Discovering peaceful nooks in quarantined Los Angeles

April 17, 2020

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I was happier than many Angelenos when self-quarantine measures took effect last month.  I love exploring the city and all its resources, but traffic has been so consistently bad and trails overrun with hikers in recent years that I found myself sticking closer to home. After most people started working from home, though, freeways and sidewalks seemed to empty overnight. I immediately started a list: Echo Mountain in Altadena, Aliso and Woods Canyons in Orange County, the Venice Canals, Langer’s for pastrami. I got out my hiking boots. I reveled in the plummeting gas prices and deserted freeways. This was my dream Los Angeles, the city I had found so accessible and multi-faceted when I moved here twenty years ago.

Then they closed all the parks and hiking trails. They roped off beaches and promenades. Even the old forgotten basketball nets behind our local Little League field were covered in caution tape. There was the feeling that, if you weren’t going to the grocery store or hospital, you might be pulled over and cited. I put my list away and reacquainted myself with my home surroundings. My family and I baked, watched movies and gave the dog lots of belly rubs. I cleaned the oven.

Until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to break out.

One day after schoolwork was done, I told the kids to get in the car and started driving north. Oh My Burger, a Gardena eatery we had always wanted to try, was offering a Pandemic Special — cheeseburger, barbecue wings and garlic alfredo fries for $14.

L.A. comfort food at its finest.

I studied the map on my phone and saw that Oh My Burger wasn’t far away from the Forum, the famed arena where the Lakers and Kings used to play. Local residents like to use its perimeter as a four-mile exercise loop, and I had always wanted to check it out. We parked on Kareem Court and joined the handful of brisk walkers and scooter riders from a safe distance. We had a front-row view of the nearby construction of the new football stadium, a hive of construction activity in an otherwise eerily quiet city.

The Forum is across the street from Inglewood Park Cemetery, an unusually large expanse of greenery where Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Betty Grable were laid to rest. We drove through slowly and it felt like a normal day there, with gardeners tending to the grounds and a handful of families placing flowers or wreaths on the graves.

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By the time we picked up our Pandemic Specials at Oh My Burger, complete with deep-fried Oreo puffs for dessert, I felt almost normal and had fallen in love with Los Angeles all over again.

A few days later, we tried again.

This time, we ordered lunch from Honey Dress, a new-ish fried chicken place in Torrance, and explored another area nearby before picking it up. My phone map showed that Los Arboles Park wasn’t far away. We could walk the dog while we waited for our food.

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Turns out, Arboles Park boasts a sweeping hat-trick view that takes in ocean, city and mountains, capturing Los Angeles as I had never seen before. It also has one of those vintage rocketship slides that have been phased out to make way for safer (read: boring) plastic playgrounds that now dominate parks the world over. I regret that I hadn’t learned about this park earlier in my mom life, when the kids would have gotten real play mileage out of that rocketship.

We went home feeling human once again — and we had incredibly good Korean-style fried chicken to boot. Another euphoric L.A. moment. There’s nowhere else like it.

Our next trip was on Good Friday. We decided fried fish would be an appropriate supper, and H. Salt popped up on a search of local fish places. Turns out, it was near a county park with a big pond teeming with geese and ducks. I had driven past Alondra Park many times, but had no idea it was so expansive. It borders a (closed) golf course, and there is so much open space that a gymnastics team could take over one area without violating social distancing rules. I found myself stopping often to breathe deeply and revel in the old trees and rippling water.

The fish place was the kind of unassuming strip-mall joint that exists all over L.A. Inside, three masked, gloved and hair-netted people were working hard filling bags with hush puppies and fried hunks of catfish, shrimp and zucchini. A handwritten sign warned customers that they wouldn’t be served if they weren’t wearing a mask. The bill came to $49 and it pretty much covered dinner for four people (maybe three-and-a-half) twice over. Who says L.A. is only for the rich and glamorous?

It’s easy to be envious of the people who have escaped the city to second homes in Palm Springs or Mammoth or the wilds of Utah. But there isn’t any place that I would rather be right now than Los Angeles. The quarantine has reminded me that the city still has  plenty of peaceful places waiting to be discovered. And fresh air to boot, while it lasts.

Spring break Rail Trip: LA-San Antonio-New Orleans-Chicago-LA

March 27, 2019

 

 

2 adults, 2 kids

13 days, 13 nights

5 nights on a train

4 nights in chain hotels in San Antonio and New Orleans

4 nights in a cozy attic suite near Logan Square in Chicago

Cost for train travel only: $788 (full disclosure: we used guest award points for 1 leg, which saved about $300)

Cost for train travel + lodging: $1,469.14 (full disclosure: we used award points for 2 hotel nights)

And here we go…

 

 

Peaceful Times at Heritage Square

April 18, 2016

The historic buildings of Heritage Square can be glimpsed from the 110 Freeway, a quick blur of patterned brick chimneys and Queen Anne turrets as the car whizzes by Avenue 43 north toward Pasadena. But to really experience this living history museum, it’s necessary to exit the freeway and follow the signs past a long row of tract houses and chain-link fencing to its formidable entrance gates.

