In 2016, Nick Neely walked for 12 weeks from San Diego to San Francisco to retrace the first overland Spanish expedition into what’s now the state of California. Led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá, a party of about 63 men and their mule train set out on July 14, 1769 in search of the fabled harbor of Monterey, which had been glowingly described by the explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602. The expedition didn’t quite recognize Monterey Bay, so the men continued on and, as result, “discovered” the San Francisco Bay on November 4 before turning back. Referencing the detailed journals of Franciscan Padre Juan Crespí, Neely left the San Diego International Airport with his backpack on July 14 and walked north at the Portolá expedition’s pace, camping where it had night by night. The following is an excerpt from the resulting book,Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State, which was published by Counterpoint Press in November, on the quarter-millennial anniversary of the expedition’s sighting of San Francisco Bay. Here he enters Los Angeles. This essay is is reprinted by permission of the publisher and author.
I walked west from Alhambra and Mission San Gabriel, past car dealerships and big-box stores. Past bungalows that looked mostly similar, except that iron bars crept over windows and lawns dried up as the neighborhoods, the zip codes, seemed to shift. Banana trees along stucco walls. Hammocks of spiderweb catching purple jacaranda blossoms in hedges. HAPPY BIRTHDAY was strung up in front of a red house, plastic leis draped over its picket fence. “All the way home, all the way home!” yelled a boy with a bat beside an overturned shopping cart, like those I’d seen in dry riverbeds, as his kid brother one-hopped a tennis ball toward this backstop and imagined plate.
Hills up ahead: Omaha Heights, Monterey Hills, Montecito Heights. I followed Huntington Drive toward the city. An ice-cream cart sounded like a white-breasted nuthatch. I passed a Portola Avenue, a Portola Pharmacy. Outside a variety store stood a folding table with an array of loose, used Lego figures: LEGOS $1. Another sign: POKÉMON, CATCH ’EM ALL—UNLIMITED DATA PLAN. As I neared downtown, the sidewalk petered out. L.A. should be a walking city, with its fine weather, but it has a long way to go. Fingers of bougainvillea reached out from the noise reduction walls and pushed me onto the road; an orange local bus whirred by with a startling push of air. Houses and apartments climbed the hills as Huntington wended through a canyon toward downtown—was it the same “hollow” the Portolá expedition took? The streetlights each had a solar panel, just high enough to avoid vandalism. Black-eyed Susan growing through chain-link, a few stalks bent so that their petals swept the pavement. I heard goldfinches among them. IN A WRECK, NEED A CHECK? 323-REAR END. At a light, the bumper sticker on a pickup with a jumble of purple and pink girls’ bikes in its bed offered: DIOS ES MI REY, GUATEMALA MI PAÍS. A white pickup: JESUS WAS A JEWISH LIBERAL.
I swung a right and climbed Lincoln Heights on North Broadway, at one time the Historic Route 66. Portolá probably wouldn’t have climbed any hills here, but I was eager. The skyscrapers were like stair steps to the southwest: hardly any definition on these enormous buildings, their edges lost to haze and sidelight. Straight down Broadway was Elysian Park and the peekaboo lights of Dodger Stadium. The feathered shadow of a tree of heaven was a moving fossil, like imprints in shale. I stopped to watch tasseled lanterns swaying scarlet over the Vietnam-Chinese Friendship Association parking lot; BREEZY, said graffiti on the sidewalk right in front of them. Mexican panaderías advertised that they accepted food stamps. In a pet shop, I homed in on a cage of five lovebirds, native to the plains of the Serengeti: one was a bright custard lemon, but with a naked pink head from disease or too much stress in a crowded space.
