Walk on the Wilshire Side You don't need to hike the John Muir Trail to open up new worlds. Downtown Los Angeles to the Beach will do.
by Judith Lewis
(page 2 of 2)
OUR STARTING POINT is the Metro Red Line rail station at Western Avenue. A little after 8:30 a.m., we set out. Gaciku and Velasco walk arm in arm, running to stay at the front of the squad, where Stribling continues his high-decibel rap, now boasting of his unflagging energy. "I'm in JROTC," he tells me. "I can walk for days."
I'm feeling the same. I happen to live on Wilshire Boulevard and considered myself on intimate terms with its landmarks. But now distances familiar to me from long, dull drives shatter into scores of small discoveries. I spot storefronts and building facades I never knew were there, and the blocks melt away. When we hit Highland Avenue at 10 a.m., Vanderberg calls for a break and pulls out a map. We're smack in the heart of Los Angeles, just shy of the historic Miracle Mile--a segment of Wilshire designed for early automobile traffic, replete with art deco highrises and streamline moderne office towers. I'm astonished: I've never walked from Western to Highland. It never occurred to me that I could.
Although this stretch of Wilshire is the first road in the world to be equipped with timed traffic lights, it's also--thanks to its dense mix of museums and cafes--one of the few stretches in Los Angeles that people commonly navigate on foot. We linger briefly at the La Brea Tar Pits, where ill-fated Pleistocene beasts became mired in oil seeps. Outside the wrought-iron gates, lumbering Escalades and Excursions are trapped in asphalt between traffic lights. We blend in easily here, but a few miles west, where Wilshire intersects the fabled retail fantasyland of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the stares begin. It's not often, in this deeply segregated city, that a small crowd of black and Latino teenagers traipses through these moneyed streets. Women with Botoxed foreheads and surgically stretched cheeks perch at sidewalk cafe tables, blinking bewilderedly like some odd species of bird. I half expect security guards to roll up and ask what we're doing here. For a moment, Stribling stops rapping long enough to stare in a window at a $3,000 pair of socks. "They better have a lifetime warranty!" he declares.
Top, from left: gathering permission slips pre-hike; this is not a walk in the woods; and Mar'cel Stribling with energy to spare. Bottom, from left: Bill Vanderberg, who made it happen; Muthoni Gaciku and Wendy Velasco, after a very cold dip in the Pacific; and Renee Kelly, as fresh as when she started.
By noon we clear Beverly Hills, and what was a pleasantly cool day becomes oppressively hot. Gaciku and Velasco have fallen to the middle of the pack. Stribling has gone quiet. Spirits rally briefly when a breeze comes off the ocean at Bundy Drive in Brentwood, the Westside neighborhood made infamous by O. J. Simpson, but fade when Vanderberg takes out the map again: three long miles to the sea. "This is going to be the tough hour," he confides to me. "It's been four hours already, and we've got some complaints coming in about feet."
In fact, except for Vanderberg himself, the only one who looks undisturbed by the journey is Renee Kelly. As I limp along next to her, I notice that her hair remains smooth and neat, her lips still glossy, and her smile as fresh and relaxed as it was when we began.
"You know, when I first met you, I didn't think you could finish this hike," I confess.
Kelly shoots me a look of mock scorn.
"The bangles threw me," I explain, pointing to the jingling column of gold on her wrist.
"Oh," Kelly says with a laugh. "I do trail work with my bangles on. I forget that they're there."
Kelly, the daughter of Jamaican parents who never took her camping, earned her outdoors credentials three years ago when she was persuaded to come along on a camping trip to Death Valley. She was in tenth grade and not doing well. "I was fed up with school and about to drop out," she says. "I was going through things." The trip wasn't easy. "It was freezing cold. The wind was snapping in our faces, our tents blew down, and everything broke. All our cars got stuck in the mud." But she got to throw herself off the high, forgiving slopes of the Eureka Dunes and saw the precipitous, snow-capped Panamint Mountains rising high above the salty flats at Badwater. A world apart from the fast-food drive-ins and strip malls of South Los Angeles opened up, and Kelly saw a future for herself in it. "I realized that if I wanted to go on more trips, I had to show up at school more," she says. "So I did."
Kelly graduated last year and now studies nursing at Tuskegee University in Alabama, with plans to be a park ranger on the side.
As Vanderberg folds up the map, he looks down sternly at one girl's slip-on tennies. "Where are your socks?" he demands.
"I'm not answering," says 18-year-old Maria Diego, batting long, mascara-coated eyelashes. Diego was last year's Eco Club vice president, and she's spent the whole day walking with her friend Karla Rivera, 17. The two have known each other since elementary school but only became friends on a club backpacking trip to Yosemite. "And now we're 'Diego-Rivera!'" chirps Rivera.
"I got close to Mr. Vanderberg because I wasn't a real good student and I had to go and talk to him a lot," says Diego. The Yosemite trip was her first, and she found it exhausting. She and Rivera struggled to keep up along steep switchbacks. It was Kelly, the club's president back then, who kept them moving. "She was always motivating me," says Diego. "And at the end, I looked back and realized I'd done something I thought I could never do."
Did it improve her schoolwork?
"For a while," Diego says, looking down at her inadequately shod feet. "I got off track again this year."
"Sometimes she needs to be bad," Rivera teases.
In fact, Diego had dropped out of school the previous year and only squeaked out a diploma in December after completing a series of courses in night school. Sometimes a walk in the woods--or a walk down the length of Wilshire Boulevard--is just what it is; it's not a panacea, and it's not going to turn every teenager around. "We're here to introduce kids to the outdoors," Vanderberg says, "not to perform miracles on everyone."
Lots of kids come to Eco Club meetings but don't participate further, Vanderberg says. Some can't get past their fear of spending three days in the woods without a bathroom; others come out once and never return, with no explanation. "But they still had an experience they never had before," he insists. "Even if they don't stay with me, they know what possibilities are out there." The Eco Club shouldn't have to justify itself, Vanderberg argues, by saving every academic career. "It's enough when we just get one," he says.
Like Channing Martinez, for example. Martinez came to Vanderberg in the tenth grade, the child of parents who had emigrated from Belize. "He was mute," Vanderberg says. "He could say yes, and he could say no. But he went with us to Wyoming. He went with us to Yosemite." Four years later, Martinez became an officer in the Coalition for Educational Justice, an activist group of students, parents, and teachers fighting for better educational standards in the L.A. school system. "He's so assertive and self-confident now," Vanderberg says. "He's impressive."
(Contacted later, Martinez says the "extremely hard" backpacking trips taught him to look for ways to change his world instead of just accepting it as it is. "To be away from technology and TV, with just what you need to survive on your back, it opens your mind. It made me question things I didn't before, like why our school has 3,000 students when it's built for 2,000," he says. When he joined the Eco Club, Martinez planned to become a carpenter; now he's planning a career as a teacher and an activist, "like what Mr. Vanderberg does.")
At 1:30 p.m., we hit Lincoln Boulevard, which divides the rest of Los Angeles from what everyone knows as the Beach. With nine blocks left, Diego and Rivera start running into the ocean breeze. Vanderberg shouts at them to slow down, but it's no use. When we cross Ocean Avenue and hit the soft dirt of the walking path, Gaciku jumps into the air and lets out a whoop. Stribling announces loudly that he could walk the whole thing again. Kelly, gold earrings sparkling, camera swinging calmly from her wrist, just beams a broad, quiet smile.
Judith Lewis is a senior editor at the LA Weekly.
Photos by Gregory Bojorquez; used with permission.