Desert Southwest

Los Angeles River

Gray River in the Sun

Exploring the Los Angeles River by Paddle, Foot and Car

Above: A drainage that leads to the Los Angeles River.


very Angeleno dreams of it at some point in their life - paddling down the Los Angeles River. The Los Angeles Area, after all, is named after its mission by the river. Mostly a trickle, but quite a run in the winter rain season - districts rise, fall, populations change, urban trends ebb and flow. But the drainage from the snowfall of the San Gabrielanos is a constant. And how could you not want to drift down it all, to look up at your city from its quiet underbelly?

Water is the lifeblood of LA - the city is based on the flow of containers from Los Angeles Harbor, drainages from Central California and the Colorado River. I could never quite put my finger on Los Angeles, but I always thought about it. People who don't know it curse it, writers who write about it glorify its villainy, spit on tinseltown, and admire the glamour all the like. But I had been reading the Qu'ran and considering the river:

As to those who are careful of their duty to their Lord, they shall have gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding in them; an entertainment from their Lord. (The family of Imran 3:198)

The book, like LA, is often cursed, often worshipped. Like the book, once you read it, you realize it's actually just provincial and self-referential. LA is almost quaint, and its townspeople's innocence is hypnotic: a dreary freakshow in the sun. Paved paradise; America's ugliest city, a Club Med for the homeless. My ten years in the city have been just ordinary day-to-day; with occasional guideposts to remind me that LA is not normal; and that life here is anything but. The city is a mess - a constant confrontation of people, ideas and dreams, and all the cuisines, clubs, organizations and beliefs that fit in the little spaces in between. LA's mess is excusable, because it is unique. But I wouldn't dream this once for Middle America; sprawl's excess impacts the soul, and already the rest of America is beginning to resemble LA.

I was the poorest man in Broad Beach; the western-most edge of Los Angeles, in an elongated town called Malibu. The two hundred fifty dollars ('and water my plants once a week') rent for a small mansion that hung over the rocky ocean shore was hard to pay. I was self-employed with a failing business. I tried to learn how to fish. I never caught anything. I fished over my balcony, fried tuna and chicken on a Hibachi. I read books about the desert, and invited outsiders to drink rum.

My neighbors were well established in the art and film community. Most were miserable. Sometimes I could not sleep - I heard arguments over the drone of the crashing waves. Crashing flowerpots….'You bitch!' Neighbors let me in on the secret - told me which actors were which. None of this meant anything to me - I had quit watching television, and couldn't remember the names of the actors who I had never seen.

One day, I was invited to the neighbors for a hash and bong party.

I was introduced to the guy holding the party. Freddy hid his belly with an oversized Aloha shirt. "Hey Bra!" he said. "Come 'ere, Boozie," he cried, lifting a Yorkshire Terrier off the ground, nuzzling him on the head and saying, "So you're the bra workin' on the boat?"

Yes, I had told Freddy. I told him it was a double-masted Taiwanese ketch that had sustained hurricane damage, but once re-rigged, would be the only teak trawler in Marina Del Rey. I began to tell him about Dave, and the other boat people who lived in the dry-docks.

But Freddy wasn't listening, he was watching the game, and fiddling with his one-hitter. Freddy was well groomed, like his dog, like the bodies of half naked women on the sunny parts of the terraces, who were sifting through a community bowl of Doritos.

Freddy had rolled a large-screen television onto the upper terrace, where four or five guys sat, nursing beers and watching baseball. They did not introduce themselves.

Photo of Malibu, California

Malibu, California in a thick marine fog.

The women did not talk, except to Freddy. "It's like, so chillin'" one said. They would roll off their beach chairs, and beg Freddy for cocaine, which he held in a bathroom in his father's cascading villa. They even ignored the Arabs, who sat on the fourth terrace and smoked cigarettes, talking about home. The Arabs were students at Pepperdine University, whose fathers sent them to Malibu because it was 'religious' and 'nestled in the hills' - safe, and American.

