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.

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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.

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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).

* * *

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.