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Scenes From the L.A. River : Exploring With Ants in His Pants

IN SEARCH OF THE L.A. RIVER: This is the fourth in an intermittent series of articles.

November 03, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer


Even as far up as South Gate, there is a stiff crosswind coming off the Pacific. Not exactly a gale, but a good deal more than a whiffet, which is a blessing.

The breeze aeroflows down the smooth, sere concrete west bank of the Los Angeles River, picks up the perfume of the channel--almonds and sheep dip--hits the east slope and bounces over the Explorer's head into Downey, which may or may not deserve it.

The Explorer has stopped pedaling and is enjoying one of the cigarettes that make him such a lousy cyclist. For his third leg up the river to its source, he has commandeered his daughter's racing bike, making full use of the Lario Trail that runs atop the east dike.

He rubs his sore bottom--they don't make explorers the way they used to--and wonders where everybody went. Yesterday, down in Long Beach, the riverbanks were alive with laity. Today, with the exception of a lone dirt-biker a mile back, there is nothing but crawly things. The meek may inherit the earth, but the pismires are taking over the L.A. River.

Not that they actually go down into the mephitic sump. Even the ants know better than that. Instead, they stake out their turf along the bike path and send out scouting parties, rarely venturing lower than halfway down the dike. (Do they know something the Flood Control District doesn't?)

On this stretch, the ants have chomped a minicave into the asphalt and are stocking up for leaner days. First the greens--bits of leaf from nearby Hollydale Park. Then the protein--the tail of a lizard who won't be needing it any more. The nub of a hot-dog bun provides the carbohydrates, but the carcass of a defunct caterpillar is bypassed: too much cholesterol. Empires rise and fall, but the ants, in their infinite wisdom, go on forever.

The morning had started on a happier note. Approaching the Lario Trail by land, the Explorer had sought permission to park his car in the lot of a tidy, one-story office building hard by the Alondra Boulevard Bridge.

A cheery secretary had readily granted permission, and had been drawn into a quiz on the L.A. River. "Funny," she had said, "we work right beside it but I have no idea where it starts. Somewhere in Northern California?

"Let me pop into the back and ask the boss. He's very

knowledgeable. Mr. Cool."

"Mr. Cool? You can get away with calling your boss Mr. Cool ?"

"Of course. Mainly because it's his name. Tays Cool. He runs the company: Cool Fuel Inc. I know, I know; you thought it was refrigeration."

The secretary had come back in five minutes. "Mr. Cool is busy," she'd said, "but the consensus in his office is that the river starts in Tujunga. It'll be hard to trace it to the first drop , though. Nobody should be walking up the river in this heat. Mad dogs and Englishmen, you know."

The Explorer tugged his forelock and barked.

On two wheels now. The Explorer skims along the east bank, past the Compton Par-3 Golf Course ("Public Invited"), under the Compton Boulevard Bridge, beside the aptly named Banana Park, and fetches up at Rosecrans Avenue, where a portage is necessary to regain the trail north of the bridge. (Well worth the detour: Under a Rosecrans street sign, a literate graffiti artist has neatly lettered "And Guildstern.")

Past C&W Truck and Equipment Co.; Commercial Grinding Inc.; Castle Metals. Not a promising start, people-wise, until an old railroad bridge crossing the river into Lynwood on the west. The trail stops again, and while he is bulling his bike through a hole in the fence, the Explorer encounters Rolf Gr.

Mad at the River

It's a spooky bridge, this one, with rails long since stripped for scrap and old ties rotting along the right-of-way. Rolf Gr, though, in his late 20s, has found a use for the relic, bouncing his dirt bike down the track and making a heckuva racket.

"Just call me Gr," shouts Gr. "It's Polish, and there are a lot of Zs and Cs and Ws that nobody can pronounce anyway."

Rolf Gr is angry at the river, or rather at those who have made it what it is.

"Look at that thing," he says, gesturing toward the wide and virtually useless basin. "All that space, you'd think they could do something with it. Dam it up for boating, why not? Run a railroad along it.

"OK, OK, so it floods. Put the tracks on stilts. Better yet, run amphibians. Can you imagine cruising up to L.A.?"

Gr is right. It's a desolate vista, a wasteland all the way up to the Rio Hondo, veering off to the west and no improvement whatsoever. No central channel, even. No water. Just a threadbare coat of unspeakable slime.

Back to the car and across the river.

Access to the stream is difficult for a spell. South Gate has let down the team. The Explorer--not for the first time and surely not the last--must trespass, climbing over fences and other impedimenta simply for the chance to see zilch.

'It's an Eyesore'

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