The Mystery of Cherry Lake.

Cherry Lake is the name of a private residential community in Newport Beach. The lake that gives the place its name sits roughly 26 feet above sea level on the northern bluffs of the Upper Newport Bay. Its depth is 17 to 19 feet. It is long, rather than wide, and lozenge-shaped. A water-gate prevents debris from being swept into it from a depressed area that runs from the intersection of Santa Isabel Avenue and Redlands Street. There is a concrete dam on the southern edge that impounds the water with two six-foot pipes inside a catch basin. When it rains fiercely, the impounded water overflows into the pipes that run underneath Irvine Avenue at 23rd Street and through the Santa Isabella Flood channel that drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Twenty houses ring the lake and many of them have docks. “I’ve seen those docks underwater,” Rodney Medler told me. I’d left a note on his door—can I see the lake? —and he’d called and invited me over for a look. Medler, a retired property manager with the rakish good looks of the actor Sam Elliott, lives on 23rd Street. His backyard faces the lake, and he also has a camera trained on it, so that even when he isn’t outside, he can see it, the better to catch lake-crashers (they’ve had some). Cherry Lake has lily pads. When they die off in the fall, the tuberous roots, which are a ghastly greenish-white, float near the surface of the water, looking like the arms of a monster: the Cherry Lake kraken, perhaps. There’s a slide in the middle. People swim in the lake. It’s a special place.

Cherry Lake has a distinctly retro feel to it. The name hearkens back to the technicolor gloss of the post-war era in Newport Beach. Back then, the colors were bright, and women wore coral-colored lipstick as they water-skied in the bay or drank cocktails at the Village Inn on Balboa Island with their handsome husbands. In those day, everything was gay, and people lived their lives gaily, according to the local newspapers, the Newport Ensign and the Daily Pilot, who never hesitated to use this adjective to describe the mirthfulness of everyday life in Newport.

There was no water skiing on Cherry Lake, although there was fishing. “There are fish in there— bass, catfish, bluegill,” said Rodney. “We fish. But we just catch and release though. They’re like pets!”  A woodpecker flew across the lake just then, in a flash of black and white.

“Look at that!” said Rodney. “We get all kinds of birds here. We got some ospreys last year.”

“They must love the fish!” I said.

“Yeah,” Rodney said. He laughed. “We make it easy for ‘em.” The lake was different, he told me. Not only was the bottom unlined, it was spring-fed.

“There are six springs in the lake,” he told me genially. “When you swim, you can feel the water temperature drop. And that’s how you know.”

I’d heard about the spring: it was the lake’s creation myth. But there was nothing plausible about the lake (coastal lakes are relatively rare in California.) It was obviously man-made. But by who?

It was a joint effort. Lawrence E. Liddle, the property owner, joined forces with realtor Jack W. Mullan in 1956, according to papers filed with the Newport Beach Planning Commission. Together, they built a lake.

Picture of Jack W. Mullan ((1924-2004) from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Both men took their cues from the recent past. In 1955 the Vogel Company, a realty firm, advertised a “lakefront” home on Cherry Lake, with guaranteed swimming rights. A year later, the Soil Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture graded the area and installed a desilting basin. How Cherry Lake fared during this rough treatment is unknown. But community memory is tenacious, and the recollection of what the site had been probably encouraged Liddle and Mullan.

Liddle, born in British Columbia, kick-started the development of Cherry Lake, appearing as the principle of “Lake & Bay Park, Inc.”. He drops out of the historic record as represented by city filings and newspaper mentions after a time. Mullan, however, stayed in the news until his death in 2004.

Mullan, an adventurous man, was a big-time developer in Newport Beach. As the vice president of the California Real Estate Association in Orange County, he designed neighborhoods out of the raw materials of the Southern California landscape. His large-scale vision was acquired during the war after enlisting in the Air Force. He flew P-38’s, the workhorse fighter aircraft that could bomb landscapes or document them. A renowned photo reconnaissance pilot, Mullan was trained to do the latter, and continued to fly them after he and his wife moved to Germany after the war. Mullan managed the operations of the Aero Exploration Company, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma a firm that specialized in aerial photography. The company had an outpost in Frankfurt, then at a low point in its long history, the cityscape having been almost entirely destroyed from 1939 to 1945 in nine separate bombing sorties.

The view from the skies above war-scarred world stayed with Mullan, who found civilian uses for his Air Force training in post-war Southern California. Mullan “pioneered the use of aerial surveys in subdivisions” according to his brief biography on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He moved several times before settling in Newport Beach, and once there, began shaping the landscape of semi-rural Orange County.

Mullan didn’t just develop housing tracts, he provided “estates”, with an emphasis on exclusivity, and all the trappings thereof. Golf courses, clubhouses, private roads and lakes were popular design features of the exurbs, built for those in white flight from diversifying city centers. Mullan took all this to its fullest expression, and masterminded Orange County’s most iconic mid-century housing developments, the “Carriage Estates” in Mesa Verde, for example, which were located on the bluffs above the Santa Ana River.

His most enduring legacy is his credit as the co-designer of a new kind of housing development, called a “condominium”. He oversaw the design of the first legal condo development in California called Vista Bahia, appropriately: they (still) overlook the top of the Upper Newport Bay, at University Drive and Irvine Avenue. I marveled at the grounds of Bahia Vista as a child, walking to swimming lessons at the YMCA. The grounds were impeccable with coarse St. Augustine grass and sculptural hedges of Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa).

Bahia Vista embodied Orange County’s two great loves, an expansive view and privacy. Mullan built it in anticipation of the coming population surge, which involved more people demanding more of everything housing, parking, and recreation except density.

He had some defeats. In 1965, the year I was born, Mullan headed the Newport Dunes Hotel Corporation, which intended to develop the Newport Dunes into a Spanish-themed 244-room hotel and restaurant complex, covering 6.4 acres, and facing “the quiet waters” of the lower bay. A fifty-year sublease was planned between Mullan and the county, but the plan was scuttled in 1967 due to bureaucratic hesitance to commit to the costs of construction. The complex was never built.

But Mullan still built plenty, some of it above the Upper Newport Bay. Within a decade, the bluffs between Mesa Drive and East 16th Street were transformed from small farms divided by eucalyptus windbreaks and dotted with ramshackle buildings into family homes plotted on streets whose names memorialized the cities of old Europe: Grenoble, Marseilles and Seville.

1907 Long Beach Press ad for prime land in Newport Heights.

In the mid-fifties, Mullan founded a realty firm and opened an office on the peninsula at 434 32nd Street in Newport Beach, close to Via Lido and just around the corner from my grandfather’s office, the Weist-Creely company, then selling parcels of augmented mudflat on Lido Isle for under one hundred thousand dollars. They were joined by P.A. Palmer, R.C. Greer and others, all of whom were jockeying to sell the undeveloped and sometimes barely terrestrial land of Newport Beach.

In 1958, after he was granted a permit by the city of Newport Beach to post subdivision signs, Mullan hung two advertisements outside a temporary sales office near the old ravine at 23rd Street and Irvine Avenue, and ran an ad in the Los Angeles Times, alerting the public to a new development with natural allure. “Lots overlook the picturesque freshwater lake,” the ads boasted, mentioning that all utilities were undergrounded, and all architectural designs subject to approval, in order to maintain the harmoniousness of estate life. (There was no mention of the lake’s decidedly un-glamorous stint a year or two earlier as a desilting basin). He and Liddle dubbed the development the “Lake Park Estates.”

The “freshwater lake” was, of course, Cherry Lake, a name not in keeping with the nature of the place. There are no lakes called “kirsch see” in Germany, but there are a few Cherry Lakes in Canada, where Liddle was born. Arranging the site must have been a monumental effort: Mullan, Liddle and their engineers had their work cut out for them. Cherry Lake, and the houses arranged around it, sit on top of what once was a 25-to 40-foot ravine.

Ad for Lake Park Estates, Valley Times, July 8, 1960

After talking to Rodney, I developed an obsession with the mythic spring of Cherry Lake and went looking for proof of its existence. The Sherman Library, which is housed inside an adobe house on Dahlia Street in Corona Del Mar, specializes in the history of the Pacific Southwest, and Newport Beach. I sent them an email, asking hesitantly if they knew anything about it. Jill Thrasher, the head librarian, called me back almost immediately.

“What exactly are you looking for?” she asked.

I didn’t know. “Anything?” I said, feeling dumb (water? a hole in the ground?). I explained that I wanted to see the bluffs of the Upper Back Bay as they were in the early 19th-century, before they were developed.

