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Rock 'n' roll canyon: escape to Southern California's Topanga for close encounters of the wild kind.

THE ENDLESSLY QUIXOTIC SOUND of Devendra Banhart's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon dances inside the truck as I roll on down Topanga Canyon. Banhart recorded Smokey during ragtag sessions at his Topanga house, and the album has inspired me to head here for a day of exploring. Distance-wise, it's not much of a journey: I live just over the ridge.

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But things change quickly from one hollow to another in the Santa Monica Mountains. Topanga is not only in a separate watershed from me, it also offers an escape into a separate world where counterculture traditions survive, and it provides a gateway into some of the Los Angeles area's most unspoiled country.

The road shimmies through the hills, running along slopes spiced with purple sage. It climbs and dives in and out of wooded swales, passing modern designer homes conspicuously placed along ridgelines, before dropping toward the canyon bottom. A kinescope of landmarks flickers through the windshield: the former site of the music mecca the Topanga Corral, where Neil Young, among other canyon notables, once played; a flying pink pig high up on a post; and an old Santa Fe boxcar used as a creek crossing.

Then on into downtown Topango--such as it is. The heart of town sits at a confluence of creeks. It's all rather random and weathered, uncutesified with a bistro, a vintage clothing store, and an ironworks shop housed in roadside cottages. There are no chains and brands, just locally owned boutiques and galleries tucked away in small retail centers, where I wander past a few bearded Banhart-esque characters sipping their espressos, and bulletin boards touting karmic astrologers and healers.

I had spotted a sign heralding a store called ZenBunni, and that cryptic name proves too compelling to ignore. Far back in one of the centers, I find a couple working across from each other at a table in the front of the tiny shop. A stained-glass skylight incorporating a peace sign brightens the space, whose walls are covered with rustic frames and altars as well as a large photograph of a fog-shrouded lotus pond, which for some reason I can't stop looking at, wondering just where and what it is.

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I discover that it's the site of Buddha's birthplace, and the mystery of the store's name is solved too after the couple introduce themselves. They are Zen Nishimura and Bunni Lezak He is a clothing designer, she a photographer, and this shop, with its pressed-tin ceiling and 50 year-old plank floor, is their collaboration. We exchange stories of travel and of pets, and I sample their homemade raw chocolate. As I leave, Zen sums up what they're up to here in this almost-hidden space: "just local Topangans doing Topanga things.''

I go off to do another thing that Topangans do, heading from the heart of town to the community's heart: the roughly 14,000 acres of wilderness protected as Topanga State Park. I'm bound for its most famous icon, a massive sandstone formation called Eagle Rock, with views of the town, mountains, and ocean a few miles away.

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A rare late-spring rain has turned my favorite route, the Musch Trail, into, well, a trail of mush, liquefying sections to a Woodstock-grade glop that coats my boots and sends me hydroplaning down the slightest incline. But it is beautiful. In grottoes hidden within the forest of coast live oaks, the trees' limbs twist and bend, never going in any one direction for very long, scattering the sun into amber pools.

The back slope of Eagle Rock tilts sharply as I scramble to caverns that I remember being filled with weird drawings of extraterrestrials and spaceships. (Topanga was purportedly the site of a series of UFO visitations in the 1990s.) Voices and a telltale whiff of smoke hint that others are already there for their own only-in-Topanga moment. No matter. I look up to the mackerel sky in lavender and fuchsia; at the base of Eagle Rock, I pause on a bench inscribed, REST FOR THE SOUL. That seems a pretty good description of Topanga itself--especially in an era when so many other places have lost theirs.

RELATED ARTICLE: Get the vibe

For more info: topanga chamber.org or 310/455-0790.

Abuelita's Mexican Restaurant Sip margaritas creekside. $$; closed Mon; 137 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd.; 310/455-8788.

The Spiral Staircase Find enlightenment at this New Age bookstore and gift shop at the Inn of the Seventh Ray restaurant. 128 Old Topanga Canyon Rd.; 310/455-3370.

Topanga Canyon Artists Studio Tour Get guides ($20) for the June 7-8 event at the Topanga Canyon Gallery. Gallery closed Mon; in Pine Tree Circle Center, 120 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.; topanga canyongallery.com or 310/455-7909.

Topanga State Park $5 per vehicle, $6 Sat-Sun; parks.ca.gov or 310/455-2465.

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The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum See Shakespeare and other classics. From $20; 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.; theatricum.com or 310/455-3723.

ZenBunni Organic Country Store 115 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd.; 310/455-4351.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NOAH WEBB
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Title Annotation:True West
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:843
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