Last October, I set out to walk the whole Los Angeles River. My motive was simple. I had read a lot about the waterway but still felt confused by it. I thought if I could just see it, maybe it would make more sense. Los Angeles wouldn’t exist without the river, Downtown would not be located where it is without the river, everything points back to the river. At first, I thought I’d do it in three days, but I didn’t know where I’d sleep the second night—so I’d have to do it in two instead.
The LA river runs for 54 miles and functions as the de facto the spine of the city. People may try and correct me on the mileage and say the river is 51 miles long, but I walked it with my GPS on the whole time. I ended up walking 56 miles but, to be fair, I did get a little lost at one point. If I followed its whole course, I’d walk from Canoga Park in the western San Fernando Valley all the way down to the port of Long Beach: one end of the city to the other.
The headwaters are at the meeting point of Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas—picture the dry river bed chase scene in “Terminator 2” and you’d get close. Beige stucco-ed apartment buildings erected in the latter half of the 20th century–skirt its edge. Power lines and palm trees hem in the gaps. The first few steps are easy, everything looks the same, my head is held high.
The early morning sun splashes bright pink and orange across the horizon. I hear the dirt path crunch beneath my feet as I was wave bye to my dad, who had been kind enough to drop me off. He had expressed uncharacteristic apprehension about the walk in the predawn car ride over and it made me uneasy. I wondered if I doing something more foolish than I realized.
The sun sits in that weird spot where it isn’t quite noon, but the day doesn’t look like morning anymore. My backpack starts to feel heavier and heavier. Must be the two jumbo sized Nalgene bottles and the Powerade I’ve been carrying since sunrise. Unlike people 200 years ago, you can’t drink the water that runs beside you, even when it’s cool ripples stare you blank in the dehydrated face. Here—an incomplete list of contaminants found in the river—fecal bacteria, E. Coli, lead, ammonia, pesticides and trash.
For the first time this morning, I can see a dense thicket of trees just about a half a mile away. Their bushy green forms provide a break from the monotony of a completely concrete landscape. I’ve entered the Sepulveda Basin, one of only three portions of the LA River known as “soft-bottom,” meaning the bed of the river is dirt instead of concrete. The dozens of homeless encampments—tucked among the trees along the river’s edge—remind me of a nightmare version of the Jungle Boat Cruise at Disneyland.
Unlike the blanks fired by Jungle Boat Cruise tour guides, here the ammo is real. I step over a live .44 caliber bullet, I notice a swastika spray-painted on make-shift plywood door. I walk faster. I hear bird calls of killdeer and black necked stilts, as blue herons stalk prey in shallow water. I can still hear the bird calls behind me, when suddenly, I hit a snag.
For the first 9 miles, I had been walking on a path next to the river or along the dry river bottom, but now the path above the river is blocked by the 405 freeway and the river is much fuller: wall-to-wall water. The roar of the freeway surrounds me as I search for a way around. I catch a whiff of something, a sort of funky-earthy smell masked by chlorine. Looking down from where I’m standing, I see the source of the stink, the sewage plant a quarter of a mile away is discharging a torrent of treated water into the river.
Now, there is a lot more water and no path forward. The gently sloped concrete containment walls of the river have pitched up to a vertical 90 degrees. After spotting a set of descending metal rungs, I take off the new Nikes that I’ve been wearing when it’s dry and lace up the old grey Nikes to prepare myself to walk in the water.
I splash down into ankle-deep-unsettlingly-warm water. My feet are instantly soaked. I begin to slog through, thinking that I’ll be back on dry land in 30 minutes or less. I had looked at satellite images the week before and calculated the mileage. I was way off. I slop through murky water for nearly three hours. There are short patches of dry land but just enough for a tease. If I take off my wet shoes, dry my feet, and put on the dry shoes for every patch of arid land, I’ll never make it to the halfway point by sundown. So I push on. Dry land finally appears where the Tujunga Wash joins the LA River. I hit mile 16 and break for lunch. I gulp down my under-salted tuna fish sandwich, dry my feet, wrap a Band-Aid around my big toe, put on the dry shoes and move out.
