Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
It Ain't Las Vegas
Sally Charette’s first published short story was named one of "100 Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Short Stories 1999. A former PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, her writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Storyhouse and elsewhere. Her photography has appeared in The Houston Literary Review and Bird Talk. She conducts script research for a living and is working on a novel.
Down below, in Los Angeles, most people don’t have a clue where Acton is. If I meet you at a party, I will name towns closer and closer to your stomping grounds until you have a fairly inaccurate view of where I live. You might know Santa Clarita. You may have heard of Palmdale. But you probably won’t have a picture in your mind of the twenty-five miles of mountain-lined freeway in between.
It’s okay. You can’t help it. Driving the map of Los Angeles County is confusing. I’ve been up here for six years, and I am still amused that the moon rising in the east leads me home during one part of my drive and follows along beside me at another.
Part of me likes it that most Los Angelinos haven’t noticed Acton. If you aren’t knocked out of your freeway doldrums by the sight of snow-capped Mount Emma as you round the bend before Red Rover Mine Road, there’s little hope that you’ll get what I love about this place. If patches of poppies and lupines don’t make you want to pull over to the side of the road, you probably wouldn’t like it here anyway.
I once thought it was just dandy if passers-by believed that this high desert mountain town was all about the fast food joints and gas stations by the freeway; if they didn’t understand that a network of wildlife thrives amid the junipers and cacti that look like so much scrub from a distance.
But lately it’s begun to scare me. If you think there is nothing here, you will think nothing of destroying it.
"What do you do?" a coworker asks the Monday after passing Acton on her way back from Las Vegas.
"Hiking, gardening," I begin, but I can tell I’ve already lost her, so I stop. I shrug. "I keep pretty busy."
What I would like to say is, some evenings I give myself over to the hillside behind my house. I take a glass of iced tea, a novel and my notebook to the table in my backyard. But all I can do, if I can do anything other than gaze around me with a tide of joy rising inside me, is write about my surroundings. Hummingbirds flicker through the honeysuckle hedge I planted the first year here. Glossy ravens as big as cats glide over golden grass on the hillside, hunting mice in the peachy light. Smaller birds sweep from juniper to juniper, catching bugs in flight. The shadow of the mountain to the west creeps up the hillside to the east. When it reaches the top, it’s time to go in.
I still watch TV and read books and have friends over for dinner. I don’t go to as many movies as I did because I get caught up in tending to my yard. Nearly everything that volunteers eventually bears a thorn or a burr. I spend a lot of time pulling these beasts up and replacing them with plants that I hope can survive highs around 120 and lows around 10 degrees.
"Is that fun?" the little girl from up the hill asks me on a warm summer morning. I am on my hands and knees near the road digging at the taproot of a prickly invader that looks like a dandelion on steroids and psychedelics.
"It is, in a way," I say, trying to be honest. "It’s good to do something that needs doing."
She sticks her lower lip out like she doesn’t believe me. I can’t really explain to an eight-year-old that being close enough to the earth to smell it is good for my soul. Routing out all the weeds on the slope between my house and hers becomes a compulsion for a few hours. In spite of myself, I admire the creativity and tenacity of these plants. Their myriad survival strategies amaze me to the point that I begin to suspect they are sentient. Some send their roots deep, others spread lightly across the soil. Some snuggle up in the relative damp beneath the rosemary shrub and entwine their roots with those I want to nourish.
Flora that offends in the garden is often picturesque from a distance. With a nod to the irony of it, I take photographs of the hillside dotted with the same flamboyant, barbed specimens that I route out of my yard. I capture long views across the valley. I frame shots of the commonplace and shots of the unusual.
It begins to rain on a late winter Thursday afternoon and keeps it up, off and on through Saturday. Santiago Road between my home and the only coffee house in Acton is flooded. It’s one of the things that I love about this place.
Cinnamon water rushes across the asphalt. This transient creek has a lot of living to do in the few hours it is allotted every year. I pull my SUV over onto the gravel shoulder, keeping an eye on the rim of the little cliff that runoff has formed over decades. I climb down with my digital camera in hand, immediately glad I didn’t pull any further forward. The bank is higher than I realized, at least ten feet. Deep cracks eight to ten inches from the edge warn me to keep my distance.
