Written and photographed by Graciela Cabello, Los Angeles Regional Coordinator, Latino Outdoors.
We met in Highland Park, a neighborhood of North East Los Angeles, at 9am on a Saturday morning. Cesar, the bus driver for the charter school Academia Avance, had rallied 37 kids from the school to go on a Latino Outdoors-sponsored day trip to Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu. He was also willing to drive us and help out for the day. Score!
Logistically, I understand it’s a long drive to Leo Carrillo from Highland Park. But when you are sitting on a bus for 47 miles, through several stretches of traffic, you realize what a trek it really is and why a lot of families from inland neighborhoods either don’t have the time or resources to get there. (A quick Google Maps search indicated it would take six transfers between train and buses, and approximately three hours to get there.) One of the participants was a mother who came with her two daughters. When I asked her if she had ever been out there before, she said no because it was too far. She added that her family once attempted to drive there on the Fourth of July but ended up sitting in traffic all day and never returned after that experience.
Many Angelenos visit Santa Monica Beach every year, but I’m not sure how many continue further north. So as we drove up Pacific Coast Highway I carefully observed the students for any indications of how they were feeling. A few commented on the size of the houses, a few stared curiously out in to the ocean, and some appeared to be getting ants in their pants. I was a bit anxious to get there as well, but probably for different reasons than they were. Being liable for 37 students is not exactly the most comfortable task. The majority of them were in high school and most were well behaved, but teenagers will be teenagers and I couldn’t be sure how the day would turn out.
In planning the outing, the only stipulation from our funder was it had to be a state park. Where would I go in November that would be optimal fun and still good weather? I also had to consider how little I actually knew about the students and their outdoor interests or physical abilities. I assumed many had never been hiking before and it could be a challenge to keep them interested. So I opted for Leo Carrillo because it offers both access to the Santa Monica Mountains and the beach, not to mention tide pools, coastal caves, and reefs to explore. It’s really a gem of a park and it’s no wonder it gets very crowded in the summer time.
When we arrived two intern naturalists, Caitlin and Jose, from the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, were waiting to take the group on a hike. The MRCA was really helpful in accommodating our date and also flexible with the location after I found out the state park agency in that area did not have an interpreter at the time.
There were a couple hiccups in getting everyone together and prepared for the hike. To my surprise a few of the kids were very resistant and complained the entire time. “This is hard,” and “I’m tired,” were common complaints. Notably, some students broke a good sweat and were out of breath within the first five minutes. So we took it slow and cut the distance to only about a mile. Caitlin and Jose stopped at a few places along the trail to point out plants along the way. As we walked higher, and the views of both the mountains and the ocean opened up, the one constant theme was that they didn’t really want to hike. They wanted to go to the beach. So to the beach we went!
After about an hour of hiking we walked back to North Beach where we would set up lunch and then have beach time. As we walked, I talked to one of the students who was walking by himself because none of his classmates had attended the trip. I asked him if he liked the hiking. He said yes, but preferred the beach. Through our conversation I learned he had signed up that day because the mood at home was dark and he preferred to be away. Aside from other heavy troubles, a family member had passed away and upon getting back he would need to attend a service. He was so young and very polite and I couldn’t help feeling a wave of sadness. I wanted to give him a bear hug and adopt him, but neither of those reactions were probably appropriate or realistic. By the same token, I was happy that the beach outing was a way for him to be distracted from his reality even if only for a couple hours.
Principal Lampp and her husband, who are lifeguards, had also come along for the day. They called the shots on the swimming rules after lunch. She asked the students to only go into the water up to their knees and not to turn their backs on the ocean, due to the possibility of getting knocked over by a wave. I was completely disheartened by both of these rules, but understood and agreed with her. There are no other lifeguards on duty once summer is over, and we couldn’t take the risk of anyone getting injured. But as someone who connected with nature by taking risks, falling, and scaring myself silly, those kinds of experiences provided a deeper understanding of my limits along with a great sense of joy. I wanted the group to have a similar experience by jumping in the ocean, or climbing the beautiful rocks. I wanted them to get dirty and tired, and maybe even bitten by a harmless bug, and look back at the day as an abnormally fun Saturday. My hope was that they would go back and share with their family what a great park it is and perhaps even return with them. All it takes is one person to show others the way.
In spite of the limitations, there was a lot of joy throughout the day. A group played fútbol on the sand, others from the cross-country team sprinted across a stretch of the beach competing with each other, and some just hung out, bonded with their friends and built sand castles.
Caitlin and Jose had also planned a tide pools excursion, so we gathered those who were interested and walked to the other side of the beach. As we approached the tide pools Caitlin explained about the delicate environment and the caution that should be taken when walking near the area.
There is something about looking at sea creatures that naturally engages people. The majority of the group seemed intrigued, asked questions, and appeared genuinely interested.
There wasn’t much time left after the tide pool talk and we packed up and headed back shortly after. On the drive home we experienced a majestic LA sunset along with entertainment from drivers in a convertible, dancing their seats away. The students had fun getting their attention and I was reminded of how much fun it is to be a teenager.
When the day was over I rushed back to Santa Monica from Highland Park to meet family that was in town for dinner. As I retold the day’s events, I thought about how quickly the time had passed. I felt beyond grateful for everyone who helped make the event a success. Everyone at MRCA was a great help in providing information and in sending naturalist Caitlin and Jose to host us at the park. Natasha Kerr from “Environment For the Americas” came as a volunteer, and my friend Cristina Marquez, a leadership coach, canceled another event to help. They were both an immense help throughout the entire day, and the students appreciated having them. If principal Lampp and her husband had not volunteered their Saturday, the group might only have been allowed to play in the sand. Cesar, our bus driver, actually saved the outing by pulling together a group at the last minute since the first group who committed to going with us canceled a week before the event. In five days Cesar was able to motivate students from his school, get permission slips, and help me with logistics in renting their school bus, while also saving us funds for not going through a charter company.
I’ve reviewed all of the surveys and was happy to read the overall positive comments. Everything from, “It was fresh,” to “It helped me wind down after a stressful week with the beautiful views.” In my book anyone who thinks the event was “fresh” or appreciated the views, can come back anytime. When asked about what they would like to experience in the future with Latino Outdoors one person wrote, “More places Latinos do not usually access.” Nice observation!
About 90 percent of the surveys rated the outing an eight or above, on a scale of one to ten with ten being the highest. Some suggested that in the future the event should not be ruined by limiting the swimming or climbing rocks. I wasn’t surprised by these comments; we just need to work harder at getting the families to participate so that youth can explore the outdoors more instinctually.