Tag Archives: California

Reaching the dizzy heights of Hollywood

The view south from summit of Mount Hollywood

The view south from summit of Mount Hollywood

It isn’t the biggest mountain I’ve climbed, but it’s probably the most glitzy.

The clue’s in the name. Mount Hollywood sits among the hills in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, overlooking the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign and within squinting distance of film stars’ luxury pads.

It has to-the-horizon views of the metropolis of L.A., including its downtown and, to the southwest, the waters of the Pacific and Catalina Island. Just beneath the summit lies Griffith Observatory, a stunning 1930s landmark, itself perched high above the city.

The trailhead.

The trailhead.

Even the trailhead itself has a little showbiz sparkle – hikers take their first steps past the George Harrison tree. (The second of its type, after the first died following an onslaught by beetles in 2014 – I kid you not).

It’s not all glamour though. The four mile (with diversions) round trip up and down the Mount Hollywood Summit trail is a dusty outing and, on many days, the views are obscured by the city’s notorious smog. Beware the heat too – hiking it last weekend meant temperatures in the low 80s, even near the summit saddle, and a searing sun, with zero foliage cover.

That said, for someone who’s spent most of his hiking hours in rainy Ireland or soggy Oregon, the hot, blue sky was a welcome relief.  The heat was also worth enduring for the scenic payback that followed a 45-minute workout, and 262m ascent, up the trail.

In recent years I’ve hiked a number of the popular routes in L.A. – traversing trails in the San Gabriel Mountains, Debs Park, and Topanga State Park. Each has its own charms, but Mount Hollywood is the best all-rounder for taking in the view and vibe of the city.

It won’t tax a hardened outdoors person, and fitness freaks will prefer to jog rather than walk, but it’s worth braving the  hordes who start from the Charlie Turner trailhead, near Griffith Observatory, each Saturday morning. Just bring some water – and a camera for that photo.

 

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Winter hiking above the Angels

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Ascending the fire road

I was probably half way, and two pints of sweat, in before I thought: “this is a good idea”.

After all, who hikes on their Christmas break while battling eight time zones of jet lag and seasonal quantities of food and drink?

That’s the question I asked as my brother-in-law and I pulled into a parking lot above the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last week, just after the Christmas weekend.

We’d promised each other an easy ramble in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Of course it never works out that way.

Thirty minutes in and the gentle grade up through Millard Canyon already reminded me that no amount of flat running or biking can prepare your thighs for the upward pull of a brisk hike.

But the clear, crisp canyon breezes and southern California sun made for an easier trek than my last mountain outing in winter, a wind and rainswept day on Lugnaquilla.

Keeping on track

Staying on track

As we ascended, below us, in eerie green-brown silence, lay a city of 10m people. Ahead – with the exception of a stray biker or two – the path was clear. The city of Los Angeles, that great mechanised metropolis a mile or two away, was just another part of the scenery – alongside the lightening-battered weather stations or the broken-up fire road we were hiking on.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote John Muir, the high priest of the Sierra (who I doubt ever troubled himself with as minor as hike as Brown Mountain). I’d add that it’s also the clearest way into one’s mind, particularly a mind sedately muddled by the temptations of the holidays.

By the time we came out at the Brown Mountain Road junction (710m – an ascent of 400m from our start 80 minutes earlier) our minds were clear of anything but the desire to drink water and photograph the views – south to the Pacific Ocean and north and west into canyons of wilderness.

We could have gone on of course – with the summit ‘just’ another 650m up. But common sense – or the part of it which resides in tiring leg muscles – prevailed. Not before a speedy, if dusty, descent down into the City of Angels though.

On the way we even briefly encountered that rarest of phenomena – Los Angeles rain. Winter hiking indeed.

View from Brown Mountain Road Junction.

View south from Brown Mountain Road Junction

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‘Get on the train’ – early morning, California, 1999

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US, 1999. Pic: Fiona Gunn

There was a time, before dinner parties, insurance ads or any of the other clichés with which his music’s been since associated, when David Gray provided the soundtrack to the parties, road trips, bedrooms and breakups of a certain generation of Irish people.

For these listeners, now creeping towards and past 40, Gray’s 1990s albums were music collection staples.

Back then word of the Welsh songwriter spread mainly by word of mouth. I first heard of him from a guy who lived next door to me at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 90s.

Knowing I was a Dylan fan he mentioned Gray’s name to me one morning. I picked up A Century’s End a week or so later at the old Tower Records store on Wicklow Street, the assistant breathlessly informing me that this was “a great album”.

I listened and eventually shelved it. At the time I was travelling in my mind nightly with Hank Williams’ car across West Virginia – there was little place for a Welsh singer-songwriter on that particular highway.

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Fast forward a year or two to  a small road cutting through hillside trees on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, California.

