Home, Los Angeles, and The Huntington Gardens


1885 L.A. River Flood

1885 L.A. River Flood

The River slowly swings into view.  A man is bathing there, perched on a large piece of broken concrete.  He dips a rag in the water, wrings it out on his sunburnt back, and scrubs.

My eye moves up the concrete banks, away from the bathing man, onto the skyline of downtown Los Angeles.  In my mind, everything begins going backwards, time undoing itself.  Countless crews disassemble the skyscrapers, the posh hotels, City Hall, faster and faster.  The marble and stone lobbies return to their quarries, bricks fly off facades, are unfired and return to the clay earth.

Millions of tons of concrete lift from the River’s bed and tributaries, and all the dams and train trestles crisscrossing it are un-built.  Countless cattle regurgitate vast grasslands as ranchers un-cut the forests of willow, oak, and sycamore; the lush valley of Los Angeles emerges. The River, gaining back life, jumps its banks and begins spreading its rich soil again.

Now the film rewinding in my head slows slightly, and I see the Portola Expedition hiking through the valley.  Father Crespi writes in his journal, describing the valley as paradise, eventually convincing the Spanish Crown to build Missions in the area.

The film slows to a stop, and I watch as Tongva Indians live and forage among the hills, washing themselves at the River’s edge.  The water is clear, having descended from the mountains and filtering through the Valley’s deep aquifers.  The people at the densely wooded bank look healthy, confident, and at home.

For thousands of years young and old have been washing themselves on the same shore, but only recently were they homeless, sunburnt, and cleaning themselves with poisoned water.  What have we done? What will we do?

The River slowly swings out of view, and while I couldn’t see the washing man anymore, I knew someone was there, and always will be.


Aloe in flower.

The train only stopped long enough to jump on board. Securing my bike, I scoped out a window seat amongst the yawning, 6am commuters. Settling into the train seat felt luxurious compared to riding the bus. I was in a good mood, and I was on schedule to get to the Botanical Gardens early. Out the window the morning came quickly over the horizon, but the factory smokestacks and men taking breaks against warehouse walls said that morning started a long time ago.

Going to L.A. by train is like riding through an untended alley, where no one expects much anyway. As countless fences and the cold backsides of industrial buildings sweep by, layers upon layers of bright tags momentarily expand my concept of beauty. As the train began to turn through the City of Industry, the concrete tomb of the River came into view. Picturing its rich bed and meandering path just two hundred years ago made the sight that much more strange. People suddenly began to cluster around the train doors, and even if it was your first time on board you knew that we were arriving at Union Station soon.

After grabbing breakfast and coffee with some friends in Downtown, I rode my bike back to Union Station and boarded the Gold Line to Pasadena. The light-rail whizzed through Chinatown and I noticed that there were fewer lupines flowering at L.A. State Historic Park than last year. A few stops further we slowed down to pass through the at-grade crossings in my Mom’s neighborhood, Highland Park. Finally in Pasadena, I rode downhill from Allen Station in the direction of the Botanical Gardens. I spent some time looking at people’s yards, stopping twice to talk to some crews that were working.

I bought my ticket and upon entering, descended down a path into the Huntington’s Cactus Garden. I made my way to a particular shaded bench I like and sat down to take everything in for a moment. In a very real way every place I’d been that morning felt like home, from the dirty alley of the city’s outskirts to its urban core, and even wealthy Pasadena’s historic Huntington Garden. I breathed in deeply, and thought about all the possible ways I could go home.


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