Sunday Morning - Where are the Cars?
An Eye on L.A.
"It's Not What You Look at That Matters, It's What you See"
– Henry David Thoreau
Often enough, people have asked me if I enjoy riding my bike in Los Angeles – I do – or if the traffic scares me – it doesn't. Growing up in Los Angeles, where I learned to ride a bike when I was about 7, made sharing the streets with cars and buses and trucks second nature to me. I take the traffic, like so much in life, for granted.
When I first rode my bike, as a skinny, shy kid, it was simply for transportation. I pedaled myself to school, or to a friend's home. I loved riding my bike. I wasn't yet, though, a tourist in my own town, not on a bike. Although I liked exploring beyond my own street, my explorations beyond my home were made on foot.
For some reason, when I was about 8, my mom let me wander wherever I wanted on foot. I just had to promise to be back by the afternoon. (Maybe my mom hoped I wouldn't find my way back.) I loved trying to lose myself in the warren of steep streets that formed the upscale Cheviot Hills neighborhood, to the east. I'd wander by the municipal golf course, where my dad had recently learned to play the game, meeting for a round every Wednesday with his clients (my dad never took up cycling and I played golf).
One time I walked south, out of the hills, all the way into far-away Culver City, to found myself in front of the massive MGM movie studio (today it's Sony Pictures). The studio looked a bit like a cross between a fortress and a prison, the massive gray windowless perimeter walls hiding the make-believe world within. While I probably walked all of only three miles before finding my way home, it was a memorable adventure.
I have no memory of any of my friends joining me on my walks. I'm not sure why. I'm guessing most kids wouldn't have been allowed the same freedom as I had. Maybe none of them had the same wanderlust that I did.
None of my friends could have kept up with me, anyway. I wasn't just a fast walker. All the way through elementary school, I could walk faster than anyone else. Any faster, and I've have left scorch marks and smoke on the playground asphalt behind me. In fact, only one kid, Mike Lehman, could run faster than I could walk. But he couldn't walk as fast as I could.
My wife and I certainly didn't give my own two kids the same opportunity to wander. I can't imagine turning either of them loose when they were eight, without a parent along.
Yet, even though I loved exploring, and even though I was adept at riding my bike, wherever I rode was close to home. Maybe, since I was still a child, I didn't have the strength to pedal my bike any great distance, or at least I couldn't pedal into the hills where I liked to walk.
When I was ten, our family moved into the Santa Monica Mountains, north of UCLA. By then, my bike was heavy three-speed. I could make it up and down some of the streets around our ridge-top home. That too, was a mostly solitary experience, as none of my neighborhood friends much liked biking on steep pavement. We were all otherwise marooned from the civilized world below. A few years later, though, my uncle gave me a 10-speed bike, with gears low enough to let me pedal up any hill.
That bike was sweet freedom. And I began to enjoy riding my bike, not just for transportation, but as a way to see the world around me. To the east of our home, I pedaled up and down every street in Bel-Air, one of the most exclusive neighborhood in Los Angeles, with hundreds of beautiful homes, many of them full-on mansions. I headed north, into the depths of the San Fernando Valley, riding along the edge of Ventura Blvd., which in those days had no sidewalks.
One day my best friend and I rode all the way to South Central Los Angeles, to visit the Natural History Museum. We traveled to the airport, to watch the planes descend seemingly yards above our heads, as then came in for a landing over Aviation Blvd. We'd ride east, along Wilshire Blvd, unafraid of traffic, despite the occasional close call.
I enjoy riding in traffic. I like zipping along the Sunset Strip, with it's trendy shops, and massive billboards. I enjoy threading my way along Hollywood Blvd., past the theaters and the stores catering to the tourists. I ride into the downtown canyons of Los Angeles, beneath the skyscrapers, easily keeping up with the flow of cars and buses.
Until I was an adult, though, willing to wake up early on a weekend for a bike ride with friends, I didn't realize how empty even the busiest of streets in Los Angeles could be. This is particularly so on the weekends, when most serious cyclists have the time to make a long ride, and most non-cyclists have time to sleep in.
Without traffic to contend with, there's that much more time to savor the views, too see and think about what's around me. For example, on a reasonably clear day in winter, the snow-capped mountains to the north and east of the city are visible.
A ride up into the Santa Monica Mountain can offer startling views over the city, views made from streets that are fairly devoid of motorized traffic. As a rule, the people out and about in the mountainous neighborhoods above L.A. aren't the residents. They are the workman remodeling hillside homes. The vehicles often as not belong to the contractors, or are catering trucks. With the recession, though, construction has slowed, so that the streets above Los Angeles are now especially empty.
A ride down the Ballona Creek bike path, through West Los Angeles and Culver City to the edge of the ocean, will leave cars completely out of the picture. On a recent ride down the path, on a blustery, cold day, there weren't many cyclists, either.
As large as the city is, I'm surprised at how often I'll meet people I know. On that windy day, on the bridge at Ballona Creek, I recognized a long-time acquaintance, Richard Risemberg, photographer, writer, cyclist, (in other words, a Renaissance man; he's pictured here wearing the knickers and four-season jersey he designed and sells).
It takes some work to ride head-on into the wind that's blowing in off the sea, or to ride up a thousand feet into the mountains. It's worth the effort, that lets me see what's around me.
And sometimes what I see can be surprising. Not long ago, riding with friends up Stradella Road, in Bel-Air, we discovered that a front yard on an adjacent street had been turned into a small vineyard, the leafy green vines, wired together on their trellises, undulating in neat rows across the side of the hill.
Relatively few Angelenos know that there are a series of reservoirs tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains. The grand views of these reservoirs are found along the quiet streets far above the city, and I think at those views are best enjoyed by those on a bike or on foot. Zipping by in a car is a great way to go from one place to another. On a bike, though, it's the journey itself as much as the ultimate destination that counts.
I've thought this morning, as I type these words, about seeing what's around me, because I've had an eye infection for the past week. The medication has opened wide the pupil of my infected eye, which should make it sensitive to light. Except that a couple of nights ago, while my good eye could could pick up some detail in a dark room, I realized that I my infected eye was almost blind. I could just make out the dim light in the room, and compared to what I could see with my good eye, that dim light was yellow. When I walked back into a lighted room, my vision seemed normal. Back in the darkened room, in bed, my night vision mostly returned over the course of the next 15 minutes.
When I mentioned that episode to the opthamologist the next day, she ordered up an ultrascan of my neck. Apparently, loss of vision in an eye is an indication that the carotid artery in the neck – my neck – may be partially blocked. Should that blockage break off, I could suffer a stroke, in the same way I had a heart attack two years ago, when plaque apparently broke free and clogged up a coronary artery.
Once again, I have to deal with the hint of my own mortality; I can take neither my vision, nor my life, for granted. Since the strange loss of my night vision doesn't quite seem to line up with the symptoms normally experienced with a blocked carotid artery, I'm betting that I'm fine. I did promise my wife, though, to stay off my bike until the test, which will be in a couple of hours.
After that scan, no matter what the results, I plan to be back on my bike, sooner rather than later. I can see outside my window that it's a beautiful day in Los Angeles. Rain is du in town by tomorrow, and will hang around for most of the next week. Today, though, the sun is bright, the sky is blue, and I can't wait to see what I'm going to find on my ride this afternoon.
Note: Click on photos for larger versions.