“Creely,” she said. “That name sounds familiar. Are you related to Bunster Creely?” I told her I was. (The library holds some of my grandfather’s personal library.) She said she’d call me back, and I hung up with low expectations. I didn’t expect much. I’d hadn’t given her much to work with. She called back a day later, her librarian’s natural calm slightly ruffled.

“I think I may have found something you’ll really be interested in,” she said. I shuffled into the library that day feeling foolish—what did I want with that old lake, anyway?—and sat down. Jill had USGS coastal survey maps, or “T-sheets”, as big as posters, spread over the library’s long tables. She tapped one with her finger. “Here’s Cherry Lake,” she said.

The United States Geological Survey, which formed in 1879 to inventory the mineral and hydrological resources of the United States, did all historians (credentialed or not) a big favor by mapping the coast of California. The maps from 1927, 1935, 1942 and 1949 all showed, in spidery lines, a sharply incised ravine thrusting like an accusatory finger out of the Upper Newport Bay, and into Costa Mesa, to what was now Orange and Monte Vista Streets.

In 1927, ’35, and ’42, the area was shown as a marshland. Dotted and dashed lines were interspersed with tufted clumps of grass, symbols that looked exactly like the natural feature they were documenting.

In 1949, after the USGS started using color, a thin blue line appeared for the first time, running down the middle of the ravine. “That’s the symbol for a stream,” Jill said. The past swam before my eyes.

Excerpt of 1949 USGS Newport Beach map

In 1949, my hometown was still being assembled. Irvine, and Tustin Avenue, Santa Ana and Orange Streets were paved. Irvine had yet to cross the ravine and stopped at 23rd Street. Orange Coast College was platted and partially built. The bay had been labeled too. “The Narrows,” a poetic name reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s minutely detailed map of Earthsea, was an area directly downstream from the old creek.

Cherry Lake, it turns out, was much more than just a spring. It was mostly a creek that ran through a deep ravine, fed by the artesian belt that Newport Heights was known for. If there were springs, they likely watered the creek south and west of Santa Ana Avenue. There was still more to know: the 1935 T-sheet shows a wetland complex complete with a good-sized pond nestled into what is now the intersection of Bear and Bristol Streets in my home suburb of Mesa Del Mar. (It was still there in 1942.) Looking at the place in the terrain view on Google reveals the remnants of an old bluff curving around the lake between Private Road and Santa Isabella. Today, as you cross Irvine Avenue you are traveling above a ravine that once cracked this area in two.

The earliest appearance of the stream appears on an 1858 U.S. Survey plat map of James Irvine’s property. The northwestern bluffs of the mesa are indicated just under the boundary line with the notation “rolling land.” Another line with another tiny notation “stream of alkali water” appears to the north, cross-hatching the boundary line. But there are no symbols for a spring on any of the historic maps.

This mattered to me, because it mattered greatly to Cherry Lake residents, who, undeterred by the improbability of a spring-fed lake, have always insisted that their lake is spring-fed. But if the old maps didn’t provide proof, community memory did. In 1992, Mullan told Joanne Lombardo of the Newport Beach  Ad Hoc Historic Preservation Committee that Cherry Lake was the original well site for Newport and moreover gave the place yet another name: Indian Wells/Springs, which is how the area is identified in the official inventory. Naturally, I called the city.

“Springs? In that area? I’ve never heard that,” said Bob Stein, a civil engineer and hydrologist for the city. “We have seeps around there. But Cherry Lake is probably fed by normal urban slobber.” He meant runoff.

“It does have a relationship with the Upper Newport Bay. Have you seen the Santa Isabel Flood Channel? It’s kind of a pit,” he asked ruefully. “I’d love to do some restoration around there.” He was curious to know more. “Tell me what you find out!” he said.

“According to the map we have, there’s no outlet,” said Linda Candelaria from O.C. Flood control. “It’s a private lake. We don’t monitor it but we’re all kind of curious now. No one has heard of it. You’ve really piqued our interest.”

“Cherry Lake? A spring? We have no idea,” said the woman who sat behind the desk at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center in Upper Newport Bay. She looked puzzled. “I’ve never even heard of the lake.” A Parks and Recreation staffer, strolled over, regal in her khaki uniform, and said, “I wonder if that’s where the fish came from.”

“What fish?” I asked.

“We found a bunch of dying fish once, about three years ago. Over there,” she said and waved in the direction of Irvine Avenue. “They were just lying there. I wonder if they came from the lake.”

Carla Navarro, from the California Department of Fish and Game said in an email to me, “Cherry Lake is private, self-contained, and does not drain into the estuary.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I’d be interested in anything you dig up. The lake has been a small mystery to me.”

Bob DeRuff, a former Engineer with the Irvine company, provided actual proof. He remembered the spring clearly because he touched the “natural, fresh water” himself.

“That’s a freshwater marsh,” he told me over the phone. “I used to have a copy of a 1875 hydrographic map. It showed the location of springs around the bay, which included that area. I got it from the Irvine Company—had it in a closet, in the back. One year, I moved and I didn’t take it,” he said sadly. “In high school (he went to Newport Harbor High), I remember a place along the road there, where Irvine is now, up around the lake. I remember getting out of the car with a friend. The land was wet. It was almost like a pasture, but there was a rock outcropping and there was water running out of the ground, over the rock. It must have been artesian enough that something was forcing it out. It was just running out.”

“The whole area was a gully,” he said. “I had a friend who built a house on Irvine Avenue, who had to fill the ground with pea gravel ‘cause the water ran so consistently. He needed it to percolate. You know, until the eighties, Irvine Avenue would come apart on a yearly basis. There was so much water seeping in from underneath. That whole area was wet. You can still see it in the area across Irvine Avenue.” He was talking about the flood channel, known colloquially as the 23rd Street creek.

Plat of the San Joaquin Rancho, 1868

Other people had memories, too. “That place? Oh, honey. We called it the run-off. It was terrible,” Francis Gowen Kennedy Moran told me. Fran—our childhood name for her —grew up in a house on the corner of 20th Street and Tustin Avenue, which ends above the artificial shores of Cherry Lake. She remembered it all.

“Honey, it was a marsh. It was just a mess — just a mucky swamp. Full of mosquitoes. They didn’t know what to do with it. People were always getting into car accidents there.”

I could see that. Tustin Avenue is flat until it intersects 23rd Street. Then the edge of the old bluff gently descends into the basin holding Cherry Lake. Fran continued with her story. “In those days, Tustin dead-ended into the run-off, and there were no stop signs on Tustin, so people would fly down the street in their car and launch themselves into the swamp. And then my dad, who was a doctor, would be called in to patch ‘em up.”

I thought about those heedless people, gaily motoring down Tustin Avenue in the daytime, or through the velvety blue August nights. Did the sulfurous odor of the swamp fill the air? Did croaking frogs and whining mosquitoes provide a soundtrack on hot summer nights? Crashing your car into a swamp and riding your horse over the bluffs to the edge of the cliffs of Corona Del Mar, as my aunt Cerini once did: these were things people could do back then, in non-developed Newport Beach, a place of crashing surf and glittering starlit nights.

Fran’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Now listen to me, Betsy. That’s not a lake. It’s a swamp. They turned it into a lake. But it isn’t real,” she said. “You’ve made me really curious. Tell me what you find out, okay?”

US Coast Survey, Topography In Vicinity of Newport Bay, 1875

The last person I called was Larry Honeybourne, with the county’s Environmental Health Water Quality Section (he has since retired). Honeybourne had a measured, precise way of speaking that busy people who dole out technical information to the public often have.

“Why do people think Cherry Lake is spring-fed?” I asked.

“Well,” Honeybourne said. “It isn’t impossible. There are artesian situations in Orange County. Fountain Valley is called Fountain Valley because of artesian wells. Orange County is an alluvial basin. It’s great for storing groundwater. So there could be springs, if we weren’t taking out more than we put in.”

But they are. Orange County’s water table is overdrawn and has dropped below sea level. The ocean, sensing an opening, has rushed in to fill the gap. At the moment, much of the water filling the subterranean cracks of the Newport Mesa is coming from the sea. The spring that Bob DeRuff knew in his youth may have dried up long ago.

“The ocean is at your front door,” said Honeybourne. “That’s what we tell everybody.”

Fine, I thought, but what about the damn spring? No one answering the phone with polite and perplexed voices at various agencies seemed to know anything. I called my sister Emily, a field scientist who lives in Alaska, to report my findings and the mysteries that remained. Spring or no spring? And why doesn’t anyone know?

