"Give a Piece a Chance." — Books. Blog. Pie Classes. And a Pinch of Activism.

The Shoes of Palos Verdes

Is this Hawaii? No, it’s Palos Verdes (California). My new neighborhood.

I read an essay about 15 years ago titled “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro” by Cameron Burns. In the story he describes his climb up the towering volcano in Tanzania and how he felt bad for the guides whom he assumed were so poor they had only flip flops to wear for the trek through the jungle and, as they got higher, tattered leather dress shoes with slick soles to tackle the steep scree and snow-filled slopes. When he saw the guides in town a few days later they were traipsing around in brand new, ultra-expensive Koflachmountaineering boots. When asked why on earth they didn’t wear the climbing boots on the mountain they answered, “Because we’re saving them for good.” The story and its irony has stuck with me all these years. While this story has little to do with the one I’m about to tell you, my story is indeed about the significance of proper footwear.

I just moved back to LA after four years in Iowa. And when I landed here and moved into my tiny-but-nice apartment I was not in great shape emotionally. After losing my dog Daisy—and almost losing my other dog Jack—to a coyote attack, I was tossed straight back into the Grief Pit, the one I had just spent the past five years climbing out of. I returned to LA broken-hearted and vulnerable.

My new place—a serene, immaculate guest house with a skylight and an exceptionally comfortable bed—was a good place for both Jack and me to recover and rest. But eventually, after two months, I crawled out from under the covers (who can stay in bed when it’s 75 degrees and sunny in January?!) And Jack, well, even with his neck wounds still healing, a Jack Russell terrier is still a Jack Russell terrier. We had come from living in Iowa with endless open space to run and landed in the middle of upscale suburbia with nothing but picket fences and heavy traffic. Some room to breathe and run free would do him—no, both of us—a world of good. What we needed was a beach.

My guest house is located on the Palos Verdes peninsula with horses, orange groves and—oh, yeah, baby—beaches. Dog-friendly beaches. But here’s the catch: the only reason they are dog friendly is because it is impossible to patrol them with a car, almost impossible to get to them period. These little snippets of sand are wedged into isolated coves. At the bottom of sheer cliffs.

I discovered one particularly inviting stretch of sand after leaving a yoga class (where I spent much of the class curled up in child’s pose trying to contain my tears—there’s nothing like a twisting triangle or a pigeon pose to wring out raw emotions) and pointed my car toward the ocean. Every time I ventured out of my house I made a point to explore a little more of my new neighborhood. On this day, however, my Mini Cooper took over like a divining rod, and steered me down one road, then another, and then came to a stop at the top of a grass-covered bluff. I spotted what I thought was sign for a trailhead so I got out to investigate.

I stood on the grass and as my eyes took in the sweeping view for a moment I thought I had just landed in Hawaii. The water was 50 shades of tropical blues and greens—or as my friend Dave would say, PMS 299 and PMS 306. (I am always amused when artists describe the world in paint names.) The waves were peeling evenly and the sun was reflecting like a rain shower of diamonds off their spray. Palm trees and pine trees dotted the skyline. And if all that wasn’t magical enough, I peered down over the edge of the cliff and below was a sandy beach—with a dog running on it. The dog’s owner was shooting pictures of her canine companion as he swam out to fetch a ball she had thrown. I wanted that to be me with the camera and Jack with the ball.

Staring into the abyss.

The question was, How the f*ck did she get down there? I studied the cliff. It was a sheer drop off of at least 300 feet. I walked along the entire length of the bluff looking for a trail. There were little gullies where maybe someone with suicidal tendencies might scramble down, but these paths were better suited for ground squirrels or geckos. I finally found what looked like an established trail at the south end of the cove. I stood at the top of it and stared down into the abyss. The trail snaked down the vertical wall of a canyon, formed by a creek that flowed out to sea. Just imagining myself going down that trail made my stomach seize up into a knot and my heart rate double. That could not possibly be the way that woman and her dog got down there. It just couldn’t be. Who in their right mind would want to be on that beach so badly as to endanger their life—and, as I was picturing—their dog’s life?

Me. That’s who.

Seriously, how could anyone get down this?
I had to know if that was indeed the route to get down to the beach, that pristine, isolated, beckoning strand of irresistible untrammeled sand. So I waited. I waited for the woman and her dog to see if they were coming up the cliff. I waited at least a half hour, watching them frolic and laugh and splash in the surf as I stared down at them with envy. Finally, they made their way out of the canyon and back up to the top of the bluff. As she neared the top I leaned over the cliff and called down to her, “Is this the same trail you took to get down there?”

