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  • Writer's picturestephanieraffelock

Ladies of the Canyon

Cover of "Ladies of the Canyon"

Cover of Ladies of the Canyon

Topanga Canyon was a place filled with old homes, built in the 1930’s as resort homes for movie stars. A craggy old canyon that wound it’s way from the ocean on one side to the San Fernando Valley on the other, a haven to artists and musicians in the late 1960’s into the 70’s. There were plenty of trails that led to small streams and rock outcroppings, where you could smoke a doobie and meditate upon the wind rustling through the scrub oak. Someone told me not too long ago that Topanga Canyon was now filled with million dollar homes, with million dollar views and was no longer the enclave of art and creativity that it once was. It’s probably my generation too, that built it up, deciding to return to the place that had rocked them so gentle when they were young and idealistic and change it to reflect who they had become.

The house on Fernwood Pacific was up the hill from a health food store, called The Food Chakra. The structure leaned slightly into the canyon, enough so that you could put a marble on the floor in the sun room and it would roll downhill. It was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. There was only one bathroom for the three roommates and never enough hot water. And forget about closet space. It was heaven and it was perfect. I often walked down to The Food Chakra in the mornings with my mug of coffee in hand, to buy fruit and engage in the local conversation. I had great and wonderful, good-natured arguments about the benefits of garlic, the value of raw juicing and whether or not to include the papaya seeds in the morning smoothie. In the meeting room above the store is where I went to yoga classes, played my dulcimer, and sat with other like-minded spirits to talk about Ram Das, Muktananda, Ken Kesy and Krishnamurti. There was so much opening in my heart and mind back then.

Kitty and I were 21 when we met, filled with life and vitality, often colored by an annoying self-assuredness. She would later become the next roommate, as I moved from Topanga to Laurel Canyon. Laurel Canyon was closer to what was now becoming “work,” the thing disruptive to a social life. Still we managed to spend leisurely Saturday mornings, listening to Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt records while we cleaned the house and told stories about the latest, greatest guy we were dating. We nursed each other through a myriad of broken hearts and encouraged each other to grow up, even though life with musicians and some good pot seemed much more appealing.

Kitty and I did grow up. Each of us got married. I got divorced and then married again. She had a child. I had Labrador retrievers. We each carved out careers that involved partnering with our husbands in business. And when I moved back to Colorado in 1989, we stayed in touch through lengthy letters that painted a picture of our lives on different paths, but with a singularity of heart. We never stopped caring deeply for one another. Somewhere along the line, in those young and wildly beautiful days we became “best friends,” and neither time nor distance has unraveled the tight weave of that bond.

So yesterday, as I was rushing through a day of caring for a husband down with flu, picking up as much slack as I could at the office, a card arrived from Kitty. It was my birthday, and this year it was more about the tasks in front of me than it was any sort of celebration. The card read “We have been friends for 40 years now. You are a best friend to me. Happy Birthday.” It made me stop and rewind to those early years when life was spread out like a banquet asking you to fill your plate. There have been good times and painful times, broken hearts and promises fulfilled and no matter how hard I have tried to design the details of living, life just always had its way with me.

I have been blessed to have a history of youth tinged with a mixture of tender regret, love and loss and above all memories of days in the canyons of California when my heart and mind were opened to the possibilities and potential of dreams I would eventually follow. To have a good friend who remembers the hard won miles, who knows you to your core and loves you anyway…that’ the stuff that is cause for celebrating yet another year. As she did back in the days when we so wanted to be one of Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon,” Kitty still slows me down a little bit, enough to recall how much struggle and triumph there is in living a full life. That makes her a best friend to me too.

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