“Betsy, “said Emily, exasperatedly.  “Government agencies won’t know about a spring.” She was right. They aren’t in the business of history, but resource management.

Resource management, though, does create archival documents, and it is in one of these that the mythic spring of Cherry Lake officially appears. In 1952, an engineering firm with the snappy name of the “Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts Engineering Company” prepared an environmental report for the Irvine Company on the suitability of their land for urban development.

Knappen-Tippetts-Abbett Engineering Company report to the Irvine Company, 1952. To read full report, click here. UCI Library Special Collections and Archives

Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts concurred with the Irvine Company’s opinion that development was the fate of the area, and noted on page 22 that the “active spring” at the “foot of 23rd Street,” which had been marked on charts 75 years ago, might play a part in some suburb’s future. “Around this spring, a park with lawns and interesting planting,” could be of value, averred the report’s author, due to the availability of “natural fresh water.”

“Well there you go,” said Emily briskly when I reported my finding to her. “Fran is right. It isn’t a lake. Cherry Lake—who came up with that name by the way? It’s silly— is an accident.”

Accidents aren’t as well planned, I thought. It just devoid of a past. Ah, the developers, I thought. Those mid-century men, consulting maps, and compasses, grading hills, filling land and damming water sources as they built for the future. They knew what had been there. They had proof. Caught between the past and the future, were they able to forget the habitats they had paved over? Did they remember the scent of brine, or the appearance of an enigmatic petroglyph, or the biblical sight of a spring gushing out of a rock? Maybe. But their memories had died with them, and anyway, they probably didn’t talk too much about it.

“What did Cherry Lake look like?” I asked Emily.

She sighed and said, “Want to go for an imaginary walk?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

She and I started walking on the mesa southeast toward the ravine. “So, this is what we’d see,” her voice said, out of the telephone clutched to my shoulder. “First thing, we’d see a bunch of shrubs. Remember- we’re on top of the bluff. So think about what grows there. Sage, for one thing.” She meant the clumps of Artemisia californica, the ubiquitous silvery green sage that forms the top note of the scent of the California coastal chaparral.

“Try to see coastal oak,” Emily urged. I saw old man oak, the gnarled trees that look more like a shrub, with fang-toothed leaves. “The color of the landscape changes,” said Emily, “as we get closer to the ravine. Can you see that?” I could. The soft grey-green of the artemisia sharpened into yellow- and olive-green as the tops of sycamores and willows appeared. The smell changed, too, from the lemony scent of the artemisia to the dank heavy odor of water. There was a faint suggestion of sulfur.

We stood on top of the ravine and looked down. Below us, fringed by red-rooted willows was a pool of dark water. A pond. Not a lake.

“If we went down there, we’d step in mud,” said Emily. “And then suddenly there’d be water, open water, like a little pond.”

“It was beautiful then, right?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “We would have loved it. I have to go to sleep, babe. You have a better idea of what it looked like?”

“Yes,” I said.  We hung up.

Rendering of the proposed Upper Newport Bay Development from the Knappen-Tippetts_Abbott Engineering Co. report

There’s no mystery to the origins of Cherry Lake: it’s private, not mysterious, a post-war folly that started in the skies of the Pacific Theater and came down to earth when Lawrence Liddle and Jack Mullan stood at the top of a deep ravine and beheld murky water pooled in the bottom. If there’s a mystery, it’s this: what do you see when you look at a landscape, and why? I guess it depends on where you’ve been. Mullan, who had beheld the ravages of war, saw something comprehensible, an opportunity for serene, untroubled beauty.

Cherry Lake is both real and unreal, an artifact twice over. It was a spring-fed stream dividing an arid plain in two, then a desilting basin and then, finally, a suburban fantasy. No one can transport an entire world to another place, Avengers-style, but with the means and the drive, you might be able to re-create a spatial simulacrum of place, scaled down for the suburbia, and far more secure. The earth as seen from the cockpit of a P-38 must seem so malleable. It is easy, as Mullan knew too well, for places to change (to vanish), and for landscapes to be exchanged for another.

Cherry Lake, 2019. Photo by Rodney Medler
Finished in San Francisco on April 18th 2020, 31 days into shelter in place, and eight years after I started researching Cherry Lake.


This is dedicated to my brother James W. Creely with love. Many thanks to the Jill Thrasher at the Sherman Library, Bob DeRuff, Julie Goldsworth of the Irvine Historical Society, Andrew Page of the Newport Beach Public Library, the fabulous Fran Moran, and the staff of the UCI Special Collections and Archives.


I over-researched this essay. If you want to see some of the cool papers and maps I found, head over to this repository and check ’em out.
Rendering showing a proposed crossing at Dover and Pacific Coast Highway from Knappen-Tippetts-Abbett Engineering Co. 

The Role of the Newport River in Shaping the Upper Newport Bay

The Upper Newport Bay looking east, with Saddleback in the distance.

When I was a child, I was briefly instructed in the geological history of the Newport mesa in elementary school. Costa Mesa was once two places: a settlement called Harper, named after Gregory Harper, a grain farmer, and the town of Fairview, which was famed for its hot mineral baths. They failed after an earthquake stopped the flow of hot water. In 1920, when civic boosters decided to get serious about city building, they renamed the place Costa Mesa in recognition of its geological structure. The name means “tableland on the coast.”

That was about all I knew: that I lived on a tableland on the coast, about 100 feet above sea level. The history of Newport Bay, both its upper and lower parts, was not taught. Maybe this was because the natural history of the lower bay had been obliterated and the future of the upper bay was still being debated.

That changed after 1973, when I was in third grade. A twelve-year battle between conservationists Frank and Fran Robinson, the state, and the bay’s landlord, the Irvine Company, concluded. The Robinsons won. The bay’s waters, tidal marshes and uplands, were saved from becoming a monotonous urban landscape made of boat slips, rip-rap, yachts, and bay fill. The preservation of the Upper Newport Bay ensured that the bluffs and the bay that were created long ago, by forces mightier than even the most influential Newport Beach developer, stayed reasonably intact.

The mighty force that carved the river canyon and delta of the Upper Newport Bay may have been a river that doesn’t exist any longer, according to Ivan P. Colburn, Emeritus Professor of Geology, California State University, Los Angeles. He gave this “antecedent” river a name: the Newport River. In a talk he gave for the Society For Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), at their Western Regional Joint Meeting, in Long Beach in May 2003, and in a 2006 paper entitled “The Role of Antecedent Rivers in Shaping the Orange/Los Angeles Coastal Plain” Colburn says very plainly that he doesn’t think that the Santa Ana River made the Upper Newport Bay. Colburn theorized that the Newport River, fed by eleven tributary creeks and flowing west from a confluence formed by Peters Canyon, San Diego, and Sand Canyon creek, made the canyon that contains the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn theorizes that the antecedent Newport River shoved its way through a changing landscape as tectonic forces lifted a ridge several hundred feet above the coastal plain. After passing this hurdle, the river made a capacious delta, which housed all the habitats of the current bay, including the friable marine terraces, the uplands, the tidal marshes, and the basin that the tides flow in, and out of.

(Today, the tidal process is often so unhurried that the footprints of raccoons and other foraging mammals are left undisturbed and can be seen inches under the water at low tide, clearly imprinted in the grey marsh mud.)

The Santa Ana river in its floodplain.

In Colburn’s telling of the making of the Orange and Los Angeles coastal plain, the Newport River was one of six “ephemeral” rivers that ran during the interglacial Sangamon age, 125,000 to 75,000 years ago. At that time, the climate hit the pause button between periods of glaciation. Water coursed down from the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and Santa Ana mountain ranges, and from the stumpy little hills scattered among the Los Angeles basin: Puente, Coyote, Repetto, Elysian and San Jose Hills. The six ancestral rivers dribbled and flowed down, and then snaked onto the basin that Los Angeles County sits on top of, creating a series of deltas much further inland and much higher. Sea level was about 100 feet higher than it is now.

These six rivers multi-tasked as they descended, carrying rock and sediment from the mountains and hills that got dumped whenever the flow of the rivers was checked, both taking from and giving to the earth, as all rivers do. This created the Los Angeles Basin where later extractive industries flourished, like the petroleum and the film industries.

The Sangamon age gave way to the Wisconsinan age, 75,000–11,000 years ago, the last glacial period before the Holocene, the age we live in now. The transition between a very warm age to a very cold one, trapped the water in ice. The coastline accordingly withdrew. At about 17,000 years ago, the coast of Los Angeles County was about eight miles away from the Port of Long Beach.