Because the Arabs came from wealthy families, and had been surrounded by luxury, they held little in common with the Church of Christ students at Pepperdine. The middle-class white faces from places like Texas and Arizona who read books about God and who called Mormons and Scientologists 'cults', who went about Malibu, doing good deeds by bagging sand for flood control and spreading the good word.

Freddy was different, because he had good hash, and liked to sit in the sun and eat cheese. The Arabs liked him because he reminded them of their relatives back home, unconcerned with other people's little worries. Like their state-subsidized fathers, Freddy was subsidized by his parent's wealth, and like so many Malibu locals, had no particular skill. One local, they called him Benjo, was on welfare. The son of a producer and screenwriter, Benjo did it 'to prove that it could be done.'

The Ventura County boatman, Dave, lived in the cabin of his twenty-six foot sailer, and I remember him well because he seemed to be one of those last Angeleno's who still clung to this idea of the water. Dave had constructed his sailer from scratch. He crafted the interior for twenty-eight years in thirty-two brands of wood - koa, teak, and cherrywood. Delicious carvings of seagulls and waves, dolphins and islands. I asked Dave when he was going to finish his boat and set her in the water.

Dave had trouble answering this question. He gave up everything to build his boat, including his wife, procuring a hundred dollars here and there to do some woodwork on the docks. He had designed the hull himself, but he was getting old, and woodwork in the sun hadn't treated him well. I asked him what he wanted to do once the boat was in the water. "Sail all over the place. Go to Mexico. Retire there."

Malibu had become isolated; however loud was the surf, the drone of bored millionaires was always louder, making us outsiders. One morning, I escaped, and found myself leaving Malibu for a place deeper in LA. One day, it was Culver City, walking along Ballona Creek, a Los Angeles River subsidiary, which smelled foul and was green from stagnation, rust and algae. From its birth in the San Fernando Valley, the Los Angeles River once flowed gracefully, ending its trek in the Santa Monica Bay, and sometimes diverting, as floodplains do, around Palos Verdes and into Long Beach. For thousands of years, it was the center of Indian life - lush, wild and green.

We were invited to join a group of Japanese filmmakers for karaoke in a Korean neighborhood on the edge of the river. This group of immensely polite suburbanites specialized in editing out the obnoxious moans of western porn models and replacing them with the more subdued Japanese voiceovers. A Japanese karaoke box, unlike Middle America's alcoholic karaoke bars, is a small room with enough space for six to eight people to sit. In the middle of the box is a television-set, which loops dreamy pictures of bridges, cherry trees and urban parks, while a sing-a-long script in Japanese runs along the bottom. The clerk had told Jeswar that alcohol was not permitted in the box, but when the Japanese filmmakers broke into Frank Sinatra, Jeswar said, "there is a Seven-Eleven across the street."

Jeswar and I stuffed Modelo Negro's into our coat pockets as the Seven-Eleven cashier was ringing them up. "You an Indian?" Jeswar said.

"No, I'm Boongladeshee," the clerk said.
"No, brother, you are no Bangladeshi, you are an Indian. We are all Indian."
"No, I Boongladeshee," the clerk repeated.
"Listen brother, we are the same. We are brothers. We are both Indian."
"No, I am from Boongladesh. You cannot tell me what I am. I am Boongladeshi!"

Back at the Box, where in the confusion of Japanese sing-a-longs we drank Mexican beer, I asked Jeswar why he made such a stir. "They don't understand," he whispered. "They are so nationalistic. Those Bangladeshis."

Yes, I thought, those damn Bangladeshis, here in LA. Did I need to understand? LA's maturity as a city is apparent from its concrete underbelly. Even though LA went through puberty after the invention of the automobile, and has become an unorganized sprawl for all that, it has a feeling of being elderly, like it has always been here.

Manhattan Beach

Los Angeles was initially called El Pueblo de Nuestro Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río Porciúncula - The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciuncula Los Angeles River. Back then, the Portuguese were attracted to its whaling, the Spanish to its bountiful land, and the East Coasters to the unspoiled beauty of its mountain woods.