As I near the little falls created where the asphalt gives way to the bed of the wash, I look back. The bank is scooped out in a concave arch that leaves the land at the top perilously thin. Junipers along the lip perform a balancing act, their roots holding the soil beneath them together, slowing the erosion while their crowns tilt toward the quick brown flow. The water twists like a sidewinder around the surviving plant life. Black roots create eddies and ripples along the banks.
Most of the year this area draws its colors from a palette of golds and reddish browns, and the greens of the junipers are muted by a combination of intense sun and light dust. The high desert has a way of bleaching out colors in summer. Today, though, everything pops. Light filters through gray blue clouds that turn the greens lush and bright. The mountains are cloaked in tender grasses that got their start three months ago, in the November rains. Fuzzy chollo and prickly pear cacti bristle amid whispering green. It’ll be a good year for wildlife.
I take pictures from various angles. Some toward the Pelona Mountains, wrapped in clouds. Some toward the freeway, where I carefully edit out its gray interruption of the scenery, its reminder of the workday commute.
I’ve seen hints that the land on the other side of the road is going to be developed soon. A company is trying to refresh its old permit, which was granted before our slow-growth community standards went into effect. Every time a new project is started, I wish I had a "before" picture. I should take photos of everything I think is beautiful in the least, because in the next decade I fear much of it will be replaced by houses too big for their lots, with no room for trees to thrive between them. You don’t usually know until the ugly yellow earthmovers show up one morning and start scraping the character off the face of the land. Down go the junipers. Rabbit and coyote burrows collapse under the treads. It’s happening every day in Santa Clarita. It’s happening on the other side of the freeway in Acton right now.
I have the advantage of having lived both in and out of Los Angeles. I spent my first five years in Southern California in an uncherished section of the city east of Hollywood and south of Los Feliz. Without realizing it, I began to create my own small town. I was a regular at the Thai restaurant on the grimy corner of Fountain and Edgemont. The people at the croissant place near work knew my name. The guy at the newsstand had a paper ready for me when I arrived.
The next five years I spent in Sherman Oaks, where I forfeited a little chunk of my soul for low rent and high square footage, but no outdoor space at all. I went to the beach when I could, to the nearby wetlands preserve in the Sepulveda Dam basin often. I began to branch out to the northeast when I was researching a novel whose protagonist is a geologist. I fell in love with Vasquez Rocks, the Devil’s Punchbowl, and Acton in between.
It was a great leap of faith when my husband and I made the move. We thought we were truly in the boondocks. The weekend after we moved here, we discovered a Barnes & Noble just 12 miles up the freeway in Palmdale. A few years later a Trader Joe’s opened up. For me, it’s the perfect balance of being in a rural community and having access to more.
I enjoy living near Los Angeles. I’ve worked out a pretty good relationship with it, but it’s not what I need like I need open spaces. I drive down to Toluca Lake to a job that I like very much. I go to museums and visit friends. Every other week I meet with my writing group and stay over with one of the members so I don’t have to drive home after a long day.
But I came to Acton to reclaim my soul by getting my hands in the dirt. By getting to know the mountains that surround us here. There are four distinct seasons at this altitude, complete with snow at least once a winter. I have tire chains in my trunk, rakes and shovels in my shed, and a big smile on my face every time I drive up the long road to my neighborhood.
Admittedly, I live in one of the developments that must have prompted the town council to adopt low-density standards. My husband and I bought in a community of somewhat tightly packed manufactured homes cupped in a trio of mountains. It must have been awful when they first cut these hills into narrow, terraced lots, but the plan was halted before two additional phases were begun.
We, as a part of our homeowners association, own a wide strip of the relatively undisturbed land around us, allowing wildlife to thrive. Tall evergreens stand in the fire-retarding greenbelts. Flowers and shrubs grace the small yards and the slopes in between them. The street names are all horse-related, although we don’t have any horses here.
This is horse country in general. Signs hanging along the wooden sidewalk of downtown Acton read, "Please Do Not Tie Horses to the Railings." And they’re not just there for decoration. Hitching posts are well-used on Saturday afternoons, when groups of riders stop by Sutter’s Mill for the Saturday burger special. The saloon inside—which until a few years ago was called the 49er—has been here since 1889.