Some water became more available. The Wisconsinan age was glaciopluvial, meaning that there was much more rain. Southern California had a climate that was “comparable to the Pacific Northwest,” according to Colburn, and may have received over 80 inches of rain annually. This turned the ephemeral creeks and streams into rivers, giving them more erosive power than they’d ever had.

The power these rivers had is still visible. Imagine that you’re standing on the west bluff of the Upper Newport Bay. Looking east, you see Saddleback, with its twin peaks. (If you’re lucky, the moon is full and the sky is clear.) Directly in front of you is Eastbluff. Looking down, you see roughly 100 feet of eroded cliff, with cactus digging itself into the loose soil. Put your eyes in the back of your head, and travel west on 23rd Street, past Irvine, Santa Ana, and Orange avenues, to Newport Boulevard. Now you’re crossing into Westside Costa Mesa, the former working class neighborhood with the city’s only grange hall, now classed up with high-density condos.

Travel down Victoria Street, still heading west, until you stand on the Victoria Street overpass. What is it over passing, exactly? Why, the west side of the Newport mesa. You have just traveled between two points in an ancient landscape, from the water gap carved by the Newport River to the water gap made by the Santa Ana River.

1935 quadrangle (cropped) of the Newport Mesa

There is no natural might that goes unchecked. Even as the Wisconsinan rain was swelling the rivers and watering the coastal plain, the earth kept its hand in, too. The Newport-Inglewood Fault, which was responsible for breaking my grandmother’s china in the late eighties, was active during this late stage in the Pleistocene era. It ruptured, producing a ridge, the Newport-Inglewood Ridge, presenting a challenge to the rain-engorged rivers. Before this, when the climate was drier, their deltas were further inland and easier to reach. But the rising ridge, which ran from the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Joaquin Hills, posed a threat to the free movement of the water.

The rivers, Colburn says, had great power of their own. They could move the earth, if not the heavens, and “entrench” themselves inside their beds, and flow at rapid speeds, too. So they did. Five of the rivers—the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Bolsa Chica, Santa Ana and Newport rivers—bum-rushed the upwarping ridge that threatened to trap them inside the Los Angeles Basin. They were able to match in speed and might the rising earth because of their velocity and scouring power. They lengthened and deepened their beds to bring themselves into equilibrium with the new location and level of the ocean. And this made all the difference.

The ridge was transected, leaving behind water gaps and mesas where the water did not surmount the ridge. This explains the Dominguez and Signal hills, which always looked sadly orphaned to me, as I flashed past them on the 405 freeway as a child. They are mesas that were formed during this period. So are the Bixby Knolls in Long Beach and Landing Hill in Seal Beach. Only the Los Cerritos River did not make it. It became a wetland, and ultimately suffered the indignity that many wetlands in the 20th century suffered at the hands of private landowners and commercial interests.

Ivan P. Colburn’s rendering of the location of the water gap channels on the LA/Orange County coastal plain.

The Newport River did make it. Colburn estimates that its drainage basin was 260 square miles, and its length, 20 miles. But this power came with a trade off: the entrenchment that allowed the rivers to drop to new sea levels, and allowed for higher volumes of water in their beds, also demanded a new commitment from the rivers to stay put.

Rivers wander; watch a rivulet of water run down a window someday, and you’ll see in miniature the motion of a meandering river. Geologists other than Colburn have supposed that the Santa Ana River wiggled back and forth between its normal course, cutting not only the Santa Ana water gap between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, but the Newport water gap, too. This is the going theory and is, today, widely accepted. An oft-quoted study entitled “Marshlands at Newport Bay” published in 1958 by scientists R.E. Stevenson and K.O. Emery, was influential in shaping theories about how the Upper Newport Bay was formed; it’s cited in the city’s “Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, Environmental Impact Statement,” published in 2000, and appears in the footnotes of dozens of articles in scientific journals.

This is where Colburn departs from his peers. “The geologic reasoning needed to support these assertions was not included in the articles,” he states, going onto to assert that the antecedent rivers were straight-jacketed by their deeply incised beds, making this sort of riverbed-hopping impossible for them to do. Stevenson and Emery are not the only scientists to favor this theory; Colburn quotes two other papers that theorize that the Santa Ana River created not one, not two, but no less than four water gaps between Los Angeles and Orange counties. This is a lot of work for one river, no matter how much water is propelling it across a plain.

Colburn’s research is quoted mistakenly in the current version of the Wikipedia article for the Santa Ana River: his idea that the Santa Ana River didn’t create either the Newport water gap, or the Upper Newport Bay, is ignored in favor of retaining the Santa-Ana-River-did-it-all theory.

He doesn’t take issue with the role of the Santa Ana river in the making of the Newport sandbar/peninsula and its ephemeral mudflats, which became Linda, Lido, Bay, Balboa and Harbor islands. The lower bay is younger than its sister embayment. Colburn allows that the “anecdotal” reports of the Santa Ana River flooding in the 19th century and entering the head of the upper bay through the entrance created by the Newport River are probable. Since there was more water in the oceans after the glaciers melted, saltwater intruded at least 2 miles up the river channel, slowing the rivers, which caused them to drop sediment further inland from the coast, raising their beds.

If the rivers ran their courses at the time the ridge was rising, it follows (if I understand Colburn’s argument) that the depth of the bed and the volume of water had to be deep enough, full enough, and fast enough to beat the uprising earth at its own game. Leaving its bed and weaving laterally over the plain to make more than one gap was not possible, Colburn states. And that’s where he leaves things.

It’s hard to visualize the kind of titanic power Orange County’s creeks had when they joined forces. Today, the Upper Newport Bay has only one major source of fresh water, San Diego Creek. The rest of Orange County’s creeks are contained in culverts. This keeps them from knowing each other as they did back in the good old glaciopluvial days when their polyamorous nature—creeks and streams like to take many partners—created a river.

The 23rd street creek in late afternoon, as it drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn’s research on the antecedent rivers is hypothetical, and this paper, as far as I can tell, was unpublished and has not been peer-reviewed, although other papers have. His work as a sedimentary geologist has been rewarded–and lauded–by his peers, most notably in 2017, when he received the 2016 A.E. Fritsche Lifetime Achievement Award “for his accomplishments to California geology” from the Pacific Section of SEPM.

If you want to see a remnant of the awesome geological past of the Newport Mesa, go to the Upper Newport bay, and scramble down the eroded sides of the 23rd street creek, which comes out of a culvert at the foot of 23rd street where it hits Irvine Avenue. The creek delivers urban runoff from the surrounding streets to the bay.  Sometime before 1952, that creek and what is now called Cherry Lake, which was once a 40-foot deep spring-fed ravine, supplied fresh water to the Upper Newport bay. Both are both artifacts of an old hydrological system that was spread along the northwest bluff between Santiago Drive and Santa Isabel Avenue. All of it is gone, replaced by modern modes of place-making, like landscaping and the wholesale containment of natural systems, which—should they roar to life, unexpectedly—may yet surprise us all with their ancestral, epochal determination to create.

San Francisco, June 11, 2018. Dedicated to Lizann Bassham, 1959-2018, a mighty work of creation, indeed, and a lover of humanity and nature.
Elizabeth Ann Bassham, 1959-2018

The study “Marshlands at Newport Bay, California.” by R.E.Stevenson, and K.O. Emery, is available from the Allan Hancock Foundation Occasional Papers at the University of Southern California:  
Let me know if you order it.
With thanks to Professor Ivan P. Colburn for writing something a citizen scientist could read and learn from. Here’s a list of his published articles, as archived by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists

Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

Looking east from the Shellmound Island Science Center

I went kayaking yesterday with my cousin Elizabeth and her lovely daughter Becca, the youngest Creely. “How’s the bay?” she asked innocently. She was saved from my natural long-windedness by the appearance an osprey, one half of a mated pair, now living and loving in the Upper Newport Bay. The considerate folks at California Department of Fish and Wildlife built a roosting platform for the raptors and their growing family, and the osprey are using it. One fledgling is in the nest.

I first saw the osprey three or four years ago, sitting in the middle of a mud flat. I never saw these birds, these mythic sea eagles, growing up. Now I am. The osprey tells you what you need to know about how the bay is, I think I finally said.

Looking at the osprey nest from the path.

Seeing them, I explained, means some assumptions can be made. The first assumption you can make when you see ospreys reproducing in the Back Bay, is that the bay is doing better.

