Mentryville, CA: Healing through hiking

The sun floods the sky with a deep, almost artificial mauve. The color seeps into the crevices of low-hanging, lumpy clouds — slowly, almost deliberately. If this sunset has an end time, it’s clearly in no hurry to reach it. We’re enjoying this, of course. What a better time for nature to threaten to dazzle into a state of complete slack-jawed, goey awe than now, while we’re spending the afternoon hiking with absolutely zero other plans for the day? 

To give you a little bit of context, we’re hiking up one of the limbs of Mentryville Park’s trails. It’s a fairly easy walk (though at our pace, Anton, who is naturally a much faster walker than I am, will be more inclined to call this a “stroll”). What makes it even more pleasurable is the weather — the flirtatious breeze, the warm sun, the gentle humidity. For all the glory that is this simple walk, we can’t help but ask ourselves: how did we not do this before?

For the few years I’ve been living here, I never even noticed this place. I’d heard of Mentryville in passing. I knew it was a ghost town — California’s first oil boomtown — long abandoned by the workers and their families who called it home. I just never knew it was, well, right around the corner, right here in my neck of the woods. It wasn’t until one day, we stumbled upon while driving till the end of town, just for a change of pace and out of boredom. And we came back the next weekend and the weekend after that. 

A handful of structures still remain from the town’s glory days, like Mentry’s mansion, a schoolhouse and a barn. There’s barely anyone here, which just somehow adds to the desolation.  Not to mention, the way things are left behind — almost like a dinner plowed through in a haste, plates unwashed, forks still glistening from their last dip — will make you feel as though its residents just up and left quite recently. You can learn a lot (or make up your own stories) just by these leavings of people you’ve never met. 

Most of the time, I dedicate this space to that sort of exploration — long-form narratives of new, cool places I explore and a play by play of what I see there. This week, however, there’s something different on my brain. I, like everyone else, have been struggling with lockdown fatigue. It hit me later than it struck most people, though I’m not sure why. For the past few weeks, I’ve been fumbling around my own mind, trying to find purpose, but instead, tripping over meaningless musings and knotted clumps of vague anxiety. This is all normal, of course, or so I’ve been told, and I’m hardly alone in feeling this way. Whenever I feel too down in the dumps, I make a focused effort to acknowledge this. That, or — I go on a walk. 

I’ve known about this secret healer for quite a while. Before moving to California, I worked as an associate editor at a spectacular lifestyle magazine in Arkansas. One of my biggest (read: most involved, lengthy) pieces of work — one that ended up scooping up a slew of awards at a number of journalism contests — was a story about walking. Or more precisely, how two people turned to movement (and each other) for healing after life-changing trauma. 

Aside from breathing, drinking and eating, nothing is quite so rudimentary as walking. It’s something we always do and never think about. “Put one foot in front of the other” is a well-worn idiom or saying that we usually offer folks who have a long road ahead or are trudging through a difficult phase in their lives. And it’s usually to say: why don’t you take it slow. Day by day. Cross that bridge when you get to it (another walking reference). Progress steadily, and you’ll get there. 

I’ve always been an ardent walker. I hardly — if ever — drive. (Yes, I know this is a rarity in California). If my feet can carry me somewhere, I’ll probably choose to get there by walking. Though I’m no stranger to the benefits of walking, I’ve always walked for a purpose. To get to point B. To get to a certain daily step count. To get my heart rate to a certain level. To move after clocking in too many hours behind a desk. Ask any health expert, and he, she or they will likely tell you that these goals are all good habits. But that’s not why or how I walk these days. 

On days like today, I walk with no purpose at all. I don’t keep track of just how much time, miles or steps I collect on my wellness app. Heck, I’m not even wearing my best walking shoes. Anton and I are just pushing forward, putting one foot in front of the other. The sky is still on fire; the day is still wide open like this road. Along our route, about three-quarters of a mile away from Mentryville, we notice a sign that reads “Johnson Park,” and we make an immediate left turn. 

The sign looks fairly new, but everything around it tells a different story. An old, rusty derrick stands at 25 feet high next to an engine. Surrounding it is a cookhouse with picnic tables, a giant barbeque pit that, apparently, could cook up enough meat to feed 300 people. There’s even remnants of what used to be a dance floor. This is where oil workers living in the canyon and their families would come for parties and picnics, as I’ve read here. (If you’re wondering what that looked like, here’s a photo that resonated with me.) 

We walk around Johnson Park, examining artifacts left behind — broken wooden arms, wheels, cranks and pumps of some contraption or another. I try to picture what these picnics would’ve looked like. The heady smell of smoked meat, the passing of drinks, the dancing. Oh, and the gambling (there were craps tables here, too, though sadly, they’ve already been removed). And in treading around the park, I kid you not, I feel like a pup sniffing around, doing circles, letting all physical distractions take over without feeling any urgency to leave at all. It’s sometimes nice not to let anything other than pure wonderment guide you. 

I thought long and hard about what my message this week would be, and really, it boils down to that. We all have places we love that we often frequent, but take stock of how many of them truly allow you to be there without urgency. No timed entry or exit. No waiter handing you a bill to indicate it’s time to go. No smartwatch to remind you that you’ve still got a few miles left. Find that place where time, for once, is on your side. Put one foot in front of the other, and allow that to be enough