Tag Archives: Los Angeles

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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Four million people at our feet

Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Downtown LA from Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Los Angeles is not a great hiking city. A mesh of sprawling, strangling freeways that cross a vast, concrete-laden, urban area, it’s hardly known as a spot for a hearty outdoors ramble.

This was my attitude before I first travelled to the city. On that initial visit I scratched off the idea that I’d get outdoors at all, given the daytime temps in the 90s.

This was despite the imposing presence of the San Gabriel Mountains, which overlooked my wife’s hometown of Temple City. From a distance though, they appeared smog-choked and dusty.

But luckily my wife’s family know LA, and know where to hike. Slowly but surely, subsequent visits introduced me to hill and mountain paths, most of which were within 30 minutes of Downtown (presuming traffic’s light, which is always a risky presumption in the City of Angels).

Hiking Topanga Canyon

Hiking Topanga Canyon

And so I’ve hiked up through Eaton Canyon to the falls at its head, spent an early morning walking the Los Liones trail in Topanga State Park, and filled the best part of a day traversing the trails above Millard Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Last weekend saw me add another route. Waking early, we travelled to Ernest E Debs Regional Park, a set of small hills and paths overlooking central northeast Los Angeles.

Unlike previous hiking spots I’d been to in the city, Debs Park is surrounded – or so it seems – by urban LA. The 110 freeway skirts the park’s northern edge; LA’s Eastside sprawls in one direction, with a view towards Downtown in the other. There’s graffiti on the tree trunks, and desolate, burned brush on parts of the hills.

But 20 minutes, and a steep tarmac roadway, later saw us perched on a dusty trail above the city. A slight breeze kept LA’s yellow smog haze at bay, and – despite the fact that it was a weekend morning – there was no-one else around.

For a few moments we had our scrubby, green-brown, hilly oasis. A city of four million people lay at our feet, but the only movement was the sparrows flying over our heads.

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An Adult’s Christmas in Oregon

dylanMy Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.

One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.

This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.

But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.

“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.

These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.

All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.

“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.

Portland, OR, December 2016

Portland, OR, December 2016

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As I walked out one Portland afternoon

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Three months ago I arrived in Portland, Oregon, stepping out of a taxi at Glisan Street and 11th Avenue with my wife, both of us laden down with bags.

Since then I’ve walked. I’ve walked downtown, I’ve walked circuits of the bridges, I’ve walked up to the Pittock Mansion and down from the Japanese Gardens. I’ve walked in shorts, in temperatures of 100 or more, in the rain on gloomy Sundays, through the aisles of Powell’s bookstore and up the narrow path that leads to Multnomah Falls.

The reason for this constant perambulation is partly exercise-driven. Walking two or three miles is a lot easier on my body that pounding out the same distance running on the pavement.

But it’s also down to curiosity, to uncover the city from the ground level, from the veterans’ statues in the South Park Blocks to the skid row at their northern equivalent, from the moneyed glass towers of the Pearl to the dives along West Burnside.

First Avenue, Portland

First Avenue, Portland

The same impressions recur: the city is undergoing a rapid gentrification, Portland is a mecca for tourists, drivers here are more polite than in most other cities. Other things are also clear: the homelessness crisis is beyond anything I’ve witnessed in Europe, graffiti and stickers demanding rent freezes abound (“Keep Portland Weird” sounds more like “Keep Portland As It Was”).

And then, all about, there’s the fall. Putting complaints about the influx of rebuilding, prices and the decline of old Portland to one side, the city has looked and felt beautiful in recent days.

Last Friday I walked from Mississippi Avenue to downtown, across the Broadway bridge and down 2nd Avenue to the sunlit park at Lownsdale Square. In shirtsleeves too, despite it being early November.

The low light reminded me of walking in St Anne’s Park in Dublin at the same time of the year, the warmth October days spent visiting family in Los Angeles.

The onset of winter and its attendant rains will curb my outings, I imagine. Try as I might, I can’t warm to the Portland habit of venturing out into the rain without an umbrella. Last December I crossed the bridges on an icy mornings, braving northerly breezes down the Willamette River – not something I’ll repeat too often.

Until then though, you’ll find me out and about, crossing streets, dodging cyclists and checking signs, just walking.