Portolá took his men due west from the Whittier Narrows, the water gap between the Puente Hills and the El Monte Hills that was carved by the confluence of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers, about 15 miles from the ocean. The expedition marched for about three leagues until, through the same gentle hills I traveled on Huntington Drive, they came to “another good-sized, full-flowing river with very good water, pure and fresh, flowing through another very pleasant green valley.” Crespí had trouble describing and differentiating these flourishing places, of setting them apart in writing one after the next, something I completely understand, though these rivers and valleys are now more varied than ever. But he knew a promising location when he saw one. “Good and better than good though the places behind us have been,” he wrote, “to my mind this spot can be given the preference in everything, in soil, water, and trees… A grand spot to become in time a good-sized mission of Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de la Porciúncula.” It was the feast day (“Indulgence,” he writes, an established day of repentance) at the founding chapel of the Franciscan order, the Portiuncula, which means “a small portion” in Italian. The chapel is so named because the Benedictines gave to Saint Francis that small portion of land belonging to the ruined Chapel Saint Mary of the Angels near Assisi. A place of international pilgrimage, the Portiuncula now stands inside the cathedral built around it.
In one of the dusty rooms of Mission San Gabriel, beside a small pipe organ, I had seen the processional crucifix, with the Savior hung from it, that is said to have led the way 12 years later when the pueblo of Los Angeles was founded by 44 pobladores, or townspeople, recruited from Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. They walked Huntington Drive, as I did, some 70 years before Huntington, the railroad magnate and Los Angeles booster (and book collector), was born. In fact there was no such grand procession and, in 1781, these first hardy Mexican-Spanish-Californians arrived in Los Angeles in waves: four families were sent west in June from the mission, the rest in September. They built a pueblo on a bench above the river, beside some defensible hills now called Elysian. They were a diverse lot: eight of the adults were indigenous, ten of African ancestry. The pueblo was arranged in a traditional style around a central plaza, not too close to the river, with fields on the floodplain’s lower terraces. A zanja would carry river water past the town and along the agricultural plots. But as usual the flood potential was underestimated, and the pueblo itself was moved several times.
I paused on the historic Buena Vista Street Viaduct and looked into the Los Angeles River, not far downstream from its confluence with Arroyo Seco, which Crespí describes as having an even wider gravel bed and “many dead trees that must have come down from the mountains” in a torrent. “On either side of the river there are very large, very green bottomlands, seeming from afar to be cornfields because of their greenness,” he wrote. Now there was concrete. Running straight as an arrow north to south, the flood control channel was like a six-lane highway, its slanted banks painted with white squares, graffiti ghosts: What messages lost? Down the middle was a ragged lane of water, green with algae. That drove it home for me: a river is the flow itself, not its bed. It is the ceaseless or intermittent water that doesn’t care what surface it’s given, though the whole ecosystem suffers if only concrete is provided.
The L.A. River fell forward in idyllic ripples, and if you were to concentrate on just one spot of moving water and gaze awhile, you wouldn’t know this river wasn’t “wild.” But upstream a light-rail train, the public metro, clattered over an overpass, with a healthcare ad on its side: MIRACLES ARE CLOSER THAN YOU THINK. Two concrete pads below me—all that remained of an old bridge?—posed as squat boulders, and a raft of mallards bobbed the wavelet train to their eddies, where one by one they scooted out to preen and sun, and tuck their heads under their shoulders, stub tails waggling. Downstream, booms shifted the river as if from one set of railroad tracks to another around the pillars of another viaduct under construction.
The Tongva greeted the Portolá expedition with “bowstrings removed” among other gracious gestures: they threw three handfuls of beads to each of the men, and blew three puffs of smoke on each from their clay pipes, and brought two or three baskets of “very delicious” sage that Portolá apportioned. Their village of several hundred, one of the largest in the Los Angeles Basin, was called Yang-na, which the Spanish settlers dubbed El Aliso because it was near an enormous and sacred sycamore. The region’s Tongva held meetings under this tree, “the council tree,” whose canopy is said to have measured 200 feet across. When it died in 1892, 400 years were counted in its rings. The site of Yang-na, found after having been lost for 150 years, is under the Hollywood Freeway, a stretch of 101 near Union Station. The settlers whittled at the village, taking the Tongva’s small portion for themselves, until in 1846 the remaining villagers were relocated to the river’s east side. Two years later Los Angeles forced them to disperse, too, handing them 24 dollars, total, in compensation.