You can assume things about the water quality. It’s far better than it used to be,  back in the fifties and sixties when half of the bay was diked off for salt production and the other half was water laced with petrochemicals that leaked from the ostentatious yachts parked around Linda, Harbor and Bay Islands. I remember the rainbow sheen of the water very clearly, as a child. The snazzy motor boats and jet skis that used to race around the bay are now forbidden to do so. Consequently, there is less disturbance, and probably more fish to catch.

You can assume things about the quality of their food supply. The fish they catch and eat don’t have as much DDT bio-accumulated in their oily flesh, and therefore do not compromise the osprey’s reproductive system.

You can assume things about noise. The airplanes that take off from John Wayne airport were forced by the angry people living under the runway to take off at a steep angle so as to gain altitude quickly. This diminished the roar of the airplane. I can all but guarantee that the good people of Santa Ana Heights were not thinking about ospreys, but they managed to do them a good turn anyhow.

Anthropocentric noise ruins avian habitat, plain and simple: the sweet song of the sparrow as it quests for a mate cannot compete with the roar of a chainsaw. I’ve written this sentence, and it’s one of the truest things I know. The high, thin cry of the osprey can’t compete with the huge sound of an airplane. A bird’s habitat exists in this airy atmosphere, and ideally, that aether should be as free as possible of man-made noise.

Papa Osprey keeping an eye on his fledgling.

You can assume things about predators. Raccoons are going to have a tough time getting up the platform. Other raptors–bald eagles, golden eagles and some owls– prey on eggs, fledglings and sometimes adult ospreys. These predators are not in evidence. Corvids are: they’re a big problem. They love to eat chicks and eggs. I watched the parent osprey chase three ravens away, very efficiently. There’s an explosion of corvids in California. They’re efficient generalists and will eat anything from an egg in a nest to garbage lying on the ground. Corvids get a lot of attention for their mythic qualities. They perch on Odin’s shoulders, muttering news of the nine worlds to him, and turn up in the Táin Bó Cúailnge croaking about death. But in the state of California, they are ubiquitous, and rapacious ,and have lost their mystery.

In the small and special world of the Upper Newport Bay, the lives of the osprey mean everything. They are mythic: an apex predator, they live at the top of their food chain, and as such, increase my understanding of ecology and life, a phenomenon best understood in the aggregate, not the singular. (That’s an idea that belongs to theocrats.) My understanding becomes both tightly concentrated and widely diffused when I see ospreys. I don’t just see them: I see all the systems under, adjacent and above. I see the web.

A last word on assumptions. Many things are knowable, like this fact: the Upper Newport Bay was saved because of action by individuals, institutions and flat-out governmental fiat. In the late sixties and early seventies, hard-working citizen activists and scientists saved the Upper Newport Bay, which was left undeveloped. Since then, some ecological balance has been restored because of the intervention of Fish and Wildlife, and the EPA. When I was a seven-year old, the EPA banned DDT in 1972, clearing the way for raptors like the osprey to begin their comeback, which was helped along by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. All of this protection transformed the bay into a refuge. 

The fledgling tests its wings.

I kayak every chance I get. As I do, I think about the bay ecology that supports the ospreys and the fact that this tiny little circle of life is situated in an old river delta, the bit where the end of the river meets the beginnings of the sea. This river, an antecedent river of the Santa Ana river, rose and ran west during the last glacial period of the Pleistocene, a rainy, fluvial/pluvial epoch that made Orange County look more like the Pacific Northwest (think big wet trees). It made a gap in the Santa Ana mountain range, ran over the Tustin Plain and emptied into the Upper Newport Bay.

When I paddle my kayak upstream into the wildlife refuge, I move backward in time, into a space made by that old, old river. Somewhere below the muddy bottom of the bay is a still older passage.  It’s the world beneath ours, the one you see in a puddle on a stormy day, when the small, silvery pool of wet dissolves into pure transparency and you are invited to jump in and through. (I saw these puddle worlds often when I was a kid.)

I would jump, if I could. I assume things are better there; no revanchist government; no theocrats, no supremacist, belligerent patriarchs with their handmaids. I don’t know this. I shouldn’t assume. It’s not wise. Ask the questions–Is the bay better? Will it continue to gain in health? Will the ospreys stay put? Will the fledgling fly?–stay put and remember to consider the osprey in its hybrid habitat made by ancient rivers and human intervention.

It’s at rest in its world, the one next to ours.


This is Mama Osprey who landed carrying a silver mullet in her talons, which she proceeded to eat there, on the marsh plain. Wish I had a better camera.

Never leave

waveNever leave.

Ah, the beach dream, the oldest and most frequently recurring dream I have. I had it last night after a long week of disorienting sadness. The dream involves a tossing grey ocean, and a steep, sandy bank.

Am I in the ocean? Sometimes.
Am I trying to get away from/out of the ocean?  Yes. That’s where the steep sandy bank comes in.

What’s interesting about this dream is that it’s based in reality. The south-facing beaches of the city of Newport Beach are built up; highly engineered. Back in the day, by which I mean anywhere from 10 BCE on, the ancestor of the Santa Ana River ran all over the Tustin Plain, in that wavery way water has, but with force because of the tremendous amount of water in its riverine column. By and by, it incised its bank so deeply that it couldn’t wander the way it used to. The river built its own prison, in a manner of speaking and, until it was disturbed again by men from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and entombed in a box culvert, stuck, more or less, to one route. After a flood in 1825, the river carved a water gap through the chalky, wave-cut bluffs of what would become Newport Beach, and began work on its last creation: an estuary, and a peninsular structure. The former was later called the Newport Harbor, after the estuary was dredged and turned into a commercial, deep-water harbor. The latter structure became the Balboa Peninsula. The water shouldered its way through the estuary, took a right-ish turn under a rock formation, now called Pirate Cove, and flowed out to sea.

I mention all this geological history because forceful nature, and later civil engineering, made my dream vocabulary. The meandering river, shaped by its own forces and later by the busy hands of men, gave me a symbol, a picture with which to express to myself the very image of anticipation, fascination, immersion and abject fear. When I dream about the tossing grey sea and the steep bank, they are so perfectly posed next to each other that I see them in my waking hours almost as a woodcut image of curvilinear shapes and a straight lines. I could, perhaps, make a pictograph of this and hang it on my wall to remind me of what I always seem to do in that dream (and probably in my waking life): confronting a force which is much bigger and more powerful than I.

Newport storm eroison
Photo Courtesy of Newport Mesa


The peninsula was later augmented and built up by the dredged mud and sand of the estuary which was dumped on the sand-spit beaches, making them wider and longer. Buttressed by a jetty at the harbor mouth and a few fishing piers, the beaches held onto their allotment of sand, and, with a few exceptions, did not erode. But the engineers of the beach left their signature: a steeply graded, littoral zone. The grade of the beaches is wholly artificial and the ocean has never reconciled itself to this new arrangement. How steep these zones are depends on how roughly the sea is thrashing. Closer to the Newport Pier, the approach is moderate. But in front of Newport Elementary, the step you take from the dry sand onto the wet shore, can be 2 to 3 feet down.

The waves on these south-facing beaches are typically 3 to 5 feet. The waves form in deep water and then break against that engineered shore line, cutting and slapping away the sand. This makes for a shore-break that is tough to contend with. The waves smack you down when you enter the water, as if in outrage at your trespass. When you leave the water, the grasping suck of the undertow grabs you by the waist. With the full weight of the ocean pulling on you, you walk out of the water only to encounter a wall of sand. The ground underfoot is treacherous and shifts. You sink, ever so slightly, into the sand.

All sorts of dreams combine in this charged moment: the dream of the ocean that the river followed, as it murmured and sank ever deeper into its banks and the dreams of the 20th century’s big-minded civil engineers who tunneled under mountains and built cities on sand-spits. Standing in the grey water of the dream-ocean, the greedy water pleads with you to never leave. Never Leave.

This is the dream.


Chronicles of Ubo: Private Road, Newport Beach

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA
Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

There’s a road named “Private Road” in my home region of Ubo which, appropriately, I never noticed much or at all until I came back to live there for four months in the fall of 2012. I was in a sleuthing and investigating mode then, à la Nancy Drew. A secret lake, a lost Indian spring, the provenance of my brother’s illness, mysterious culverts that crisscrossed the two cities of Ubo: all of these things pre-occupied me with their unknown origins. And when I thought I could neither discover nor query anything else, I found a street entitled “Private Road”. How stupid, I thought irritably. Who names a road “Private”?