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Behind the gates sit a cluster of beautifully restored 19th-century houses, along with a Southern Pacific train depot and a steeple-topped 1897 Gothic church that was moved here, piecemeal, from Pasadena in 1981. Framed by mature trees and well-tended gardens, Heritage Park is a sweet respite from L.A.’s busy urban landscape and a reminder that there is a strong preservation effort in this city working to protect its past, rather than replace it with McMansions and high-density condos.

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This past weekend, Heritage Square hosted its annual vintage fashion show and tea,  one of many events it throws throughout the year. I was lucky enough to be invited to sell my books along with other exhibitors like the Grier Musser Museum, Sew Cranky, and the International Printing Museum. It wasn’t hard labor, sitting in the shade with a view of the church’s massive stained-glass window, a blooming rose garden, and what is perhaps L.A.’s only remaining octagon house.

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Docents cloaked in period costume lead tours of the grounds and homes every Friday through Sunday. Also coming up on May 15 is Museums of the Arroyo Day, when admission and tours are free all day at Heritage Square and other nearby museums like the Lummis Home and the Southwest Museum.

One more thing: Heritage Square is surprisingly kid-friendly — there’s lots of wide-open space, a red boxcar rescued from the Tucson, Cornelia, & Gila Railroad, and a turn-of-the-century pharmacy with a marble-topped soda fountain and fascinating displays of snake-oil potions, leech pots and vintage tools.

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How Trails Get Their Names

April 29, 2015

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Ever wonder how a trail got a name like Devil’s Chair or Walter’s Wiggles? The answer is simpler than you might think…

http://www.americanhiking.org/blog/how-trails-get-their-names/

In honor of the baseball playoffs, a hike through Elysian Park

October 6, 2014

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Nothing is blooming on Elysian Park’s Wildflower trail right now, but there are plenty of friendly dogs and hopeful flashes of Dodger Blue. The day after the Dodgers came back to win Game 2 of the baseball playoffs, the trail across the street from their home stadium was business as usual, hosting hikers, picnickers, and regular dog walkers.

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The trails that wind through Elysian Park don’t get as much attention as other urban hikes in L.A., but every moderate hiker in L.A. should make a point of exploring them. Like the city itself, the trail that winds through the park is an unsettling mix of natural beauty, concrete freeway, and payoffs that will leave you energized and reinforce the reasons you chose to live in this crazy town.

Check out my extended post on Trekalong.com to learn more about this hike.

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Books and the Beach

October 31, 2013

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I’ve been spending more time at the beach these days and discovering all kinds of new places that don’t involve surfboards or bad pina coladas. The latest is a great little bookstore about four blocks from the Hermosa Beach pier. Known as Bard Street bookstore (it’s at 1309 Bard St., just off Pier Avenue), it sells leftover inventory from the local library and is run by volunteers. It’s everything you would want in a used bookstore — well-organized, pleasantly cluttered and full of great finds. So far, we have scored big with several Calvin & Hobbes books (for Jack), a Barbara Pym hardcover (for me), and a ridiculous amount of dinosaur books for Theo. Prices average 50 cents for paperbacks and a buck or two for hardcovers, plus there’s a rack of free books for the taking just outside the door.

The only downside is its limited hours: Mondays from 9 am to noon and the third Saturday of every month. On a recent visit, customers included locals who seems to consider a stop here a Monday ritual and a couple visiting from Saskatchewan, Canada, who were preparing to take an armful of books back home. I like to think that as temperatures hit freezing up there, they are huddled under blankets reading their books and thinking of Hermosa Beach and its charming little bookshop.

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School’s in — hit the beach!

September 12, 2013

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September is my favorite time to visit the beaches of L.A. Camp field trips are over, school’s back in session, and temperatures are still uncomfortably hot anywhere east of the 405. Even those with unscheduled time seem to forget that the beaches are open after Labor Day, meaning you will practically have the sand and waves to yourself if you show up with a chair and a book.

My favorite Southern California beach is Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County. Marked by 50-foot cliffs that mask all that PCH traffic, it’s a remarkably clean three-mile stretch of sand that is perfect for walking, especially at twilight. It’s a long drive from most parts of L.A. and parking is steep ($15 at last count), but it’s a breathtaking beach that will sweep you away from the traffic and hassles of life in L.A. as easily as any Hawaiian vacation.

A more accessible option for sweltering Eastsiders is Torrance Beach, just south of Redondo. There’s a fee lot just south of Miramar Park, but also often plenty of free street parking on Paseo de la Playa. A long ramp makes it easy to push a stroller down to the strand and there are public bathrooms and outdoor showers. The refineries that anchor the beaches to the north like Hermosa and Manhattan are nearly obscured, and Palos Verdes Peninsula juts off the south. Being in Torrance also gives you an excuse to visit the King’s Hawaiian Bakery on Sepulveda; pick up some of the famous rolls or sample island dishes like Kahlua pork or Char Siu and eggs (I’m partial to the King’s Hawaiian French toast).