Across the river, every surface of Elysian Park was gently or violently graffitied: signs, dumpsters, electrical boxes, eucalyptus trees (the cursive of the red lettering blended surprisingly well with its twisting, shedding bark). The historical landmark sign pointing vaguely in the direction of a “Portolá Trail” was no exception. It seems a common misconception that the expedition camped directly under these hills; in fact they tented on the river’s east side and crossed the next morning. Searching for the historic marker, I wandered down a dirt trail overlooking the river from the sheer bluffs it had shaped. Lots of baby wipes, napkins, toilet paper, and condoms (purple, wrinkled): all the signs of late-night rendezvous, of a cruising area, of a desire path in the original sense. Worn bamboo mats were nestled in spaces carved out, as if by the wind, in the manzanita. I sat on a sandstone bench (this graffitied, too) and watched an Anna’s hummingbird hover in the golden light near a toyon. Moving a few inches at time, point to point, side to side; dipping and rising with invisible manipulations of wing and tail. It looked addled or absent-minded, but it was harvesting barely visible gnats: “no-see-ums” that I could, in fact, see through my binoculars—the kind of bug that, when you walk into a cloud of them, you hold your breath. As if with chopsticks, the hummer was snatching flies. Then he would rest on the power lines slung across the Lincoln Hills and the San Gabriels. Hunched, singing, he was a gray dot you wouldn’t know from an electrical line fixture unless your ears were savvy to his treble warble. A second hummingbird danced not far off. These were the little green angels of the city.
Elysian Park, once known as the Rock Quarry Hills, is the second-largest park in L.A. at 600 acres. As with Presidio Hill in San Diego, urban heights that today would be coveted real estate were once thought to be marginal, if not wastelands, saving them from development. Up Buena Vista Hill, I indeed found good views into Dodger Stadium and its sea of blue seats, skyscrapers beyond them and “cotton candy skies,” as announcer Vin Scully would have put it. The Mercedes logo atop the scoreboard’s L and A seemed to speak volumes about its fandom. In a eucalyptus forest, on the crumbling pavement of a fire road, there was an 18-hole disc golf course, the sound of the discs rattling the chains soft and musical. A foursome of young men told me they played this course almost every day. They had satchels of 15 or 20 discs, drivers and putters for every distance and bend. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be up here during a ball game: the hum and roar after a base hit or home run. Instead, in a moment of relative silence between gusts of eucalyptus, I heard feral parrots.
Farther up the hill, people were lingering at a pullout with a big view directly above I-5: teenage boys with their car doors wide and bumping; a family taking snapshots before the San Gabes, those successive folds and pleats and wrinkles, with patches of white strata like erased graffiti. These mountains look like many of the semi-arid ranges I’ve seen isolated in Nevada or Utah, so it was incongruous to see so much civilization before them. The bare ridgetops were dotted with multi-tiered houses and the oases of trees planted around them. Directly below, the westbound I-5 was ponderous. A Ralphs grocery truck inched by with enormous strawberries printed on it. I left Angels Point Road and climbed a short, zigzag trail with some bushtits, where I found a lone tree and swing that carried its swinger right out over the highway and into the view, or seemed to, the mist or smog beginning to purple the mountains. The swing had a Little Tikes rubber seat scribbled all over with Sharpie. It was held up by a chain on one side and nylon construction rope, orange and black, on the other. I didn’t have the guts to swing on it.
A helicopter was circling low, repeatedly, and now, focusing on it, I realized it was landing on a nearby knoll. A fire helicopter, I saw, as it banked and caught the last light of the day. So I went toward it like a moth. An engine was parked in an empty lot and when the helicopter touched down, two firefighters in their helmets moved forward carefully, hunched below the rotors, to refill its tank. They detached the hose, and the chopper went back up with a whirl of dust and a spray of water that just missed the men. FIRE ATTACK, said its white belly. I asked a fireman what was up: there was a brushfire off a highway somewhere out there, eight or ten miles away. Again and again, the chopper dwindled and disappeared to the southwest, and again and again it returned with its blunt, aggressive nose, circling and whomping low. It seemed a mighty puny machine to keep the world from burning. Nearby an Anna’s hummingbird rose and hovered and landed again in a toyon, the bush with red berries for which Hollywood is named, and though I couldn’t see it, I knew the bird’s throat was aglow.