The day wears on.
A graveyard of forever-lost tennis balls come into view. I pick one up and notice the tennis court above me and picture a neglected housewife working on her backhand. Her 18-year-old coach tells her to use less wrist as a ball sails over the fence and splashes down into the green muck. I pick one up and bounce it as I walk, doing anything to fight off boredom. Soon after I enter Burbank, I have to switch back into my wet shoes once more as the 93-degree heat starts to get to me. The GPS tracker on my phone slowly counts the miles and I think I have 5 miles to go until Frogtown, the halfway point of the river, where I’ll be spending the night.
Again I’m wrong. A mileage sign for bicyclists tells me that I have 10 miles to go until Frogtown, What can I do but trudge on? I’ve coordinated my sleeping arrangements with a friend who lives in Frogtown, right off the river. I hope he doesn’t want to go for a walk.
Once there, I eat a pile of spaghetti and two slices of pizza. I watch the second presidential debate. You remember, the one where Donald Trump never sat down on his stool—choosing instead to stalk around the debate stage. My legs are screaming and I whisper, “Sit down, you fuck.” Nausea sets in from having eaten too much food too fast and I nearly vomit. I fight it off, and by 9pm, I pass out.
I wake up before dawn the next morning, and through nausea, manage to get some coffee and oatmeal down. I’m walking by 6:30. It’s another crystal clear morning as I pass by the lush, tree-lined landscape of the second “soft-bottom” part of the river.
28 miles behind me, 28 miles in front of me.
As I pass under active construction above on the Spring Street Bridge, I fear one of the many construction workers is going to send me back. Instead, one of them asks me where I’m heading, “Long Beach,” I say with thinly-veiled gloat.
“That’s a long way!” the guy remarks, seemingly implying “what’s wrong with you?!”
“I know!” I say, smiling back.
Walking along the river is like passing between this world and the next—you are a ghost. No where else can I walk for 56 miles and never once wait for a light to turn green or worry about getting hit by a distracted driver. In that way, this walk feels like ultimate freedom.
The constant trilling call of Black Neck Stilts starts to get to me. The Seagull with one in its mouth agrees. It stares out blankly, seemingly forgetting that something is dying in its beak.
The water tower of Vernon emerges against the horizon. I now see that the gently sloping walls are again vertical. This means I will no doubt be walking in water again. As I emerge from the water-logged strip of Vernon, I pass by a homeless encampment underneath a bridge.
I continue, noticing that the support structure of nearly every bridge has a homeless encampment. As I pass by, people stare—I’m wearing my old olive-green Boy Scout pants which look like those worn by LA County Sheriffs (not the best choice of clothes, in hindsight). One guy gives me a jolly “Howdy camper!” which feels oddly appropriate. Another asks if I smoke weed. When I say no, he asks if I’m a cop.
The strangest of my personal encounters occurs at 11am. As I pass under a bridge, a woman with a shaved head and ragged clothes stumbles out of a small blue tent. We don’t make eye contact, but I can feel her walking straight towards me. I roll my shoulders back and keep walking. We are on a right-angled collision course, still she doesn’t seem to see me. She passes within a few inches of my face, I timidly say “Hi.” She only grumbles to herself. At that moment I see a heavy-set man exit from the same tent with a self-satisfied grin.
The next 6 hours float past me in a daze. I pass under major east/west arteries: Imperial Highway, Rosecrans Ave, Alondra Blvd, Willow St. When I started yesterday, the river was about the width of a country road. Now, 35 miles in, it’s as wide as a twenty-lane freeway and I have it all to myself. I’m a tiny speck moving at three miles per hour. By 6PM, I reach Long Beach. My feet feel like bloated bags of raw chicken and all I want is a cigarette.
Sitting down at the end of my journey, overlooking the Long Beach Harbor, I wonder if I’ve been able to elicit any grand truths, from the land, from my encounters. The only thought to flow from my fatigued mind is that Los Angeles is a big place if it takes 24 hours to walk from end to other.