A real estate developer, working in the frontier of early suburban development in Orange County, that’s who. It’s likely that it was this kind of guy (it was probably was a guy) who looked over the bluffs of the neighboring estuary and saw a view, which was, and is, a prized feature. The view was public and thus un-monetized, a situation that could not stand. It was transformed into a private view, on a private street, something rare and exclusive. (How do you make money from the intangibles of space? Ask any Newport Beach land developer. They’ll tell you.)

The name worked like a charm. I had never noticed the road. Had I noticed, I would have obeyed its finger-wagging admonition to Stay The Hell Out. Private Road stayed off my radar of the many locales, destinations, spaces and sites that, when assembled, created the geographical and social space I called home.

Private Road is on a grade, and curves up from Irvine Avenue, a long street that starts in the uplands and ends at the western bluffs of Ubo. Standing at the bottom of Private Road, you’re forced to look up, an aspirational gaze which symbolizes the effort it would take to purchase a house there. The view is tantalizing. The street ends in the sky, making it look mythic: heaven-bound and unapproachable for those of us with no money.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road is in a wealthy neighborhood, like most neighborhoods in Ubo. The median house prices are stratospheric and the spatial dimensions of the houses are similarly unbound: they’re large and getting larger. The pseudo-Eichler houses built after the Second World War with their modest square footages are being ripped down as their original owners die and the property is sold. Bigger house with more square footage and ersatz French Chateau-like exteriors are replacing them.

This is an old complaint and not a very interesting one: I came home and everything was different, cries the adult, who left while they were young, and so inadvertently imprisoned the place they left in an inflexible memory.

I don’t know, exactly, how a road that was built and maintained with state and county money could be considered legally private. It’s protected from my memory by the simple expedient of naming it “Private”. Perhaps this name-as-inoculation was the most important magic to be worked. I, like many others, had knowledge of other spaces, some of them very different, like Santa Ana, for instance. It has small pink and blue houses with many people living in them and chickens in the front yard.

I lived on Croftdon Street as a small child. When I was 7, my parent’s friends brought their children with them on a visit, thinking we would get along nicely and play well together. Sadly, their children were total assholes. There was a South East Asian family across the street, and a Mexican family living next to us, and a Japanese family further down. This unsettled them. “What does it feel like to live in a ghetto?” one of them asked us sneeringly.

The developer of Private Road would never have asked this question because he wanted never to know. His query was more complex, his concern different: how could any space in Newport Beach— well on its way to attaining the sort of agonized and self-conscious air of exclusivity it has today— co-exist both in my consciousness and the consciousness of the well-heeled Newport Beach homeowner, given that I played with Raj, the brown-eyed boy whose mother was from Ireland and whose father was from Gujarat? The road was less than half a mile from the Costa Mesa City limits! Borders needed to be set. Privacy accomplished this.

The gap in my memory is a deliberate and purposive act of segregation, frustrating not only my physical presence, but preventing me from making a commons in my memory, an association of Private Road as a part of the place I lived, with the images of Raj or Mr. Leon, an elderly Mexican man who lived next door to us on Croftdon.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Today there is a white, slightly rusted sign affixed to the neatly trimmed hedge that marks the entrance to the road. I want to be alone, the sign seems to sigh in an exhalation of weary ennui. The streets that border Private Road don’t have this attitude. They’re friendly tree-lined streets that I traversed as a child, going here and there between the beach, or the dentist on Balboa Island, or my grandparent’s house on Aliso, or our bookstore on 17th street. Santiago Drive, 23rd Street and Tustin Avenue: I know them and love them all, especially Tustin where, in the dusky evenings of the nineteen-forties cars would speed recklessly and sometimes crash into the swamp at the end of the street.

Anyone with a computer can look at Private Road now. Go ahead. Type in the words “Private Road, Newport Beach, CA” into the Google search field, select the little Google manikin and drop it squarely on the entrance to Private Road. See the cunning little red bridge next to the private pagoda? It’s adorable— a wonderful example of the Orientalist decorating craze so common in Newport Beach back in the fifties. Please notice the stand of bamboo just to the right. Click some more and proceed. At 2317 Private Road, two women stand chatting in the driveway, having what could have been a private conversation, were it not for the omniscient gaze of a Google camera.

Hey! Yeah, we just thought we’d drop in! Where’s your icebox? Where’s the punch?

Moving on, you can see the house next to them, with its cute rose-bedecked bower and small grove of aspen trees. Swing around sharply to your left and look at the kidney-shaped pool. Legions of happy, sun-tanned Newport Beach children grew up in this pool, safely shielded from the public gaze which would surely have burnt their tender skin with all that avid public curiosity.

Have the inhabitants of Private Road given up the battle to maintain their privacy? The space opposite them, the Upper Newport Bay, isn’t private. Through the efforts of Frank and Francis Robinson, the bay was rescued from the same obliterating vision of private development, and was instead restored and opened up to public access. Not so for the historic site called “Cherry Lake”. What used to be a spring — a democratic place, surely— that provided fresh water for the Tongva, the Native American tribe who had been in residence since they sprang into being as a people, is now a private lake.

What were the inhabitants of Private Road rejecting? What did they think was being kept at bay? What did they want to keep hidden, shielded from scrutiny? Was Precious getting bombed?

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

The other day, as my mother and I were out, I told her I had something new to show her, in a familiar neighborhood she once lived in as a young mother. I turned down Irvine and made a left, heading up the road and into the secret cul-de-sac. My mother gaped at the pagoda.

“My god,” she said. “I never knew this was here!”

“You weren’t meant to, “ I replied. “It’s private.”

The ditch: an excerpt from “The Mystery of Cherry Lake.”

OC Register photo of South Coast Plaza construction the evolution of the Orange County Flood Control District’s (OCFCD) Hydrology Manual.


The Paulerino flood channel is a tributary flood drain to the Delhi Channel, and it drains urban runoff from Costa Mesa. The channel threads its stealthy way through the margins of the residential and commercial districts of Costa Mesa, including the first neighborhood that our family lived in, which was still too new and perhaps too working-class to have a name, unlike the neighborhood to the west that my family moved to in 1973, the glamorously named “Mesa Del Mar.”

Back then, in the slightly downtrodden tract, the Paulerino Channel passed right behind the houses down the street. We’d access it through the schoolyard of St John the Baptist, the private Catholic school two blocks over. We called it “the ditch”. We didn’t understand that it had been put there for our own good. We had never seen the ditch full or even half full. There was only the dark oozy water slowly tricking through the concrete channel, making sullen puddles here and there. It was a terrible place.

Paulerino Channel

We weren’t supposed to go there. “Don’t go to the ditch,” my Mother said, and so we went to the ditch on Saturdays and Sundays when we had exhausted every other diversion available to us. It was such an unlovely noisome place, with its fetid water, which had to be anoxic and incapable of supporting life. Even the lure of our own covert activities faded as soon as we shinnied down the sides of the chain-link fence. It was uninspiring. Shopping carts had been pushed down the sides, landing sideways in the weeds. Cigarette butts littered the ground. There weren’t even any crumpled condoms down there. No one used it for anything. It was a wasteland where no one met, as far as we could tell, to hold hands and rediscover their pasts.

And yet, there was life, as there always is on this earth. There would sometimes be tadpoles wriggling around frenetically, darting through the scant column of water and hiding from us nosey children in the puddles, in the thick cottony algae. I was too young to understand the relationship between the ocean and the engineered system of flood control and didn’t know that the Bay was a pit stop for all water in Orange County on its way to the ocean. The tadpoles knew there was country ahead. They had a destination. The great swamp-city of the Upper Newport Bay awaited them, if they could just stay one step ahead of my harassing hands, the lack of water and the occasional predator. If they were lucky, they would end their lives as full-grown amphibians, foodstuff for great blue herons and cranes or living in peace on their own terms, reproducing and croaking their throaty songs in the salt marshes. It was hopefully a good home for them; their natural home.


Many years later, at my Mother’s house, I thought of the ditch. California had been forecast by NOAA to have an El Nino winter, and then, with its bureaucratic face turned questioningly to sky, NOAA revised the prediction into another prediction which was so conditional, it was hard to remember exactly what they were predicting.  The little boy was nowhere to be seen, said, NOAA. So don’t expect much water. And we might have a warmer winter than was expected.  This was unsettling. Orange County was in its third year of drought and California’s snow pack had been at 40% of its normal capacity the year before.

So, I was thinking about water and where I saw it growing up. Not the water in the ocean, but fresh water, the magic water, the water that was and never was, elusive, sparkling fresh water contained in creeks, streams, ponds lakes. Water that other people in different places saw and felt on their skin when they immersed themselves in these magic places that held water and had not been turned into concrete representations of themselves.

howl@the moon

My brother was in the backyard, chopping down trees and pruning shrubs. The cat was on the roof. I was standing in my old bedroom looking out. I said “Hey, Jim. You know that ditch that runs behind St. Johns?”

