Photos & Text By Joanna Devane
The San Jacinto Wilderness erupts into a sky island, high above the noise pollution and sea of Southern California sprawl. Jagged granite ridges, timbered with firs and pines, envelop me in mist-shrouded silence.
I came to this green, rocky refuge to escape the endless urban clanging below. My soul had been screaming for the motions and machines to stop. I could not hear myself think. I could not feel myself anymore. I could not spontaneously howl with my two pups. I needed a break from the busyness of what we unnaturally perceive as “adulting.” And so, I packed hiking clothes and dogs into my Jeep and left Los Angeles behind to rewild in Idyllwild.
This is a sacred Native landscape. Bands of Cahuilla Indians migrated through the area to escape the desert heat, roaming these passes, valleys, and mountains for more than 2,500 years. The word “Cahuilla” is believed to have been born from the Spanish kawiya, meaning “master.” The Cahuilla mastered the wildlife. They immersed themselves in the language and lore of the land, developing a deep knowing. I am here to walk in their footsteps.
The charming village of Idyllwild, or “The Hill” as local folks call it, becomes base camp from which I set off on my daily odyssey. Some days are for long hikes to breathtaking alpine vistas; other days are for shorter wanderings and breath-giving meditations among manzanitas. Accompanying me on these adventures are canine companions Timber and Astra, my earth and stars. Their nomadic Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky lineage means they are made for navigating this cooler, rugged terrain. Together, we trek distant trails of human ancestors and wolves to rewild our spirits.
At first, the silence is unnerving. It is disorienting to unplug and slow down – to inhabit this natural world, open my senses to these new surroundings. Dogs do this instinctively. Their two primary senses, smell and hearing, are far more refined, and these insightful, intuitive creatures also “feel” the world around them.
For this city gal, such heightened awareness calls for mindfulness, which can be dysregulating until new rhythms emerge. In stark contrast to the constant whirr of humanity, the San Jacintos speak in secrets to those that listen in presence. When I finally let my inner chatter fade away, I awaken to a verdant orchestra – the sights and sounds of silence.
A sugar pine cone falls onto a bed of needles. A spiny lizard scurries under a moss-mottled boulder. A yellow tiger butterfly flutters and feeds on purple lupine wildflowers. Somewhere beyond the cedars, a creek speaks in a steady babble. Ladybugs swarm. Quails scratch for seeds. Sunrays slice centuries-old treetops. My fingers trace knots and scales of ragged bark. What stories live in these deep grooves and furrows? A mosquito drones on in my ear; even this is welcome. Wind whispers and wakens the leaves. Messages course through the network of branches. Two squirrels spiral skyward as ancient oaks creak.
Yearning to release the vibe of city living, I slowly surrender to the mountains’ music. The sounds of life our species once intimately knew are nature unplugged. With the dogs as my mirrors, we rediscover our essential wildness too. We get dirty, experience alpenglow sunsets and moody seasons, kick up spring pollen, summer dust, autumn leaves, and winter snow.
Lungs burning and hearts bursting, we unleash our joyful, wild natures with the altitude. One snowy day, I unfurl my snow-angel wings. Timber and Astra play in powder for the first time like ecstatic kids on Christmas morning. Like a long-lost lover returned, the chilly night sky, spangled with stars and moon magic, tingles my skin.
I chase Timber and Astra’s tails and noses. I learn that the cracked trunk of a Jeffrey pine smells of vanilla and butterscotch, while bruised leaves of skunk cabbage indeed stink like skunk spray. I inhale the fragrance of fresh rainstorms and old wildfires. Charred ghost trees surrounded by lush new growth tell of death and rebirth. The peaks stand sentry – Mount San Jacinto, Suicide Rock, Tahquitz – each a gateway between the heavens and earth. Everything appears miraculous and harmonious.
I once took pride in my hiking identity as Speedy Gonzales – a nickname bestowed by my Peruvian guide on our arduous nine-day trek to Machu Picchu. Despite a recently torn knee ligament, I would charge ahead of the group to the next campsite, where I would arrive out of breath.
Similarly, in my identity as an intrepid TV news producer, I would rush to the next story, from the sands of the Middle East to the red dirt roads of Africa. In this Type A endurance race of pushing my body to its limits and cramming my mind with images and information to convey to others, I lost myself.
Here in Idyllwild, the rushing stops. With nowhere to go and no one to be, time stands still, and I stand uncloaked – readapted to contemplation of changing light and shadows. I excavate beneath the surface, sinking into the soft earth and into my authentic self. Channeling my dogs’ ability to see in the dark, I explore the spaces between worlds within worlds, the true nature of my very existence. Senses and instincts awakened, I tune into an inner world that for so long had been drowned out and ignored. Who am I without modern distractions? I let my imagination run free.
There is a good reason why artists, musicians, and storytellers are drawn to Idyllwild. Not only do these mountains glow with inspiration, the diverse landscape, and grounding energy activate creativity. What the environment reflects in, the brain reflects out. As a filmmaker, I struggled to create in the celluloid canyons of Hollywood. The lights are too bright, and the noise is too pervasive. I needed to get lost in this wild idyll. Illuminated by real stars, I find possibilities, purpose, and power – to ignite the “passion project” I am developing. With trees in my eyes, I find liberation.
During my travels in Japan, I learned about a practice called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest.” In a nutshell: our five senses wisely unlock the power of the forest – within ourselves. If, like me, you have been suffering from nature deficit disorder, this is the bridge to stillness, peace, happiness.
Bathing in streams is optional, but the pups and I highly recommend it. When done regularly, retreating to nature is a natural medicine, with healing powers for the body and mind. And if you let it, it can turn you into a force of nature.
So get outdoors and idle for a while. Intoxicate your senses with woodsy perfume. Study the distinct dialects of feathered and furry friends. Climb trees and let the branches cradle and rock you, like a child reborn. Dance in a mountain meadow. Walk the spine of a ridge. Sit in the saddles of sculptured rocks and survey the journey taken. Stand tall atop the world. Enjoy the silence.
Rewild wherever your spirit calls. This is where life renews.