I’m walking home at 5am from a night-shift at Caesars casino. Ten hours on my feet has left me exhausted. To bank my cash I’m in the habit of strolling home, with nothing to soundtrack the hike except the occasional night driver passing and wildlife rustling in the undergrowth.

And David Gray’s White Ladder. I have – like almost everyone I knew – a copy of the album, in my case on a Sony C-90 cassette.

South Lake Tahoe Pic: Mark Milller

South Lake Tahoe
Pic: Mark Milller

The song I’m listening to is the album closer, a cover of a 1980s Soft Cell ballad. Perhaps it shouldn’t work in the hands of the Welsh strummer, but it does. A ballad of love and rejection in the back streets of Soho, with Gray’s Van Morrison-esque treatment Say Hello Wave Goodbye has become the sound of the early morning.

Most of his performance is serviceable but Gray’s long coda, where he works in ghostly fragments of Into The Mystic and Madame George (“get on the train, the train, the train…”) is what I want to hear as I walk along Pioneer Trail each morning.

These closing two minutes capture the feelings of escape and movement and solitude, loneliness and distance and excitement, that cross our paths only a handful of times. “In the wind and the rain now, darling, say goodbye.”

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I recently read that Gray has released a song called  – and I smiled at this, given my work in Lake Tahoe back then – Snow In Vegas. He’s still around, still making music, even doing it with the likes of Leann Rimes. And so times move on.

Last weekend as I walked home from the store, idly shuffling through the contents of my iPod, up popped that bass-heavy acoustic downstrum and the opening lines, “standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”

As it does the years, the trains and the rain, the jobs, the long parade of faces and names and situations, the good times and the bad, disappear. It’s 4.30 on a July morning and I’m on the Pioneer Trail again, and it’s all open and in front of me.

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‘You call it as you see it, and stay in the action’

play-it-cover1When nothing is all that’s left in the game, why keep playing?

Why not?

That’s the answer given by failed actress Maria Wyeth, her final words on the closing page of Joan Didion’s terrifying, clinical novel Play It As It Lays.

The book, published in 1970, consolidated Didion’s fame. Almost half a century later its theme – how to save your humanity in the Age of Everything Now – seems as relevant as ever.

Maria Wyeth is divorcing, or not divorcing, her husband. She makes an effort to reignite her career – which fails. She drinks, tries to sleep, drives the freeways of Los Angeles and hopes to somehow regain custody of a daughter she’s lost. Despite occasional, desperate moments of connection she’s lost, a passive onlooker in her own life.

Sound familiar? Didion’s character may be an extreme exemplar, but five per cent of people suffer from depression, a figure that’s rising. Many of these individuals have plenty to eat, a career, children and money in the bank. And yet.

“She had a sense that the dream had ended and that she had slept on,” Didion writes of Maria, the onetime ingenue now reduced to swallowing handfuls of Seconal, existing in an environment of empty sex, listless career failure and relentless dread – her days strung out under a searing, white California sun.

Joan Didion Pic: David Shankbone

Joan Didion
Pic: David Shankbone

The actress is dangerously adrift in a sea of decadent plenty, so much so that the book’s final scene, in which a catatonic Maria holds a suicidal acquaintance’s hand as he overdoses in her bed, is less shocking than the preceding narrative.

Despite this, after 80 or so chapters spent in Maria’s life, Didion’s novel emerges as a tale of survival. Not all of life’s survivors are confronted by life-threatening situations, starvation, war or violence. Some are handed the 20th century’s bounty. But can they bear its weight?

Some can, if – as Maria finds – they come to a simple, final realisation. “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing’.”

This nothing is the heart of Didion’s novel. It’s the poolside starlets’ conversations, it’s the night terrors Maria suffers after her abortion, it’s the reason she drives the LA freeways for days at a time, without a destination.

At the end it’s what Maria Wyeth accepts – and moves past. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action,” she tells us, the words of a gambler for whom surviving is winning, even if the victory – for her –  is played out in a psychiatric facility.

Her words may be some small advice for surviving the drift of Western life in 21st century, where all choices are available, all desires can be fulfilled, but dissatisfaction still grows.

At the end of Play It As It Lays Maria’s psychiatric treatment, the loss of her hospitalised child, the death of her mother, and her overwhelming feeling of disconnection are seen as byproducts of a First World whose material rewards satisfy every whim, yet whose “disorganisation is general”.

Forty-five years later, in an equally saturated, satiated age, one can’t help wondering if Didion’s character made it out alive.

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

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How long will your memory last?

'Memories' Frederick Leighton (1883)

‘Memories’
Frederick Leighton (1883)

WHO’LL remember you in 70 years time?

Who’ll know your name? What you achieved, who you loved, where you lived?