She looked up at me, breathing heavily, and kept climbing. Her Weimaraner breezed up to the top and ran past me, wagging his tail and dripping with sea water. “Yes,” she finally replied.  She was blond and fit, wearing jeans and some kind of trail shoes. She appeared to be around my age—which is, um, 52 but who’s counting. In sizing her up in a she reminds me of me kind of way, my desire and determination only deepened. If she can do it, so can I. A little competiveness can serve as a good motivator. Especially when a Jack Russell terrier’s happiness is at stake.

I waited until she got to the top before accosting her with more questions. “Is this the only way down? Isn’t it dangerous? Would it be safe for my small dog?”

She caught her breath and answered. “The trail is fine,” she said. “But there are a few tricky spots where it might be hard for a small dog to jump.” Jump? Good God, what was down there that I couldn’t see? How could the trail be even worse?

Then it was her turn to size me up. She looked down at my feet. “You wouldn’t want to go down in those shoes,” she said, referring to my Converse Chuck Taylor’s. I lifted my shoe, noted its smooth sole, and nodded. “I got these specifically for this trail,” she continued, holding up her foot for a better look. Our eyes locked onto her shoes. Bright pink with neon yellow soles, their tread was a collection of little spikes that covered the entire bottom. They looked more like soccer cleats than trail running shoes. “I got them at REI,” she added. And then she kept walking, her camera dangling from one shoulder, her dog’s leash from the other, her water bottle in her hand.

I watched her and her happy dog walk across the grassy bluff. I don’t like talking about God and woo-woo stuff, but I could swear meeting this woman was a message sent from heaven, an angel of inspiration, and a reminder that I needed to do more than look longingly at that beach from above. I needed to tackle my fears and find my old self again.

My old self could—and would—tackle something as simple as hiking down a beach trail. Even one with a little exposure. But in my vulnerable state that “little exposure” might as well have been 3,000 feet and not 300. My old self was a strong and fearless athlete who could ride her bike up mountain passes and come screaming down the other side. My old self was the brave girl who competed as the only woman on a five-person team in the 10-day, 300-mile nonstop Eco-Challenge adventure race across the Utah wilderness. My old self was the restless soul who graduated early from high school to spend 3 months on a NOLS course building igloos, sleeping on rock ledges, climbing granite walls, and exploring underground caves. My old self was the determined young woman who traveled Kenya to work on a coffee farm at age 24. My old self would have scrambled down the side of that beach canyon, even in her Chuck Taylors.

I didn’t need shoes, I needed climbing rope and crampons. But screw it, “Whatever it takes” is my motto. I may not have been my old self but I had not lost my determination. And after everything Jack had been through, I cared more about his happiness than my fear. Steep and scary trail, be damned. I went home, changed out of my yoga clothes, grabbed a carrot muffin, and drove straight to REI.

These shoes are made for walking — in the water.

I now know the price of courage. It is $130, which is to say $120, plus California sales tax. I bought the Brooks PureGrit trail running shoes in all their hot pink and neon yellow glory. I went back to the trail wearing my new shoes, comfortable as bedroom slippers, far lighter than any Air Nikes I had ever owned, ready to conquer my fears.

I left Jack at home for the first outing. First I called my mom to let her know where I was and that if she didn’t hear back from me within an hour to send help. Then, taking a deep breath, I descended over the edge of the cliff and gingerly made my way down the cliff, keeping my knees loose, my stride short, and continued to focus on my breathing to stay calm.

Baby steps. You just take one baby step at a time and once you have strung all those baby steps together, guess what, you are at the bottom and sprinting toward the beach with tears of joy and relief springing from your eyes. And ready to do it again. With your dog.

If a song could be a caption it would be Pharrell William’s “Happy.”

Doesn’t look so menacing from below, does it?

I brought Jack the second time, and third, and fourth, and now whenever the car gets near that cliff his mood picks up and he can’t wait to get out of the car and onto the trail. Once we are on the beach I throw the Frisbee for him, he digs huge holes in the sand, he sprints through the surf, and he barks his little heart out with happiness. While he is doing his thing I am doing mine. Instead of going to the dark and sad yoga studio I do my yoga poses in the sunny cove, while looking for breaching whales out on the water, meditating, and just being grateful in general that we can access this beauty and space right here just ten minutes from our little house.

If you are ever in need of motivation to get active and get past your fears, get a dog like Jack. Here he is, wet, sandy, and half way up the trail.

When I go up and down that steep trail now I see it a little differently. Yes, it is exposed and risky, not for the faint of heart or unfit, but it is no longer the terror-inducing, stomach-knotting obstacle it appeared as when I first viewed it. Now Jack and I scramble up and down it faster than that photographer woman and her Weimaraner. Moreover, now I see the trail as the path to my old self. I may be a little older, more cautious, and bruised by the disappointments and tragedies of life, but I am still that woman, brave and bold, determined and adventurous. I just needed the proper footwear to be reminded.

And they hiked happily ever after.