05/21/2012 08:14 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

The Hills Around L.A.

L.A. is a city, but once you get into the hills here, it sort of goes away. True, there are the encroaching developments on the fringes, gated non-communities, with names that are evocative lies -- "Shadow Mountain Drive," "Ridgeview Estates."

But once you're on the path, they're at your back, as is the whole city, and except for an occasional helicopter or unmuffled motorcycle, all you end up hearing are the birds. It had been a bad day for me, one of those moments when you're brought up, face-to-face, with all your failures, your shocking and myriad shortcomings, when you're even starting to wonder, really wonder, why you are still getting out of bed in the morning. Since there are so many too many writers in the world.

So I started up the trail with a tangle of abstract demons on my mind, but after about ten minutes, I realized that what I was afraid of now were the snakes. I'd seen them here before, big rattlesnakes, on the rocks, even in the path, and though they don't scare me to the soul, like they do some people, still I knew full well you have to walk sharp here sometimes. That sometimes there was something hiding in the cracks and folds of the very rocks I love that could kill me.

And I realized, too, that I suddenly felt much better. That that strong and real fear had jolted me from the personal and the mundane, the place where one is perfectly free to worry on about one's bank account, one's agent -- to the sublime, where the fear is for one's very life.

And it thrilled me, that fear, woke me up, took me out of myself -- nature can do that for you, but only when it's big enough to scare you. Which it still is in the Santa Monica Mountains, thanks to all the fighters and scrappers who won a few from the developers of the world. I walked on and up that day, farther, deeper, watchful though, and listening. But by now the sun was cutting across the tops of the hills with that last and best of the golden light, and it was pretty much too late for snakes. I took a breath, sat down on a rock. Maybe I'd stay and watch the moonrise.

And then I saw the scat, right there, and it didn't look like a coyote. Coyote's scats aren't that big, and they're usually filled with fur and buries. This was bigger, and whatever it was hadn't bothered with berries. It ate meat.

A big dog? But dogs aren't allowed up there, and you didn't really see them. In fact, you didn't see anyone at all. Which is why I was there, but also why it could have been a mountain lion. The path stretched over to Topanga, up to Mulholland, where there'd been sightings -- and a friend had photographed one in her back yard in Mandeville Canyon, just over the next ridge.

There are worse deaths, I told myself. The English missionary Livingstone was reportedly once attacked by a lion in the Congo, and he said that when the lion picked him up and shook him, all fear passed away, and he was suffused with a bliss he'd never known till then. His feelings were not unmixed, he said, when Stanley shot the lion and saved him.

But Livingston was old, and a man of God, and I was young again suddenly, and still had work to do. I turned and fled. Picked up a rock, which was still clenched in my fist when I ran out through the gates at the bottom, safe now, back in the land of the mini-Versailles and overnight Palazzos.

They were landscaped, and had their white roses and their citrus and palm. But I was the one with the smile, glad now just to be alive.