I’ve been away from LA for several years. As the United Airlines Boeing 757 descended into LAX, I watched a familiar/surreal landscape unfold below me. The Tehatchapi Mountains that form the northern border of the LA Basin are just the same—covered with chapparel (low trees, juniper bushes, various other hardy things that don’t need much water) and the usual firebreaks scraped along ridge lines. The weather was partly cloudy with very low clouds (below the tops of the mountains) broken into little cotton balls, none very big. The air underneath the cloud layer was blue rather than brown—not yet smog but more than fog. After awhile I could pick out landmarks. The Harbor Freeway, downtown Los Angeles, the San Diego freeway, and then landing on the south runway.
The airport was built when I was a child. I remember attending its grand opening. The airport authority had picked a spot well away from LA—in farmers’ fields, in fact—there was no little controversy over its location as it seemed so far away. Ah, the airport was so modern! One walked through tunnels from the parking lots in the middle to get out to the terminals, all of which were round and featured maybe 10 gates each max. There was no security in those days, of course, nor did you have to have a ticket to gawk. The centerpiece of the airport was the big arch in the middle which held a suspended restaurant that slowly revolved so one could get a view in every direction. Like everything else in LA at the time, things were laid back.
The arch is still there, but scaffolding covers it, presumably for restoration. It’s too iconic to be removed. The airport is jam-packed with activity as the much-larger aircraft jocky for docking position in between the terminals, which are not as far away from each other as they need to be. And Terminal 7 has changed. It’s more like a traditional airport concourse, although I could still see evidence of the original circular terminal. The 50s-ish modern design with all its swoops and aerodynamics is gone, replaced by standard garish airport kitsch and fast food joints. The noise level is high and one has to hike to get to baggage claim. Remarkably, our bags were there before we were!
Hertz is a mile or so away, so we took the bus. Hertz hasn’t changed anything since I was last in LA. IBM pays for my Gold membership, so we walked to our car and drove off.
We traveled up Airport Blvd toward the San Diego Freeway as I wanted to be sure I knew which exit we would use when returning on Sunday morning. La Tijera. It’s been years since those words last crossed my brain.
It was mid-afternoon, so the freeway was relatively empty, which means jammed but going the speed limit. Or, really, rather more than the speed limit. One drives in California entirely differently from Colorado. All of Colorado is one big speed trap, so I routinely set the cruise control. Not in California! If you don’t want to be run over, you’d better stay up with traffic! Even if traffic is doing 80. Traffic speed is highly variable, so a sharp eye helps avoid hitting the car in front. We had to change lanes several times, an experience that will put hair on your chest. Having learned to drive on California freeways, I think I have most of the moves under control. We arrived in one piece.
The color of the light is different in LA. Bluer, probably due to the early morning, just-dissipated fog. (When Los Angelenos speak of fog, they mean low clouds. Real fog is rare.) And then there are the trees. Very different from our evergreens and pinions. I was struck by all the eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus grows widely in Australia and was imported to the U.S. by the Central Pacific Railway in hopes of creating a source of fast-growing trees to supply railroad ties. Well, the eucalyptus is much to soft for such duty, but the trees nonetheless settled in for the duration. They grow along the coast from roughly San Diego to Santa Barbara. I grew up with these trees. I love the look and smell of these giants. In reality they’re horrible trees–constantly shedding all sorts of junk on whatever is underneath, but I don’t care. They represent my childhood, and just seeing and smelling them brought memories out of my mind’s attic. Oh, and there’s ice plant along the freeways (originally placed there for slope stabilization), and these are just finishing their bloom season. When the early freeways were put in (during my childhood), planners thought they should be pleasantly landscaped and they were—winning design awards. But during a particularly nasty drought, “they” made the decision to stop watering all this. (Southern California is desert—no water, no growth.) But by then the trees had taken deep root and remain stout and strong. Much of the original landscaping—now grown rather wild—still thrives.
Oh and then there are the palm trees. Palms aren’t native, of course, but they sure do abound! Palms are iconic. Like eucalyptus, palms are weed trees. They drop fronds (occasionally hurting someone) and need trimming every year, otherwise most of the fronds (now dead) hang on along the trunk with green only at the top. There are zillions of palm types; I don’t pretend to know any of them. There are tall, skinny palms and short, stout palms. Take your pick.
Part of our journey was along surface streets in the San Fernando Valley. Traffic! Oh, my, the traffic! The signals are long enough to move large amounts of traffic before changing; careful signal coordination is required to prevent gridlock. I quickly learned, or rather remembered, that it’s impossible to keep track of what other cars are doing. One drives along, hoping all those other hundreds of cars within a few yards do what they’re supposed to do. It’s a grand leap of faith. Back in Ridgway, I can see all the cars approaching an intersection and make plans if one of them misbehaves. That’s impossible here.
As we worked our way east through the Valley on Victory Blvd, the neighborhoods would change character completely every few blocks. We go through a section where the homes and businesses were well tended with their flowers and well-maintained buildings. Then there’s be a seedy stretch with weedy brown lawns and business locations clearly in need of urgent repair. Then back again! All the Valley towns (technically all of it is Los Angeles) merge together, so one knows where one is only by reference to a map. The neighborhood names trace back to the original farming communities back when the San Fernando Valley was some of the most productive farmland in the United States. When I was in elementary school, Los Angeles County produced more dairy products than the entire state of Wisconsin! No more.
Houses are jammed together with little space between, usually just enough space to push a lawn mower or drag a trash can. Many homes showed evidence of being islands, surrounded by ornamental iron fence with locked gates. I’m afraid in LA one doesn’t know one’s neighbors, but rather is part of some larger social group based on affinity, such as work or church or a community group.
My folk’s home, which seemed so large to me in 1966, is nowhere as big as I remember it. They raised five kids in this house! We’re all long gone, of course, but they have a busy guest room which we’re occupying at the moment. I’m pleased to say that although they’re in their mid-80s, they’re spry and healthy. We jabbered. We ate. I fixed Mom’s new TV so it actually received HD signals, which required a trip down to the cable company’s office to swap out a converter box. Today Dad and Loretta, both artists, enjoyed the art walk and a visit to a “real” art store. (“Real” meaning it serves a customer base far larger than Montrose or Ouray!)
So why do I keep these notes? Well, I might have to include a trip to LA on the broomstick in some future novel. No amount of looking at Google Earth or at old photographs can quite capture the shapes, smells, noise, and feel of the big city. Not to mention my visit to see a good high school friend and his wife. Alas, Roger’s hair is long gone and what’s left is gray! That didn’t mean we didn’t have stories to swap—far from it—we were at it until well after 10:00 p.m.
Oh, and California’s not laid back anymore. No…not at all! Busy, busy! Rush, rush! Get there first and get out of the way!
It’s wonderful coming back and reviving old memories, but the Southern California I grew up in no longer exists. The artifacts remain—shapes, sights, smells, noise, humidity, etc. But my home is in Colorado. Ridgway, to be exact.