How the Los Angeles River was tamed

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A walk in the park: Mount Lee in Griffith Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

Hollywood Sign LA02

LOS ANGELES — I don’t understand the sky in L.A. It’s that shade of unbelievable blue you see in movies — maybe only Hollywood believes in that blue.

It is cloudless and lustrous and optimistic. Yet if your eyes wander toward the horizon, to the mountains that are the only thing hampering the sprawl of this ridiculous city, a choking haze softens their edges and blurs their lines. Look straight up and it’s blue as day, look sideways and it’s grey with pollution.

And the heat. How can one live here and think blue indicates cool? It’s the scorching colour at the base of a flame.

Hollywood Sign LA15

We — two fellow Montrealers and I, visiting L.A. for a conference — thought we would avoid the worst of that heat by starting our hike to the Hollywood sign early in the day. Even then, we checked and double-checked with each other that attempting this walk was something we all wanted to do.

“You’re both okay with it?” one of the party asked, not for the first time (nor for the third).

“Of course she is,” her husband said, somewhere between a chuckle and a guffaw, gesturing toward me. “She’s —“

“Stubborn?” I finished for him, chuckling myself. My tale of getting lost and not asking for help was hours fresh. But it wasn’t about being stubborn. It was about the story (it’s always about the story).

* * *

Hollywood Sign LA05

It was the fastest divorce granted in L.A., back in 1903. He had shot her in the head, after all.

Let’s back up a minute, to 20 years earlier, when a rough, uneducated Welsh immigrant arrived in North America determined to find his fortune.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith became a reporter, then a mining correspondent. Eventually he began consulting for mining companies, and that under-the-table side job was very lucrative.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith began to dress flamboyantly, strut about town and generally spread pompousness wherever he went. He became known for his arrogance, for being a bit of a shit, and because he couldn’t stop making money. He had a bevy of unwed socialites to choose from, and he chose poor Christina Mesmer, or Tina, who was as rich as she was elegant.

Puffed up with pride with his lovely bride and his situation in general, Griffith Jenkins Griffith bestowed gifts onto his adopted city of Los Angeles, including the 3,000 acres that would become Griffith Park.

Hollywood Sign LA03

And then he started to crumble. He secretly drank and was said to be paranoid, claiming while on holiday in Santa Monica that people were trying to poison him.

According to the Griffith Park History Project, “Christina Griffith was addressing a few last postcards and beginning to gather her things. Her husband (who was certain she had been conspiring against him with the pope), entered the room with a prayer book in one hand and a revolver in the other. Unfortunately, he handed her the prayer book.”

She was shot in the head, but Tina, later called “the socialite who would not die,” survived when she fell or jumped through a window and landed on the roof below, though she was disfigured and half-blind.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith was sentenced to just two years in prison, thanks in part to his unique plea: “alcohol insanity.” Tina was granted a divorce in a legal proceeding that lasted four and a half minutes.

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As part of his penance after leaving San Quentin in 1912, Griffith Jenkins Griffith tried to give Los Angeles $100,000 to build an observatory on Mount Griffith, claiming he wanted to repay his debt to society by “opening the heavens to the common people.” While he’d been put away, the city had renamed the hill Mount Hollywood, and they turned their noses up at his scandal-tainted money.

But Griffith Jenkins Griffith had the last word, leaving the money and explicit instructions in his will to build the observatory. It was completed in 1935, 16 years after his death.

two wheels

I’m giving Griffith Park 2½ stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five, with these caveats: I only did the Hollywood Sign Trail and spent some time getting lost after dark. On a personal level, the sign trail rates much higher because I was with fun people hiking to the kitschiest of the kitsch.

Hollywood Sign LA06

Public transit to the park is kind of crappy, especially since it’s in the middle of the city (but parking is free if you drive there). The scenery is spectacular, but there are no trail makers whatsoever, making one wonder whether the city of Los Angeles is just trying to pick off tourists.

We hiked Mount Lee (from which you can see the observatory) on a trail that was clean and smooth. It took us about two hours, though we stopped just short of the sign itself. At 521 metres, the hill is nearly twice as high as Mount Royal. We also took some time to check out Bronson Caves, a filming location for the Batcave and one of the most beautiful places in North America.

