Before moving to Los Angeles in 1999 to pursue a career in art, London native Lisa Salem traveled alone to India and spent two winters with Irish squatters in an abandoned train car without electricity or water. But those adventures pale in light of Salem's latest expedition: She's walking across L.A. and won't return home until she's crisscrossed the entire sunbaked urban sprawl.
The 30-year-old painter, photographer and multimedia artist left her Echo Park residence on May 27, pushing a camera-fitted baby stroller sparsely packed with a cellphone, sunglasses, bottled water and Kleenex for her allergies. Since then, Salem has been relying on the kindness of strangers and a network of friends who allow her to crash on their couches while she blogs in text and images about her experiences on the walkla.blogs.com website.
In June, the wiry Salem, wearing sandals, green cargo pants and black tank top, showed up at a downtown sidewalk cafe with her constant companion, a three-wheeled jogging stroller jury-rigged with digital video camera and jiggling microphone.
What possessed Salem to embark on a trek, in the summer no less, that will take her from North Hollywood to Pacific Palisades, south to Watts and Los Angeles International Airport, and eastward to South Pasadena and Alhambra? "The idea percolated over a three-year period," she says between sips of iced coffee. "We're all living such different experiences of this town, and yet when we say 'Los Angeles' we tend to presume that we're talking about the same thing. What would happen if I walked through all the different neighborhoods? Would I get a better sense of where I live? What would I see that I don't normally see? I think I know this place fairly well, but how well do I really know it and what would be revealed to me if I approached it from this absurd kind of place?
"I like the idea of doing something absurd, passionately. To me that's poetic, but you have to find a roundabout way to access that kind of poetic feeling, especially in L.A."
Ten months ago, Salem began planning the "Walk! Los Angeles With Me" project in earnest, spurred by her newfound interest in blogging. Says Salem, "Blogging was the lightbulb, the missing link as to how to do this project and make it very exciting." Salem uses borrowed laptop computers to post video shorts, digital photos and text reports about her encounters.
Salem's initial departure was a gala send-off attended by dozens of her friends. Council member Eric Garcetti even showed up and rewarded her with a certificate from the city of L.A. But the grand launch fizzled into a weeklong false start. After a friend retooled Salem's stroller, making it easier to steer, she set off again.
In the time since her send-off, Salem has pounded the pavement in Skid Row, Bunker Hill, Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, Atwater Village, Silver Lake, Hollywood and Beverly Hills. (Next up: Bel-Air, Sherman Oaks, Studio City.) Along the way she's bumped into long-lost friends and been consoled by strangers when, during a block-long sneezing jag, she heard "God bless you" in three languages.
She befriended two sisters who've walked together through Chinatown every night since 1991, met a homeless man who makes $80 a day collecting cans in a shopping cart, and shared stroller duty with dads, lawyers, electricians and an Iraq War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "Listening to him was really enlightening," she says. "He said, 'Everybody thinks L.A. is so dangerous. L.A. is not dangerous! Afghanistan is dangerous. Iraq's dangerous. The guys here with their guns, they're all amateurs!' "
Though Salem has mapped out a loose itinerary, she has no idea how long it will take to complete her project. The answer depends partly on whether enough donations flow in to support it. Salem set out with only $300 and is "nearly broke."
She's also anxious about lodging. "It's one thing to say to your friend, 'Can I sleep on your couch for one night?' It's another thing to ask for that repeatedly," Salem notes. "I've sown seeds in as many areas as I can, and if a lead comes along, then I definitely latch on to it or I'll get a number by talking to as many people as I can."
If Salem's go-with-the-flow approach seems audacious, well, that's the point.
"During the first week I realized that a lot of this project is about serendipity," Salem says. "Rather than imposing any kind of agenda, I want to see what comes in front of the camera. The point isn't to do an anthropological survey of each area. It's not about 'this place is like this and that place is like that' but more about what happens when I just do the walk."
Salem says she might make a documentary film about her experience, but for now she is content to walk and blog. "I would like to be able to make a film at the end, or write about it or something, but right now there are so many elements I feel like I just have to focus on the walking and just get what I get.
"At first," she adds, "I thought I'd be ambling through quieter places, but it's become a lot more about the people and what I'm hearing. Now I'm walking on busier streets. There's just so much to catch, because every person I meet has a story."