Will anyone remember even one of the myriad details, events or landmarks that made up your life?

How long will your legacy – such as it will be – last?
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“The most that most of us can hope to live on for, after our deaths, is 70 or 80 years. Can you remember your grandparents names? Where they came from or lived?

“What about your great grandparents. What do you know of them?”

These were questions put to me in a recent conversation I had with an associate, P.

He posed them as part of his argument for the need to live in the present, as a method to highlight the uselessness – the sheer cosmic unimportance – of the things most of us spend inordinate amounts of time considering, worrying about or planning.

Focusing on our short, transient existence can be liberating for some, depressing for others; for more it’s a mix of both.

If we accept P’s argument it swiftly leads us to make a demand of ourselves: I must live as best and true and I can, for myself and others.

Perhaps this living legacy is the only one that matters, the only immortality we can expect. And if it outlives us, more luck.
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Memorial to Ed Ricketts, Cannery Row, California. Pic: I, Amadscientist

Memorial to Ed Ricketts, Cannery Row, California.
Pic: I, Amadscientist

This occurred in recent days as I read excerpts from ‘About Ed Ricketts’, an essay written in memory of the marine biologist of the same name by his friend John Steinbeck.

The work is an obituary, a love letter to friendship, to life, to hard work and hard relaxation, to enlightenment, to wine, to music and to all of us, to people.

Ricketts, the inspiration for ‘Doc’ in the novel Cannery Row, had been killed in a car crash in 1948.

“He went a long way and burned a deep scar,” Steinbeck wrote, justifying his decision to write truly about his friend, a man who “had the faults of his virtues”.

How to capture one man’s life, his legacy? “There can be no formula. The simplest and best way will just be to remember,” Steinbeck argues.*

As legacies go being remembered like this, in the honest words of a friend, is as good as most of us can expect.

And so Ed Ricketts, almost 70 years gone himself at this stage, had as good a shot at immortality as any. But in time he too will surely slip from public consciousness.

As for us, perhaps the best we should hope for is that we ‘go a long way’, do our best, and that people will remember.

For how long? Does it matter?
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*John Steinbeck, ’From ‘About Ed Ricketts’’, Of Men And Their Making: The Selected Non-Fiction of John Steinbeck, ed. Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson (Penguin, 2002), p 183

 

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Let it rain. Somewhere else.

Come on in, the weather's lovely.

Come on in, the weather’s lovely.

I’m Irish; therefore I know rain.

The Gaelic word for the phenomenon, ‘baisteach’, is pretty close to my own reaction when I pull open the curtains on an October morning to be greeted by dripping leaves.

Rain. Vast soggy swathes of my youth were soaked in the stuff. Summers swept away, winters seeping into one single drenched grey mass.

In a part of my brain – call it the Celtic cortex – it never stops pouring down. Showers that struck on holidays in Galway at the age of 12 continue still; the deluge that I swam through the first time I climbed Carauntoohill continues to pour down its sodden flanks.

As an Irishman for me rain is as much a state of mind as a natural phenomenon.

Great Recent Downpours I Have Known: The 72 hour burst that drenched our American visitors on their first trip to Ireland in September 2012; the mist that soaked my wife and I as I proposed under Mweelrea mountain seven months earlier; the torrents of a single night that flooded our block’s garage in October 2011.

Magnificent falls all.

—–

After a dry (by Irish standards) summer the rain returned to Dublin this week, three days of grey skies and damp air, broken only by dreary deluges and spot flooding.

At least in the west of Ireland they had an unlikely distraction, an apocalyptic ‘black cloud’ attacking gravestones and a church tea room.

'Travellers surprised by sudden rain'. Utagawa Hiroshige

Soft day? ‘Travellers surprised by sudden rain’.
Utagawa Hiroshige

The only memorable airbourne event I encountered in recent days was a lightning strike over Dublin Bay early on Tuesday morning which – I later discovered – struck an Aer Lingus plane.

Other than that it’s been raincoats, umbrellas and the sodden, sinking feeling that Autumn is here, with winter (read: same rain, just colder) to follow.

This persistent feeling that, regardless of how pleasant it might be today, rain is just around the corner, likely accounts for the outlook of the Irish pessimist class.

The fact that I – figuratively at least – approach many of life’s challenges with an umbrella in one hand and a dripping macintosh in the other is often remarked on by my other half.

Hailing from Southern California, where rain is seen as some quaint Old World folk memory, her usual outlook is a progressive optimism.

Guess whose approach works better?

As I write this it’s…. well, let’s just say that it’s not dry outside. But it will be tomorrow, they say. And there may even be sun, we’re promised, ‘in parts’.

Until then I’ll be – like Christy Moore – cursing this cold blow and the rainy night.

Let it rain. Just elsewhere.

 

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