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Walking in L.A.: The End of the Road?

The ninth and final post in Walking in L.A., a GOOD miniseries by Ryan Bradley on transportation in Los Angeles and what it's like to get across the entire city on foot.

My grandparents bought their house in Brentwood from the widowed wife of an engineer at Douglas Aircraft, in Long Beach, who died on the job. My grandfather knew the widow's brother from law school, so they didn't have to pay a realtor's fee. They were young, and couldn't have afforded the place otherwise. "It was almost rural out here," my grandfather says. "There were mostly avocado orchards, and not more than two blocks were developed north of Sunset. But the bus did run out this far, and I took the bus to work downtown."

"At 7:05 a.m.," my grandmother says. She is cutting carrots.

"There was a guy I rode the bus with," my grandfather says, "he was a superior court judge."

Then I say something like: "So a superior court judge and a young downtown lawyer rode the bus to work together?"

And my grandfather leans back in his stool and smiles. "Ah yes, those were more democratic times."

My grandparents are old and sensible enough to have given up driving. Even though my grandmother is a dynamo and treks to the grocery store and back regularly—a mile and a half round trip—she’s nearing 90 and my grandfather just got there. When I leave the next morning, they walk with me for a while, but the pace is slow. They know their neighborhood well, having lived here for six decades. We go as far as a small koi pond in a yard around the corner, separated from the sidewalk by a picket fence with bougainvillea growing over it. The fence is low and white and easy to peer over, so we stop and watch the fish, waiting for them to chance a swim into the sunlight. My grandparents visit these fish on their walks, they tell me. They point down the road to a construction site, then across the street to where some of the old neighborhood used to be but has since been rebuilt. The more recently constructed houses have short driveways and are so large they consume entire properties. They don't have gardens or fish ponds or dogs to visit. It's getting late already, and I hug my grandparents goodbye and walk on.

I zig-zag southwest from 26th Street and San Vicente, to Ocean Avenue and the sea. There are coral trees lining San Vicente and figs along La Mesa Drive. On Santa Monica Boulevard, where the street is lined with car dealerships and no one walks, something amazing happens: I run into a friend. Her car is in the shop, so she's walking. There is a particularly “L.A.” detail about this encounter and that is the fact that my friend is a famous musician. We chat about what she is up to, and what I am up to; she tells me about recording her second album and the photo shoot for it, and I tell her about walking across Los Angeles; and then we kind of look at each other and consider how funny and fortunate and strange our lives are before we say goodbye.

Not long after that, I reach Santa Monica and the end of the continent.

Yesterday I hiked into the hills above Will Rogers State Park and I looked out over the Pacific and the basin I walked across. Will Rogers loved flying, and once famously said, "If you can't fly, you might as well walk." The old cowboy wasn't wrong—flight may get you there faster, but walking you really get a feel for a place. I never understood Los Angeles until I spent some time slowly moving through it.

When I set out, I wanted to understand whether Los Angeles was becoming a better city. It has wisely set aside millions to address its transportation issues, but is it addressing the right ones? It’s developing, but is it developing the right way? I don't have a simple answer, or even a definitive one. All I can say is that the most wonderful parts of Los Angeles are the product of concerned, civic-minded, extraordinary Angelinos who know, viscerally, what this place is and what is best for it. Rodia built his towers; Koeppel maps staircases; and though Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska, his wife willed to the public the 186 acres for the state park. Los Angeles, like any city, is only as good as its citizens, the ones who really live in this place and plant roots here—metaphoric and literal roots.

There is a high onshore wind and the sea is filled with whitecaps. Sand gets in my eyes and stings my cheeks and piles in drifts over the bike paths that run south to Venice. The beach is nearly deserted as I move south and the wind picks up and upends some of the street vendors' tables along the boardwalk.

In 1931 the Los Angeles Times celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and asked some prominent Angelinos to predict what 50 years into the future might look like. William B. Stout said that "One can leave New York after breakfast and arrive in Los Angeles in time for evening dinner," but this turned out to be possible well before 1981. A Dr. R. A. Millikan predicted that "When coal and oil are gone, science will find a way to utilize the energy of the sun." We're doing our darndest to get there, fast. Fifty years is a long, long time when it comes to the history of Los Angeles. What might happen in the next five decades is anyone’s guess, but I’m optimistic. It’s hard to be otherwise here in the sun and the sea air.

I met a man on my walk who was weathered and bearded. It was impossible to tell how old he was—anywhere between 35 and 60. He wore a beat-up raincoat and cracked sandals and had an expensive-looking backpack on. He walked everywhere in Los Angeles, he said, but only on weekends. During the week he had a car and drove. He liked to set out on a different trek each time and walk until he got lost. He made his way back home using the mountains. If you can see the San Bernadinos to the East, he said, you're fine.

I want to say that I met this man on the beach at Venice because that would sure be a nice, literary coda to this walk. But I didn't. I met him on the first day on the corner of Rodeo Road and La Cienaga Boulevard, outside the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. A few blocks later I snapped a photo of a traffic camera and then, four days later and four stories underground, I watched the same intersection on one of the 16 screens at ATSAC.

Before parting, I asked him what he enjoyed about walking in the city and he said that he just liked the feeling of getting lost and finding his way back home, and that given enough time he'd wander this city forever. I get what he means and I didn't disagree and kept walking. I still had to make downtown before nightfall. Seven miles to go. Seven miles, that's 10,560 steps.

Photos by Ryan Bradley

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