I celebrated my birthday last week, and aside from small gatherings with friends and family, I've made it an annual birthday ritual to try something new or visit a place I've never gone before. I guess I'm at the age where I've outgrown the thrill of getting free or discounted stuff on my own birthday, in favor of taking advantage of the interesting experiences or places I can enjoy for free here in Los Angeles.
I started the festivities two days before by participating in The Great Los Angeles Walk, an annual Saturday-before-Thanksgiving event organized by local blogger Michael Schneider, who co-writes Franklin Avenue with his wife Maria. This year, in its 8th annual iteration, the walk, starting out some 300 participants strong, made the 18-mile trek from Echo Park to Santa Monica via Sunset Boulevard, Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills, and Wilshire Boulevard to its western terminus overlooking the sea. It was an appropriate jaunt for me, as it passed by my Kaiser Hospital birthplace, among other familiar sights in my life, as well as new discoveries, such as murals in Silver Lake, new development in Hollywood, and a "Kennedy '60" etched onto the pavement by an enthusiastic voter over 50 years ago (and a striking coincidence near the anniversary of the JFK assassination) in pedestrian-deficient Beverly Hills.
But just a little before the halfway mark, along the Sunset Strip, the pain of treading for hours on pavement started to creep in. By the time we reached Wilshire Boulevard, I can feel muscles in my hips and legs begin to feel the repetitive strain. I started to fall behind my friends as we traversed Westwood's "Condo Canyon" corridor. As we headed westward past Westwood I cherished every red light that stopped our path -- it gave me brief respite spent either squatting or stretching. As I reached Santa Monica, counting down the numbered streets leading to Ocean Avenue, I altered my gait -- by walking in an exaggerated fashion with big steps, legs spread apart -- which enabled me to continue with lesser pain. But having only walked less than six miles in last year's Great L.A. Walk, from Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown to Paramount Studios in Hollywood, I was determined to complete the journey.
Finally, after some seven and a half hours, with the setting sun shining directly on my face, I hobbled across Ocean Avenue, like a wounded warrior, touched the base of Saint Monica's statue at the end of Wilshire Boulevard, and met up with the rest of the group, now whittled down to a little less than a hundred. We posed for group photos as the sun slid down on the Pacific Ocean. I finally caught up with my friends Will and Joni, whom I had walked the majority of the way, and received congratulatory high-fives. I finally completed The Great Los Angeles Walk.
Eighteen miles was quite a journey, but still eight shy of a marathon, and I wasn't even running, yet I was almost as worn-out as that fateful first runner in Marathon, Greece. I also thought about people like writer Charles Lummis, who walked the 2,200 miles from Cincinnati, Ohio to Los Angeles in 1884, with much less comfortable shoes.
During the walk, I had a conversation with someone who talked about doing long hikes, through longer hours and through more challenging terrain than the streets of the city, but mentioned that they felt less worn-out. That got me thinking about how the paved layer we live on can place a toll on us, both physically and psychologically.
That led me to desire a visit on my birthday to Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Northeast Los Angeles, near Highland Park, and coincidentally, just blocks away from Lummis' famous abode on Avenue 43. Named for the late former L.A. City Councilman and L.A. County Supervisor, it's a long-undeveloped section of the San Rafael Hills, looking over the Arroyo Seco, that was intended to become a city park in the 1940s, then leased to L.A. County in the 1960s as a regional park, and finally given back to L.A. City in 1994 as the 4th-largest park in the city's Recreation and Parks system.
For many Northeast L.A. residents, this park is just another part of their community, but for me it was long-undiscovered gold. I had long wanted to visit this spot, not just for the urban hillside hiking opportunity, but for its Audubon Center, established in 2003.
I was able to borrow a backpack, a pair of binoculars, and a bird-spotting guide from the center, who lends them out for free in exchange for a valid driver's license or I.D. card. My visit here was just as appropriate as the 18-mile urban walk the weekend before, as in the past year I had just developed my fondness of not just hiking, but my true appreciation of the natural world.
So with the aches, pains and blisters of the weekend already healed, wearing the same shoes I wore during that fateful day, I set off on the dirt paths of Debs Park, in search of discovery, or at the very least, some great views.
And it did not disappoint. Highland Park looked like a quaint, nestled village down below, with the Southwest Museum perched across the arroyo like a stately English castle. The Metro Gold Line zipped by like model trains, while the Arroyo Seco Parkway's muted roar could be heard below, albeit mostly hidden from view. The San Gabriel Mountains towered from the north, the downtown L.A. skyline stood to the south, the park gave wonderful views of both. To the east were the Monterey Hills and Rose Hills in the San Gabriel Valley, and even Orange County's Saddleback Mountain can be seen on the southeast horizon.
I came across a small pond, which, despite being ringed by invasive plants, was picturesque enough to make a group of local teenagers stop, sit on a bench, and admire the scene, while continuing their conversations uninterrupted. The park was abundant with oak and walnut trees, and most of the toyon bushes, also ubiquitous here in the park, presented the seasonal red berries which gave it its nickname "California Holly." I hiked back down a path that led me to a parking lot on the other side of the park, and re-entered along another path that led back uphill. For part of the path, it looked much like a paved road, so I opted to walk along its dirt shoulder instead. I had done enough pavement walking in the past few days.
As for the birds, of which some 140 species have been spotted at this park, I tried my luck with the binoculars and bird guide. I did spot a couple constantly-caw'ing crows flying overhead, and a golden eagle made a sudden appearance from a tree, stretching its wide wingspan and gliding gracefully through the trees. With the help of the bird guide, I was also able to spot a western meadowlark, hopping through the ground, before flying up into a nearby tree. I anticipate going on the Audubon Center's birdwalks sometime soon, where birds in the park are spotted and counted.
I continued north along the trails, catching splendid views of the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast and the Glendale skyline to the northwest. I also passed through the park's microclimates, feeling the coldness of the shadowed hillside hitting me briefly before I hiked further towards more sun-warmed ground. I had navigated some two-thirds of the park for my first visit, and though I was only here for less than half of the time I spent pounding the pavement from Echo Park to Santa Monica, I understood what that fellow walker was talking about, how the man-made world can drain you, and how being in close proximity with nature, for even a short amount of time, can yield one some strength and peace of mind.
The two activities, quite appropriately for this writer, involved journeys on both the concrete and the chaparral. The former involved hundreds of people through the human-made environment, along places I have seen and been to many times before. While the latter, involved just myself through a natural environment, mostly untouched by human development, which led me along a path I had never been to before and yielded unexpected sights. Now having completed yet another trip around the sun, I wondered about what I could make of these two vastly different hikes.
Upon leaving the Audubon Center, there was a sign on the wall, quoting another, more famous, writer who also wrote about his own walks through the natural world. It was a quote from Henry David Thoreau, which said, "We can never have enough of nature."