I wouldn’t attempt this hike with young children, though I did see (very fit) people with strollers and carriers. Bring lots of sunscreen and water and keep going till you hit those rare spaces where the mountain itself provides a foot and a half of shade. Have a snack at the top and marvel at how beautiful brown and blue can be, whether you understand the sky or not.

Hollywood Sign LA22

Here’s why nobody walks in L.A.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — You know those times you set off on a hike in daylight and you end up in a part of town that taxis won’t drive to and it’s long after dark and you’re hungry and there’s a guy creeping on you from across the street?

I’m not entirely sure how I got there, but I think stubbornness played a part.

I was only in Los Angeles for a few days, and the bulk of my time was taken up with a conference, so I had to be very particular about the type of sightseeing I’d do. I settled on the abandoned zoo in Griffith Park, about two miles from the Hollywood sign. With conference sessions ending at 4:30 in the afternoon, I thought I might be able to hit both attractions if I didn’t screw around.

Getting anywhere in L.A. is an exercise in absurdity. The zoo was northeast of my hotel, but to get there I had to take a bus downtown—nearly due east—and then another bus north-northwest in a bizarre sort of two-hour triangle that would try the patience of … someone who is very patient. And since I’m not someone who is very patient, I hopped off the bus one stop early. Just one stop.

The thing is that the sun was due to set at 6:45, and in L.A., sunset is a fleeting thing before full dark drops in a magnificently Hollywood sort of way. So when the bus reached the park at 6:30, I was out the door and on the curb before I realized I’d jumped the gun. The distance between stops was at least a mile. And the road wasn’t exactly pedestrian friendly.

And there was a nearly full moon. By which I mean it was 24 hours before a Supermoon Blood Moon lunar eclipse of the sort we will not see again till 2033. Not that that had anything to do with it.

As I started to lose light, I decided to cut my losses. There was no way I’d be getting good pictures at the zoo and I’d probably scare myself silly thinking about the ghosts of tigers past or somesuch. I thought, “Maybe one of these paths will head up to the Hollywood sign, and then I can see that and then I’ll be that much closer to my hotel and dinner and sweet sweet drinks with my colleagues who were all smart enough to rent cars for their Los Angeles sojourn.”

lonely road in griffiths park

The twisting road along the side of the mountain had a nod to cyclists in the form of a mountain-side shoulder they called a bike path, but pedestrians weren’t welcome on this stretch of avenue. I did my best to keep to the shoulder (you’ll remember that shoulders aren’t a priority for Californians) as I trudged up and then down a big hill about the size of Mount Royal. There were two things I did not see: The abandoned zoo or the Hollywood sign. There was one thing I saw more and more of: the precursor to the Supermoon Blood Moon.

I don’t feel safe in L.A. No one walks, so there’s no safety net of friendly, or at least decent pedestrians. If someone jumps out at you, no one will hear you scream. I’m kind of stupidly bold, so this creeping fear was new and unwelcome and kept me walking at a solid pace till I rounded a bend and there in all its glory was the new L.A. zoo, the one that replaced that abandoned thing I’d set out to see. It was closed, of course, but it represented civilization and I was glad to see it.

los angeles zoo at night

I was talking aloud to myself as I crossed the giant parking lot and a wide street to the front doors of the Autry National Centre, where an event was being held.

There were tons of people at the museum, and any of the security guards would have been delighted to call a cab for me. Did I say I’m stubborn? I turned on the data on my phone for a moment, assured my loved ones that everything was hunky dory, and kept walking.

Then things stopped being hunky dory.

The zoo and museum exist in a bizarre no-man’s land that has Griffith Park as one bookend and absolutely nothing as the other. It was the nothing into which I walked. The next hour was a blur of misadventures.

I followed the road till it ended in a dog park. Backtracking, I climbed a six-foot fence to get onto a bike path, which ran along the Los Angeles River. I had wanted to write about the river, so I was kind of happy to be there, except there were strange bird sounds and flapping and I’m pretty sure I heard a mountain lion.

