Saturday, June 16, 2018

Urban Hike

This morning, I went on an Atlas Obscura-sponsored hike alongside the Glendale Narrows section of the Los Angeles River.

The day was overcast—lucky for us hikers given it's June. I wore a hat and sunscreen anyway.

We met at Marsh Park in Frogtown, which is a double-camel-hump-shaped sliver of LA sandwiched between the 5 freeway and the river. From there, we followed the pedestrian and bicycle path alongside the river, checking out the weeds that spring out of this section of the river along the way.

The LA River inhabits that concrete ravine you've seen in so many movies—I first remember becoming aware of it when I saw the movie Grease in 1978. Most people think of it as a visual blight, a gaping wound across the city, a hybrid of stark brutalism mixed with natural curves that creates a practical and decidedly unattractive aesthetic. This is technology at its ugliest. Nature was controlled through any means necessary without a single thought to visual appeal or harmony.

And yet, like the industrial wastelands along the New Jersey Turnpike spur lining the road from Newark Airport to Manhattan, there is true beauty in the brazen human assault on the natural world. The contrast of a perfect spring day, the herons, the cyclists, the dogs scampering along on leashes alongside this pervasive sun-drenched trench. How can anything be simultaneously rigid and meandering? Who thought a fifty-mile concrete trench was a good idea?

The Army Corps of Engineers, that's who. And it works, because the purpose is to wrestle the river into submission, controlling flooding and crushing nature without humility.

The Glendale Narrows is one section of the river with a soft bottom, without concrete underneath, so weeds grow here, springing from the mud to be constantly beaten back, a never-ending tussle between human and nature. I'm still wrestling with my thoughts on the Los Angles aesthetic. It's not an attractive place, despite glowing descriptions of palm trees and sunny days. That description is symptomatic of the cluelessness of the luxury-class, a superficiality enjoyed by the wealthy of the stunning Hollywood Hills or Beverly Hills or even Santa Monica. The Los Angeles of the working class is gritty and utilitarian, an uneasy alliance between the industrial, the crass commercialism of storefronts and parking structures, and the elevated or subterranean cuts of freeways. Eventually you start to notice the endless possibilities for public art among the shocking wasteland of carwashes and squat shopping plazas, the small pockets of nature pushing back against the relentless destruction of humanity. And so we find the river. Pockets of greenery. Herons. Fish. Egrets. And supposedly, there are activists who buy exotic ducks in Chinatown, releasing them into the river habitat.

The environmentalists led us along the river bike path, then we climbed through the barriers and carefully walked down the concrete slope to the water. We walked a mile and a half from Marsh Park to Sunnynook Pedestrian Bridge, which I had no idea existed until the moment it came into view ahead of us. We crossed over, hiked back, and ended up at our starting point at noon.

The hike was pretty amazing. I had no idea so many natural nooks and crannies sprang out of the riverbed. I have seen people's tents along the river and so had made assumptions I'm not terribly proud of. But the river itself is a tiny pocket of natural chaos pushing through the limitations of human construction. The river always wins, in the end. It's merely a question of when.

More photos here. 

1 comment:

William Kendall said...

Life finds a way, even in a concrete jungle.