Dragon Sun, Tiger Moon: Fastpacking the Backbone Trail in California

Vic Thasiah seeks to connect with a Chinese ecological heritage and an ancient Asian worldview during a run through his backyard wilderness.

By on May 24, 2024 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest contributor Vic Thasiah, a trail runner, professor of environmental studies and religion, and the founder and board president of the nonprofit Runners for Public Lands, who is based in Ventura, California.]

In early China, civil servants occasionally went off to the mountains during times of political turmoil to regain both their sanity and energy for further public service. Extended exposure to wild places helped them better connect with nature’s patterns and powers. They believed that this improved their mental and physical health, as well as their governance and effectiveness.

In the aftermath of a massacre and during an ongoing hostage crisis and brutal war, I was nearly incapacitated by stress and anxiety during a seminar I taught on Israel-Palestine this past spring semester at California Lutheran University. I kept thinking about those Chinese civil servants, and especially their concept of stillness, or jing, and its power. I wondered about how I could experience it. “When still,” translators of jing explain, “the mind retains and nurtures its vitalizing energies. If the stillness of the mind is chronically disturbed, its energies become depleted, sometimes leading to derangement, illness, or death.”

Could I imitate those stressed-out civil servants seeking jing by fastpacking the 67-mile Backbone Trail in my backyard, traversing California’s Santa Monica Mountains just minutes away from the metropolis of Los Angeles? Could I run my way through this neighboring wilderness and into an ancient Asian worldview, connecting with a Chinese ecological heritage and this thing called jing, which I grew up knowing nothing about?

There was only one way to find out.

Vic Thasiah looking at the view

Vic Thasiah went to the Backbone Trail in California, in search of stillness, or jing. Photo: Liz Thasiah


On April 6, I reluctantly leave my car on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway at the west end of the Backbone Trail, where it will be parked illegally overnight. Who knows what will happen to it, but there’s no other option. My friend Steve shuttles me to the east end of the trail at Will Rogers State Historic Park in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood. My goal is to run for most of the day, sleep through the night, and finish the next morning. I’ll cross the ancestral homelands of the Tongva and Chumash, the first human inhabitants of this region, while following one of the coastal mountain complexes belonging to California’s east-west trending Transverse Ranges.

Steve and I run and hike the busy seven-mile climb to Temescal Peak, where we part ways, Steve looping back around Temescal Canyon as I continue on. This is the last I’ll see of any groups of people. The landscape begins to lend itself to embracing an early Chinese point of view. The National Park Service (NPS) describes the volcanic origin of the mountains I’m moving through like the Chinese describe the Dao — the singular, generative tissue that spontaneously self-differentiates itself into the diverse and dynamic natural world.

On the Backbone’s geological formations, the NPS writes:

“For millions of years, the ground slowly moves, churns, and presses until the Earth begins to crack and molten lava oozes from underwater vents. Thus, only about 16 million years ago, the Santa Monica Mountains … began to glimmer in the ocean depths. In time, the eruptions became explosive and burst through the water’s surface. For another 3 million years, the mountains continued to grow to over 10,000 feet high. Three times taller than they are now! … [V]arious forces and the elements of time have peeled away the layers creating the beaches, valleys, and landscapes we see today.”

Scenes from Santa Monica Mountains

Vic Thasiah followed the lead of the civil servants of ancient China who aimed to connect with nature’s patterns and powers. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

I’m not sure about the compatibility of ultrarunning and the Chinese concept of stillness, or jing. While the civil servants ran off to the mountains, nothing indicates that they kept on running after they got there. They probably just chilled out, wrote poetry, and eventually experienced jing. To me, moving through the mountains is unique in that somehow both struggle and serenity can coexist, so I keep going. As I pass through the verdant oak woodlands of Topanga State Park, though, I deal with doubts — I don’t want to be out here alone, I feel down; I want to be out here alone, I feel ok; I don’t think I can make it, I’m already pretty tired; I’m sure I can make it, I’ve got deep reserves.

I’m all over the place, but I suspect an ancient Chinese secret is that something worthy happens when you immerse yourself in a relatively safe, wild place and let yourself feel everything you feel there. Wading through streams on the way to Zuma Canyon’s fragrant coastal sage scrub, I taste the salty fog and dry my shirt and skin on sun-warmed stone. An early evening swim — sharp rocks on the bottom hurt my feet as I stand to scrub away any poison oak — further blurs the distinction between person and place. My ears perk up at coyotes yipping, and my eyes are filled with the colors of dusk.


Coyotes call the Santa Monica Mountains of California home. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Ying and Yang

Like the terrain, the temperature and the tides in the distance tell of the duality of reality: the Chinese ying (shady, cold, soft, passive, secretive, symbolized by both the tiger and moon) and yang (bright, hot, hard, active, expressive, symbolized by both the dragon and sun). I’m donning and shedding layers, harmonizing with topographic, atmospheric, and oceanic fluctuations, the Backbone’s ying and yang. Harmony, or he, as the Chinese believe, is about the balance between dragon sun and tiger moon, the ultimate ideal for both nature and society, including us.

Wandering somewhere on the switchbacks above Encinal Canyon, I’m drunk tired after binge-drinking the beauty of the day. I spread out my sleeping bag beside the trail, lie down, look up, and watch the stars slowly get brighter. I’m more than two-thirds done with the trail. I’ve just got the climb to the iconic, looming volcanic rock outcroppings of Boney Ridge, the descent and bushwhack through Blue Canyon, the ascent to the Overlook Trail, and the last section of this spectacular spine, the Ray Miller Trail, with its dramatic ocean and island views.

The stillness of the night becomes my stillness, and I think back over the day. Out here, the civil servants would have been obsessed with two things: nature’s patterns (li), and its powers (de). Insight into the former had both individual and institutional relevance, offering direction for patterning one’s personal lifestyle and political endeavors, balancing ying and yang. And harmonizing being ourselves (ziran) and spontaneity on the one hand with deliberately structuring our lives according to nature’s ecological rhythms (li) and a healthy society’s regulations (li) on the other, they claimed, can be profoundly empowering (de). I soon let these ideas go and fall asleep.

Trail in Santa Monica Mountains

Vic Thasiah went to the mountains to connect with a Chinese ecological heritage and an ancient Asian worldview. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/Connar L’Ecuyer.

I wake up six hours later and realize while running again that jing is about changing with the changes in nature and society — radical adaptation and transformation. As the sun rises, I feel more energy. And then, hungry, I slowly fade before a final strain and push. Getting to my car, I’m relieved I am finished and don’t have a parking ticket. I slump into the driver’s seat, sapped, satisfied, and sincere, what the Chinese call cheng — that completely receptive and unfiltered state without pretense. I’m open to the world as it is and how running can help me navigate it.

Call for Comments

  • Have you experienced finding stillness through running?
  • Is there value in running away to nature to renew your mental health reserves?
Guest Writer
Guest Writer is a contributor to iRunFar.com.