And then I walked under an overpass and partway through passed a baby stroller and a grocery cart filled with someone’s belongings. Lined up neatly along the barrier were several bleach bottles and other things you use to make meth (I imagine) and I was all alone and it was dark despite the almost-Supermoon.

la bike path ramp closed

The bike path ended in a chained gate. I was locked inside. The fence was taller and grouchier than the last one, but I scaled it anyway, without ripping one item of clothing or wrenching an arm too badly or losing any dignity. That last might be wrong.

It was only 8 p.m. Back home in Montreal, we don’t have this much fun till at least 1 a.m.

I needed to go southwest, but there was only freeway there so I was forced to go northeast. I walked and walked and walked and there were no taxis or bus stops or goodwill. Then—lo!—I came across a thrift shop that was still open.

“Well, this explains everything,” I said to myself. “The universe knows I love thrifting and is rewarding me for being awesome. Yay universe!”

But it was just the setting for my next adventure, in the form of a little man with close-set eyes and an uneven, bristly moustache, with a flat-billed ballcap low on his shallow forehead. He was wiggling his eyebrows at me in a very unironic fashion and very obviously following me. I made like a squirrel, darting about from aisle to aisle before beelining out of the store. I whipped around the corner and there—a bus stop!

I relaxed against the brick wall with my eyes on the road and had a peaceful 10 minutes, till my friend left the thrift stop and found me there. He smiled with all his teeth (fewer than the normal person).

That was about when I turned the data on my phone and called a taxi company. “I’m at Sonora and San Fernando,” I said very clearly.

“You’re in Glendale?” I told him I hadn’t the first clue where I was. “We don’t service Glendale.”

And he hung up. Just like that. I tried the 7-11 across the street. “Do you have the number of a taxi company?” I might have asked if he knew how to defuse a bomb. “Okay, the bus—how often does it come?”

“Every 10 minutes? Maybe every 30 at night? No idea.”

My creep was still at the bus stop. A second cab company refused to enter Glendale. At the third company, a lazy-sounding man asked where I was going, but hadn’t heard of Century City or Avenue of the Stars, let alone Constellation. I felt like an idiot.

“So you’re going to L.A.?”

All this time, I’d thought I was in L.A. Do strangers to Montreal get as frustrated at our boroughs? “Okay, he’ll be there in half an hour or so.”

That was the longest half hour of my summer, and even longer since it stretched to nearly 40 minutes. The cab never showed up, but the bus did and I darted onto it, right after the creep. I didn’t care. I was safe on the bus, I was sitting down and I could figure everything else out later. It was a long ride downtown and I sat straight with my eyes forward and did not make eye contact with the creep, who changed seats twice to try to get into my line of vision.

The architecture in downtown L.A. was strange and attractive in shadow. As I started to recognize street names, my attitude toward the city softened. I waited till we were stopped at 8th before crashing toward the doors. The creep didn’t see me leave.

jesus saves

There were well-dressed people trying to get into clubs called Perch and 801 Hill. There were itinerants setting up tents or bundling into mattresses right on the street. A giant Jesus Saves sign lit up the night and it didn’t phase me. Nobody gave a shit about me, and the creep was long gone. Now all I needed was a ride.

A tall, gangly man who might have been imposing had I not had such a terrifying night already crossed the street catty-corner. He asked another guy for a dollar, was turned down, and turned to me with a big grin. “Have a good night, lady,” he said without asking for anything.

When I smiled back, a cab materialized. It smelled like pee, but I didn’t care.

The (not so) grand adventures of the Donner-Reed Party

Sierra Nevada mountains

DONNER MEMORIAL STATE PARK, Calif. – I was not expecting to enjoy the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I certainly wasn’t expecting a sudden, breath-catching passion. I throw around the word “awesome,” but this land, stretching from eastern California along the width of Nevada and kissing the edges of Utah, took hold of my heart and imagination and … twisted.

