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By LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly

The purple mountains of Southern California were my playground. Standing as the backdrop to a valley of lemon orchards and strawberry fields, the mountains offered vistas of the Pacific Ocean and a reward of a cool breeze once you reached the top. As a child I hiked them with my family and on school field trips, surrounded by the scrubby brush of fragrant sage that smelled like butterscotch in the hot air. Passing through eucalyptus and sycamore groves the trees rustled and lined our path as we made our way back down to the ocean.

Even though we were but 45 minutes from Los Angeles, these hills were alive with wildlife. Deer and rabbits were abundant, and the freeway pass nearby was named Conejo Grade, after the Spanish word for “rabbit.”

Smith Rock State Park, Central Oregon

Smith Rock State Park, Central Oregon

When I was 10 and participating in the summer day camp Creative Workshop, my outdoor class hiked these hills, stopping to make solar prints and identify plants along the way. I froze solid on that hike while a large rattlesnake made its way across the path in front of me, my teacher quietly grabbing my hand and whispering, “Don’t move.” Afterwards, he pointed out the snake we had seen just a few feet in front of us was large and lumpy because it had just eaten, and it was more than likely just wanting to get away from us. At that moment I was taught reverence, understanding, and caution in the wild.

In my 30s, I hiked these hills with my father, while my mother was recuperating from surgery. Staying with her during those days, my dad and I would set off early mornings up the hill behind their house, climbing the staircase and through the grove of pepper trees. We took in the view looking eastward, down to the valley that was eclipsing from orange groves to housing tracts. We agreed it was still beautiful. These breaks gave us rare time together, just to be, and to breathe deeply.

Somehow I drifted away from being outdoors in the wild. Work pressures, a busy home life — it’s easy to forget to adventure. It’s been coming back to me, though, and last summer, together with my partner and parents, I explored the Cascades in Central Oregon and, one day in August, hiked in the magnificence of Smith Rock. On that hike, and many times afterward, I exclaimed, “Why haven’t I been here before?” Truly the most beautiful place I had seen in Oregon, Smith Rock took my breath away.

This year, I’ve joined a women’s outdoor adventure group through Miss Fit Adventures, and returned to the hiking that fuels my soul. Together, we’ve hiked the trails of the Columbia River Gorge, like Eagle Creek to Tunnel Falls, and climbed the 2600 ft. elevation to Indian Point. Surrounded by a tribe of like-minded women on these hikes, we listen for birds and spot trillium after trillium in bloom. These are my people, and I’m pushing myself physically and spiritually, and, I suppose, returning to my childhood. It brings me peace, and leaves me with a little wonder and awe for the place we live.

I can’t go back to the mountain of my childhood. Last week it burned up in flames. The notorious Santa Ana winds whipped themselves up into a frenzy, and the entire hill from one side all the way over to the coast has burned. The pepper trees, sage, and sycamore canyon are all ash now, and an image from the news left me with pause. The photo was of a man rescuing a rabbit, a conejo, from the middle of the road as it attempted to flee the inferno.

The sense of place all came back to me, and I realized how much nature has always been a part of my life, bringing solace and awe. I’m returning to that place now, though it’s in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and the scents are of fir trees and damp moss, and the delight of coming upon a giant banana slug in my path. I still hope to see a conejo.

Miss Fit Adventures offers group hikes every other Saturday. See missfitadventures.com  for a schedule and more information. LeAnn Locher can be reached at llocher@gmail.com.

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