Off-Trail at Your Own Risk

Hollywood and other wilds of Southern California


in First Person • Illustrated by Esther Lee


There is an inch-long scar snaking across the top of my index finger, a thin white line that bisects my permanent government records. You should know I’m no giant to begin with, 5 feet 4 inches at my bravest, with hands that were never going to palm a basketball. What looks like a forevermore smudge on my fingerprint is a cautionary tale I carry with me, a lesson learned in blood.  

Years ago, my older sister brought me a beautiful gift from Japan: a shining Santoku knife. Bright honed steel, soft wood handle, balanced from tang to tip like an egg on equinox day. And the best thing about it? Sharp as a damn scimitar. Which I learned at an afternoon barbecue when, cutting an avocado; I looked away and nearly sliced the finger clear off. Awkwardly I tried to laugh, wrapping my hand in a towel as blood pooled in the guacamole bowl. The knife cut layers of epidermis and muscle before I even felt it. That’s the nature of a sharp blade: it exists to move past everything in its path. If you forget for a second that you are made of the same stuff on the chopping block, the knife will remind you. When it does, the wound will be clean and straight. And very, very deep.  

I arrived in Southern California not long before the knife, with Big Dreams of the film industry. Over years in Los Angeles, I’ve strived, succeeded, lived through the reckoning of #MeToo and the disgraces that preceded it, survived a pandemic and a historic strike. I’ve been honored to create alongside compassionate, imaginative leaders I call my friends. But make no mistake, this place is a sharp knife. We come here for life at higher velocity, but the fast lane of the LA freeways will rip past without a thought. A powerful thing requires a sign of commitment: a blood sacrifice. This time around, it would be sweat.

When we talk about hiking in California, the list starts somewhere around Yosemite, then heads to Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Big Sur, Mendocino, Joshua Tree . . . Shit you’ll get to Pinnacles (where?) before anyone thinks to mention metropolitan Los Angeles. For an industry town that packages perfection, the unassailable truth about our home is — it’s not pretty.  It’s a sprawling, unplanned morass of transportation and non-native species; even the palm trees came from somewhere else. Yet somehow, it’s stunning. And just off our coast is an island that is all these things at once: invented and raw; arid, uncomfortable, and breathtakingly beautiful.  

Most SoCal residents know Catalina Island, the largest of the Channel Islands, because that one time you went snorkeling when your parents were in town. What most don’t know is that winding across the spine of the island is a 40-mile hiking path: the Trans-Catalina Trail. Follow the TCT and you’ll pass bachelorette weekenders in Avalon, foxes and flocks of quail, and a small herd of bison imported by movie producers in the 1930s, in the hopes of dressing this set for a Western. The producers left, but the bison stayed, taking to it like any SoCal transplant. Palm trees, bison, and me. And at 9,600 feet of total elevation change, the TCT is a burner of a trail.   

Before you get any ideas, this is no trek of metaphysical growth, I’m no Cheryl Strayed, and I hate sleeping in a tent. But I love this place I call home. And I want to deserve it. I want to leave pretension (and can’t) behind me like a fart on a hiking trail. Which, by the way, works best when the one following you up the trail is your sister.  

It’s time for a reset, folks. Whether or not you were affected by the groundbreaking labor movements of the past year, we have lived through a blitz of years determined to F with the SOP.  My industry creates perfect-seeming images for a living, but peek under those skirts and you’ll see a system that’s backward, biased and broken. On the good days, the great ones, we get to tell the stories that unite the world. It is a sacred, treasured gift. But take a look at your fingerprints, and you’ll see a scar. Maybe two. If we tape over the wound and limp along like yesterday’s business, then why have we even survived? It’s time to give something of ourselves, folks. Time to lace up the hiking boots.  

DAY ONE: Do you know how you get to Catalina Island? You go to the Long Beach Cruise Terminal. It’s pretty humbling to gear up in sunglass gaiters and shoulder a frame pack, next to weekenders in flip flops. The town of Avalon, the largest on Catalina, is not Arthurian myth: It’s more like LA’s Ft. Lauderdale. There’s saltwater taffy, snorkeling outfits, and so many margaritas the size of your face. When you’re fueling for a 40-mile trek with 2000-plus feet of vertical, alcohol counts as calories.  

The largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Catalina Island, Pimu’’nga or Pimu in Tongva, is 75 square miles in size, only 22 miles off the largest sprawling metropolitan area in America. You’re officially within Los Angeles County, which means the area code of the island is the same as Santa Monica, and the streets — zoned mostly for golf carts and bikes — are patrolled by LA sheriffs, just like West Hollywood. The five more remote islands to the north are Channel Islands National Park, overseen by the federal government. But for Santa Catalina, the pull of commerce and reinvention outpaced planning. You just can’t hold back that SoCal spirit. It’s a mishmash of riviera and remote mountaintops, where swooping pelicans compete with nonnative deer, bison, and nopal. The California sun shines down on it all, just the same. It could not be more authentic.  

When I read about the TCT a few years ago, it felt like an homage to the place I love. More importantly, it felt accomplishable. Remember what I said about sleeping in a tent? I hate it. SO much. With two towns on Catalina, we could break up the bivouac and refuel without having to lug five days’ worth of food the whole way. Mentioning it to my sister, she replied, “Let’s do it.” Did I think she was joking? Yes. But the next step was to book campsites, and neither of us was going to be the first to flinch. This is how we found ourselves on a misty morning, walking out of Avalon.  

Day one on the trail is intended to make you sit up and notice: 10.7 miles, almost 1,600 feet straight up from sea level. In downtown Avalon, you grab the food and supplies you’ll need for the day. Know what you don’t need? Trees. No actually, we love trees. But Catalina Island has none for you. Like true Southern California terrain, the island is low-lying scrub. Thickets of blooming nopal cacti on the sides of the trail offer bright distraction but don’t offer shade. Almost nothing does. This is why you hike the TCT in April, May, or October. August? Bless you.  

Another thing hikers love are switchbacks: the S-curves in a trail that help you manage steep elevation rise or drop without blowing out a knee. But Catalina Island also decided to go a different way, that way being STRAIGHT UP THE DAMN MOUNTAIN. Day One we counted 15 switchbacks over 10.7 miles. Wait, isn’t 15 a lot? No. Trust me, in 1,600 feet, it is not. The last 2 miles had none at all, just a straight-up buns-burner. Finally, it lands at Black Jack Campground, a simple but secure spot for the night.  

DAY TWO: The first few days on a trek are full of learnings. Learning how much water you need to balance hydration and weight. Learning the best height for hiking poles and adjustment for tension straps. Something else we learned on Day Two: A crow can fly off with a FULL-SIZED ham sandwich, foil wrapper and all. In the abstract it’s impressive. Less so when it’s your dinner.  

Two miles from Black Jack Camp is the Airport in the Sky. Catalina’s small airstrip was built in 1941 by blasting and leveling adjacent peaks. Classic. It’s home to a roadhouse-style restaurant and gift shop, where the miles of hills covered mean that their breakfast burrito or hot bison burger will compete for the best meal you’ve ever had. Classic rock plays over the PA, “I’ve been stretching my mouth,” Peter Gabriel sang, “to let those big words come right out.” For me, it’s hamstrings, Pete. But same same. 

That afternoon, cresting the ridge before the descent into Little Harbor Campground, we hit a traffic pileup. Seven or eight hikers were sitting and waiting, because 200 feet down the trail . . .  seven or eight bison were doing the same. The Catalina Island Conservancy cautions a radius of 250 feet from the island’s bison at all times. They’re mostly slow-moving and sedentary, but . . .  Want to be there for the moment they’re not? Today they’ve chosen to block the only route to camp. I get it: You picked the grassy flat spot between steep thorny slopes. So did our trail.  

What’s funny is a dozen grown adults asking each other “Can you shoo a bison?” “Will they attack?” and none of us has any clue. I went to college, and my sister has multiple degrees from august institutions, but none were in bison behavior. Finally — perhaps I shouldn’t admit this in writing — we decided to bushwhack. As soon as my sister and I set off, everyone else asked to follow. Smart tactic: let someone else go first. By now maybe a bit of the character of Emily has come across, dear reader: Do you need a guinea pig to try a dumb endeavor with no guaranteed success? I’m your gal. Off-roading turned out to be a nothing-burger, far less tasty than the bison burger I ate earlier in the day, something I was tempted to shout back at the lumbering beasts, but only when we were far, far away.  

