March 15, 2012
Temperature: 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Sky: blue. Breeze: light.
Those were the idyllic conditions when my family and I visited California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Summer time is a different story, of course, with temperatures across the 550,000-acre park where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet routinely over 100.
Stuffed into a rented Toyota Camry, we entered Joshua Tree from the north and hiked the one-mile Hidden Valley loop. In the isolated canyon once favored by cattle rustlers, it’s said, we talked to a ranger about pinyon pine trees (bearing the nuts used in pesto sauce), watched rock climbers suspended along one of the geometrically-fractured joints that cross-hatch Joshua Tree cliffs, and picnicked in the shade of a Mojave yucca. Then it was on to Barker Dam (built around 1900 to create a reservoir for livestock); the boulder heaps at Jumbo Rocks; and 4,500-foot Sheep Pass leading east toward the wide, hazy Pinto Basin.
When we finally reached Cottonwood Springs we learned that torrential rainfall the previous September had flooded the road, closed trails, campgrounds and the visitor center on the south side of the park. Consequently, we couldn’t hike to Lost Palms Oasis visited by desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. But on the way out of the park we got a surprise; my niece Sarah saw it first.
“Stop!” she cried from the back seat.
I thought she’d chipped a tooth on trail mix, but it turns out she‘d seen ocotillo, miraculously blooming in winter. We pulled over and piled out to inspect about two dozen tall, spiny ocotillo plants pointing flame-red fingers into the sky. They usually bloom in the spring; in fact, March is the month for wildflower viewing in Joshua Tree. But September rains had apparently fooled them, presenting us with a gift on a delightful day in the desert.
January 30, 2012
It’s L.A.’s Yellow Brick Road, a show-stoppingly scenic route along the backbone of the Santa Monica Mountains, 55 miles from Dodger Stadium to Malibu, where it swan dives into the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, Mulholland Drive passes precariously-perched mid-century modern castles in the hills, the Hollywood sign and the Hollywood Bowl, L.A.‘s own Mount Olympus, the Getty Center, the hippie hamlet of Topanga Canyon, trailheads in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, abandoned lookouts for the Army’s Nike anti-aircraft missile system and reservoirs built by the L.A. Department of Water and Power headed from 1886 to 1928 by the man who gave the road its name: William Mulholland. An Irish immigrant and self-taught engineer, he brought water from the High Sierra to the once bone-dry San Fernando Valley north of L.A.
When I first moved to Southern California in 1998 I got to know the lay of the land by driving Mulholland, which is not for the faint-hearted. Seldom more than two lanes wide, it has more hairpin curves, steep climbs and downward glides than a roller-coaster, along with L.A. Basin and San Fernando Valley views that will kill you if you takes you eyes off the road long enough to look at them.
At the time, a little-known 8-mile stretch of Mulholland starting just west of the 405 Freeway was drivable, but unpaved—remarkable given its route across one of America’s most densely-populated regions. A few years ago a group partly spearheaded by actor Jack Nicholson tried to get Dirt Mulholland on the National Register of Historic Places. The effort came to naught, but Dirt Mulholland still rambles in the tracks of coyotes through the stony, chaparral-covered heart of the Santa Monica Mountains, turning down the volume on L.A. so you can hear birdsong.
So on a recent trip to L.A. I was surprised to discover that Dirt Mulholland is now closed to motor vehicles due to damage from El Nino rains over the last decade.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you ask Paul Edelman with the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy, a California state agency established in 1980 that has helped to preserve over 60,000 acres of wilderness and urban parkland, including many contiguous to Dirt Mulholland. With cars and motorcycles banned, it’s now the province of hikers, mountain bikers and wildlife.
In January I drove up Topanga Canyon Road from the Ventura Freeway, wandering through suburban subdivisions until I found Dirt Mulholland’s western threshold. Soon the houses petered out, as did the pavement, but I kept going until I reached a yellow gate where a lone bicyclist was strapping on his helmet. There I got out of the car and walked to a precipice from which I could see the old dirt track winding across the hills, headed back to Lalaland.
October 10, 2011
The effort to attract people to downtown Los Angeles, surely one of the seediest city centers in America with a large homeless population and nightmarish Skid Row, always struck me as hopeless, especially when I moved to L.A. in 1998 and looked at loft apartments in the neighborhood. Everyone said it was about to become the next hot place; I couldn’t wait that long.
