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First Person: Rolling with LACMA's 'Levitated Mass' rock

A Times reporter bundles up for the all-nighters tracking the boulder's journey and along the way discovers a moving town square.

March 12, 2012|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times
  • The boulder's journey ends early Saturday morning as a crowd greets its arrival at LACMA. The rock will be in Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" sculpture at the museum.
The boulder's journey ends early Saturday morning as a crowd greets… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

"Excuse me, miss? Why is this rock so special?" questioned the puzzled man, bundled in a heavy sweat shirt, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand.

It was close to 3 a.m. on Saturday and the 340-ton boulder, after traveling for 11 nights through city streets, was on its victory lap, inching up Wilshire Boulevard to its destination at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Hundreds of people were running on the sidewalk alongside the shining, custom-built carrier.

I had been on the road with the monolith — and the Emmert International crew hauling it — on and off since it departed from a quarry in Riverside County in late February. I had chronicled the project's fits and starts in articles, blog posts and, as the transporters' wheels rounded every harrowing turn on its journey, blow by blow on my Twitter account.

Yet the question stumped me.

It was not because of the multiple all-nighters I had pulled to ride with the rock or because my feet were cramping from walking behind the caravan for so many miles, or the cold I was nursing. Maybe it was the annoyance that slowly had canceled out the awe that originally had inspired me about this mission. Part engineering marvel, part civic spectacle, the "Levitated Mass," as it will be called upon its unveiling this spring as a sculpture on the LACMA campus, had taken over my life.

An assignment that I had expected to take a couple of weeks had turned into more than six months, as the logistics of hauling this two-story-high chunk of granite through four counties and 22 cities became mired in a thicket of permitting nightmares. Would streets crack from the weight, damaging sewer lines below? Would bridges crumble? How many streetlights and utility poles would need to be taken down?

The feat, funded privately to the tune of $10 million, was far more complicated than anyone at the museum or Emmert had fathomed. For me, it was the interminable "next week's story," forcing me to cancel interviews, dinner dates and out-of-town visitors at the last minute so I could travel with the rock; then departure dates inevitably turned into false alarms, usually because of one permitting snag or another. That start-and-stop routine reached a hip-hop frenzy by mid-February.

My mother seemed oddly in sync with the rock, her visits repeatedly colliding with key progress points. During a September visit, she donned an orange hard hat to accompany me and dozens of other journalists to Stone Valley Quarry to meet the rock and watch the transporter being built around it. When my mom showed up in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, my hunch was that LACMA's proposed departure date the following day was solid. It was!

Though international media swarmed the quarry the night we embarked, most everyone had cleared out by 10 p.m., giving me exclusive media face time with the rock, along with a small documentary crew hired by the museum to record the journey. I rode for a bit with Emmert Project Manager Mark Albrecht at the head of the caravan miles in front of the rock, but soon jumped out to walk closer to the transporter, with the various truckers and Emmert superintendents — a haphazard parade of orange and yellow hard hats.

My arts and entertainment assignments have taken me to galleries, to red carpets and to chefs tables in Beverly Hills but have rarely been as physically taxing. The night the rock hit the road, I lay in the dirt near the quarry, blogging on my iPhone in the pitch dark, my fingertips icy cold. I had not prepared for 41-degree weather in the wide open Jurupa Valley. I darted into a nearby gas station to buy a knit cap, gloves and zebra print scarf. Emmert crew members lent me spare jackets. With my three puffy coats and a requisite neon CHP vest, I looked like a glowing, traffic-savvy marshmallow.

Bathroom accommodations were scarce on the deserted roads of Riverside County and parts of Diamond Bar. The only option was a single, rolling Andy Gump porta-potty — which I avoided at all costs — hitched to the back of a truck and shared by 100 truckers that were on hand to clear the rock's path.

My second night out, I tweeted so much that Twitter cut me off, thinking perhaps that I was a spammer. My followers began a relentless assault, complaining I had fallen down on the job. "Don't send this girl to Iraq," one tweeted.

Gratefully, a colleague who covers the party scene was awake at 1 a.m. to tell my followers about the Twitter malfunction. Emmert's Justin Salter opened his first Twitter account on his iPad and tweeted in my defense. I texted a friend, who opened a new account for me and tweeted my photos and comments through the night. My followers finally forgave me.

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