The last two miles went straight down into Little Harbor, a stunning natural cove on the west of the island. We dropped packs at camp, eager to put toes in the sand. What we didn’t do was put the sandwich bag into the steel critter box. Which is why the crows had a feast and we had peanut butter crackers for dinner.  

I grumble, but look at the receipts: every picture from the trail is my sister and I, big smiles. Planning and luck prevented major incidents, the minor was no more than inconvenient. Everything between was truly special. Watching the western sky turn gold over Little Harbor, you are at the edge of our nation, even our continent. Only Asia and the setting sun is ahead of you, and the infinite.  

DAY THREE: On a trek like this, there’s going to be a day — hopefully only one — when you wake up grumpy. Maybe it was the sting of lost sandwiches, or poor sleep from I-hate-tents getting to me, but this was that day. After a chilly breakfast and pack-up, my sister wanted to walk onto the natural isthmus in the middle of Little Harbor, called the Whale’s Tail. We did, and it was a beautiful way to start the morning. But then we took a wrong turn out of camp, ended up a half-mile and 250 feet of vertical in the wrong direction, and that was IT. When you’ve spent your whole life with someone, you don’t always — how do I say this delicately — think before you speak. “Choice words” are rarely chosen well.  

As we found the correct trail, my sister decided to sprint up the mountain. We passed every other group of hikers. Even the defined-quads who were doing 14 miles that day instead of just 7. My sister blew past them all. Maybe it was her way to retake control, or even just try to get away from me. Nice try sucker, I’ll match your pace out of sheer bullheaded pride. For whatever reason, the huffing and puffing meant the last thing we were going to waste our precious oxygen on was snark.  

This is how we found ourselves coming down into Two Harbors by 11 a.m. Two Harbors, the other town on Catalina Island. Two Harbors home to a restaurant, store, laundry and, most importantly, our reservation at the Banning House hotel. And it’s shower and bed. Hiking down into town, with midmorning light glistening off the Pacific, the fight had burned off like a marine layer. All that remained was sun. 

This is the magic of sweat. Our grimy, smelly effusion has a power beyond us: it doesn’t matter that you didn’t get enough sleep, or argued over how your sister folded a tent, or feel a broader fear that you’ve lost your footing even as you place one in front of the other . . . Sweat will wash it away.  It takes grand faith to keep going when you are tired, hungry, and scared. When you’ve lost the trail and every step in the wrong direction counts twice against you in the right way. But what I’ve found folks, is that the wrong trail is inevitable.  

For example: a big agent once asked to read my script and the draft that I sent was 147 pages long. Industry standard is 90 to 110. Never heard from that guy again. Another time I sidled up to a director at a party, not realizing I was interrupting their conversation with a genuine movie star. Personal favorite: I once asked a man at a film premiere “Do you box?” It turned out I was speaking to the welterweight Champion of the World. And folks, just wait ’til you hear about Day Four. 

Sweat is how I survived. Now, the B-side of persistence is stubborn delusion, but the goal of this trek was to clear away clutter and put my faith in only what deserves it. On Catalina, sprinting up the mountain means you get to town in time to have two hot meals instead of just one. And spend the hours in between watching the tides, feet-up on a hotel patio. Faith rewarded.  

DAY FOUR: After breakfast, it was goodbye to sheets and beds for the next night as we climbed out of Two Harbors. The name is fitting: at the narrowest point of the island, Isthmus Cove is to the Northeast, Catalina Harbor to the Southwest. This would be one of the more challenging hiking days, outbound to the final campsite Parson’s Landing.  

For many, Parson’s Landing is the reason for the Trans-Catalina Trail. The farthest-west campsite in the contiguous 48 states, it is a secluded yet serviced oasis where you pitch your tent on the beach and flocks of pelicans wave past at sunset. We were expecting 6-plus miles along clear trails and 1,900 feet of vertical — a burner but doable. What we found was foggy cloud cover so thick and white the visibility was barely 100 feet in each direction. I kid you not, for five hours in the middle of the day we knew there were peaks around us, but sure couldn’t see them. There was an isolation to Day 4: we left a populous town and would find a full campground at Parson’s, but barely saw a soul in between. It was as if, once in the clouds, we had the island to ourselves.  