“Yeah? What about it?” He threw his pruning saw down and crossed to the window. The sun was setting and the lavender glow of twilight illuminated his face. The close-cropped lawn of St. Augustine grass glowed a feverish green.

I said, almost irritably, “What is that? Is that really a tributary stream of the Santa Ana River? Is it a creek?”

“No,” Jim said. “That’s just a flood channel. But I’ll tell you where a spring-fed lake is, right around the corner.’ And he did.

(with thanks to Paul Weller.)

Meeting Epona at the Pile of Rocks Ranch

Note: WordPress’s conventions don’t allow for much flexibility, I find. Although this blog is authored and maintained by me, I do accept guest authors sometimes. The below story was written by my sister Emily Creely. This is Emily’s story, voice and experience.

I grew up in the suburban, modern West, a hard place to locate divinity. The only wide open spaces left seem to be located on the sites of former military bases, or in rugged, inaccessible areas. My paternal predecessors traveled, lived and died in a California that was characterized by open space interrupted by small towns and settlements that were even then sites of land speculation, and subsequent development. But when my paternal grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Bunster Creely arrived in Newport Beach, Southern California was still relatively untouched.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunster Creely standing in the Upper Newport Bay, Newport Beach, Ca, circa 1948.

Our grandparents left Northern California for the southern part in the state in 1928 motivated by cheap land and a desire to escape my grandmother’s over-bearing mother. They started a new life in arid Southern California. What they brought with them aside from the desire to start their married life in a different place, was a love of Equus ferus caballus, otherwise known as the horse. Horses weren’t merely animals, and they were not status symbols. They weren’t used for their muscles as a tool of work. They were something a bit more meaningful.

My parents weren’t churchgoers and my siblings and I were not baptized. We did not have King James Bible in our home. What we had was a book entitled “The Horse in the West.” That 1960s-era, brown leather book was my sacred text. I suppose if I had to describe my belief system as a child, it was this: the horse was a god and god was a horse. The relationship with a horse was as close as I could come to achieving grace.

Our aunt, Cerini Creely, her friend Jane Elliot and their horses after a ride in the Upper Newport Bay, Newport Beach, CA

Less than 80 years ago, coastal Orange County was a small collection of towns fringed by orange groves, and further out, sagebrush, oak woodlands and vernal pools. What is now home to million-dollar houses was once a sandy delta near the Pacific Ocean. It’s here that my father and grandfather hunted rabbit and my Aunt Cerini rode horses. As a teenager growing up in Newport Beach, Cerini would walk across the street in the morning, slip a halter around her horse’s neck, and ride bareback through a field that led to Newport Harbor High School, a mile away.

Cerini at play, near Irvine Avenue and 22nd Street, Newport Beach (ca 1948)

To me, this seemed incredible, something reserved for immortals or for the very wealthy. Cerini was an Eponist, an adept in the equine arts, a latter-day priestess of Epona the Celtic-Romano goddess. I wanted what my aunt had: the availability of land and a relationship with a horse, any horse. I wanted to aspect Epona. I hadn’t heard of Epona- this came later-yet I understood that what I wanted was this: to be among horses.

The Gaulish-Romano goddess, Epona. Figure found in Champoulet, France

In 1984, I got my chance. I was told by my step-aunt that she had a friend who needed help with her seventeen horses. The details trickled in over the next two months, changing each time. At first, the friend, whose name was Christine, claimed she needed an “intern”. It became clear after many vague messages that the position more closely resembled indentured servitude. My mother’s bullshit meter hit red and she started to get angry when the subject was raised. Mom wanted to tell the woman to look for another servant, and that “not no, but hell no!” was she sending her 14- year old daughter to a ranch that was 2 hours away and had no phone and no running water, “God knows what else is going on,” my Mother said. But it was decided that I could stay with the mysterious woman and her horses.

Years later, I learned that my father gently, but firmly told my mother that I was going.

The day they drove me out to Christine’s ranch, my mother was quiet and on edge. She had no idea where we were going. None of us had any sense of the area we were driving into. The geography of California south-east of Los Angeles is high desert, and home to about ten minor mountain ranges that descend into rocky and barren lowlands. The ranch was located in the Gavilan Hills, in Riverside County, an under-populated county east of the coast of Southern California. Riverside County was unlovely and thus largely unknown. My parents who had lived and explored Southern California for years could not picture where the ranch was located. “Gavilan Hills? Where the hell is that?” my mother asked. No one knew.

The Gavilan Hills, Riverside County, California

We exited Interstate 15, just north of Lake Elsinore, a lake town characterized by bikers, retirees and hippies, and turned east toward the beige hills opposite the lake. Within a mile or two, the paved road turned to hard-packed dirt as it climbed up and around small hollers of mobile homes. We sat quietly in the car except for my mother. “Jesus Christ,” she muttered under her breath. “Jesus Christ.” She glared at my father, who stayed silent. I tensed up, expecting this trip to be vetoed at the last minute. I was not turned off by the area. I was itching to get out and explore.

From USGS quad map ‘Gavilan Hills” Lat 33.76425° (N) Long 117.33659° (W)

We made a sharp turn and drove into a flat opening that was surrounded on all sides by the detritus of the mountain: rocks, more rocks and rocky outcroppings. My father took a tight turn and there it was: the ranch. On the left was two trailers. One was a luxury horse trailer configured so that the living space was half of the unit and the other half storage space. The other trailer was a pop-up camper that had seen better days.

“This should be called Pile of Rocks Ranch,” said my Dad. I didn’t say anything. All I could see was the glorious flesh of seventeen beautiful horses. Within minutes, I was able to answer a question that had been my only concern: the horses looked well cared for. I exhaled. My mother looked appalled. My father turned off the engine and looked at me. He had a look on his face that took me a moment to identify. It was envy. He put his arm around my mom’s shoulder and gave it a small squeeze.

We were greeted by the owner of the newly-dubbed Pile of Rocks Ranch, Christine. She was striking woman with long thick brown hair. Behind her stood a large, quiet man with slicked back black hair, her husband. He had the energy of a wary animal.

Christine was fit, tan and had a gypsy air about her. She took the three of us on a tour of the ranch and introduced each horse to my father and I, which we thoroughly enjoyed. My mother, who was untouched by the wild Eponist spirit of the Creelys’, trailed behind us. She didn’t like Christine. “I didn’t feel welcome by her,” she said later. “She didn’t like people.” My parents finally left: one envious and one grudging. I was left alone with Christine and her 17 horses.

My living quarters were Spartan: The trailer smelled of pine sol, semi-dry horse manure, and dust. My toilet was a bucket with a lid covering the opening. I emptied it before I went to sleep. I had a small cooler with a chunk of ice wedged in it. This was enough to keep my food from spoiling. My shower was a hose with a shower-head attached. It hung on a hook on the side of a shed next to my trailer. In the hottest part of the day, I would shower with water heated in the coils of the hose.

I had only camped once before in my life, as an 8-year old with my friend’s family in San Felipe Mexico, but never anything like this. And never for that long. It was possible that I could have been miserable, but I took that chance and found out that I loved being dirty, and working all day. I didn’t need the comforts of suburban existence.

The days began early, pre-dawn. We started by breaking flakes of alfalfa from huge bales and fed the horses, chatting with them. I learned to speak to horses with Christine. Then we cleaned the corrals. They were spotless. Then I’d push a wheelbarrow up a steeply sloping ramp that was nearly 20 feet tall. I’d dump fresh horse shit over a small hill of old manure. This manure composted and became bedding for the horses.

And then my lesson with the horses would begin. Picture a dirty woman wearing jeans with a tan so deep, her skin was like leather. Christine had the best tack for her horses: dressage saddles that cost thousands of dollars. The gear we put on the horse cost as much as a week’s worth of food. She taught me what double reins were for, and how to work them. I used my pinkies to communicate minute directions to the horse, via the bottom rein. Then we would let go of my training for a time and go for a trail ride. We enjoyed mutual silence and the lulling sound of eight hooves plowing through sand and over rock. This was what I was here for-for my moment on top of a horse, sharing its beauty, strength and grace.

We ate at sundown, when the flies had calmed, and the heat had settled. And then we slept. This was the rhythm of the time on the Pile of Rocks Ranch.

