WILLOW STREET BRIDGE, LONG BEACH, TO ALONDRA BOULEVARD BRIDGE, PARAMOUNT
South of Willow Street Bridge, river reeds pulse like sea swells in a morning zephyr; birds caw and peep and peck in the mud; the sun sparkles on a lukewarm stream that is (believe it or not) ripply.
North of Willow Street Bridge is the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The Los Angeles River is now a mammoth concrete drainage ditch, a matte monument to flood control. Taming a river is one thing, the Explorer thinks as he sets out on the second leg of his trek to the source. Emasculating it is another. The Great Los Angeles Eunuch.
Follow the Seasons
Elsewhere on God's green footstool, from Chad to China, the great rivers follow the seasons, overflowing their banks when deposits exceed withdrawals. Occasionally, so does the L.A. River. The results can be tragic.
But exciting. The Explorer recalls the mighty, murky stream that splits Paris into Bon Ton and Bohemia, flexing its fluids every spring to creep up on a schlepping city. In the morning, commuters gather at the Pont de l'Alma, the old bridge that's guarded by a stone statue of a Zouave soldier. "River at Zouave's Knees," the headlines read. "Zouave Up to His Waist." Even "To His Neck!"
It's a harbinger of sorts, like the buds on the chestnut trees. As the Paris Herald once trumpeted, cribbing shamelessly from a homesick Yank: "The Seine Also Rises."
In the summer, the Los Angeles River just squats there.
Still and all, it has its uses. On this particular morning, skid marks on the dry, flat bed of the river squeal on the hot rodders who've gotten in a little extracurricular (and illegal) drag racing the night before. Cyclists have peeled off the dike-top riding trail and are practicing barrel rolls on the slimy algae near the channel. A pair of acrobatic skate boarders careen like kamikazes down the smooth sides of the banks.
And at the center trough itself, a man in a silver hard hat is busting his considerable tail.
The man, "Pete from North Long Beach," pauses to wipe his brow. "What I'm doin' you can see for yourself," he says. With a large shovel, he is scooping what he calls "stuff" into two pails. The pails are almost full of green-black goo, indescribably disgusting.
"Don't look like much," Pete concedes, "but I bring it home and slop it into my garden.
"You betcher bippy it works. You should see my artichokes. Takes only two of 'em to make a dozen."
Up on the bike trail, telltale beige blotches herald the approach to an equestrian enclave. On the other side of the dike on the east bank, amateur grooms in high boots tromp around a row of stables, one of them called "Just a Little Bit of Country."
Just south of Wardlow Road Bridge, trucks have dumped piles of sand at regular intervals, for reasons beyond the Explorer's ken. Close by, a stout steel cable has been strung from dike to dike, attached to a pole and a pulley on the east side, to a square concrete pillbox on the west. Suspended from the cable, above the middle of the river, is what looks like a cross between a phone booth and an outhouse. Even comatose, the river retains its mysteries.
North of Wardlow, a man in a flannel shirt sits high on the dike, watching his big yellow dog, far below, give chase to a flock of disoriented sea birds. The man's son sits beside him, pegging pebbles at the birds.
"I'm Tommy," the man says. "The little fella is Thomas. Wouldn't you think it'd be the other way around?"
The Pacific River
The Explorer asks Thomas if he can identify the stream he's aiming for. "Sure," Thomas says. "That's the Pacific River."
Farther upstream, a railroad bridge is distinguished by the quality of graffiti scrawled on its sides:
Dead Cops. Anarchy. Subhumans. Punk Lives. The Insane. Hate. Agression (sic). DISCHRGE (sick). Crewd.
In contrast, an ad-hoc inlet paralleling the river on the east side has relaxed into a bucolic pond, half a mile long. Under the penumbra of untended plane-trees, the water is clear enough for glimpses of foot-long fish.
A sign reads "Trespassing Forbidden by Law," but a maverick claque of mallards can't read. Cruising around clumps of water hyacinths, they dive for the fish and come up laughing, scattering butterflies as they shake droplets from their saucy heads.
The whole of the pond is enclosed by mesh fence topped by spiky barbed wire. A sylvan setting for the benefit of absolutely nobody. In a cleared space by the Del Amo Boulevard Bridge, scraped smooth by a broad board, two young men hunker down over a wicked-looking switch-blade knife.
The Explorer hesitates, then moves in to watch. One of the boys balances the tip of the knife blade on his knee, whence he flips the dagger end over end until it sticks vertically into the ground. Nice shot.
"Seen this game before?" the boy asks.
"Seen it?" the Explorer says, "I used to be neighborhood champ."
The other boy looks up, faintly interested. Just faintly.
"We called it mumbletypeg," the Explorer says.