After I’d spent my first 15 years clearly establishing residency in a fertile Midwestern college town, my parents forced me skyward and westward, dumping us in a bleak high-desert boondocks north of Los Angeles, denying me the option to remain in Champaign, move in with a friend’s family, finish high school in my hometown and lose simultaneous virginities with a lifelong crush in front of a fireplace in a snowstorm instead of with a stranger whom I hadn’t especially noticed until she reached out and grabbed my crotch and didn’t let go on a couch beside a pool table in the godforsaken Antelope Valley.
Up there in the high desert, they called Los Angeles “down below.” Going down below meant a 60- to 90-minute drive, generally to buy whatever couldn’t be purchased at Fedco or Gemco or born-again-Christian boutiques. Or to watch a movie. There was then just one indoor movie theater in the greater Lancaster–Palmdale metropolitan area. The locals called this “the walk-in.”
“If you don’t like what’s playing at the walk-in, Joo-boy, you’re welcome to go down below and sit with the rest of the heathen.”
So I did. I moved down below, only to find that down below wasn’t much different. Same desert, just lower and without the Joshuas. Viewed from my Illinois prairie, where the natural topsoil is dark and rich enough to spread on sandwiches, the images of Los Angeles on television and in movies had been saturated and framed to imply something lush, but the reality of it, as far as I could see, was something closer to a vegetational coma.
Then I accidentally found an affordable place to live in the hills: a studio up in Beverly Glen for $350 a month. The studio was part of an old chalet, and rent included use of a sprawling hillside of lime and lemon and pomegranate trees, and trails through sycamores and apiaries (the landlord gave us fresh honey) to the top of the hill, which had an intimate 360-degree view of the glen with not one palm tree in sight. Here, at last, was something almost green enough to support life.
And there was more. Down the mountain road and up the side of the next hill, around the locked chainlink gate and its rusty “No Trespassing” sign, was what had been until recently George Harrison’s house, now razed but for some remaining bits of fireplace. To the west of the property was a steep but lush and eminently navigable drop to the Stone Canyon Reservoir, which separated that part of the glen from Bel-Air. It took about 45 minutes to reach the clearing at the bottom, where one could sit and relax with one’s book and one’s lunch and one’s marijuana; looking out across the reservoir — swimming, even — utterly detached from the bustle of L.A., but well within city limits.
Such hikes — lots of them, throughout the Santa Monica Mountains and San Gabriel foothills — became reasons to remain in Los Angeles, short vacations from the slabberdash boomtown façades that characterize the surrounding desert land. That’s what I hope to miss, someday, after some kindly entertainment executive pays me enough to move to a civilized country: chomping on a sprig of wild fennel, surrounded by almost green, indigenous life. In the middle of Los Angeles and utterly rid of it.