The first wanderings along the apocalyptic storm-drains of Los Angeles was just a kind of weird side-trip. But time went on, and I found myself on weekday nights taking my equipment into the underbelly to photograph; somehow getting deeper each time into an LA I hardly knew. It dawned on me one day that the entire Los Angeles River was like a spinal cord; running down the middle of Los Angeles, and the whole thing could be traveled. I needed a guide for LA, somebody who knew the back streets.

Alvin Camarillo's Huntington Park apartment has shelves of books. Russian history, Tolstoy. Norman Mailer. The History of the Occult. His only picture is a painting of a Moorish vessel attacking a Spanish frigate. He is an early riser, the sort, who, when I knock on his door at eight in the morning has already been shuffling about, ready to leave. Alvin is perceptive, and having lived his entire life in Los Angeles, knows the streets better than anyone I know. I cannot travel in my own city without him.

We took to the highways on a typically gray Los Angeles morning, into Long Beach, underneath a bridge, and over the concrete barricades, hauling Sonora the whole time, and dumping her into the greenish water of the Los Angeles River, just between Compton and Long Beach, where the channel is deep enough for easy passage.

I took her down toward the Los Angeles Harbor, where the Los Angeles River flows into the ocean. For a city where few animals live, the bird-life on the river is amazing. Somewhat sick-looking cranes and blue herons. A Black Crowned Night Heron, with its piercing red eyes was steadfast on a half-sunken shopping cart, either unafraid of me, or too sick to fly away.

Alvin took the opposite direction, paddling upriver towards the marshy cross-section of Long Beach and Compton. As he disappeared out of sight, a man walking along the embankment asked if I had any spare change. No, I told him. I asked him what his problem was.

"You see," he said, "I was a drug addict for 10 years. Now I have been sober for six months, but last night I went back. So I am thinking about my life right now."

I told him to concentrate hard, to think about what he did, and to develop an active lifestyle. I told him that sports and exercise was an antidote for cravings. After all, I said, the Los Angeles River is right here in your backyard.

Alvin and I continued along the river, to the border between Compton and Watts, for lunch. We pulled into the wrong parking lot, and were surrounded by faces peering in our car. One knocked on my windshield.
He said, "Lookin' for da beach?"
"What's that?"
"Lookin' for da beach?"
"No, we're going for chicken and waffles."
"Be carefoo over deah, man."
"Why? What do you mean?"
"Be carefoo da chicken. I don't know how live dey are."
I told the man that we had just been paddling the Los Angeles River, and thus the kayak.
"Oh, rea'y? Hey, uh, nex' time you needa come get us before we go to church, and 'en, you know, do dat and go church with us afterward."
"Perfect," I said.
"Awright, man," he said,, and gave me this sort of fist-pounding handshake I wasn't familiar with.

We pulled into Compton's Chicken & Waffles, a barebones cafeteria, with a jazzman and his saxophone, and posters of black men and women attired in the ornate kingswear and queenswear of Ancient Egypt. The chicken and waffles was good; better than Roscoe's, and friendly service too, not to mention live music before noon on a Sunday.

Outside the cafeteria, a Rastafari was selling oils and incense sticks. I asked him, "Is this thing about going back to Ethiopia still around?" Ethiopia, of course, is the promised land in Rastafari religion; the exodus of the black man from Babylon - America, Jamaica, England.

"It's not so much going back to Ethiopia," he said. "His Imperial Majes'y Haile Selassie gave us a city in Ethiopia called Shashemene, and this city is open to citizenship for any Rasta. Oh, you know, Ethiopia, they not doing so well right now." He paused and said, "These, uh, but we're doing a lot and things like that. You see they're all farmers ovah deah."
"And mos' of them have come there from Jamaica and Englan'. There are five I know of from America."
"Only five people?"
"Only five that I know of. There's some American Rasta deah."

I told him that I wanted to visit Ethiopia.

