Trabuco Canyon, a Literary Idyll
by James P. Blaylock
Trabuco Canyon, about half an hour from our neighborhood in Old Towne Orange, comprises a small part of the Cleveland National Forest, which stretches south into San Diego County, one wilderness area running into another. Much of Trabuco Canyon is inaccessible, a piece of living history that hasn’t changed much since Gaspar de Portola gave the canyon its name in 1769: dense chaparral and overgrown side canyons; steep hillsides cut with trails that lead nowhere; oaks, sycamores and alders at lower elevations; big-leaf maples, Coulter pines at higher elevations; fried egg poppies and tiger lilies and the purple blooms of wild onions… A person could wander through the Canyon forever and never run out of wonders, or so it has always seemed to me.
My father, who grew up in Tustin on La Colina Drive when it was mainly farmland, used to hunt, fish, and hike in Trabuco Canyon. On a spring day in the early 1930s, he and a friend drove out along the unpaved road, actually a not-always drivable part of the Arroyo Trabuco. The road turns into a narrow, tree-shaded, rutted track along the creek, often unmaintained. Water in the creek was high that day, and my father’s Ford Model A bogged down at the second creek crossing. A friendly stranger, coming back down from higher elevations, towed them out. It turned out he was a bounty hunter who had been tracking mountain lions.
The interesting thing about my father’s recollection is that I can easily picture it. I crossed the creek in just that same spot a number of times when I was a teenager and was forced to turn back due to high water at the crossing. So when my father told me about his adventure with the lion hunter I could see it in my mind’s eye, so to speak – what he had seen sixty or seventy years earlier. A verse in Ecclesiastes says that “A generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the Earth abides forever.” I’m hoping that’s true in a local sense – that part about the Earth abiding. It’s the thing I like best about Trabuco Canyon. The place is constantly changing, but the changes are generated by the seasons and the weather, as they always have been. Poison oak, which is plentiful in the canyon, changes its look in the spring, fall, and winter: green leaves to red leaves and then mere twigs, the green leaves returning in the spring, one spring after another.
When our family drove out there in the early 1960s, we generally parked along the road in a likely spot and wandered down the creek looking for beetles and water boatmen and newts. My father made us willow whistles with his penknife and pointed out pools where he used to fish. The lower campground was still operating in those days, and so there were latrines and running water and picnic tables. There was also a weir built into a narrow part of the creek—two pieces of heavy channel iron set into the creek bed with a wooden gate slipped into the channels. Water pooled up behind it, forming a pond deep enough to swim in.
In the early years of the 1960s people still hunted lions, but by the time I was 13-years-old, camping out there with the Boy Scouts, the bounty had been revoked. The area was heavy with poison oak, but we gave no thought to it as we hiked up narrow canyons and along the creek or crept through the underbrush playing capture the flag. I developed the mistaken idea that I was immune to poison oak and had the good luck to avoid the rash until years later when I finally picked up a bad case of it hiking in the Canyon. Live and learn. In my Boy Scout days, we carried Sierra cups and drank the creek water with impunity. One time when our troop was studying edible native plants, I hiked away down the creek looking for wild mint to make tea. I picked a stem of nettle, which looks something like mint, and put it to my nose to smell it, which turned out to be a regrettable mistake.
In 1969, a year of incessant rain, Trabuco Canyon flooded. Cattle had to be airlifted out and cabin owners were evacuated. Five people died and 17 others were hospitalized in a mudslide in nearby Silverado Canyon. According to Jim Sleeper’s Orange County Almanac, it rained 28 inches in the county that year. I drove there in my Volkswagen Bug to have a look around when the road was passable again, just to see what the Canyon looked like after a wet winter. The road was a washed-out wreck, but I banged along, hoping my shock absorbers and axles would hold out, gunning it through high water at the crossings, careful not to overdo it and drown the engine or brakes. I passed the fire station and the little cluster of cabins opposite the turnoff to Holy Jim Canyon (one of which, my wife Viki and I would buy in the 1980s). There was water everywhere – small cataracts flowing down mountainsides, springs bubbling up out of what had been dry ground, the ferns enormous on north-facing canyon walls. I found a flat area a hundred yards beyond the cabins that was swampy with spring water, water weeds, and small ponds that would disappear as the spring turned into summer. I spent an hour mooching around, looking for newts and frogs and water bugs and enjoying the green, saturated beauty of the place.
