NIGHT ON THE HILL
I crawl up the moon
light-blasted hill on all fours. The underbrush is very dark, and the open spaces are moon-colored. I left my sea-level home about an hour ago, bored with the indoors and enchanted with the thought of a wild fullmoon night's tangled, hilly secrets.
The hill is behind my High School. I am 16 and full of energy and I've been reading a lot of Lovecraft
. No legend
s have ever been whispered of this hill, as far as I know, but I hope to discover things on it and then be able to do some whispering of my own. All I know is that it is steep, high, and that grownups sometimes bike its trails at beautifully dangerous speeds, and that sometimes kids go into it to smoke.
There had been a moment of terror half an hour before: cutting across the deserted baseball field where sprinklers made water arcs ten feet high, I saw something large moving out of the corner of my left eye: a huge shadow about fifty feet away from me. Panic
had seized me, but exhilaration
even more than panic. My dreams were coming true... so I had run, not back through the long black corridors between the buildings of the school, but forward--towards the hill edge of the field, hopping over a fence and vanishing into the underbrush.
I brought with me is feeble, but it reveals haunting brief glimpses of twisted, artificially-colored leaves: leaves on trees, leaves on the ground... and shows the earth itself as a gray-yellow thing. I move forward, towards the moon that shines like a welcoming lighthouse just over the ridge of the hill. I crawl on all fours because the hill has gained an insane angle.
I am about halfway up the hill, struggling to move. I look up at the moon again.
The silhouette of a human being is cutting into the disk of the moon.
I freeze. A minute passes.
Then the voice comes wafting down to me.
"Hey! I see you! Don't be afraid."
I don't know why I stand up and walk towards him instead of running away. But I do. Other voices join his voice. A couple more minutes of climbing take me to a little plateau. There are three of them, and they are all about ten years older than me. They have beer
I sit down among them and tell them my story. They listen appreciatively but don't seem too impressed.
"Hey, want a beer?"
"Here you go."
They turn away from me by and by, and start talking about how they're going to buy shrooms tomorrow. I take my leave and climb all the way to the top of the hill, which isn't so far away now. A small road leads down the other side of the hill. I walk it happily, drinking a beer in a pleasant cop-paranoia, letting gravity pull me down. I climbed the hill with happy energy. Now, when the energy is gone, gravity gives back what I loaned it.
I tell some of my acquaintances about my night. They are hovering on the border of being my friends, and it suits me fine.
"Yeah," G.K. says, "We go up there sometimes. There's something up there that's really cool and I want to show it to you."
I am in ecstacy.
"You mean the mountain bike
trails?" I ask, preparing myself for disappointment.
"Hell no, something much better."
"Pirate gold?" I joke.
But G.K. won't tell me what it is. He says he'll show me after school tomorrow.
Tomorrow comes. School comes, and goes. I am 16, and have enough energy to pay attention to my classes, to the upcoming adventure, and to my own private thoughts (which involve short-skirted girls, Calculus, and philosophy in equal measure: back when philosophy was connected to everything else, and fun).
G.K. and I take his car up to that road on the other side of the hill. It's just a short walk to the start of the "wilderness" from there. Indeed it seems a wilderness
, gorgeously falling away down there to the prison-like school, vast rolling hills everywhere, basking in true California Sun ("Where in California?" you ask? Ah, but there are some places in the world that should not be too well publicized...)
It's a short hike down to a plateau about a hundred feet to the east of the one I explored at night. A bike trail runs past a parabola of dense brush--past the brush is more brush. There is a tiny little stream, a plank thrown across it by the wild bike men--for easy traversal.
"Over there," G.K. says, and points into the brush to our left.
"What's over there?"
"You don't see anything?"
He leads me to edge of the lush, green brush and crouches. I crouch too. G.K. points again. Now I see it! A kind of tiny "tunnel
", or path, or opening in the vegetation, going right into the brush, sized to fit a Labrador retriever, maybe, but not a human being. But it seems to me that it leads only three or four feet into the brush.
G.K. goes in. I follow him, crawling again. It turns out that the tunnel turns cunningly and sharply. What seems a dead-end from outside is just one wall of bush.
Inside the tunnel it is colder and shadier, but not darker. Sure, there is only half as much light--but still plenty to see by. The tunnel widens just a little. The roof, especially, rises, until it no longer is a roof, but just the natural curve of close vegetation. Looking up, I realize with amazement that this tunnel cannot be seen from anywhere up on the hill--the bushes and small trees that make its walls almost intertwine their branches over my head.
But now the "tunnel" narrows again, and the roof comes down until G.K. and I are crouch-walking. The tunnel twists. The tunnel turns. In two spots there are "stairs" cut into the wet black earth
, one stairs leading up about ten feet, the second one going down about eight feet.
The flights of stairs are positioned just around the corners of particularly narrow parts of the tunnel. You can come within five feet of these "stairs"--and, unless somebody (G.K.) tells you to keep moving, you'll think that the tunnel just dead-ends. But follow G.K., and watch him disappear around a secret corner--those stairs!!
The whole "tunnel" is about a hundred feet long. If mapped from above, it would look just about exactly like a snake. It is obviously not only artificial
or at least semi-artificial, but also maintained regularly. A few times I see pots with flowers
in them artfully placed between the path where one's feet would have to trod and the denser undergrowth where there is no light.
And suddenly, after the second stairs and a sharp right turn, we come out!
