Thursday, February 24, 2011


On our way to LA, we find Peggy Sue's Diner in Barstow (and so do a hundred other people — people on their way to and from Las Vegas). The fifties-style diner's menu features all the classic diner plates you'd expect, plus a couple of new ones. We couldn't resist one in particular — wedges of dill pickle dipped in batter and deep fried, served with ranch dressing. I blistered my palate but it was so worth it.

When we finally hit LA and shifted from the "Southern California" page of my atlas to the "Greater Los Angeles" page, the scale took me totally by surprise. I can't quite believe how massive the city is — we drove the distance from Montreal to St. Sauveur and were still nowhere near the other side of town. I'd expected LA to be full of flat, wide, treeless streets and detached bungalows. Instead, the parts of the city we were hanging out in were as green as could be, settled into folds of canyons. Seeing the addresses painted on the curb brought back flashbacks of a dozen childhood shows. We drove into Glendale where Steve and Kim live with their two girls. Glendale is a pretty neighbourhood of tidy little forties bungalows interspersed with designer modern homes. The roads are so winding and steep that every window frames a pretty view of rooftops or greenery. Steve and Kim's house is something out of Leave it to Beaver, white picket fences in a perfect green lawn under a round-leafed shade tree with a white tree swing, all of it framed by the window over the kitchen sink. What is it about watching your kids on a tree swing with your hands in a sink full of dirty dishes that makes you feel like a real MOM. Where's my apron?! The interior of the house is wallpaper from the sixties, gingham curtains, blue and white porcelain spice rack. The back yard has a pretty little patio and steps up to the secret garden and the trampoline. It's the first time since Chiapas that we've seen trees in leaf. The garden is lush, roses blooming all around us. It is so nice to not drive for a while, to hang out with some good, old friends and just shoot the shit. Our girls and their girls pull out the Barbies and Polly Pockets and pick up where they left off this summer. Henri dives into his new Beatles' book and tries to stay out of their way. The weather is crap, cold and rainy but the attraction to LA is IN the house as far as we're concerned so we're happy as clams.

When the weather breaks the next day we go for a walk. Minutes away from the house is a trail that hugs the green ridge of the San Rafael Hills. The trail switches back through waist-high bushes, each step releasing a cloud of wonderful scent as we brush up against the sage and other fragrant herbs pushing their way onto the trail. Plants that horticulturally-gifted friends spend their summers struggling to grow in their gardens pop up like weeds in the middle of the trampled paths. The view is spectacular. Kim points out the surrounding neighbourhoods and the nearby mountains of Angeles National Park which were ablaze in the last round of LA forest fires. The wind is fierce. It's easy to see how a forest fire could ravage this area in no time flat. The green hills all around us are woven with trails that lead from canyon to canyon.

The next day, Kim, our most excellent cruise director, took us on the tourist run of LA, past the Hollywood sign, through Hollywood and Beverley Hills — a long line of stars stretch out for miles on the sidewalks. I realize as we drive around that most of the names of people and places mean very little to me. We're on our way to the Getty Centre to meet Wil's brother, David, who's been living in and around LA for years. We park the car and take the little monorail up to the hilltop site. The free museum is spectacular — cubes of pale stone piled high like lego blocks around huge panes of glass. The desertlike gardens meander around and between the buildings leading past sculptures of steel and bronze and stone. A glimmering chute of water bubbles down the hillside and collects in an elaborate maze of crimson flowers. The kids are frustrated because they're not allowed in any of the green spaces. We lead them through a photo exhibit of early and contemporary Chinese photos but they soon run out of patience and end up in the Family Room where they can wrestle and jump. They all emerge with hand-drawn masks. Sitting in the sunny courtyard as we wait, the people-watching is excellent. The variety of the Getty Centre clientèle comes as a relief after the colourless southwest — women in full, black hijabs, Japanese tourists, yarmulkes, turbans...

On David's suggestion we head down to Patrick's Roadhouse, a restaurant on the beach at the end of Sunset Boulevard. After our yummy lunch we go through a flooded tunnel under the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, the Pacific glistens in the afternoon sun, Catalina Island's a hazy bump on the horizon. Kites are flying, a blimp roams around above us. Hundreds of seagulls scour the beach for snacks. When they take to the sky, it's like a white cloud. The kids play in the sand as we sit around and chat. David tries to impart some of his vast knowledge of the Southwest. After an hour or so of kicking around on the beach, we say goodbye to David and our friends and hit the PCH up to Topanga.