James Turrell Divides the Light in Pomona

July 31, 2013

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting a 50-year retrospective this year of artist James Turrell. It’s one of the hottest tickets in town (“the art world’s brightest luminary this year,” according to Forbes). But there’s another, easier way to check out Turrell’s fabulous use of light and space — or to extend your Turrell-in-L.A. experience if you are lucky enough to nab a LACMA ticket.

Head east to Pomona College any evening (or Saturday through Monday evening during the school year) and join those in the know for the best free sunset east of the 405. During the day, the Turrell Skyspace looks like a small open-air courtyard with marble benches and a shallow reflecting pool. As the sun sets, it turns into something absolutely magical. LED lights bathe a hovering metal canopy in an array of changing colors, starting with muted shades of gray and lavender and building to striking swaths of turquoise, blue, and burnt umber as the sky fades to night.

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It is an evening ritual that attracts a fun mix of spectators, from professors and groups of undergraduates to families with small children who stretch out on blankets on the grass. The show creates a subtle camaraderie among its fans, inspired perhaps by the shared witnessing of such an unusually beautiful sight.

Music Box Steps: Best Urban Hike in L.A.

July 19, 2013

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Everyone’s favorite gripe about L.A. is that no one walks here. It’s not without validation — I once walked from my office in mid-Wilshire to the Trader Joe’s on La Brea without passing a soul on the sidewalk. People driving by stared at me carrying my canvas bags as if I were a homeless tourist attraction.

But there are pockets of the city that are perfect for a hardy stroll, and Silverlake is one of them. I’m not sure why it took me 13 years of L.A. residency to do the Music Box Steps hike, but it should be on every Angeleno’s bucket list. I followed the Music Box loop from Charles Fleming’s excellent Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. It covers 2.5 miles and combines a good cardio workout with a self-guided film history and architecture tour. It made me never want to go to the gym again.

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The Music Box steps got their name from the 1932 Laurel & Hardy short film. Stan and Oliver had to deliver a piano to the top of a flight of outdoor stairs; comic bumbling ensues. The barren hillside in the film is now surrounded buildings and, as Fleming rightly points out, disappointingly ill-maintained given its landmark status. But it still provides a rush for most film buffs, as does the shady triangular pocket park across the street, named for the duo. Besides this slice of movie history, the walk is also studded with views of downtown L.A., all kinds of flora and fauna, and a fascinating mix of homes featuring Moorish minarets, tiled fountains, and thoughtful displays of sun dials and garden gnomes.

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This hike starts and ends at Café Tropical, a little neighborhood hub known for its café con leche and Cuban sandwiches. Parking is reasonably easy to find on surface streets around here. A couple of tips: strollers won’t work, period, and there is very little shade. Go early in the morning in summer, or wait for a cooler overcast day if you must go in the afternoon. It’s probably best to avoid nighttime altogether.

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Turn this into a real L.A. outing and head over to Sqrl café on an edgy corner of Melrose, a 15-minute walk from Café Tropical via Marathon St. I had the burnt brioche with house ricotta and blueberry-rhubarb jam while jazz and an unfathomable number of trendsetting hipsters kept the place buzzing. The hike, combined with the exquisitely good breakfast, was one of those only-in-L.A. experiences that I won’t soon forget.

Springs Preserve: the Most Peaceful Place in Las Vegas

June 23, 2013

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When I visited Springs Preserve northwest of downtown Las Vegas a few years ago, I figured it would only be a matter of time before it added a sponsor’s name, like Trump or Mlife, to its surprisingly un-catchy title. To its credit, it hasn’t, but neither has it quite lived up to the promise it had when it first opened. Part science museum, part desert garden, and part eco-innovator, the sprawling property is owned by the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the polar opposite of the nearby madness of the Strip. It’s a wonderful respite from the casinos, but it can be eerily quiet and devoid of activity on weekdays. The heat (110+) kept visitors inside the Origen Museum or Nature Exchange and the beautiful drought-resistant gardens and playground were as deserted as an East Coast mall in the middle of a snowstorm.

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The highlight of our visit was a better-than-average lunch in the air-conditioned Springs Cafe (pricey, but super-fresh and a welcoming change from the burgers and fries we had been subsisting on). You can see the Stratosphere and other Strip resorts from inside and outside the 2nd-floor cafe. The kids also lingered in the Nature Exchange, where like Kidspace in Pasadena, you can answer questions or trade things found in nature for cool rocks, shells, and minerals.

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A tip: try to visit Friday through Monday. The adjacent Nevada State Museum is open, and admission is included with a Springs Preserve ticket. It looks like a sleek mastodons-meet-stalactite-caves kind of place, but we missed out on our Tuesday visit.