There were other people living on the rocky ranch among the seventeen horses: A elderly man whose name I never knew. He was a real cowboy with a sweet temper who had spent his life working cows, rodeos and the range. He had been injured in an unnamed accident which left an open sore on his hip. That had happened 30 years before. The wound never healed. The stench would hit you at 5 feet. He did odd jobs for Christine and she fed him three meals a day.

Christine’s daughter Dezi and Dezi’s son, C.J. also lived at the ranch. Dezi was full-figured, and filled up the room with her personality. She was tough and no-nonsense. I liked Dezi and her tow-haired 2-year old. Dezi enjoyed horses nearly as much as her mother, and was proud to share with me that she had ridden her horse up to the day before giving birth. (Her horse at that time was also pregnant.) She saw nothing wrong with her son being dirty.

But the horses…the horses. They were my focus and my passion, my idols and mentors. I loved a horse named Shiloh, a 15-hand grey gelding. The canvas above the shelf where I slept was torn wide open and opened over the corral fence. At night, as I lay looking at stars I normally couldn’t see, Shiloh would stick his head through the slash. The stars would wink out as the head of Shiloh silently nosed about until I reached out to touch his muzzle. Shiloh had been trained so well that I rode him with just the slightest pressure in my calves and thighs and slight cues with my hands on the reins. He smelled good, especially when I gave him a sponge bath. I loved the way his dirty white hide turned grey blue with water and smelled of musky horse muscles. Each evening, at sunset, I rode Shiloh a quarter mile to start the water pump and then back again at a full gallop along the twisty road that led to the ranch. I was till a novice rider. Even though I loved Shiloh’s power, I was still in awe of it. I fought to relax, to keep my eyes down the road where we were headed, and to enjoy the ride. Time slows down on the back of a horse.

Shiloh at dusk, Pile of Rocks ranch, Gavilan Hills, California.

Zalex was an Arabian Stallion that almost ripped my hand off. Christine taught me that I must never have my hand on the lead rope in any configuration other than a loop. “You can never let your guard down with a stallion,” she told me as she demonstrated the way to hold the stallion on a lead rope. To hold a lead rope in a circle, where a tight pull could cut your hand in half, was a no-no.

One day I took Zalex past a mare he’d seen a thousand times. But this time, he noticed her. Zalex lunged towards the mare which nearly lifted me off my feet. If I had been holding the rope differently, I would have lost my hand.

I let go of Zalex and watched in horrified fascination as he ran full tilt at the mare behind the pipes of the corral. He hit the metal bars full tilt, and banged again and again against the bars which clanged loudly. The mare whinnied wildly. Was she egging him on? Or was she as frightened as me? Christine ran out, grabbed the hose, cranked it at full blast and hit him in the face with the water. It worked. He came out from under the potent of the spell of the mare and his hormones and ran off. Christine looked at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked. She watched the sex-crazed horse, still running. “That was smart, girl. He could have killed you.”
“Are you scared he’s loose?” I asked shakily
“No. He’ll come back. When he does, he and I will talk. I’ll get him back where he belongs.”
Twenty minutes later, Zalex came ambling back. She walked up to him, stroked him soothingly, and reattached the lead. She led the horse away, speaking words of love, of acceptance for his wild equine nature.

The name of the mare that drove Zalex mad was Mary Gail. She was a purebred, high-strung Arabian who was gorgeous. She tossed her head like a diva. Not even Christine could break her of this annoying habit. I rode the mare with a special bridle called a running martingale. This kept her head in one place and her speed checked. I couldn’t relax on Mary Gail, but the power I felt under my butt and between my legs was astounding. I felt as if I were riding a locomotive. I loved riding her.

My dad, who had been trained in horsemanship by a World War I cavalry officer, visited me about two weeks later. We went for a ride. I put Dad on Shiloh and I rode Mary Gail. Father and daughter loped for a bit in the dusty hills. My father studied my hands, and the way I held the reins.
“I think you’re holding her head in way too much,” he said. “Let up a bit.”
I explained that if I did that, she’d start racing. “She’s like a car with the gas pedal stuck,” I said. He was not convinced.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll let the reins be looser. Try to keep up so you can see what’s going on with her.”

We started off. I took the brakes off Mary Gail and let her have her head. The column of her neck pulsed, and her head dropped. She hit three speeds in quick succession: a fast lope, a gallop and then a fast gallop. The hot wind hit my face and the ground became a blur under her churning hooves. I remember hoping she hadn’t totally outrun my Dad and placid Shiloh: he needed to see what Mary Gail was capable of. After a hundred yards, I collected her into a trot and then down to a walk. I turned around. He and Shiloh were galloping up. They drew abreast of me and the sweating horse. My Dad had a look of surprise on his face.

“Well kid, you were right,” my dad said. He was impressed. “I think you know more than your old man now.” We rode on. I glowed with happiness. His praise felt good. It wasn’t that I was right; it was that he respected my newly-acquired expertise. At the age of fifteen, I was his peer on horseback.

Christine and I took a final six-hour ride. We rode south from the property to a trail that traversed an area of the hills I hadn’t been to. We both led other horses. We were going to be picked up at the end of the trail, near the bottom of the hill by Dezi. Christine lent me chaps to wear and instructed me on how to properly lead another horse. No human settlement could be seen from the vantage point of the trail, which began at about 3,500 feet. We packed food and a lot of water. We passed through shade once or twice, under the enormous boughs of ancient oak trees somehow still miraculously left standing, survivors of the rampant tree-cutting of real estate developers and California’s annual fire season. It was dusty and hot, reaching 90 degrees outside.

There is a particular shade of beige unique to the dried grass found in California’s hill country: bleached-out and yellow. The color of the grass is matched by the yellow-tinged dirt of the trail. The profusion of tawny yellow is why I couldn’t see the mountain lion. We were alerted to its presence by the sudden change in the attitude of the horse I was leading, a young, green mare that suddenly started to panic.

Christine turned her head and looked at me. “Turn her loose,” she said. If I hadn’t just spent three weeks with this woman, I would never have done what I did so calmly. I reached over, grabbed the lead rope and pulled the mare’s head to me. I undid the latch on the halter. The mare turned tail and ran back to the ranch at a gallop.

“The mare will be fine,” said Christine. “Dezi’ll get her.” She was surveying our surroundings. We hadn’t actually seen the lion yet. We looked and finally saw it only when it moved. It was as dusty yellow as the grass and the dirt and was perched upon a large boulder. It looked our way. Everything seemed to stand still. The lion stretched like a massive house cat after its nap, and turned around, climbed down the boulder and walked away from us toward the nearest rise. Christine looked at me. She was smiling. “I was hoping that would happen,” she said. On her advice we waited five minutes and resumed our ride. We rode that day mostly in silence. I thought of my dad, my aunt and my grandpa. I was proud of being so comfortable in such a rough situation. I wished they could see me, so they could formally welcome me into their club, those people who knew California so intimately.

After three weeks, too soon for me, it was time to pack up my things and go. Christine was going to drop me at an ice cream shop in the town down the hill where I would wait for my folks. I have no memory of saying good-bye to anyone: Dezi, her son, the old man or the horses. I don’t recall much about leaving, except that we got to the ice cream store early. Christine didn’t wait with me for my parents to show up. I didn’t mind. My mother had a different reaction. When my parents drove up, and my mother realized they left me alone, I thought she would explode. “They left her on the side of the road! All by herself!” she told my sister indignantly. “I have never HEARD of such a thing!”

I got into the backseat and chattered the whole way home about my last three weeks. I was dirty and happy. With only a 5-minute shower every two days for three weeks, I had yellow dirt caked in every crease of my skin and I longed for a bath. And there was another thing I was looking forward to: I had something to brag about to my friends and sisters. I was in a state of grace with the dirt of California and horsehair pasted to my clothes to show for it. I had been initiated as a high priestess of horses. The Pile of Rocks Ranch was my bible camp and my faith was strong. As the youngest of five children, this mattered: I was something else now, resourceful, learned, and practiced. I was skilled. I knew things my siblings didn’t. The three weeks on the ranch had created a new level of intimacy between me and the horses and the California landscape. No Creely had ever done what I did. I had a piece of our family history that was all mine. I couldn’t be bossed around anymore.

I wish that I could go back in time and inscribe a laudatory dedication on one of the rocks to Christine, the Equine queen of the Gavilan Hills.

It would read: all hail to Epona, she who rides the divine mare, the goddess of the horse.  Hail Christine of the Pile of Rocks Ranch!

Emily Creely, October 8, 2012

Emily Creely on “Tarife” in Sutton, AK, 1999