They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes you have to. Especially if you’re trying to escape L.A.
My hometown is Walnut, California. Its biggest appeal is that nothing ever happens there. It is not hip, or trendy, or cool, or hot — except for the summer, when the sun bakes the concrete and asphalt so that waves of heat ripple up off the ground. When I was in high school, I used to hate it in Walnut, where you could lie out in the middle of the street in the middle of the night staring up at the streetlights and nothing would happen to you, save for the mild frisson of an occasional coyote or possum ambling by. L.A. is less than 30 miles away, but at night it gets so dark in Walnut that you can actually see the stars.
Walnut’s excitements are small, and it isn’t until one’s worries grow big that little happinesses take on meaning: the soothing rumble of trains on the tracks; a hike down through the shallow, pinecone-scattered valley running alongside Lemon Avenue, where a creek burbles along in the spring only to dry up and vanish mysteriously in the winter; a lazy Sunday spent sifting anonymously through the racks at the T.J. Maxx or stocking up on kibble at the new PETCO, where people schlep in with their Chihuahuas or Labradors or beagles; a late-night chocolate doughnut at the Donut Tree, where the Asian kids from Walnut High hang out, because it is the only establishment open past midnight.
Mr. Hang, who has been running the Donut Tree for 19 years, shook his head and grimaced when I asked him recently how business was. “Slow,” he said. “Not too many today.”
The megastores and chain franchises have invaded what is now cheekily (or perhaps wishfully) referred to as “downtown” Walnut: Applebee’s, Millie’s, Panda Express, Kohls, Staples, Starbucks. But the old places remain — for now. You can still play Pac-Man at the New York Pizzeria, and you can probably get the chef at the Ninja Sushi to make you his strangely delicious strawberry-and-cream-cheese rolls. New tract houses are coming up even as the old ones settle deeper into their foundations. When I visit my mom, I like to sit out on the driveway in the evening, watching the neighbors unload their groceries or fuss about in their packed garages and generally go about the business of living. Many of them I have seen for years but have never spoken to, though we always wave hello. It is a good place to come home to. It is a good place to disappear.
WALNUT: 34.02 N Latitude, -117.86 W Longitude, 60 freeway, exit Fairway.
DONUT TREE: 388 N. Lemon Ave., Walnut, (909) 595-5337.