On my fourth day in Los Angeles, I bought a bicycle: a fixie with a white frame and red handlebar tape, tyres and rims. I was up by the mountains in Pasadena, and I found it was much under-rated as a cycling city. Drivers gave me much more space on the road than they would at home, and I never strayed into a traffic stream that felt unsafe. Pedalling through the suburbs to work was pleasant, but gradually I found myself longing for a longer trip.
Another thing I’d done that first week was go out to the town hall and return with a stack of maps and leaflets. I pinned the cycling map of the city on the noticeboard in my AirBnB room, and time and time again I found my eye drawn to the squiggly green path that wavered through a city of lines and grids. It was the bike path alongside Rio Hondo, a river that sprung from Mount Wilson, a few blocks north of where I lived. It ran as all rivers do, down to the sea at Long Beach after crossing thirty-six miles of urban sprawl. I was missing the ocean: LA public transport is nowhere as bad as everyone says, but getting from Pasadena to the sea is a long hard slog. So one Sunday I jumped into the saddle and decided to follow the river, a journey that started off as On the Road and concluded as an LA noir.
The roads in Pasadena are north-south grids, sloping steadily uphill to the north as the town approaches the mountains. I followed Orange Grove eastward until it began to curve south, frewheeling past the dusty concrete course of the Eaton wash where the river limps down from its all-but-dry reservoir, past the handsome parks and playgrounds and their honour guard of Douglas Firs, before the road dipped under the freeway via a concrete trench so bike-unsympathetic I hopped off and took the all-but-never-used pedestrian crossing. Then I was on Rosemead, a long, long downhill roll, Sunset Boulevard-lite, full of opportunities to admire the American art of the store-front sign—the tea-pot suspended on its own stream; the boat hauled up before a seafood restaurant, still thirty miles from the tide; the golden arches of McDonalds raised over parking lots as I entered Temple City, home of Carmelias. Commerce waned and reasserted itself cyclically as I rolled down past houses and stores, houses and stores, the pulse of the sprawl growing so hypnotic I all but missed my turning left at the Ook-kook Korean BBQ and onto Olive Grove.
This was the other side of the American city. No longer was I edging down the side of a broad river of traffic—a refreshing silence fell. Suburbia was green, leafy, and all but deserted except for a woman sitting in her garden, who waved back to me with a surprised expression. Houses followed houses, in all shapes and designs, far less homogenous than a similar suburb in Britain. I saw the stars and stripes boldly emblazoned on a garage door and was overtaken by a pale cream cadillac, relic of an older LA long since torn down and cannibalised by the new.
Then I reached the river—the great dry concrete canyon stretching on for miles, its smooth parched concrete geometries never whetted by more than still, stagnant puddle at occasional intervals as it stretched its long slow length southwards, overleaped by the concrete courses of railroad and boulevard and freeway, the freeway that roared like a gale in the distance, torrential and overwhelming compared to the dry river bed, spotted once in a half-mile with the carcass of a dessicated trolley even the homeless had abandoned. The citizens of LA decided to concrete over virtually the entire course of their river after extensive flooding in the thirties, an act of ecological devastation that now seems as unaccountable as their decision to tear down the tramways and abolish public transportation, and that’s left them vast, eerie and empty in these long lean decades of drought. A white helium balloon, half-deflated, hung in the still air as I peddled past airfields, unloved industrial backlots and the back streets of low-rent housing districts, following the dead river on its sculpted course…
Until suddenly, apocalyptically, the concrete ended in a fury of vegetation, springing up vigorously where it had been stifled before, leaning in dangerously over the concrete’s straight dead edge to snatch life from the trickle of waters as I left the Upper Rio Hondo trail and entered the Whittier Narrows. The salty smell of marsh and mud rose to my nose, distinct after miles of odourless concrete. The mountains which always had my back in Pasadena were now distant, indistinct, a hazy range to northward. The bicycle path took me east, towards the more distinct elevation of the Hacienda Heights, and I left the Rio Hondo behind to limp to its nexus with the Los Angeles river, pedalling past dry earth and dense scrubland towards the San Gabriel river, my more direct route to the sea.