"It's a spiritoo visit, man. Yah, right now things is really tough there right now. AIDS is killin' lots of people, hunger an' all. Just destroys the beauty of it. But you know, America's helpin'. See, we realize that we can do more for Ethiopia and Shashemene, So I'd rather be helpin' dem out, for Rasta from here in LA."
I told him that things would turn around.

"Yeah, you know the first month the both of us would prob'y die. There are a lot of reasons why the migration just isn't possible now."

Gas Station in the Desert

The jazzman dropped his saxophone and joined us in the parking lot outside of Compton's Chicken and Waffles. Alvin and I explained that we had just been kayaking the Los Angeles River and were headed up-river, by car.


"Not as bad as people think. If you go past Anaheim Boulevard, its free water."
"It'd be a pretty good idea if they could make it so it was used for som'thin like that," the Jazzman said.

Yes, I thought, Los Angeles has San Antonio's Riverwalk, it's just a dusty red carpet waiting to be unrolled. This is not the five burros of New York. Los Angeles neighborhoods are more complex diversities of people - there are Central American neighborhoods (one is called 'The Banana Republic'), Iranian neighborhoods and Armenian neighborhoods. There are places entirely composed of German Americans, where one can purchase hard salamis, and there is a city on a hill, composed of Norwegians and Japanese, a contingency of longshoremen wanting to live in the hills above their harbor.

They overlook Long Beach: the Los Angeles River discharge, which was formally a Samoan enclave, and now the center of South LA's gay community. The Samoans have moved on, to Gardena, near an enclave of Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, not far from Carson, the largest community of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. There are places like the South Bay; a mix of sleepy locals with sun-bleached hair, and ambitious and confused immigrants from the East Coast and Midwest.

Through most of this flows the river; dirty, unnoticed, polluted. Plans have been drawn by some optimistic organizations to make the river completely clean; to purchase the properties along the 53 miles of embankments. Some plans cost ten million. Others are ten or twenty times that.

Angelenos need their river - they want it to be a clean river, with green banks and riparian plants, steelhead trout and terraced restaurants along its edge. Los Angeles wants a unifier for their city. Civic-minded and thoroughly ethnocentric, the Angeleno would at last have a vein of life through his city's gray heart. The Hollywood sign is two-dimensional, the Staples Center looks like an office supply store. The Los Angeles River is LA's Times Square, somebody just needs to plant the seeds.

You should have a garden of palms and grapes in the midst of which you should cause rivers to flow forth, gushing out. (The Children of Israel 17.91)

East, we passed Fry's American Cuisine, Golden Dog and Swirly Freeze Restaurant. I asked Alvin if he thought that rap pervaded black LA. I pointed out that the local paper in Compton had one feature on a musician - a violinist. And the Jazzman and his reggae friend? Where was this pervading rap scene? Maybe rap was an image which television had put in the suburban mind to make Compton and Watts look an evil, uninviting place. Like the rest of LA, the real black LA is clapboarded, friendly, smiley, dirty, and also peculiarly absent of rap.

When Notorious B.I.G. was killed (a rapper from New York who came to LA to mend a coastal division), there was no more gun-talk, there was no more 'I gonna kill me nasty ho', there was only a salty-haired mother crying, which made all the rap-talk look silly; made the rappers message seem provincial, fickle and distant; like two men in Arkansas fighting over the size of a fence.

Notorious was not a small man; the inner city brims with Krispy Cremes and Devil Cakes, chicken livers, Hot Links, Pork Rinds and Sugar Cakes. All this anger; was it inner-city strife, or was it bad food, indigestion, and irregularity? I'd get cranky after a Seven-Eleven Big Gulp of Red Mountain Dew too. Snoop Doggy Dogg? Acne - too many microwaved breakfasts, not enough roughage. I'd pack a gun on the street if I had to spend an hour in the John after breakfast. Maybe rappers need more oranges in their diets, some salads and chickpeas. Maybe the forced image of black LA is just a coincidence of the rapper's poor diet?

From Watts, we drove along the river through Downey, South Gate, and Huntington Park. So-called 'East Los Angeles.'

