…On such a
winter’s fall day
Back in September I spent five days in Los Angeles at the 2017 Open Source Summit. I’d never been to California before. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of it. My wife thought I might hate the endless, dusty sprawl, but I had a certain fascination with the place through the same medium as most people: Entertainment. My perception of Los Angeles was formed through the lens of Michael Mann, James Cameron, and Kathryn Bigelow. Most of the metal bands I listened to in my youth were from California, and one – Megadeth – formed in Los Angeles. There is also something else that’s notable about LA, at least for the biker: California has the most sane motorcycle traffic laws in the United States. It remains the only state where ‘lane splitting’ – or filtering as it’s known at home – is not illegal. The wording is deliberately imprecise as it is not explicity forbidden, and the California Highway Patrol offered guidance but were obligated to withdraw it:
A petitioner complained to the Office of Administrative Law that there was no formal rulemaking process for the guidelines, and raised other objections. The CHP discussed the issue with the Office of Administrative Law and chose not to issue, use or enforce guidelines and thus removed them from the website.
Simply: No guidelines, because there’s no law.
Los Angeles, Sept 10 2017
I arrived after a painless if long flight from St. Louis (nothing direct from Pittsburgh, natch) and slowly worked through a busy terminal 1 at LAX, waited what felt like an interminable time for my luggage and walked out into a perfect southern California evening.
I knew beforehand I wouldn’t be able to secure a bike; there’s plenty of rental opportunities in LA but given I had to pay my travel, car, and hotel expenses up-front I had nothing left in the tank for such an indulgence. I’d been in touch with a couple of SoCal internet people I knew, but this came to nothing. A pity, because as I’ll touch on later, I would realise a motorcycle is the best way to get around LA. No sooner had I walked to the shuttle stop at LAX I’d seen a Triumph Daytona whistle past and wished it had been me riding it. A car would have to do.
The shuttle bus took about ten minutes to get to an enormous Enterprise lot near the airport, and I ended up being allocated a metallic grey Kia Soul. I placed my phone in the console cup holder and turned the GPS app up loud enough to hear, and started the 14 mile run to the hotel, which involved a simple route of two freeways and a single exit.
LA’s freeways are huge, and when they move, – which at 6pm on a Sunday they surely would – they move pretty fast. I didn’t get lost, which for anyone that knows me is a minor miracle.
Downtown LA is, perhaps, like downtown anywhere. People don’t really go there for fun; it’s a sterile showcase of glass and steel; work and function. There’s the occasional panhandler. In this sense it is barely distinguishable from London’s Square Mile, Manhattan’s financial district, or the relatively diminutive Pittsburgh Golden Triangle. Like NYC, there’s a strange familiarity with place names, because you’ve heard them before from books and film. South Figueroa, Sunset, Wilshire, South Union…
I was booked into the J.W. Marriott Live, which adjoins the much taller Ritz Carlton on the western edge of downtown LA. It also happened to be the conference venue.
I used the gym and swam 50 lengths in the pool I had a burger and a couple of pints for dinner ($50!!!) as part of my highly disciplined healthy lifestyle, took a couple of photos from my hotel window while tired and buzzed, and soaked in the atmosphere from the view below.
Feeling the effects of dinner and a long day’s travel, I rolled into bed and settled into a fitful sleep.
Out And About
As it turned out, I would have two full afternoons to explore LA. I wanted to see the ocean; and I knew going west would take me through most of the urban sprawl, so I intentionally avoided the freeway. The city has a nearly total grid system (unlike Pittsburgh, which was designed by M.C. Esher) so you could pick up a half-dozen roads anywhere within a block of the hotel and follow them all the way to Santa Monica on the sea front. I chose Sunset Boulevard because I knew the name and thought it might be interesting. This route would take me through Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, and eventually Malibu, so I hoped to see a range of neighbourhoods, although this is still a small fraction of the total sprawl.
Most of what I visited outside of the moneyed areas is dusty and slightly shabby, which was as I expected. It reminded me of some mediterranean industrial towns: Shades of magnolia and grey, lots of low-lying concrete buildings and iron railings, mom & pop convenience stores, fast food outlets, automotive shops and wide, heavily-trafficked roads. None of it was particularly alien to my eyes, but entirely different to everywhere else that I had visited in the US. The heat and light gives it a distinct atmosphere from the East Coast. You’re in the entertainment capital of the world, but you wouldn’t know it in the midst of the sprawl. It feels like and industrial town.
Suddenly the sidewalks get cleaner, the grass is conspicuously lush and cultivated (remember that this area was only just in drought conditions) and you’re in Beverly Hills. In truth, from the road there’s not a lot to see. It’s all tidy sidewalks, gated entrances and whitewashed walls under the shade of palm trees. The cars get more expensive, but there’s little character to the place. Pacific Palisades is easier on the eye, and there’s some fantastic architecture at some of the properties (sadly I could not get pictures) and some elevation changes as it is at the foot of the mountains. This area reminded me a lot of the wealthier parts of Capetown, up in the hills. I kept thinking this would be a cool place to cruise about on a Harley.
I took a quick detour through Santa Monica. It is like any city pierside scene; chintzy, seedy stalls cheek by jowel with more moneyed joints. It didn’t feel a great deal different to Atlantic City in New Jersey. The colour palette gradually changes from industrial concrete to whitewashed apartment buildings and houses, and after a short run you pick up CA-1: The Pacific Coast Highway.
The PCH takes you through Topanga Beach, which feels a little run-down and shabby, but has a certain charm. In Malibu I stopped for lunch at a ‘Country Kitchen’ (a chain) and enjoyed my coke & fries and taking in the atmosphere, listening to the Spanish chatter from the larder compete with the radio. There was the road and some villas between me and the ocean, but I got a little sea air. It was terrific, and I could have stayed there all day.
I knew Mulholland Highway (‘The Snake’, of some notoriety to bikers) wasn’t too far up the road, and I really wanted to see some of the famous canyon twisties, but both days would see me pressed for time. I drove up one of the roads off the beach near Malibu and enjoyed the view:
Malibu itself is obviously wealthy, I recall thinking of my Dad because it all reminded me of Marbella in Southern Spain; whitewashed villas, immaculate lawns set above a bright blue ocean, and that is a place I have only been with him.
I decided to take the highway back. It was about 4pm. This would turn out to be very poor judgement. LA’s traffic has a reputation, and it is well deserved. It’s absolutely absurd, and the end result is that getting across town on highway 10 took me almost two hours.
This was the real evidence for me that bikes were of the utmost practicality. Time and again I would hear the rumble of a Harley, or the creamy, reedy vibe of an inline-four and watch helplessly as bike after bike whizzed past.
As for LA, I really enjoyed it, and developed a certain fondness for the place. I definitely want to see more of it, and as the last day rolled over I was determined that I would come back when I can. Would I live there? That’s a big if. Who knows what’s around the corner?