Long drives around LA may seem like a drag to some of us, but writer, photographer, and world-traveler Wendy E. Simmons offers a fresh perspective on the City of Angels.
When I was 14, I spent the summer living in Los Angeles, in Studio City. During this time, my entire goal in life was to reach Malibu Beach to flirt with cute surfer boys. An easy task when one is of driving age and has access to a vehicle, but not when not, and one is staying far, far away in the valley of San Fernando.
Not easily deterred, I turned to LA's public transportation system, aka the bus, and hitchhiking, to bridge the 30-mile divide that stood between "Babe Beach" and me. That my daily "commute" required I leave the house by dawn, travel three hours, possibly four when traffic was snarled, change buses twice, and of course, hitchhike (I was careful to only get into cars with drivers who "looked nice") mattered not, because it turned out I really liked the ride more than the beach, or the cute boys. I liked the ride so much, in fact, that reaching the beach became the point, the excuse I needed for the ride I wanted to take.
I still remember every mile of it. Sitting spellbound as the city unfolded on the other side of the glass: the jimble-jamble, motley mix of shops, signs, and people we'd pass as the bus rumbled down Ventura Boulevard, across the Valley. The exaggerated, wide circle up and onto the freeway, like a plane banking left for its final descent into an airport. Then we'd serpentine on a sinuous concrete river over and through green and brown hills, surrounded by houses on stilts and palm trees that stretched to the sky, before gliding back down into the west side's bustling mix of people living their lives. And at last, the home stretch north on the Pacific Coast Highway, the ocean lapping up against well-hidden houses I struggled to see on my left, and mountains sliding down to meet the road's edge on my right.
Thirty-four years later, nothing's changed. I'm still as mesmerized as ever by Los Angeles's perfectly chaotic, eclectic, and unruly mix of urban-nature-city-land. Nothing stays in its lines. It's like a short, flat version of New York that's been stretched to its limits, then plunged into the middle of a tropical rainforest, only all the moisture got sucked out, and a few billion shops, people, and cars were thrown in instead.
Stores sprawl in every direction, their signs screaming for attention. People everywhere, and nowhere to be seen. Freeways criss and cross at impossible heights, while the streets below travel this way then that way with total disregard for logic or reason. Plants and flowers battle concrete and bricks for domination, and the whole city is so impregnated by bougainvillea, it's a wonder there isn't some harried flock of set designers running around 24/7 charged with ensuring there is.
It's an all-you-can-see-visual-feast-for-the-eyes buffet that I simply can't get enough of . . . from the passenger seat. My absolute favorite thing to do in LA is ride — not drive — around LA, the slower the better, so I can soak it all in. In a city synonymous with the conspicuous consumption of expensive cars, with traffic so egregious rush hour starts at 4 a.m. and lasts all day, and with a population so thoroughly committed to driving alone that two people constitutes a sufficient load for the HOV lane, this makes me . . . odd, an outlier.
I was recently in Los Angeles for a quick trip — 90 hours — to see Iggy Pop, visit friends, and attend a few meetings. Because I can't drive (well I can drive, but only forward . . . a subject for a different article), I spent 9.081 hours — that's 544.88 minutes — in the backseat of an Uber, covering 190.92 miles, with no single trip longer than 22 miles. It was like I was on some sort of Uber vacation. An Ubercation.
I love not-driving in a car anywhere, for any reason. I practically have a Pavlovian response to the words, "road trip." But it's LA's particularly quirky stew of juxtaposed opposites — old and new, traditional and modern, clean and dirty, straight and curvy, short and tall, ordinary and extraordinary, modest and grandiose – a harmony and incongruity that make not-driving driving there so particularly appealing. It's sexy-ugly incarnate, and it thrills me, overwhelms me, and fills me with joy during each and every ride.
That's not to say I too don't complain about the city's epic traffic. I do . . . when sitting down to dine with friends, or when getting acquainted with new colleagues. It's the least I can do not to sound like a complete weirdo. "Uh! The traffic on the 10 was UNBEARABLE getting over here!" I'll say with convincing authority. Or, "It took me an hour and 40 minutes to get from Los Feliz to Santa Monica last night!" I'll shock-whine with a light lilt.
But the truth is I loved every minute of it, and in my mind, the car commercials have it all wrong. They equate freedom with driving, but driving requires concentration on driving. You may be moving through space and time, but your focus must remain fixed in one place: a few feet ahead of you. Only with riding comes real freedom: there's no limit to how far your eyes may roam, or your mind may wander (and in my case, wonder).