Lacing up my shoes for a run a day before my trip home ends, I go on my usual last hurrah. The sunshine and scattered clouds tell me this is going to be a long, but wonderful, day of nostalgia.
I step out of my home on the cul-de-sac of Avenida Veraneo, one of the thousands of Spanish-named streets in Lake Forest, a suburb in Southern California. The sun warms my skin and I look at my street, there are about a half dozen children playing out on the road, which I find odd. Growing up, it only seemed like my sisters and I played outside, as all our neighbors’ children, at the time, had grown up. Children were rarely seen on our street, even on Halloween, because mostly everybody here had the reputation of the worst candy around.
I shrug off the thought and get started on my run, which will be a combination of all the best trails. Exiting my neighborhood, I head onto the Serrano Park horse trail. The hard-packed and finely grained gravel makes a scraping sound below my shoes. The backyards of other homes whiz by on my right. Over the hundreds of times I’ve run this way, I’ve probably looked into every yard, anticipating each home with the barking beasts, and cheerfully mourning the lost dogs from the coyotes that emerged from the sparse forest on the left. I pass by the remains of a once popular spot in the creek for air-softing tournaments that my friends and I frequented before the area became off-limits.
I continue deeper through the forest, running through the trees, going faster as I imagine a deranged man emerging from the trees wanting to use me as target practice. I laugh at the idea, but the rumored missing person count from this very area causes me to think otherwise. A tunnel approaches in the trail that goes under Lake Forest Drive. Inside the damp and dark tunnel, a couple teenagers are smoking against the rippled sheet metal walls. It can’t be too comfortable for them to lean against, but at least they’re too high to notice and heckle the runner passing by.
Sprinting up the hill after the tunnel, I immediately have to go down the other side, not as steep, but longer and treated like a ballet. Leaping over dips, tip-toeing over the bridges, and dancing down hills and through rocky streams, my feet carry me until I’m out of the woods.
Just like my time there, El Toro High School passes by in a blur that could not go by fast enough, but by the time I’ve left, I expel the negative thoughts as fast as they came. The track is the last view of my Alma Mater, and there is a team running on that red oval, reminding me of the seemingly millions of circles I ran in that minuscule spot while on the cross country and track teams, sometimes naked.
Emerging onto El Toro Road, I have about one mile of road before I’m back on the trail. One mile of Lake Forest’s busiest street; one mile of niche shops, enticing restaurants, and bustling cars, all of which I cannot afford; one mile of heckling from random overweight douchbags who wish they could look good running, but instead troll runners from the comfort of their cars. This is my least favorite part, but it is only one mile.
Entering the wood-chipped trail, free from pretty much all life in Lake Forest and known to only high school cross country runners, its alumni, and some dog walkers, I take a whiff of the wood-chips and manure and cannot wait for the trail to be dirt again, because the warmer it gets in this area, the more pungent the smell is.
Moving away from civilization, the last traces of humanity for this short time is a cyclist far in the distance on a bike path and the backend of Saddleback Church. Some cars are parked nearby with the NOTW (Not Of This World) bumper stickers, an ironic merchandising trademark of Saddleback Church, stuck on about a third of the cars in town. Fortunately the trail is getting fun, now that I’m already eight miles into my run.
The white and tan dirt trail rollercoasters up and down, with erosion ditches and fallen tree trunks scattered about the trail, a perfect adrenaline-inducing obstacle course that makes me feel like Indiana Jones. Just before entering the hardest and longest section of my run, I give a little salute to the Oakley Factory as I pass by, a giant building that looks like a steampunk fortress held together with gargantuan nuts and bolts that can dwarf even the tallest of giants.
Now I’m on Whiting Ranch Trail and the memories just flood in. I basically grew up on this trail. As a kid, adults always warned me about mountain lions, but never once had I seen a trace of one. I pass by the fire danger sign, with the wooden white arrow pointing to its unchanging fire-red “extreme” caution. Even if it were to rain, that arrow still points to the red, or maybe it has just rusted, fixed, to that spot.
After another three miles of straight uphill, and passing many mountain bikers, I’m finally at the top. The thin layer of smog down below make everything feel distant, and although I can still get a glimpse of the ocean, I revel in the somewhat omniscient perspective of my old home. I can still see traces of the California wildfires from 2007, but the regrowth has restored a nice green on the mountaintops amid some of the still-charred trees and shrubs. I take in a few deep breaths of clean air, and then let the plummeting downhill move my legs for me.
Not too far on my way down, the mountain bikers blow by me on their way down. My quads are killing me so much, I wish I had a set of wheels to just fly down on, but running downhill when you’re already sore tends to be a double-edged sword. If I had gone mountain biking, my dad would have insisted that he come as well, but I’m still not accustomed to his mechanical doping, i.e. his electric mountain bike, that is becoming more and more common with the more well-off Southern California lifestyle. I try to be as naturalist as possible, because sometimes I get rewarded.
I see the clearing that stopped me many years ago while running this same trail in a similar situation, except this time there is no herd of deer visible, let alone a deer that will come up to me and let me pet it as it licks the sweat off me: a once in a lifetime event. I just move on smiling from the memory of connection I had with nature not too far from my home.
I exit Whiting Ranch, passing by Etnies Skate Park and the business districts. A breeze blows toward me wafting in the sweet fragrance of the garden center on my right. I’m filled with joy as I’m shaded by some eucalyptus trees, the sunlight flickering through their branches overhead.
Civilization creeps back in as I near another neighborhood, the rushing of cars in the distance matching the volume of the stream to my left. I pass by the houses my friends used to live in and I see some of the new children who took their place.
I came home to Lake Forest thinking that everything would be the same, but I was mistaken. This may be the place where I grew up, but it is no longer “home.” I have moved on. The geography may be the same, but these neighborhoods are now foreign to me.