“You’re looking at one of the largest ground sloths we’ve found here, Harlan’s ground sloth,” said a docent named Connor in the La Brea Tar Pits Museum. He was a retired mathematics professor who had come back to an early passion: his first painting, he told me, when he was in third grade, was of a saber-tooth tiger. On the table before him was a replica of a sloth’s claw, but behind him a genuine tar-black skeleton reared up on stocky hind legs in what looked like an unfriendly posture: teeth, claws, and bones bared. But the pose may just as well have been the sloth reaching into a tree for leaves. This sloth, Connor said, would have weighed over a ton. It was a grazer, a browser, a mixed feeder. It had giant claws for digging and defense, and embedded in its skin were dermal ossicles (the diminutive of “bone” in Latin), a natural chain mail. This sloth had stepped into a tar pit and become stuck and flustered, until it tipped onto its flank and became devastatingly mired. Tough to think of the particular anguish that each of these animals experienced as they became engulfed. In the museum, an interactive display invited you to “Discover what it’s like to be trapped in tar”: I pulled up on a cylindrical piston embedded, below Plexiglass, in a vat of tar, and it was enormously taxing. It was a strange workout device that the gyms in Los Angeles should embrace and patent. “That is disgusting,” said one woman, as the tar sucked and slurped.
A mired animal or carcass attracted predators such as dire wolves and saber-tooths, and often they might come away with a leg or two: most of the skeletons found in the pits are partial. But this scavenging also resulted in a fatal chain reaction. Nine predators are found at La Brea for every one herbivore, suggesting that, one after the next, wolves and cats waded into a baited trap. In the museum, a whole wall of dire wolf skulls is backlit with orange like the glow of the fire of aeons. It looks like a paleontological wallpaper, a grim and grinning reminder of time and the relative uniformity of individuals. Coyotes made it out of the Ice Age, but dire wolves are gone. Slightly shorter than our gray wolves, they may have been too specialized to survive. Another docent explained it this way to a child: “If you only eat Taco Bell, and then all the Taco Bells closed down, you’d be out of luck. But if you ate, like, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, KFC—hopefully something healthier, too, to balance it out—you’d be better. You’d be good to go.”
The La Brea fossils are 10,000 to 50,000 years old, the tail end of the last ice age. Two-thousand saber-tooths have been found, 600 species of animals, 5.5 million individual fossils and more being processed every day. In the museum there is a Columbian mammoth skeleton and the tusks of Zed, another Columbian, who was found when the art museum next door dug a parking garage. There are prehistoric bison skeletons, with their fin-like, elongated hump vertebrae—animals that some people believe helped drive all these other creatures extinct when their great herds roamed across the frozen Bering Strait and proliferated, an invasive species before species were invasive. Later people walked over those same ice fields or paddled the shoreline—most likely waves of people over time—to become the first Californians.
“Our Captain and scouts reported that about half a league or more from this spot where we made camp”—from the newly named La Porciúncula and its river—“to the west, they came upon volcanoes of pitch coming out of the ground like springs of water. It boils up molten (and that there must have been about 40 of these springs, and perhaps many more, they said) and the water runs off one way and the pitch another.” Crespí gave them the name los volcanes de brea de La Porciúncula, and he expresses considerable frustration, for him, about being unable himself to visit these gassy vents of tar, “large swamplands of it, enough they said to have caulked many ships with.” They had felt four earthquakes at dawn along the Los Angeles River, and since reaching the Santa Ana River, Crespí writes of “hearing” 14 earthquakes in total (showing the limits of his education, he was probably confusing the Castilian and Catalan-Balearic terms for “feel” and “hear”). Now he attributes those earthquakes to the La Brea volcanoes. “Although we wished to, we did not ourselves have the luck to see these pitch volcanoes; instead, as it was some distance out of the way we were to take, our Governor refused to have us to go by them.”