It is grey and brown with rare jewelled spots of green tented with blue and shadowed across the mountains with cloud. It is silent and barren and wild despite more than 150 years of development and human migration. As in South Dakota, you find the water by looking for trees – usually one lonely sentinel but now and again an oasis, as has grown around Donner Lake.

The name Donner rings a bell. You might know the story, or you might have vague recollections of a legend of starvation and cannibalism.

We considered, as we do when crossing wild regions like you find here, or in northern Ontario or Idaho and parts of Tennessee, what strength of character or what horrid conditions drove early settlers to cross the land. How pure their vision of paradise or gold on the other side must have been to think they could cut paths wide enough for wagon trains, and manage to feed and water their livestock and families on this unforgiving earth.

The Donner-Reed Party, conceived by James Reed, captained by George Donner and led astray by lazy mapmaker Lansford Hastings, left Illinois during the wet spring of 1846. The wagon train expanded as the group moved westward, numbering 87 by June, by which time the group was in Wyoming.

HastingsCutoffThe California Trail, sometimes called “the nation’s largest graveyard,” would have been an adventure in itself. Though already cut by hundreds of pioneers, it was still a dangerous trip north of Utah into parts of Idaho and across the Sierra Nevadas.

But there was this upstart, see, a fellow by the name of Hastings who claimed to have found a shortcut that would get the group to California more quickly. Against the advice of a friend in Laramie, Reed decided to use the untested Hastings Cutoff. (If you see similarities with our Hwy. 9 adventure to Santa Cruz, keep them to yourself).

Then it got worse. Hastings left a note for the Donner-Reed Party on the trail that went something along the lines of, “Oops. My bad. This trail wasn’t such a good idea. Try going thataway – it’ll be fine. I promise.”

They could have thrown up their hands right there and hightailed it back to Wyoming. They could have wintered in Laramie or started back on the California Trail, the precursor to the interstate. But no. They’d already wasted all this time, and Hastings had published The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, so obviously he knew what he was talking about, right?

They voted to follow Hastings’ new route, a trail they lost precious time carving into the wilderness. And more time, when they lost wagons and livestock in the punishing mud of Utah’s Salt Flats. More, when attacked by Indians.

Great Salt Flats Utah
It looks like snow, but this is the Great Salt Flats of Utah. A wonder to look at, beneath the salt is mud, treacherous for wagons and oxen.

It was late October when they began to cross the high Sierra. Incited by hunger, tempers flared, with Donner and Reed taking the brunt of it since Hastings, of course, was out of earshot – probably soaking his feet in the healing salt waters of the Pacific. Fresh supplies and a time out for a few days brought about a temporary peace. They moved on.

California! But not yet paradise. Not yet. They reached what would be called Donner Pass at the same time as the snow. The party had to stop because the snow would not – not until it reached 20 feet. They built cabins, raised tents and formed lean-tos. They were imprisoned by snow, The last of their oxen became an unsatisfying Thanksgiving meal. Their dogs were next.

By December, a small group decided to split off on snowshoes to get provisions and find help. Caught in a blizzard, what they found was death, starvation and, according to many reports, the first of many instances of survival cannibalism.

Donner State Park California
The area surrounding Donner Lake is idyllic.

Two men and five women made it through and by February the first of four rescue parties fought their way back to Donner Lake. The last member of the original 87 was found amid the mutilated remains of the last of the camp’s stranded travellers. He reached safety April 19, 1847, more than a year after the ill-fated adventure began.

At final count, 41 people had died, including George Donner. Forty-six survived to see to California, and one wonders what sort of joy they took in their safety. James Reed made it to the promised land, ending his days in San Jose. Hastings, who later authored The Emigrants Guide to Brazil, died in the Virgin Islands in 1870.

Donner Memorial State Park is near Truckee, Calif. The site offers camping, the Emigrant Trail Museum and several short, easy trails with guides or without. There is a small charge (well worth it).

Sources: Emigrant Trail Museum, Legends of America,

Donner Party State Park memorial

How San Francisco’s Chinatown survived against all odds

San Francisco Chinatown

SAN FRANCISCO – Two men and one woman of historical interest were among those who got off the American brig Eagle. It was 1848 and they were the first Chinese to arrive in San Francisco. It was 85 years before the Golden Gate Bridge opened and 84 years before the building of Alcatraz.

