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Discoveries on the urban frontier

On this trail, serenity (or a semblance of it) intersects with the hum of modern living.

September 09, 2003|Bob Sipchen | Times Staff Writer

Aside from the disorienting purple flecks, which I'll get back to, I like running this Griffith Park loop because it cracks me up.

I crack up when I think about the funny dance one bull-headed friend did the moment he finally stopped arguing "It's a stick, man" and agreed that, well, OK, he guessed it was a rattlesnake next to his shoe.

And I crack up remembering the whipped-puppy look of another pal after a not dissimilar confrontation. This friend had drifted behind while pacing me on his mountain bike. Up cantered an equestrian, who pointed out that bikes aren't allowed on the trail. I like to imagine the outlaw smirk on my friend's face just before the vigilante cowgirl emphasized her point, using her snorting horse to drive Josey Wales and his puny steed retreating down the trail with expletives kicking up dust at his feet.

There's another reason I keep coming back to this seven-mile route that I pieced together with friends and my daughter's dog over a dozen years -- a semi-secret that merits sharing. Hard running makes the cortex antsy, and this loop spurs mile-consuming ruminations about all sorts of stuff, including a subject that resonates nicely: Where do 21st century humans fit into what's left of nature?

In spring, the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, whose parking lot I use, offered an exhibit by the German artist Carl Rungius. Rungius bugged out of Europe at the end of the 19th century, mainly because what passed for wild land there belonged to the aristocracy and only the rich could hunt or traipse about in it.

In the New World's Rocky Mountains, the artist found the soul-saving serenity that suffuses his paintings of loping grizzlies, big horn sheep and moose gazing out at ragged granite peaks. As the exhibit's info-graphics pointed out, though, by the time Rungius reached America's West, its wildness was, in truth, history. In one century, the nation's population had grown tenfold to 100 million. "No more frontier," the 1890 census noted bluntly. "The frontier is gone."

Those of us who consume the outdoors don't need to be reminded. Often, as I set out from the Autry, trotting southeast on the dirt path along Crystal Springs Drive, I find my mind churning between hope and mild despair.

Here's what discourages: The stink and roar of the adjacent freeways and the Toyon Canyon Landfill's terraced scabs. As the dirt road rises and falls past the old zoo's abandoned bear cages, as emboldened endorphins grapple with stress hormones for control of my brain, I sometimes take to fretting.

Here's what encourages: The parts of this run where fire roads weave and roll through the hills and Los Angeles evaporates into pungent sage and bird song. Thudding along here evokes memories of the deeper solitude still to be found in Alaska, Wyoming, Oregon, the San Gabriel Mountains and Catalina Island -- the latter two of which come into view on stretches of this run.

Counterintuitively, however, the human chaos in the park's green-grass sections also soothes. Kids whack Pokemon pinatas and chopstick up kim chee. The scent of carne asada and barbecued chicken mixes with the sound of mariachis or the brassy riffs of a marching band that practices under a stand of sycamore. On Sundays, a throng of drummers gathers near the carousel. The throb of congas synchronizes the heartbeat and spurs reluctant leg muscles.

The frontier's gone, and too many people swarm the West. But when we get outdoors and get a whiff of the wild, at least for the moment we tend to get along. And we're trying to get along better with nature too.

Sure, mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians squabble. But fisticuffs are almost as rare as snakebite. Sure, there's a landfill stuffed with 18 million tons of Olsen twins' videos and blenders with a mere 12 speeds. But the park also boasts a new recycling center, rich with the scent of mulch. And the zoo's native plant garden gives hope to all the buckwheat, Scottish broom and bush monkey flowers huddling in the hills above the park's hyper-verdant golf courses and the greener-still Forest Lawn.

About five miles along, my route crosses Griffith Park Drive and lurches up Skyline Trail. The slippery climb wallops, but the summit never fails to stun, especially at dusk, just after a rain. Suddenly the lights of all Southern California sparkle.

The 5 and 134 freeways grumble like Class V rapids. But this irritation is neutralized by glimpses of the Los Angeles River, complete with trees and ducks and the promise that some of those concrete banks may soon be gone.

Turn a bend and startled deer spring into the buckthorn. Distant coyotes yelp. Wild or caged, who knows? The way the park blurs these matters is what gives me hope.

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