I lived in Los Angeles for six years, and whenever I return I’m struck by nostalgia in almost every direction. My feelings on the place are aggressively mixed. While I can never forget how much I struggled during those days, I have so many wonderful memories. The way I figure it, I could have easily never left.
Many years ago I wrote a novel set in L.A. (A Model Community), and I can still remember why the younger version of myself wrote these words:
Unlike many of my East Coast brethren, I did not consider Los Angeles as the devil incarnate. To me, it’s just so unimaginably easy to hate it. Sure, the menu of complaints was extensive: helicopters haphazardly buzzing around at night, smog settling like dust on your skin and lungs, parking lots posing as freeways, accidental architecture. There were gangs and crime and money was flaunted in the most shameless of manners. But none of the demeaning qualities of the city really overpowered me.
It was always tough to admit it while I was a resident from 1998 to 2004, but in many ways I did (in a vaguely Randy Newman-type manner) love L.A.
Los Angeles can easily overwhelm a visitor, but even a short trip can yield a terrific combo platter of what the city has to offer. But you need a plan. I only had 48 hours to spend in LA, and despite once being a resident, I did a lot of pre-trip research. While I figured I had to embrace the nostalgia, my goal was to get to know the city of 2016.
I took the red-eye from Honolulu and landed at LAX at 6:30 the next morning (3:30 am Hawaii Time). Knowing it would be an incredible longshot my room would be available that early, I still needed a destination to give to my cab driver. After I said “Magic Castle Hotel in Hollywood”, I wasn’t entirely sure the gray haired gentlemen heard me over the classic rock track cranking over the speakers. However, being on less than two hours’ sleep and with the cabbie joyfully exclaiming in his heavy Russian accent about how Deep Purple is his favorite band . . . I didn’t have the heart to ask if he understood.
While “Smoke on the Water” vibrated throughout my body, the driver got me to the Magic Castle Hotel without further instruction. As I figured, I couldn’t check-in because it was just after seven in the morning and they were completely sold out last night. But with friendly service they stored my bags and pointed me to their continental breakfast spread.
I had a choice . . . a lounge chair by the pool for a few hours of sleep before check-in time, or carpe diem the shit out of the day. I chose the latter and downed three cups of coffee and had some yogurt. Soon I was walking east down Franklin Avenue towards Griffith Park.
Having done my research, I knew the trailhead to the Hollywood Sign Hike was just over 2.5 miles from my hotel. With the trek itself being about five miles’ roundtrip, Uber or Lyft seemed the smart choice. So why, after almost no sleep after a long flight across the Pacific Ocean, did I decide to walk? Strangely, I felt pretty good physically and the coffee had given me a jolt. But maybe after the $70 cab ride, I didn’t want to pay any more money for transportation.
When I lived in L.A. I had done many hikes in Griffith Park, but for some reason never put the Hollywood Sign on my to-do list. It certainly wasn’t because I thought it was touristy (I had done the highly popular Griffith Observatory one on many occasions), or that I was unaware of its existence (I knew you could get there). While I’ll never know the reasons why I shunned the Hollywood Sign, it’s certainly an activity I should have done.
After almost two miles walking down the heavily trafficked Franklin Avenue, I took a left just after Gelson’s Market on Canyon Drive. Soon I was transported into a tranquil world. Residential of the highly upscale variety, I could hear the wind in the trees and birds chirping as I walked up the slight incline towards Griffith Park. After a short walk I reach the trailhead. If I had been driving, parking was available in a couple of lots on either side at the end of the road.
The Bronson Caves, which have been used in several movies throughout the years and most famously in the 60s Batman show, were just a short detour before beginning the trek to the Hollywood Sign. As it was nearing 9 am and I had a 2-and-a-half-hour hike ahead of me, I decided to get right to the main trail and forgo the Bat Caves until afterwards. However, I actually never get to see them because I was too hungry when I returned and needed to get to a bathroom.
But after the experience of walking all the way up and behind the Hollywood sign, I’m sure those little caves would have been a disappointment.
There was a fit couple in their 20s who started the hike approximately the same time as me, and with their speed and my just-happy-to-be-there gait, they quickly put distance between us. A few minutes later four people in their 50s speaking German passed me on their way down, and it was probably another 30 minutes before I saw anyone else on the trail. With the fog and the elevation and my lack of sleep, the whole experience was quite dreamlike.
I started getting weird thoughts. What if the exertion was too much on too little sleep and I pass out? There had to be mountain lions and rattlesnakes and David Lynch type monsters lurking just around the bend. But I quickly ousted those ridiculous macabre fantasies from my mind, and it’s easy to enjoy the moment.
The first thirty or so minutes of the hike is a steady incline with some switchbacks, and then it gets easy for a while until you reach the turnoff that will take you up behind the sign on Mount Lee. You need to step around quite a bit of horse poop, but otherwise the path is easy walking. On a clear day I’m sure the views of downtown and the entire surrounding area are outstanding, but the diaphanous fog was doing its best to shield the sights.
Before going up behind the Hollywood Sign, I keep going along the ridge with its old wooden fence running along the left. Through the fog I could just make out the Griffith Observatory and the outline of the skyscrapers in the distance. Down below a group of horses ambled around a pen. I reach the end of the path and can see the letters spelling out H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D above me, the closest I’ve ever been to them. After snapping a few photos, I turned back around towards the trail to get to the top of Mount Lee.
The sign still seemed far away, and with a big yawn I began to feel the lack of sleep. I wanted to take a nap in the grass, but I kept onward. It was up, up, up for maybe another 20 minutes before reaching my first extreme close-up view of the Hollywood Sign. Behind a high chain link fence and warnings forbidding closer access, I looked down at the giant letters in awe.
Built in 1923 to advertise a real estate development called Hollywoodland (the L-A-N-D letters were taken down in 1949), the sign originally lit up with bulbs and was only intended to exist for eighteen months. It then became a symbol of the glamour and glitz of the American film industry, and eventually morphed into a historical landmark of worldwide acclaim. Something I didn’t know (until Wikipedia recently told me), was the original 1923 letters had become so deteriorated they had to all be replaced (by bigger ones) in 1978.
Like countless people before and after, I moved to Hollywood in my twenties to make it in the film industry. For me the dream was to become a professional screenwriter. While I wrote several scripts, made many connections, and got read at some of the top agencies, I never got the proverbial big break.
When I made it to the top of Mount Lee that morning, a little winded and my calves feeling strained, I gazed down at the Hollywood Sign with respect. I couldn’t help but think of all the hours, days, weeks, months, and years I spent holed up in dingy apartments writing and hustling to sell my work. All the time hunched over a keyboard, doing my best to remain disciplined while my friends were out having fun. All of the near misses and rejections I received from agents and producers.
And I couldn’t help but smile.
I had always enjoyed the process, the honest and pure attempt at trying to reach my life goals. Since leaving Los Angeles I’ve never been so passionate, so dedicated to a singular vision. That’s probably the biggest reason why I loved living in L.A. back then (not the weather, or the history, or even all the great friends I made). And it’s why, despite failing to achieving those goals, I will always look upon my time there reverentially.