"Notice how the houses change once you enter Mexican Los Angeles," Alvin said. It was true - the white clapboard gave way to early-twentieth century mission-style homes with irregular red tiled roofs and steep curved palisades. Coastal LA is known for its taco-bell homes; cheaply and quickly slapped with a paste resembling adobe; cheap cements to resemble the red-tiled roofs of the Mexican don era.

Bridge over Los Angeles River

Here in East Los Angeles, the homes are authentic and well maintained. The gardens are everything a coastal Angeleno should dream of. But, having gardeners from East LA do all their work, their soft hands never in the dirt, the coastal Angeleno's suburban scape is a horrible thing - prepackaged, unimaginative, over-watered and undernourished. My brother once said, "LA has no soul because everybody has a gardener." No, he has never been to South Gate, a stronghold of multi-generation Latino neighborhoods.

Passing through the City of Vernon, whose industrial plants hang over the river, Alvin points out, "Thirty-four voting citizens. Smallest city in LA in terms of population. It's all industrial."

We drove into what they call 'LA proper'; the city, with its grand lime art deco bridges over the river. The most spectacular, 4th Street Bridge, resembles the Los Angeles Water & Power Commission buildings; relics of tinseltown with their slick, vertical LA architecture. Much of the networks of storm drains that flow into the Los Angeles River - 70,000 miles of channels - were created during Mulholland's reign as commissioner, when LA was developing its style.

We continued through the area sometimes called 'Olvera Street' - Los Angeles' first street. "You know, all these people in beamers from like USC are coming to eat here these days," Alvin said. "So all the Mexicans paint their taco wagons all these different colors for them." He cursed at the USC students. "What's the big deal?" I asked.
"They drive up the price of tacos."

We drive to the Dragon Bowl, in the Central American area called Pico/Union. Mexican and Chinese Cuisine.
"You want I.D.'s?" a man asked as we enter the restaurant. "A lot of these stores are just fronts for fake driver's licenses and birth certificates," Alvin said. For underage college students, a fake I.D. costs about fifty bucks. "…But the Central Americans and Mexicans have more at stake. A high quality I.D. costs six hundred. And a birth certificate, twelve hundred."

We walked through the district, the whole time people waving and whispering 'I.D.s?' at us, or just sitting in the shade sweating in the hundred degree weather. Some are selling herbs, homemade CDs or incense. From there it was Frog Town - so called because of the torrent of millions of frogs which hatched from the river and ran rampant in this neighborhood in the early twentieth century, around the time of the Pachuco's; zoot-suited Latinos who ran rampantly about doing machismo things; males impressing males. Frogtown's gangs have overrun the frogs, and the place is generally considered to have LA's highest concentration of gangs. But recently, the highest gang activity has moved to a large mall in Universal City; several miles from here.

Modern gang activity resembles the public image of its irregular spokesmen. If gangs 'hang out' at the malls, what have they become? Obsessed with commercialism, cell phones, easy-living, electronic goods, Nike sportswear? When gangs were all machismo, they had some good sense of taste; and the foundation of LA's strange mix of neighborhood pride and funky cars.

But like all good things, the Pachuco's became institutionalized into modern gangs with the ethnocentric trivialities of people who don't know the world beyond their city - the Mexican gangs despise the Armenian gangs, the Armenian gangs hate the Filipinos, the Filipino gangs hate the Koreans and so on. Like a college fraternity, a chain of weak links is still heavy - and as we pass through the Rampart neighborhood; all of this nonsense is put in quotations.

Notorious Biggy Smalls' death in the Mid-Wilshire district received, strangely, a short police investigation. Before Notorious was killed, an undercover white cop got into a road-rage shooting match with a black cop, killing him. The investigation into the dead cop - Gaines - accidentally uncovered some suspicious activity. Detective Robert Poole realized that Gaines had been part of a massive scandal - the Rampart Scandal - which consisted of cops moonlighting for Death Row records, drug dealing, thievery, manipulating evidence, cops robbing banks, burying bodies in Tijuana and so forth. The police station was a scam; and everyone involved was getting what they wanted. And that included Freddy, for his cocaine was funneled through these neighborhoods.