I settled instead on the fringes of Hollywood, but for the next six years worked on Spring Street downtown. Lined by once elegant early 20th century bank buildings, hotels and theaters with exceptional bones, Spring and neighboring Main Streets made the National Register of Historic Places; the occasional European tourist found downtown, pausing in front of the Renaissance Revival Bradbury Building or grabbing a Cuban sandwich at the Grand Central Market before looking for a bus to Universal Studios in Hollywood; architecture devotees explored the district with the estimable Los Angeles Conservancy, which still offers a “Downtown Renaissance: Spring and Main Walking Tour.”
But, me, I couldn’t find a decent place for lunch downtown.
I guess it just took longer than expected for the neighborhood to transmogrify because when I went back recently, after moving away in 2003, things were starting to look up. Coffee shops, dozens of galleries that open their doors for Downtown Art Walk on the second Thursday of each month, hip restaurant-bars like the Edison on W. 2nd, even a grocery store for urban dwellers had opened up. People were out walking dogs. The vibe remained edgy, but that’s the attraction.
Still, I wasn’t too eager about joining a friend for dinner at the funky-chic Nickel Diner on Main Street downtown. After dark, the area looked as unappetizing as ever. Not so the menu, featuring moderately-priced American comfort food, along with desserts to-die-for, like the imponderably delicious peanut butter potato chip cake. It was so good I took my niece and her boyfriend for a slice the next night.
They’re my two favorite twenty-something Angelinos, presumably the perfect type for downtown. But they live in another gentrifying neighborhood around Echo Park, heading to the old city center on Art Walk Thursdays to eat from gourmet food trucks that cluster in parking lots along Main and Spring Streets.
Begun seven years ago by a handful of downtown trades people, Art Walk now attracts as many as 30,000 people. But increasingly, most of them show up more for the party rather than for art connoisseurship. With them come traffic, noise, disorderly conduct and other problems now forcing organizers to rethink the event that has done so much to put downtown on the map.
September 16, 2011
“Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept,” said William Faulkner, a part-time Hollywood screenwriter and the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Sound and the Fury, Absalom! Absalom and As I Lay Dying.
He spent most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, still the best place for a Faulkner pilgrimage, where visitors tour his home, walk the campus of Ole Miss (which he attended for three semesters), drink Bourbon at his grave and see places that figure in his novels.
Tracking the author in ever-changing Los Angeles is harder, a project suitable for true devotees and close readers of Faulkner biographies like those by David L. Minter and Joseph Blotner, which touch upon the time Faulkner spent in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s grubbing for money as a contract writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Twentieth-Century Fox and Warner Brothers. He abhorred the work, drank heavily and had an extra-marital affair with a secretary who co-wrote a tell-all about the liaison, A Loving Gentleman: The Love Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter. The 1991 Ethan and Joel Coen film Barton Fink gives an even more lurid picture of Faulkner in Hollywood.
Most of Faulkner’s old watering holes are gone, except for Musso & Frank Grill, founded in 1919 on Hollywood Boulevard, a necessary stop for aficionados. He can also be channeled in the ground-floor bar at the Spanish Colonial Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood and downtown at the Gallery Bar in the Millennium Biltmore.
Faulkner worked on scores of scripts in Lotusland, including Gunga Din (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Southerner (1945), directed by Jean Renoir. But he got credit for only a few, including The Big Sleep (1946), based on a Raymond Chandler mystery. It was directed by Howard Hawks and starred Faulkner drinking buddies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. If you take the VIP Tour at Warner Brothers Burbank studio you get to see New York Street where parts of the classic film noir were shot.
Faulkner lived like a vagrant during his stints in L.A. His temporary addresses included the Highland Hotel at 1921 N. Highland Ave. in Hollywood; the Garden of Allah apartments on Sunset Blvd.; a house on El Greco St. in Santa Monica; and a walled villa at 2058 Watsonia Terrace in Whitley Heights, a neighborhood that creeps up the hills behind Hollywood on narrow winding streets decked with bougainvilleas. You can’t see much more than the wooden front door; but you can imagine Faulkner inside, writing in sunglasses with a hangover.