Downtown Portland

New paths – downtown Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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Sole survivor – adventures in male pedicures

Salon savvy.

Nailing it

It wasn’t until she pulled out the razor and smiled that I asked myself “what the hell am I doing here?”

I froze, the woman stared and my wife, seated next to me in the salon, laughed.

As a 30-something Irishman with no previous experience of pedicures, to say that I was out of my comfort zone – despite the luxurious massage chair and complimentary coffee – was an understatement.

So began my first – and to this day, only – such treatment, at Vietnamese nail salon favoured by my wife in her hometown of Los Angeles.

We were visiting for Christmas and I, on a heady whim fuelled by days of hot December sun and evenings of whiskey cocktails, had decided to embrace the male pedi-revolution. This was a significant move – for most Irish males ‘pedicure’ means a hasty toe-clipping and a quick visual once-over.

I was ahead of the curve. In the 18 months since, according to a Guardian report this week, sportsmen like David Beckham and LeBron James have inspired “average blokes” to pamper their toes.

As someone who knows his share of “average blokes” I’m not so sure. But perhaps, a bit like a sockless yours truly that morning in LA, they’ll try anything once.

At the time of my salon venture I was running 50k a week, with the feet and toes to prove it. My default home treatment was a handheld scraping device, which was crude but effective. When things got really out of hand I’d head to my podiatrist.

Of course he’d used a blade too. That said, maybe it was the clinical surroundings, the latex gloves, or (more likely) his stiff fee, but I never felt nervous when I turned to me bearing a scalpel.

Male pedicures before Beckham. Pic: Wellcome Trust

Male pedicures before Beckham.
Pic: Wellcome Trust

It was a different matter amid the magazines, cushions and foot baths of a disconcertingly female-focused salon – or so I thought.

Idiot me, however. Twenty minutes of clipping, scraping and buffing – the latter with a furiously-applied pumice stone – had restored my feet to a presentable standard. There was even some not-unpleasant tickling.

What’s more, my Dublin podiatrist had never given me a post-treatment foot-rub – my toes hadn’t felt this good since I first stepped out of my cot three decades earlier.

Little wonder men had been enjoying pedicures from back before Beckham donned a sarong – 4,000 years back, to be accurate.

So this story ends with me becoming a regular salon visitor, right? Well, not quite.

Oddly enough I haven’t been for a single pedicure since that first experience, in Dublin, Los Angeles or anywhere else. I’ve come close to walking into one of Asian salons on Capel Street, on my wife’s recommendation, but I’ve always pulled out at the last minute, too busy, or self-conscious or downright Irish to follow through.

Call it cold feet.

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Winter hiking above the Angels

brownmt1

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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Keeping the desert down

John Fante. Pic: Afag Azizova

Studiously avoiding making resolutions for a new year, or asking about anyone else’s, I’ve instead spent the past 24 hours with Arturo Bandini – alter ego of writer John Fante – in the streets and boarding houses of 1930s Los Angeles.

Fante’s 1939 novel Ask The Dust is a tribute to human connection, its difficulty and its fleeting nature. The dry poverty of a life lived in a city built on a desert is ever present, the background to Bandini’s writings, wanderings, and attempts at wooing Camilla, his “Mayan princess” (and, at times, his waitress).

Bandini’s desperate LA love affair plays out on the novel’s surface, beneath which lies the sand, ancient and patient and unconquerable, indifferent to the almighty-yet-petty struggles of man.

“The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilisations to flicker and pass into the darkness…all the evil of the world seemed not evil at all, but inevitable and good and part of that endless struggle to keep the desert down.”

And so Bandini, obsessed by his own struggles with writing and women, makes a resolution. Having scripted a savage criticism of the short stories of a love rival who approached him for writing advice he reconsiders.

“Under the big stars in a shack lay a man like myself, who would probably be swallowed by the desert sooner than I, and in my hand I held an effort of his, an expression of his struggle against the implacable silence…

His fate was the common fate of all, his finish my finish; and here tonight in this city of darkened windows were other millions like him and like me…

I walked back to my room and spent three hours writing the best criticism of his work that I could possibly write.”

This outstretched hand offers a moment of hope in a story that will prove to sorely need it, and a message that self improvement is of little worth compared to an attempt at human connection – which is as good a resolution as any today.

