I was in Los Angeles for work. And with an afternoon of downtime, I thought about taking my laptop down to the hotel pool to get a little work done.

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The Pacific Ocean seen from the Rising Sun trail.

I’ve got some free time. I should go work. Ridiculous, right? But I’m not the only American with that reflex. I planned on plugging in my headset, launching Spotify, answering emails, and making myself available to any coworkers who might need to call or text me. Plus, I could work on a project I’d been trying to sort through for a couple of days. And I almost did it.

Instead, I went hiking.

Before I committed to an afternoon at a poolside virtual office, I did an impulsive search for “los angeles hikes” and found a handful of options that sounded much more interesting than sitting on patio furniture with my laptop heating up my thighs. Within an hour, I was in Solstice Canyon just north of Malibu.

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Hiking up into Solstice Canyon

The Rising Sun Trail, which leads into the Santa Monica Mountains, is only three miles round trip – hardly serious backcountry. But it leads to a waterfall, and the ruins of a decades-old fire-ravaged mansion. The trail begins with a severe incline, which quickly puts the Pacific Ocean into some remarkable views. But for the first 20 minutes uphill, the hike was less than inspiring.

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Nestled in the pocket of the canyon at the trail’s end, the Tropical Terrace was once the home of a successful California grocer.

I could see the distant sprawl of beachburbia up one mountainside – a cluster of modern architecture that seemed to say, “We’re wealthy enough to build here, away from all you people. But feel free to borrow our view since you’ve made the climb.” Maybe I should have stayed at the pool.

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Turning inland toward the Santa Monica Mountains

But a mile into the hike, the trail turned into the mountains and the view changed considerably. Suddenly, I wasn’t in Malibu. I wasn’t in L.A. I was in the mountains. I was surrounded by elderberry and bush monkeyflower. The scent of sycamores and sage framed the path. The trail turned into a ribbon of dirt that snaked in and out of the canyon. There was a hawk overhead, and lightning-fast lizards rustling the dry brush. I could see the ocean. But no beach. No PCH-1.

And that’s when I really started thinking.

I thought about my wife and how she would have enjoyed this hike. I thought about my kids, and how they could have handled this, too. I thought about their school, and what I could be doing to help them excel in their classes. I thought about the birds with blue wings hopping through the alders, and whether they were stellar jays or something else (turns out they were western scrub jays). I thought about the six-foot tall dried yucca plants that dotted the trail, and how I had once read that they were sometimes called Spanish bayonets or our Lord’s candle, and I tried to decide which seemed more appropriate. I thought about writing this article, and what words I would use to describe the sun-bleached trees, stripped of their bark. Without meaning to, I even came up with a solution to the project I’d planned on tackling poolside. Which was one less thing that I had to think about.

And that’s what hiking offers: time to think. I doubt that I would have had any of these thoughts if I’d stayed back at the hotel, deliberately trying to have them. I would have been at the pool, earbuds in ear and laptop in lap. Sure, I would have been thinking. But not as freely. I would have been tethered to the expectation of

coming up with something brilliant, and probably slinking off to Facebook when lightning failed to strike.

I think hikers are thoughtful people. Look at a sampling of those who went into the wilderness and came out with something worth writing down and talking about: Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Meriwether Lewis, Thoreau, Emerson, John Muir. Even every U.S. President since FDR has left the Beltway for Camp David. That’s because hiking gives us what so many of our tools steal: the time and the solitude to think our own thoughts.

That’s just something that came to me in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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Ruins of the Roberts Ranch House. After the owner’s death, the protective pump system fell into disrepair and the home was destroyed by a canyon fire in 1982.

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