Last year while hiking in the Los Angeles area, I noticed something peculiar off the main trail—a broken version of the American dream.
It started when I saw some rocks arranged in a row off the main path. At first, I thought the carefully placed stones were some sort of clue leading to a Geocache location. Following the markings, I came across a couple of branches oddly placed on top of one another, as if someone had tried to construct a gate.
I took a few steps back to search for more clues and suddenly it dawned on me what I was looking at. It was some sort of abstract version of the “white picket fence,” only the fence was made of rocks and the gate was fashioned from the dead branches of a native oak—a primitive homage to the American dream, I thought. How clever.
Upon further inspection, I noticed the structure didn’t end at the gate. Continuing past the rocks and a thicket of shrubs, I discovered that this was no mere statement on the wilderness ideal of happiness, this was actually someone’s home.
The ragged canvases of several tents, bedding and other fabrics were strewn together under the canopy of a large oak tree. Torn and old, it was hard to tell if the makeshift structure was abandoned or was still in use. My curiosity got the best of me and I edged closer to the camp.
A tree next to the tent structure had what appeared to be a honeycomb within a hollowed portion of its body, and some sort of glass jar tied with a string was hanging from the wood. The jar’s interior emanated a golden hue, as if filled with honey or sap from the tree.
I was amazed; whoever had constructed this structure was somehow harvesting something from this tree. As I moved closer to the tent structure, I felt someone watching me from inside. Although the structure had a few holes, it was too dark inside to see who, or if anyone, was there.
“Hello, anybody home?” I called out but no one answered. I drew closer but by this time my curiosity had morphed into fear. What if this homeless person was crazed? What if he comes out waving some sort of broken glass bottle? I’m a pretty a decent sized guy but you can’t intimidate or rationalize with someone who is severely mentally unstable.
But for some reason, I kept drawing closer.
I reached around into my backpack and grabbed my camera, and just as I snapped my photo a shriek-like growl emanated from inside of the structure—I froze. Backing away slowly while facing the makeshift home, I moved back on the main trail and away from the camp.
Still excited from the burst of adrenaline, I called a colleague who I worked with at the time, and asked if we should try to further contact the person in the tent to perhaps tell his story. He said maybe we should call the authorities and find out if he is even allowed to stay on the land, which was technically just open space owned by the county.
In other words, we would have reported the person in the process of doing the article and perhaps forced him out of his home. Before I could protest, he hung up and called our superiors for some ethical direction.
Luckily, our boss at the time, a more experienced journalist than the both of us combined, told us to let the poor man be. He hadn’t hurt anybody, he said, and we weren’t in the business of making news, just reporting it. He will probably never know this but I gained a lot of respect for my boss because of that decision. I think we both did.
Several days later, while hiking the general area, I noticed a very old frail homeless looking man heading toward the direction of the camp I had discovered. My gut told me that this was the man who made the makeshift mountaintop home.
I still hike the area around the old man’s camp, ironically located not too far from some multimillion dollar mansions, and to this day I still see him around on occasion. I think of him often, especially when it rains. I wonder how he is faring. Is he cold? Is he hungry?
Sometimes when I’m overworked, stuck behind a computer as the hours of the day go by, very far from nature and struggling toward my own version of the American dream, I think of the old man sitting under his oak tree, eating honey and enjoying his view from his mountaintop, and I can’t help but wonder—which one of us is truly crazy?