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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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Three cities in three paragraphs

The Phoenix Park, Dublin. Pic: CGP Grey

The Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Pic: CGP Grey

The One City, One Book event run annually in Dublin always strikes me as a tease.

Whenever I read of this year’s nominated book I usually think: what of X, or Y – when will Z get the credit it deserves?

Some years ago a visiting friend asked me what books she should read ahead of a visit to the city. I was stumped. Who would to attempt Ulysses as a primer for a city break? Kavanagh’s Baggotonia represents Dublin but just one part of it.

I’ve found myself similarly stumped when travelling abroad. For years I’ve sought out The Great London Novel – to no avail. Dickens, Greene or Ackroyd each wrote part of what that city is, but as the deeper I read the more I’m left with a sense of the enormity of the task, the impossibility of knowing the place through literature.

Perhaps it’s a side-effect of Twitter, or a symptom of distraction, but lately I’ve turned to extracts, simple paragraphs, as triggers to evoke a memory or mood of certain places.

In the past year I’ve spent time in three world cities – all of which are of course impossible to depict in a single paragraph. But if I had to pick…

Jones Street, NYC

Jones Street, NYC

…my first choice would be Pete Hamill’s Whitman-esque evocation of his home city in Downtown: My Manhattan, an account written by a man – as I always envisage him – standing alone on that island’s west side piers on a late Autumn afternoon, just before sundown.

Go down to the North River and the benches that run along the west side of Battery Park City. Watch the tides or the blocks of ice in winter; they have existed since the time when the island was empty of man. Gaze at the boats. Look across the water at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, the place to which so many of the New York tribe came in order to truly live…Gaze at its ruins and monuments. Walk its sidewalks and run fingers upon the stone and bricks and steel of our right-angled streets. Breathe the air of the river breeze.

My wife is from Los Angeles and I’ve spent time there, but not enough to fully appreciate the astonishing capacity it offers for reinvention, the cost of which is grinding failure, the reward searing success. Joan Didion understood the distance between the two, writing in Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

Venice Beach, California

Venice Beach, California

The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.  Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who  come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.  Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look:  the movies and the newspapers.

Finally, to Joyce – and Dublin. Not Leopold Bloom’s city wanderings, but rather those of Mr Duffy in the Dubliners‘ story ‘A Painful Case’, who pauses on a hilltop in the Phoenix Park and looks over the city stretching eastward along the Liffey, thinking of his deceased lover.

When he gained the crest of the Magazine Hill he halted and looked along the river towards Dublin, the lights of which burned redly and hospitably in the cold night. He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying… He turned his eyes to the grey gleaming river, winding along towards Dublin. Beyond the river he saw a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge Station, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness, obstinately and laboriously. It passed slowly out of sight; but still he heard in his ears the laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name.

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Time, music, place: Broken Bells, LA

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A piece of music can be an instant ticket to a place or a time.

As I get older this phenomenon – notes firing down neural pathways, the intersection of time and music and place – preoccupies me more and more.

I’ve written about it here previously and an event last week brought to mind again. We visited with family and friends in Los Angeles, a busy trip involving catch-ups, food and drink, 30c days and one or two late nights.

This charming man - with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This charming man – with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

One of those was spent at The Orpheum Theatre, where we caught a show by Broken Bells, the band fronted by Brian Burton and The Shins‘ James Mercer (the latter of whom I’d the pleasure of meeting afterwards).

And one of their encores on the night was Citizen, a song I’d heard umpteen times since picking up the band’s 2010 debut album.

Unlike the recording, heard live the song became an elegiac showcase for Mercer’s voice and his cry of ‘what’s it all about anyway?’, backlit with Jacob Escobedo‘s beautiful visuals.

The performance led to the rebirth of the song in my head. So much so that in the week since the show, which also saw my return home, the track has soundtracked my memory of the trip.

Listening to its chorus now, as I type this, puts me directly back in the LA light, jet lagged but energised, my memories a mix of freeways, glasses, huge amber skies, food and conversation.

I probably won’t listen to Citizen again for another six months. When I do – as with another song in another California at another time – it will bring me back, quicker and truer than photos or conversation, to LA in a few days in the late October of 2014.


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