Those three people led a wave of emigrants fleeing unrest, famine and rebellion during and in the aftermath of the Opium War and were welcomed into the city for nearly a decade. But then the economy slumped and along with it the good intentions of white Americans.

The Chinese were forced out of their gold-mining jobs. Even more found themselves at loose ends when the railroad was finally completed in 1869.

Ross St., a narrow alleyway in the heart of "Little Canton"
Ross St., a narrow alleyway in the heart of “Little Canton”

A little thing like a recession was not enough to keep the Chinese of San Francisco down. They were superior farmers, and those not working the land worked as domestics or established laundries, restaurants and other businesses. Toss stereotypes around as you will, but these versatile people quickly found a niche to exploit and never gave up, even when faced with racist legislation.

A plaque in Chinatown tells the story of the labyrinth of little alleyways designed in the 1870s: “The rapidly growing community was restricted by anti-Chinese sentiments to a six-block area. … To maximize space within the confines of its boundary, the community created a maze of secondary streets and pedestrian walkways.

Women make fortune cookies in a little factory on Ross St.
Women make fortune cookies in a little factory on Ross St.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stamped out immigration from China. It prevented families from being reunited in America. It kept Chinese people from marrying outside their race, prevented them from voting, owning property or having most rights granted to whites. The act would remain in effect until 1943.

The great earthquake of 1906 that devastated San Francisco levelled Little Canton, or Chinatown, as San Franciscans had come to call it. As PBS says: “It seemed that what the city and country wanted for fifty years, nature accomplished in forty-five seconds.”

Their homes weren’t the only things to be destroyed in the quake: So were public records. The Chinese seized this opportunity to claim American citizenship, finally granting them the right to send for their families – especially their children – from China.

They grew. They rebuilt. They overcame. They are to be honoured and respected for their tenacity and resilience.

Recommended reading: The Story of Chinatown, by PBS

In Santa Cruz, life really is a beach

The most happening place in Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The most happening place in Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – I did get to spend time on the beach while we were in California. I even got see a sunset, from the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The boardwalk is one of the oldest surviving amusement parks in America, founded in 1865 as a public bathhouse that attracted all manner of business exploiting visitors seeking the healing properties of salt water. It was given new life in the late 1800s and early 1900s when entrepreneur Fred W. Swanton opened a casino at the site and created “the Coney Island of the West.” New York native Swanton was known for swooping in and establishing businesses that he ran with limited success for a few years, and the boardwalk and Santa Cruz – of which he was mayor for a time and which he transformed from a logging town into a resort town – were his legacy. According to Wikipedia, he started the first electric company in the area and developed the Santa Cruz Electric Railway. He also invested in the gold rush … too late. He died nearly penniless in 1940.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Swanton’s boardwalk was packed on a summer Saturday evening and while we generally avoid crowds, it was an adventure to zigzag among the people, parting the way with the stroller. We ate garlic fries and deep-fried Oreos and Trev spent more than an hour at the humongous arcade in a building that has survived at least two big earthquakes. We promised ourselves we’d make Trevor watch The Lost Boys, since parts of it were filmed here.

The sky turned indigo and the pier lights mimicked the stars as the sun lazily dipped away over the water. The temperature dipped, too – dropped, actually. There was another myth busted: California isn’t always warm.

Club Ed's mobile surf school in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Club Ed’s mobile surf school in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Two days later just after dawn, Trevor and I slipped quietly out of our hosts’ home in San Jose and drove an hour south to Aptos City Beach. The beach was nearly deserted … until the mobile surf school pulled up.

The folks at Club Ed were kind enough to take a last-minute reservation so my nearly fully grown water baby could learn to catch some waves. What was billed as a two-hour lesson lasted nearly three and Trev learned quickly in the relaxed atmosphere with instructor Sky.

Santa Cruz surf lesson

“It’s so much easier than I thought!” he told me breathlessly as he adjusted the leash on his board and headed out again.

We’d leave that part of California just a few hours later, but right then it was the best place on earth.