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Discovering L.A., One Wrong Turn at a Time


My husband and I got lost in Cheviot Hills the other day, which is not as difficult to do as it sounds. All it requires is a misunderstanding of where the golf course stands, and there you are, driving round and round in a lavender blur of agapanthus. One elm-shaded, black-shuttered house followed another, and for a few moments we thought the simplest solution would be to just buy one of these houses and begin anew in Cheviot Hills. But having neglected to hire Arthur Andersen to do our books, this was not a possibility, and so we drove on.

Eventually, we wound up on Pico Boulevard, where we had a brief argument over which way was west. I pointed firmly in one direction while my husband peered in another trying to figure out our relationship to the Westside Pavilion. Then he realized that I was pointing toward the setting sun and so was probably right. Probably. We breathed a sigh of relief as we headed on our way, and I'm not at all sure why. Cheviot Hills is a lovely neighborhood, and I doubt we'll tour it again in the near future. For a few minutes there we forgot about the fine art of getting lost in L.A.

There is a Brigadoon-like quality to this city--if you substitute smog for mist and imagine Gene Kelly in cargo shorts and a baseball cap, which is not an unpleasant thing to do. One minute you're heading toward an appointment with your new chiropractor and two wrong turns later you're in a neighborhood just 10 miles from your home that until now you did not even know existed. Chances are no chorus line of kilted lads will appear (although in parts of Silver Lake and West Hollywood this is not an impossibility), but there is something magical about it all the same. A place where there was no place before, houses and schools and magnolias where once there was just an unshaded portion of the Thomas Guide in your mind.

The trick is not to panic. Many people panic when they get lost in L.A., as if any misstep will result in them getting carjacked or arrested, as if the great Gym Teacher in the sky were grading them on their commitment to some prearranged course. You see these drivers blocking traffic, veering toward the curb, hovering beneath the signs at intersections, then accelerating wildly, lost, panicking. They don't seem to realize that when driving in L.A., digression is the greater part of valor. That, as with so many things in life, the best thing to do is surrender.

Surrender to being lost. This is still your city, these are still your people, no one is going to pull you over and demand to see identification papers (well, probably no one is going to pull you over and demand to see identification papers). The best way to learn about any city, or anything much, for that matter, is to get lost in it. I once traveled through Portland, Ore., with a man who had written a well-known book about driving through America and he could not go two miles without getting lost. After about the 15th "long-way round," I asked him how on earth he ever managed to write such a book. "Just like this," he said, placidly, taking yet another wrong turn. "Just like this."

In the last month, I have been lost in West Adams, South-Central, Agoura Hills, La Canada and Malibu. I have seen unexpected hilltops, old boxcars, roadside crosses, houses that looked like Russian hotels and neon-lit churches, chain-saw art and a boulder perched like an ancient cairn on a shoulder of the Santa Monica Mountains. I have made U-turns that were probably illegal but should have won me awards, followed a road until it turned into a barnyard, and was once forced to drive in reverse along a canyon road so narrow I kept looking for Wile E. Coyote and his Acme anvil. But everything that needed to be done got done, and now I know never to get caught on Kanan Dune Road at rush hour.

It's a question of attitude, of being hopefully, rather than hopelessly, lost. If you keep moving, eventually you'll get there. You'll hit a street whose name you know or a landmark you recognize. Like the Westside Pavilion. Or Saddle Peak rock. Or the sun.

Mary McNamara can be reached at

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