stop at the highway, hoping desperately that there was enough of my brakes left to prevent me from simply coasting out into traffic.

I’ve brought every man I ever loved here, trying to explain to them an element of myself I couldn’t describe with words.

One night in 2001, my best friends Vanessa and Kirby and myself clambered up onto the roof of Ariel and laid on our backs to watch the Perseid meteor shower. The sky was filled with shooting stars, so many it looked as though we’d stumbled into a timelapse photo of the night sky, every visible pinpoint of light streaking, searing across the space above our heads, burning brilliantly across the canopy of the stars, inscribing our field of vision with interstellar calligraphy.

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(That’s Catalina out there…)

Standing overlooking the sea, leaning against the battered three-way sign naming the streets, I can hear small animals scuttering in the sun-warmed brush on the slope beneath me, and I spot a Red Stripe bottlecap, the detritus of a Piccolo Pete, and a 1989 quarter among the crunched dirt. On the other side–the inland side, where my Wonder Car waits–I sit down on the front bumper and stare out across the vast bowl of the West Valley, squinting to make out the sandstone crags of Chatsworth where I climbed as a child, about twenty years ago. I think about the two dozen or so different lives I’ve led in the years since, how lucky I’ve been, and how many different versions of myself–tearing my life down, re-building it, different friends, different interests, different colors of hair, different lives–this little cut in the mountains has been witness to. I slurp the dregs of the gas-station coffee I’d bought off of Topanga and watch the shadows of the clouds, slowly, slowly, climb across the rises and falls of the landscape. Road%20signs.JPG

It is a good day.

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(current hair status: orange)

2 Replies to “Stunt Road & Saddle Peak: A Wee Personal History”

  1. It’s absolutely great on a motorcycle too! You can really smell the country, the grasses and flowers this time of year. In summer, the hills can get oppressively hot.

    Just look out for the “squids” on their racing motorcycles on the weekend, they come up Stunt road pretty fast!

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