But Poole went so far as to suggest that there was enough evidence to make suspects of policemen in the death of Notorious Biggie Smalls, the investigation was called off. The policemen - armed agents of Death Row Records, were apparently seeking justice for the death of Tupac Shakur. Shakur was an LA - based Death Row rapper; and it's now believed, with considerable evidence to support it, that Shakur and Notorious Biggie were killed as part of a gang feud - Bloods versus Cryps, East versus West, Big Boy versus Death Row - and that the Los Angeles Rampart Police Department finished off the dirty work.

We continued along the river into Pasadena, a well-manicured series of estates adjacent to downtown Los Angeles. Taking to Foothill Boulevard, a long stretch of road, which hugs the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, and roughly imitates the river, we climbed in elevation. In just fifty-three miles, the Los Angeles River drops in elevation more than the Mississippi does on its entire route. Because of this, the river can be vicious, fast, and can crush a truck with its power.

We trudged through a golf course by foot; stationary people were peering at us under the shade of their golf carts, eyeing at us like we didn't belong here on the only escape to the headwaters of the river.

We walked the gentle ridge of the Los Angeles River's first dam, and down into a marshy bed of sand and water; through the bamboo, and out into the shadow of the iron claws of the dam. "Watch out for the pit bull," Alvin said as I made my way into the water. But by this time, a big ugly thing was charging me; splashing through the water with its evil eyes and spiked collar.


Palos Verdes

Rock formations on the Palos Verdes peninsula, near where the Los Angeles River enters the Pacific Ocean.

He stopped at my feet. "He don't hurt nobody," a man came out of the bamboo, speaking with the East LA accent we hear as Indians in old westerns. "Everybody throw trash all over the place," he said. "I cleaned this whole place up." He was referring to the gates of the Hanson Dam, where he was letting his boys play with their pit bull in the cool water. "Oh yeah, its okay, he jump on you, he friendly."

Alvin and I continued up a wash, which in spring is a wrestling, furious lake. The short distance to the headwaters was strangely silent. Quiet, sandy, on the edge of a desert and the base of mountains. From the bamboo, we found a small lake. Blue, with waves and white beaches by bamboo shoots, a soft breeze in the heat, like off a midwestern river in a hot, crop-killing August.

They say that Los Angeles is twenty years ahead of Middle America. That said, the view from the Hanson Dam at the headwaters of the Los Angeles River looks like the future of Kansas City, or St. Louis, or Omaha. Preserving the river is not a new idea; Los Angeles was founded on the premise of palatial riverside estates. There will always be ideas. There will always be some guy cleaning a riverfront for his children.

Even Col. Griffith J. Griffith, of LA's Griffith Park hailed his own grant of land as a grand riverfront park. This is the well-intentioned nature of people. But no, despite good intentions, Omaha's rivers will one day be bound by concrete; with a concave belly of stink, and plastic litter will foul her soul. There will be no gardening, no bicycles or idle talk between neighbors. Omaha, and all of the Midwest, will someday look like this; fenced in, gated, bound up, with her veins bloodied and sore, like that heroin addict cleansing his mind in the lower concrete banks of the Los Angeles River.

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Notes on traveling to the Coyote Buttes during surreal winter weather.

Road trip to the Hatch Chili Festival in Southern New Mexico.

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Exploring the LA River by road and kayak, with notes on my 14 years living in the city.

Notes on ecological devastation and salvation along the New River in Southern California.

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Notes on my travels to Joshua Tree National Park and the Western Mojave of Southern California.

Notes from a desert California outpost, and the weird rocky world of the Searles lakebed.

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A few years ago, I decided to cross Las Vegas by skateboard, and then write about it.

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Notes on the pupfish of Death Valley and the Desert Southwest.

Notes on my frantic road trip across the dazzling desert Plateus of Utah and Arizona.