Magazine article Sunset

Portraits of the West from Five of Its Finest Authors

Magazine article Sunset

Portraits of the West from Five of Its Finest Authors

Article excerpt

The third installment in a Sunset Centennial series.

Rats of Topanga Canyon


"Pay no attention to those little black things! You get them all the time in Topanga, they come from rat packs, only rat packs, they are all over in the canyon, we love them, we don't hurt them!"

My then-husband and I, bewildered, stood precariously on a dirt slope passing itself off as a basement under a 23- by 23-foot cabin that clung to a Topanga Canyon cliff. The woman who lectured us was an 87-year-old German refugee, with a figure like a gymnast's from scrabbling all over this cliff pulling weeds.

"Rain always comes in the house during the winter! You can't fight Topanga rains!" Of course, if there'd been grouting between the boards, that might have stopped some of the rain, but we bought what the lady said, and bought the cabin, and the pack rats (which is what she'd meant), and a kerosene water heater that threatened us with extinction every time we needed a bath. We wanted to rough it, to make a home in at least the hypothetical wild West.

The rats stayed primly in the basement except for one winter when it rained and one took refuge in my daughter's closet. We spent the day trying to make it go away, but if it knew anything, it knew enough to come in out of the rain. It absolutely wasn't one of those ugly urban rats. He looked like an expensive brown purse, with kind eyes.

After 32 years in the canyon we have to sell the bigger, more civilized house that followed the cabin. And as I sort and clean I've disturbed the happy home lives of lizards who like to snuggle down in old doll clothes, and tarantulas that jump as far as I do when we frighten each other, and a few scurrying field mice, and I may have seen evidence of "rat packs, only rat packs!" They never venture into the house; they're Topanga creatures, courteous and restrained. But this is their frontier home, not mine.

Realtors tell you to put pots of flowers around your front door; this will make people want to buy your house. I did it. The next morning I looked at four pots full of stems. Squirrels may have done it, or raccoons. Or rabbits. Or maybe one of those Topanga Canyon pack rats, whom I see now as wearing rimless glasses and a cobbler's apron, nipping off marigolds and pansies in the moonlit night, taking them back to cluttered parlors beneath the surface of the dusty, fragrant Topanga earth.

Carolyn See is the author of "Golden Days" and "Dreaming; Hard Luck and Good Times in America. "She lives near Los Angeles.

Ship Rock


Looking south from Four Corners, the only spot in America where four states touch, you see the Carrizo and Chuska mountains, blue humps wandering off into infinity. To your left rises Ute Mountain, the Roman-nose landmark of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. Beyond it is Hesperus Peak, the sacred northern cornerstone of Navajo country. Behind you is Utah's spectacular canyon country. Southeast, the blue bump on the horizon is Mount Taylor, the Sacred Mountain of the East, where the Hero Twins of Navajo myth slew Walking Monster to begin their campaign to make this high, dry landscape safe for the Navajos. In the center of this immense mountain-rimmed emptiness, the gigantic basalt thumb of Ship Rock juts almost 2,000 feet out of the grassland like a gigantic Gothic cathedral of the prairie.

I first saw it almost 50 years ago, doing an article about rock climbers killed trying to reach its peak. Ever since, it has drawn me like a magnet. One December afternoon when a winter storm was sliding down out of Utah, I stood below Ship Rock, enjoying the loneliness and remembering the plight of Monster Slayer, the mythic Navajo hero stranded on its summit after slaying the Winged Monster. Such idle thoughts are grist for the mystery writer's mill. My imagination formed a skeleton in rock climber gear stranded on a cliff 1,000 feet above me. …

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