December 28th, 2010. My last day home in Thousand Oaks, California for the Christmas holiday. My older brother and I have decided to go for a hike. It has rained buckets for much of the week I’ve been home, but not today. The brilliant blue sky is particulate-free thanks to the recent storms, and the winter sun blazes, quickly warming a brisk December morning.
Thousand Oaks (or TO for the locals), my home town from age six to age seventeen, is suburbia at its finest. You legitimately cannot get anywhere without a car. There allegedly is something resembling public transportation called Thousand Oaks Transit, but I’ve never seen it. I can count on one and a half hands the number of non-chain, family-owned, decent restaurants. The soccer fields are something to marvel at, and the parking lot there is bursting at the seams on Saturdays and Sundays. Minivans rule the road.
But Thousand Oaks does have one very redeeming quality: lots and lots of open space. Suddenly now, six years after fleeing TO for the sights and sounds of San Francisco, I find myself thanking whoever it was on the city council who must have fought to keep these spaces open. In Ventura County, where the weather is very nearly perfect year-round, land is gold. True, the city council and resident voters may not have been able (or cared to) save the millions of ancient and proud oak trees which gave the city its name – preferring instead to put shopping malls where oak groves used to be – but hiking trails there are a plenty. And for the nature-starved urbanite, this is a blessing indeed.
In a moment of annoyed fury during dinner a few days earlier, I snapped at my brother: “How does it feel to be 25 acting like a 16 year old boy?!” Without missing a beat, he said, “It’s more exciting that way.” At the time I scoffed and turned the other way, trying to ignore the antics which have annoyed me from the time we were small. But then I thought, maybe he’s onto something. He can still be annoying as hell, but maybe in a way he’s right. Where annoyance meets humor meets love. That pretty much sums up my relationship with my brothers.
So you can imagine hiking with one of them. At one point on the trail, my brother decided it would be a good idea to pick up a prickly pear. I feel like nature is generally pretty good at issuing its own disclaimers: “this water is indeed flowing fast so you probably shouldn’t swim in it” or “this animal with really sharp teeth doesn’t want you to touch it, so don’t” or “this has spikes all over it and came from a cactus, so draw your own conclusions about how it will feel when you hold it in your hand.”
Nonetheless, he picked it up. Issuing a high-decibel yelp, he tossed the red cactus fruit in the air. Maybe because he is used to throwing things at me, or maybe because he thought we were playing hot potato, but whatever the reason he threw it directly at me. It hit my side before I knew what was going on. Thanks to a couple decades of reacting to my brother’s gratuitous pestering, I instinctively smacked him – hard -, asked him what the hell he was thinking, and demanded he remove the prickly fibers from my shirt. Turns out he hadn’t done it maliciously at all, and felt really bad that my shirt was infested with prickly pear bits. After trying in vain to get them all out, he ended up giving his shirt to me to wear for the rest of the hike.
So there we were, my 25 (going on 16) year old brother with prickly fibers stuck to his fingers, and me, wearing a shirt 3 times too big for me: the two of us navigating the muddy trails of an open space neither of us really appreciated when we both lived under the same roof and it was only a mile away. Navigating the trails of Wildwood Park, in good ol’ TO – where annoyance meets humor meets love.