The freeways here remind us of how differently Mexicans and Americans use vehicles. Mexicans use a trip to pack in the most people and goods, while Americans invariably have four empty seats in the car. The fact that a car only needs to hold two people to qualify for the almost-always-empty carpool lane says it all. The absence of decent public transport in a sprawl like Los Angeles is shocking. If this were Mexico, every thoroughfare would have a constant flow of colectivos scouring the sidewalks for passengers.

We turn off the PCH toward Topanga, a winding road through a lush canyon where jagged golden sandstone and greenery hang high above you. The cliffs are covered in gnarled, mediterranean plants that have found a foothold in the shallow, rocky soil. The town itself feels a lot like a very low-key ski resort town, hippies and groovy little shops scattered in the narrow patches of flat stretched out along the road. Pretty soon we were pulling off the main road and creeping up one of the steep trails leading off the boulevard. The house is a wonder. In total contrast to the tidy traditionalism of Steve & Kim's, it is all glass and concrete and views. What the two houses do have in common is the warmth — of the home and the hosts. Half an hour later we were all in the hot tub, gazing out at the sandstone and the curtains of green hill that hide the Pacific from view. Definitely a little piece of heaven. The kids fished frogs out of the pool as we got dinner together. The girls followed their new hero, Kali, around asking a million questions about makeup and heels. Beautiful Kali was as gracious and lovely as ever.

The next morning we hung out, did some homework and then drove back into LA. We parked near the Santa Monica pier and walked along Venice Beach. I find visiting a place so often featured in TV and movies tends to make everyone there look like they've been cast in their roles. All the characters you'd expect — lots of tattooed skin, homeless guys strumming guitars, vets in wheelchairs, teenagers in short shorts and cowboy boots, families cruising around on rented bikes, students on long skateboards, bikini beach volleyball, surfing lessons in wetsuits, facelifts sunbathing in chaise longues by cafés, career drunks in baseball caps soaking up the sun in the streetside bars.

We head off the strip through quiet, little green alleys to find Mona Moore, Lisa's store, a white, understated space that displays the wares to full advantage. The girls gape at the impossibly high heels while I admire the grey flats. All the footwear is a work of art. After our visit we head back to the strip for lunch on a sunny terrasse.

Later we head back to Scoop's house to hang out. It's hard to imagine that their quiet, rural-feeling home is a mere fifteen minutes from Venice Beach. Kali gives the girls a makeover and lets them try on endless pairs of heels as Scoop, Wil, Henri & I head out for a walk on the trails around the house. Being able to rise above the crowds to escape the congestion for a quick walk in the trees sure alleviates any feeling one might have of being trapped in a metropolis. Henri hunts for sandstone caves as Shuggie, the chocolate lab, zigzags across the trail tracking down rabbits. As we take in the spectacular views, Scoop talks about the forest fires that regularly tear through these canyons and the earthquakes that threaten to shake coastal cities into the Pacific. The perils of living in paradise. When Lisa gets back from work, we enjoy a delicious lamb dinner, some yummy red wine and pore over some great family photos.

We say goodbye to our excellent hosts in the morning and head inland into the San Fernando valley (like, gag me with a spoon!) quickly getting stuck in one of five lanes of traffic inching its way toward downtown. We manage to find an alternate route, the poetically named Pearblossom Highway, and were into the country in no time. Joshua trees sit tiny beneath the gigantic towers holding the power lines off the desert floor. We also see the Los Angeles Aqueduct — a wide band of shimmering water meandering through the desert toward the city. The snow-covered north face of the San Gabriel Mountains now sits between us and Los Angeles.
A quick stop at In N Out Burger in Barstow. It's hard to go wrong with only four things on the menu (three kinds of burger and fries). In the desert, the ten commandments appear in white billboards on the side of the highway.


ajm said...

Thank you for a unique (non-Hollywood) travelogue about LA, and also for a surprising and edifying last sentence. A relief to know the kids religious education is well in hand.

luv a xo

ajm said...

oh yeah, and handsome william in pic