Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it can breed ignorance. When traveling to far-flung adventurous lands, one’s attention is typically at peak levels—absorbing the sights and sounds, mental notes becoming etched into memory like words chiseled into stone. It’s easy to forget that your exotic destination is someone else’s home, which they possibly take for granted. For a local in Country Z, waking to that incredible vista and hearing the native dialect spoken throughout the streets is just the norm. What the visitor experiences as life-changing, the resident may find mundane.
Rediscovering one’s own backyard through the eyes and mindset of a foreign visitor can be a useful exercise. Over the years, I’ve traveled to, written about, and photographed many interesting places around the world. As someone who tends to be off-road and in remote areas whenever possible, I was intrigued by the prospect of an all-pavement tour purely around my home turf of Southern California. It was a unique assignment, which made familiar territory seem instantly new again.
Movies to Mountains
Los Angeles is best described as urban sprawl ringed by rugged mountains. Its diverse communities, laid out one after another with ambiguous borders, are shared by nearly 19 million people—a number I find staggering, having recently returned from working a motorcycle story in Canada, whose huge land mass contains a total population of only 36 million. It seemed appropriate to direct any tour of Southern California through this incomparable mass of humanity and constantly changing cultural norms. In trying to pick a single image to sum up the uncommon and bizarre nature of the place, the Hollywood Sign won out.
Originally reading “Hollywoodland” when erected in 1923 to promote a housing development, the sign has been altered over the years by pranksters to read “Caltech,” “Holywood,” “Perotwood,” and more recently, “Hollyweed” by a Cal State Northridge art student for a class project (he received an A). In the course of its existence, this tiny spot has become a purveyor of culture unlike any other. Today, “Hollywood” is synonymous with not only entertainment, but creation, direction, and exportation of societal norms. For better or worse, the power of this brief expanse of pavement and nondescript studio spaces cannot be denied. In less than a lunch hour’s time, I would be seemingly as far away from the bustle of this scene as possible—a key reason Southern California is so unique.
Off-grid, in theHeart of the Grid
Roughly 30 minutes away from the Hollywood Sign is the beginning of Angeles Crest Highway. First opened in 1956, this strip of endless curves was originally intended to become a freeway. Excessively mountainous terrain made that impossible however, and today it exists as one of the premier scenic byways in the state. Its greatness also means it is quite popular. Riding here on a weekend, you can expect to share the road with several other new friends. Late Monday morning, however, this stellar stretch of pavement is gleefully empty. At George’s Gap trailhead, the uniqueness of this corner of the globe is revealed in part by the fact you can stare into a largely uninhabited canyon exhibiting zero signs of development, with 19 million people at your back.