We are in a clearing, surrounded by trees, that is the size and shape of the base of a medium-sized house. The clearing has two levels. We are on the bottom level, with the tunnel opening right behind us. To the left of us there is a kind of earth wall and the second level is on top: about five feet higher than the first. The top level slopes down away from us, and our bottom level slopes up away from us. The two levels meet on the opposite side of the clearing from us, where there is another tunnel opening. Just a few feet in front of us a small stake has been driven into the ground, and a small painted wood sign is attached to its top. The sign says "Sunshine Grove", and underneath that it says "Est. 199..." Well, it says nineteen ninety-something: I forget what exact year it says.
Past the sign is a small area of polished rock obviously used for fires and cooking. Past the "oven" is a tiny flower bed carefully surrounded by small bricks.
On the side of the clearing to our left, towards the top of the hill, the clearing is hidden by relatively tall, relatively overhanging trees. I cannot see the top of the hill from anywhere in the clearing, or in fact see anything except clear blue sky from anywhere in the clearing, therefore no one can see the clearing itself. The second I realize this I realize its corollary
: This is a protected spot, a secret hidden spot which not only has an entrance that is almost impossible to discover, but which cannot be seen. We can do anything here. Cop
s wouldn't have a clue.
"O my god, is that a couch?"
"Yep," G.K. says.
On the second, top level of Sunshine Grove, which was to our left when we came in to the clearing, there is a couch made out of bricks. It faces south, down the invisible slope of the hill. Like a lazy, mellow throne
it watches the smaller, scragglier trees downslope--but trees which are just as essential as their larger brothers for protecting the clearing from eyes. This couch is simply a giant step, eight feet across, cut into the slope, almost like a third level of the clearing but much smaller. The sides of this giant step have L-shaped red brich structures that make it look remarkably like a couch or a bench. G.K. and me sit down on it and find it hard but comfortable. There is an ashtray with a few cigarettes in it in front of the couch.
"How'd you find this place?"
G.K. is always smiling. But he smiles especially broadly now.
One night him and his friends were exploring the plateau when out of nowhere a dozen older guys appeared on bikes and surrounded them. G.K. and his pals were frightened half to death. But the sense of adventure got the better of them. Turned out that the wild bike people were performing some sort of half-pagan
ritual on that night, a night special to pagans. Fires were being lit and bikes ridden fast through the darkness. Yells were sent up and bong
s hit. The underbrush's secrets were known.
Somewhere in the melee of this night, G.K. was initiated into the passage to Sunshine Grove. The wild bike people's instructions afterwards were simple: "Don't tell too many people about it."
G.K. had followed the instructions. I was the only one he had told so far, among those who had not been there that night.
"Did the bike guys build this place?" I ask G.K.
"No," he says. "They help maintain it. I don't know who built it."
The sun is dimming. It is past 4. The air fills with sweet plant smells and a complex, beautiful odor of California
"This place is amazing."
"Where does that second tunnel lead?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"Well, let's find out."
The second tunnel is short but hard to get through. It leads into a large natural clearing. We think that this is just another entrance to the Grove, but then I notice something strange to my right. Down a little dirt path, I see an oddly shaped part of the vegetation
wall. It looks artificial. We go down there and investigate.
Steps. Going down. Very, very steeply. At the bottom, almost no room whatsoever to maneuver. Sharp branches claw our shirts and scratch our skin to hell. Then, going down and around one of the characteristic false dead-ends, I see the cherry of cherries: a tiny, perfect little cabin
completely hidden in the middle of this little wilderness.
The cabin window is very dirty glass. Inside is a bed, some old magazines on a tiny table, and the most perfect air of contentment, wilderness, and freedom imaginable. Yet there is also a little of that old creepy feeling, this cabin meticulously fashioned by human hands, and no sign of the owner. We have seen its sights and plan to come back some other time for detailed investigation.
I went back to Sunshine Grove a few times, once even helping film part of a small camcorder movie inside (we took care not to reveal the Grove's location). The cabin had nothing in it, really, except that musty feeling of perfect contentment and peace and nature and freedom, with just that little bit of creepiness.
Sunshine Grove was one of the last stops along the road of my childhood: I didn't pay very much attention to it because back then the air was charged with movement, progress. I was reaching towards heaven without making any effort. A smile and a hope was enough to bring me there. Every day brought wonders, and even if the Grove was one of the greatest of the wonders that I stumbled on, it did not demand a thorough exploration or any sort of clinging to its glory. No, I thought those days of endless wonder would never end. Ah, they ended. They died, are gone, I wait with flowers by their grave for their return.
But Sunshine Grove still gives me a thrill when I think about it. Out there in the California Hills, it is proof of the creative power of one eccentric man. It is proof that strange, beatiful, mysterious things undoubtedly exist in the world--still exist, no matter the technology, no matter how many goddamned blank spaces have been filled in on the maps. Between the cracks slipped some crazy guerilla landscaper... and others must have slipped between the cracks too, and found there earth to thrive in. Sunshine Grove--not the place, but the things the place proves by its existence--help me to live.
One day a year and a half ago, I came from Berkeley with my girlfriend to see the Grove. It had been a long time since I'd last been there, but I found the tunnel without a problem and followed it easily--as I can still follow it easily in my mind.
We went into the second tunnel and visited the cabin. When we came back to the grove, a small white-bearded man, probably in his forties, was sitting on the couch. I don't know... I just instantly had a feeling.
"You built this place, didn't you? You're the one?"
"I sure did. I am."
He gave me his name.
"Thanks," I said.
My girlfriend and I left the grove and walked back up to the road in the California sun