–for Bob Roberts
The other day I was taking my daily walk in the Los Rios District of San Juan Capistrano and I came eye to eye with a red-shouldered hawk sitting in a bush next to the street.
People in Orange County joke about living “behind the Orange Curtain,” or complain about how cosmopolitan and built up the area has become. But what I love about this area is that if you know which direction to drive, you find yourself in what I think of as “the old California,” just the way it was one hundred or three hundred years ago.
When you take the Ortega Highway Exit off the North 5 Freeway, turn right, and drive for ten minutes, you find yourself out in the foothills of the Ortega Mountains in a place that feels ancient and completely wild. The Tree of Life Nursery, the Cleveland National Forest, a waterfall in a canyon, a stream with a sand beach, and several sacred places where I do ritual can be found in that direction. If you turn left, drive toward the train station, and walk across the tracks, you find yourself on Los Rios, the oldest continuously inhabited street in California.
Los Rios is a time machine, lined with old houses made of clapboard, a few adobes, some sweet prefab houses, and a few semi-Victorians. Everyone vies with everyone else to have the most fabulous yard with the most colorful geraniums the size of oxen, the most rose bushes and extravagant trellises, cactuses higher than a two-story building, and every other type of native plant you can name, including runaway clumps of purple flowering Cleveland sage. In the springtime when the roses are at their height, both literally and figuratively, you walk down those streets knowing at that moment that you are the luckiest person alive.
I’ve always wanted to live in the District. If I had a house there, I would never have to drive anywhere again. I could eat lunch at the Los Rios Tea House, the Hidden House Café, the Hummingbird House, or Ramos House. (And the people who own these divine restaurants mostly live above or behind them.) I could stroll up to the Regency San Juan Capistrano where the marquis is decorated with those big old-style movie bulbs in all different colors and where you can get a glass of wine at Rick’s Café before the film starts. In the evenings, I’d sit out on my porch under the old, old trees and enjoy the coolness of the evening air and a stillness broken only by the sound of crickets, tree frogs, panicked rabbits, and the Amtrack commuter train passing by every so often a few blocks away. Or I could walk down to the old river, half contained within a concrete waterway and half lost in trees and underbrush, next to the park where 400 ravens come home to settle in every evening after a long day of foraging.
So on the evening of my visitation, the sun had just gone down and it was fast approaching dusk. There he was, sitting in a bush like a common sparrow, an enormous hawk. I’d never seen one up close before. Usually, they are hundreds of yards up, riding the thermals, although there’s a hawk that shoots past my study window once in a while and a hawk (maybe the same one since they need a large area to forage) that likes to sit on top of one of the street lights lining Avenida Pico in San Clemente. But this particular hawk was living my dream. He had staked his claim in the Los Rios District. I guess even hawks have to call someplace home.
My friend Bob Roberts always says that we don’t see a hawk but that a hawk “shows itself to us.” This beautiful bird showed itself to me that evening. I can’t describe the way my heart felt looking at him, like the Universe had just told me a secret, given me an astonishing gift. I felt the kind of happiness we all experienced as children when we found the pheasant’s nest hidden in the grass of the field, or saw baby bobwhites running in a line, or turned to see the lilac bushes covered with seven kinds of butterflies, or realized that the cherries we’d been watching for weeks were finally ripe. I remember the heart-stopping joy that I felt one day when I looked into a crevice in the sandstone wall my father had built and saw four baby robin necks stretch up and open their bright yellow beaks because they thought I was their mother.
When I stepped a little closer, the hawk moved up from his bush onto a low tree branch. We remained eye to eye for a few more minutes. Then a group of four people approached, out for their evening walk, and he took off, soaring low between the trees and above the dry September grass of the park.
Secret joy is the sweetest, and writing about it feels like pure love.