One October day in 1983 our family of four drove into the canyon on a photographic expedition, parking the car in what had been the lower campground, but which was no longer open to camping. There was plenty of water in the creek, and that weir was still working. Someone had recently fit a new piece of plywood into the rusting channel iron. The pond it formed was deep and clear and half covered in autumn leaves. Two kids, a boy and a girl, were swimming in the cold water, jumping off logs and rocks, the girl twirling in mid-leap. Viki got a couple of nice black-and-white photos perfectly capturing the autumn weather, the leaf-strewn pond, the shadowy woods beyond, and the smiles on the kids’ faces. We hiked along up the creek with no particular destination, Danny on my back in a carrier and his brother John able to hold his own on foot. Viki took a photo of me crouched in front of John, who was wearing a pair of OshKosh overalls and looking entranced at a tiny frog perched on my knee.
Some years later we took out a twenty-year lease on Cabin 12 back in the Canyon, which sat on the shadowy south bank of the creek across from the turnoff to Holy Jim Trail. The 500-square-foot cabin had oak floors, a big skylight, and a shed built out back. Our friends Ron and Margaret Elliot came in as half owners, along with their daughters Betsy and Katie. The cabin needed work, so we sometimes hauled a generator, tools, and lumber out with us in our old Chevy Suburban. If we needed a box of wood screws or a tube of caulk it meant a two-hour round-trip drive back out to the pavement and into El Toro.
The cabin was empty when we bought it aside from two framed photographs of a man carrying a walking stick and wearing a Panama hat, standing in front of a waterfall that was a wild torrent of cascading water. From the backdrop and the man’s clothing, it’s evident the photos had been taken in the 1950s in Falls Canyon, not too far down the road from our cabin but difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. The entrance to the narrow side canyon is hidden by trees and rocks and the wild geometry of the rocky hillside. Falls Canyon in the 1950s looked just like Falls Canyon in the 1980s, Trabuco Canyon abiding over the years. I’ll bet it looks the same today, what with this year’s torrential rains. Those two old photos are currently hanging on the wall of my tree house study. I’m looking at them right now, wondering who the man in the Panama hat was – possibly a previous owner of our cabin, long since passed away.
We found ourselves out at the cabin fairly often over the years. On the typical weekend trip, we’d clean the place up inside and out, sweeping away oceans of leaves and sticks from the front porch and raking them clear, cutting back invasive vinca plants creeping toward the kitchen door, lighting the pilot light in the propane refrigerator (a weird idea), removing mice from inside the stove, sweeping the place out, and generally trying to keep ahead of time and the weather and the acorn woodpeckers that constantly drilled holes under the eaves.
The kids generally disappeared during the cleanup, returning in time for dinner with tales of newts and tarantulas. Newts are common along shady paths most of the year, but in March and April when the creek calms down, they become aquatic creatures, migrating into the creek to reproduce. In the winter and early spring in high-water years, the creek rises and the night is alive with the sound of heavy boulders clattering along downstream. When Santa Ana winds blow in the fall, the place can be downright creepy, with vast patches of fallen leaves picked up en masse by the winds, levitating above the ground like an autumn carpet until the wind falls and they settle again. The night is noisy with wind and with the sounds of sticks and branches falling out of trees. In any season there’s the howling of coyotes up in the hills at night and the rustle of critters lurking outside. Unless there was the smell of skunks, we had no idea what sort of critters they were. Once, when I was walking in the woods, I came across the half-eaten torso of a fawn, the cracked ribs and missing body parts making me suspect a mountain lion.
But the best thing about the Canyon was the absence of excitement: the pervasive forest quiet broken by the whispering of the wind in the trees, the babble of creek water, the calling of ravens, and the chatter of squirrels. The lonesome late afternoons were best – nothing moving but hawks and vultures in the blue sky and the occasional tarantula ambling past. Our adventures reminded us time and again that the canyon was always there waiting when we wanted to escape the de-personalizing rat-race that Orange County was fast becoming at the end of the century.
One night in a heavy storm, a gust of wind tore a big limb off the sycamore tree that shaded our cabin. The limb smashed through the skylight, letting in buckets of rain. We found the time to drive out there a few days later, but by then the hardwood floor had warped itself out of shape. Rugs, mattresses, and upholstery were rain-soaked and growing moldy, and that tree limb was still jammed into the broken skylight. The place was abruptly uninhabitable. We cleaned out the worst of the debris and threw a tarp over the skylight, but we didn’t have the time or the heart to put the cabin back together again, which would have taken a new roof, a new floor, and a Hazmat suit to ward off possible hantavirus now that deer mice had claimed the place. We hung on for another couple of years, doodling away at small projects, but finally decided to sell. By then our lives had moved on, and our time in the cabin was at an end.