This has been horse country for at least that long. Many landowners have left easements between their properties so riders can pass through. Problem is, some of the new folks can’t see the sense in this. They build to the edges of their land, obliterating trails that horses have quietly traversed for decades. It’s dismaying to me, and I don’t even own a horse.
It’s an appropriate metaphor, I guess, for the change in philosophy that I fear is coming with all the new housing developments. One that prizes individual sovereignties over a shared community. One that prefers an urban-atmosphere-with-a-view over a truly rural environment.
I saw hints of this as soon as I moved here. The fight to prevent an Albertsons supermarket from opening on Crown Valley Road was in full pitch. A majority of vocal residents opposed it because of the increased traffic from the freeway, and the inducement to development that a major grocery store would bring. Albertsons claimed on one hand that most of its business would come from locals, not from thousands of commuters on their way home to Palmdale and Lancaster. On the other hand, they promised to install a traffic light. Seems contradictory. Also seems like they didn’t understand that Actonites like me are kind of proud that we don’t have a traffic light in town. It’s one of the things I tell my family back in Indiana to convince them that I don’t live in the city anymore.
For a while it looked like the project might be a go. The land was zoned properly. Building permits had been issued by the county. The last barrier between Albertsons and Acton was a liquor license. Albertsons’ representatives said they’d open a store with or without liquor. Activists doubted this, and showed up by the dozens at the liquor license hearings held in downtown Los Angeles—sixty five miles away—and in Santa Clarita—a mere twenty-five mile drive.
One woman testified that she had moved from Chatsworth to Moorpark to Acton to keep her horses, and she dreaded being driven from yet another changing community. Another pointed out that Acton Market is run by locals, while Albertsons would import most of its staff from elsewhere. "If my boy tries to buy liquor at Acton Market," she said, "not only will he not get it, but I’ll get a call telling me what he’s been up to." That story and others convinced the board, and we were saved for at least a few more years.
The testimony of one of the few who supported Alberstons chilled me. Her real estate agent had told her that this was an up and coming neighborhood. She’d bought a house here with the understanding that it would soon have all the amenities: a grocery store, other retail stores, a good school. In other words, she didn’t come here looking for what we already have.
Because we don’t have a good high school. Or, I should say, a good building to house our educationally sound high school. For years I’ve been astounded and a little outraged that Acton has very nice elementary and middle schools, but that high school classes meet in Quonset huts that cannot be wired for an appropriate number of computers. Every time a measure to fund a new facility makes it to the ballot, it’s defeated. I can’t fathom that people with values so similar to mine in terms of natural beauty and rural living could take such a narrow view of the value of their children’s educations.
One afternoon as we watch the sun send pink rays across the valley below, my neighbor tells me the secret. The fear behind the reasons that are argued publicly. If we have a good looking high school, more people will want to live here. It will bring more development.
I’ve never thought of that. It hits me where I live.
When the time comes, I can’t bring myself to vote against education. But with the stakes so high, I can’t vote for the new facility. I don’t punch any chads in that particular row.
I tell myself that I come from a small rural high school, and I have done pretty well. I take comfort in letters from local high school students who praise the education they are getting in spite of the drawbacks of their facilities. I rationalize that facts and figures can be picked up anywhere, but that an appreciation for quiet pleasures and for nature can only be passed along through experience. If these kids appreciate what is here, maybe they will help preserve it where they can.
Because this way of life deserves salvation. During the fifteen years I lived in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, I felt increasingly separated from the natural world. I just wasn’t wired to see the divine in the sharp lines and angles of the city. Out here I don’t have to go looking for it. It overtakes me when I get up on a winter morning and look across the valley where the mountains of the Angeles National Forest flirt with clouds. It stops me in my tracks when the shy crescent moon reveals her dark side as a faint shimmering line that traces a full circle. She couldn’t show me this if I lived beneath the barrier of city lights.
It’s the details that keep me here. The coyotes who yip and howl in response to the call of freight trains that pass at ten and two. The roadrunner I occasionally catch a glimpse of down by the mailboxes. The rabbits, snakes, ground squirrels, ravens, falcons, dozens of species of birds who live their lives in the scrub that looks like so much nothing from the freeway.
There is something to do here. There is somebody to be, even though it won’t always come easily.