Coming down from Silver Peak we started to wonder about the trail turnoff. Shouldn’t we have seen it by now? Turns out we did, as we walked right past about a mile ago. There were two options: backtrack up, or stay on this trail, circle the edge of the island and land at Parson’s from the other side. Five miles later. This is the hiker’s calculus: What time of day is it? How are supplies of water and food? How are the feet? The answers were early, plenty and strong. What’s another five miles?  

The reward was a glimpse of Land’s End, the island’s far edge. On the “right” trail we would have never seen it. Ten-plus miles along with the elevation made it unexpectedly one of the biggest days of the trip, but the mistake made it a magnificent one. As we came down out of the clouds, green-brown hillsides met the blue of the Pacific at a stunning, sheltered cove. The way was harder than expected, and if there’s a truth about Southern California, it is that. 

DAY FIVE: In the night, homeboy the local fox decided to mark his territory by dropping a load RIGHT in the middle of our picnic table. Literally, in the exact center. Like he had paced out a radius, leaving a clear message in physical form: “This does not belong to you.” To which I can only respond: fair. The hairless monkeys are usurping your territory but wouldn’t last a day without water drops and cell service. You, on the other hand, Catalina Island Fox, are one of the few who belong here. 

Transplantation is opportunity, but it is also hubris. On Catalina, human habitation predates our tent by 8,000 years, but we don’t call the island Pimu, instead accept the name from the Spanish Conquistadors. They cleared away the competition with overpowering numbers and foreign microbes, their own version of a sharp knife. Even they are now gone, as the force of Southern California reinvention barrels forward. The correct response, in the face of that, is humility. The befouled picnic table was an occupancy tax. Tidy your campground and be on your way, we had a ferry to catch.  

This was our final morning on the island. As much as I have loved this, we are mainlanders: it is for us to see, cross and then return. It was a blue-toned morning for the last leg of the trail, the only flat of the entire trek, tracking the craggy coastline back to the dock in Two Harbors.  

We weren’t rushing, we weren’t running, we were placing one foot in front of the other as we hooked east along the trail. And you know what can happen when you do that? Eight miles before 11 a.m. Eight damn miles before 11 damn a.m. (can you tell I’m pretty impressed?) It was as if, after a week of wrong turns and straight vertical, the trail now rose to meet us.  

Back in Two Harbors, zipping up backpack straps to load into the hold, this thing that had been attached to my body for the past five days and 43 miles, turned back into a piece of luggage. Soon you are crossing the channel, as the two-humped silhouette of Catalina Island recedes into the distance. It was sunny and exquisite and a little bit sticky-smelly, but as we have learned: sweat washes clean. So does shame, frustration, and regret if you just believe it can. I chose a knife’s-edge of a career path and then decided to make it my home, knowing that I belonged here. The Catalina Island Fox is native, the Hollywood bison are not, but you try explaining it to either of them. Call that the SoCal spirit.  

The scar on my finger has grown, aged with me. Some days I look down and am proud: proof I have lived to chop another day. Others I am sheepish, still others I just laugh. I laugh beside colleagues on night-shoots in Oklahoma, or with trail-mates as we sweat through a cactus thicket. To this dream, to my home, I’ll give a piece of myself and even enjoy it. Here’s the thing I have found, though: sweat is a renewable resource, blood less so. Try, if you can, to learn your lessons that way. But worst case. . . I have nine more fingers.•


Emily Dell is an award-winning screenwriter and film director. Recent work can be seen on Lifetime, CryptTV, Amazon Prime and on YouTube with more than 15 million views. In commercials Dell has directed for clients including Marvel Studios, Fox, PepsiCo, Estee Lauder, and has won Viddy, Telly, Addy, Aster and Platinum Hermes Awards. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America, and is the author of the graphic novel VERONA, published by Emet Comics and available wherever comic books are sold. A graduate of UC Berkeley with degrees in neurobiology and international literature, Dell counts among her proudest achievements the ability to eat M&Ms with chopsticks, officiating the wedding of her two best friends, and the time she sold a dirty poem for a bottle of 18-year-old Scotch.