I went out there one last time to collect anything that was still useful – some pots and pans and kitchen implements, a couple of folding cots, and a box of books that hadn’t been waterlogged. Someone had broken in and stolen the oil lamps, the machete, and a number of other living-in-the-woods sorts of things. When the Suburban was loaded, I wasn’t in a mood to leave, especially since I wouldn’t be coming back except as a tourist. I wanted some sort of last hurrah, and so I undertook to rebuild the old footbridge over the creek.
The bridge itself was makeshift, like a tree house built of scrap lumber. It had fallen down and been rebuilt a couple of times over the years, set atop fallen alder trunks long enough to span the creek. There was a sort of trestle structure to the underside that helped support the weight of the bridge, which was topped with pieces of one-by-ten plank that hadn’t been cut to length but ran out randomly over the water on either side. The wood was rotting where the planks were nailed to the alder trunks, and many of the nails had been reduced to rust. One of the creek-spanning trunks had shifted and given the bridge an ominously unstable sponginess. A trip across was a sketchy business and was getting sketchier with each passing month. And so, like I said, the notion came to me that I should spend the rest of the afternoon repairing it. The collapsing footbridge seemed to me to constitute the loss of some sort of decisive battle, like the Dwarfs being driven out of the mines of Moria, the four cabins in the hollow, including our own, becoming the homes of goblins.
Some time back a new owner had begun renovating the cabin just upstream from ours but had quickly given it up and hadn’t been seen since. There was a pile of scrap lumber in a heap on the ground near the abandoned cabin, including a monstrous piece of 4x4 oak that was about 15 feet long. It seemed to me that if I could cram that long piece of oak into the trestle beneath the alder trunks, it might go a long way toward offsetting the collapse of the down-creek side of the bridge. To do it meant knocking out and replacing several pieces of the trestle that were in the way, hammering in wedges, adding half a dozen scrap-wood angle braces, and generally spending a pleasant few hours engaged in a Swiss Family Robinson project. I ended up prying up a dozen planks from the top of the bridge, flipping them around so that the rotten ends now protruded harmlessly out over the creek, the intact ends nailed solidly back down.
When I was done a person could skip across the bridge from one end to the other without any fear of going through---or at least not much fear. I can’t remember too many times when I’ve enjoyed myself more. But now it was late in the day, and I wanted to be out of the Canyon before dark. I threw my tools into the truck, backed over a stump that twisted the hell out of my rear bumper, and drove away without looking back, until now.
These days Trabuco Canyon abides in our memories. We drive out now and then to the Trabuco Oaks Steakhouse, passing the mouth of the dirt road back into the Canyon, checking to see whether it’s been leveled recently and calculating whether one of our cars would make it out there. After the Holy Jim Fire burned in the area in 2018, we gave up the now sad idea of returning, wanting to hold on to the pictures in our mind. It’s wonderfully true, however, that chaparral sends out new shoots quickly after a fire. Wildflowers flourish, especially the beautiful fried egg poppies, which quickly populate burn areas. Although a fast-moving fire will scorch the leaves and bark on oaks and sycamores, often the trees survive, and in a few years, you have to look hard to see evidence of the fire.
Of course, a person would have to drive out there to see evidence of these things. My Mini Countryman has about a 6 inch draft, three inches lower than is sensible, and so I use that as an excuse, thinking about axles and wheels and the hazards of fording boulder-strewn streams. But all excuses aside, Viki and I have grandchildren now, and it turns out (maybe not surprisingly) that few things work better than grandchildren to revive one’s interest in the beauty of the world. By now the Canyon should be well along the way to restoring itself and restoring in our minds the idea of finding a way to drive out there to see how the newts and frogs and other old friends are getting along.
World Fantasy Award-winning author James Blaylock, one of the pioneers of the steampunk genre, has published thirty novels and story collections as well as scores of essays and articles. Despite his close association with steampunk, most of his work is contemporary, realistic fantasy set in southern California, typified by novels like The Last Coin, All the Bells on Earth, and The Rainy Season, which was listed by Orange Coast Magazine as one of the ten quintessential Orange County novels. His latest novel is Pennies from Heaven, published by PS Publishing and available from JABberwocky in ebook. A sequel, The Invisible Woman, is due to be published in 2024.