Cowboys still rode here—Hispanics, largely, with sombreros and stetsons and spurs, exercising their horses on the dry mud of the river banks and trails, gathering at crossings to talk. My route took me over a set of perilous main roads seemingly designed to kill as many cyclists as possible, then down along the edge of a huge dam, a magnificent engineering project dried up, useless and clotted dust.
On the San Gabriel river my troubles began. I was cycling into a headwind, blowing up fresh from the sea, and my single-speed bicycle, so handy on a short commute, would neither allow me to shift into an easier gear nor freewheel, marching my knees up and down on the downhills like the Duke of York’s men. Sore and chafed in sensitive areas, I began to crave the cushioned shorts of the more professional cyclists. And the river rolled on and on, through Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Spring, Norwalk and Lakewalk, Artesia and Hawaiian gardens, neighbourhoods whose backlots and freeways and occasional parks I glimpsed through chainlink fences as I sweated towards the sea.
The river, dry through much of its course, now acquired some element of liquidity and descended through a series of dams, each pinning in a little area of water, some large enough to be a proper lake, with ducks paddling across and Canada geese grazing on the shore. This was the prettiest stretch, a compromise between the lifeless urban structuring of the Upper Rio Hondo and the wilderness of the Whittier narrows—until as suddenly as it had come the concrete reasserted itself and the stream was pinned in to a little vein of water running down the midst of the spillway.
Here the industrial concrete was overlain by the human geography of desperation. Even when a bridge didn’t have a tent pitched under it, there was a shopping trolley and a collection of bin bags. It wasn’t entirely a place for street people—there were boys on stunt bikes doing tricks on the spillway, and temporary camps on the concrete that seemed more like family outings. I saw a kid sitting on one of the girders underpinning Beverly Boulevard, and once I swooped down under a bridge and almost ran head-first into a peloton of amateur racing cyclists. There was a railroad track beside me for a way, a single line open to anyone who wanted to wander down the dusty bed of it, with the white X of a crossing sign and a dirt bike roaring up and down beside it. I never saw a train, and wondered if they still ran down that route.
I was glad of the public parks and their drinking fountains, and drank from them long and deep. Rubbing my face, I found that in the hot still air my sweat had evaporated and crystallised, leaving me with a gritty sprinkling of salt on my fingertips.
Where the San Gabriel River met Coyote Creek I walked down into the fork of the Y, sat on the concrete and stretched, looking down the river towards the still-horribly-distant sea. Soon though, the river began to fill, gaining strength from the tidal reflux as it eddied past the ugly bulk of steam plants and power stations.
To follow the trail to the end would have been to put myself on Seal Beach, on the wrong side of the river mouth, so two kilometres from the end I switched onto 2nd Street and pedalled past car parks and shopping malls and took a sharp left past the marina, where children were paddling and sailing inflatable dinghies. Then I bumped up onto the shoreline, and there was Long Beach—long and white and sandy—and there was the Pacific before me, stretched out to the square bulk of White Island and the line of tankers on the horizon. I plunged into the ocean, a body of water only slightly more salty than I was myself. LA’s a city too big to take in, a vast sprawl you could spend your life exploring while it tears itself down and builds it up anew behind you, but I’d done one thing to put it in scale, crossing from the mountains to the sea across thirty-six miles of city, one thing to give me a reckoning of the sheer immensity of it, and with the immensity of all that America bulked out behind it, from the West coast to the East. One day I’ll do that trip. For now it was a relief to stick my bike aboard the bus and the metro, riding the blue line, then the red, then yellow, until after a few hours of infinitely less effort, sorer and wearier and perhaps a little wise, I was back where I’d began.
Thomas Tyrrell has a PhD in English Literature from Cardiff University. He is a two-time winner of the Terry Hetherington poetry award, and his writing has appeared in Spectral Realms, Picaroon, Wales Arts Review, isacoustic, Lonesome October, The Road Less Travelled, Three Drops From A Cauldron and Words for the Wild.