I did not refuse to let myself go, and I tried to imagine the Spaniards’ amazement, to imagine the scouts riding by these molten ponds and over bones they couldn’t have imagined, with their own sabers on their hips. If the wind is right, you can smell the pits before you reach them. As you walk through the park’s east gates, Lake Pit, the largest, is immediately on the left. Actually it’s an excavation from an asphalt mine that helped seal Los Angeles’s roads and roofs. Wilshire Boulevard was paved over mammoths with the very substance that dragged them to their sticky graves. Eventually this pit-mine filled with water, becoming a brown lake of dull rainbow swirls with tule and cattail at its fringe. Methane bubbles rise like jellyfish from the oil field below and burp. A trio of mammoth sculptures forms an agonizing tableau at one end: a mother mammoth is trapped in the tar, sinking to her haunches (actually floating and tethered to shore, so she can rise and fall with the lake). Her tusks are raised to the L.A. sky as she bellows and trumpets (the remains of a bird nest in her mouth look like grass she was eating). From the bank, her calf reaches toward her in vain as another adult, presumably her mate, stands helpless. The science since 1968 suggests that this artistic interpretation is a little off: males probably kept to themselves, and so they were more often trapped by La Brea. No companion was nearby to pull them out.
Beyond its fence, another pit, much smaller, was covered with sycamore leaves and pine needles, showing how detritus could hide the pits’ surfaces. Or the pits might have been covered with shallow water, making them look like inviting watering holes. BEING STUCK IN THE LA BREA TAR PITS WAS A TERRIBLE WAY TO DIE—BUT A GREAT WAY TO PRESERVE FOSSILS! cheered another sign. I wrapped my fingers around the fence of Pit 9 and peered in: tarred pinecones, a plastic sandwich bag, chips bags, the serrated jaws of a palm frond. A plastic bottle blown or tossed in would become a fossil. A soccer ball tarred and leafed had been fished out by an employee but left on the railing’s far side. Indeed, a few young men were playing pickup on the lawn, and they’d set up small cones to mark their goals. Their futból pitch was about 50 feet long. But other stray green traffic cones said STICKY or GOOEY in official stenciled lettering, and picking one up, underneath I discovered a little tar seep, a nascent pit that might grow and grow, I imagined, until it became a lake. The cones looked like skinny volcanoes.
I watched a perfect, auburn, sheeny bubble form in an itty-bitty pit in which two green acorns were lodged, just the seeds of the mammoths they might have become. Fossilized plants from the pits show that the Los Angeles of 10,000 to 50,000 years ago looked much as it would have today if not for humans and their sprawl: plains of grass with valley oak; sycamores and arroyo willow along the creeks; chaparral on the hills and mountains; and in some of those canyons, redwoods, California bay, and dogwood—those last three now found only farther north. In the museum, in one display case, is a tar-coated Monterey cypress cone and a walnut, just like the walnuts I was still carrying in my pack from the other Brea behind me, where pump jacks were exploiting the seeps. A lime wedge trapped nearby, a wine cork. Through the park, the bubbles rose viscous and unhurried, each becoming a complete sphere, almost, before it popped so gently that it was less a “pop” than a gentle or reluctant withdrawal, a slow collapse.
But what was strangest about the La Brea Tar Pits, when I visited, was that everyone was looking at their phones. Absolutely everyone. They traveled across the grounds staring at their screens like zombies on a Hollywood set, which is a cliché, but a precise description. If the pits hadn’t been fenced off, people might have fallen in. This was amid the Pokémon Go craze, the app that recast the 1990s computer game. Already, almost no one remembers this momentary worldwide trend, but it was real. It was a surreality—a virtual reality, if you employed your phone’s camera, though it drained the battery. Through the tar pits people ambled searching for mythical digital creatures—Pokémon is short for “pocket monsters”—while monstrous statues of creatures lost to time stood around them. They trod over the real, prehistoric bones that rested in “jumbles” far below their feet, in as yet unexcavated pits.
I caught up with two young fellows and asked them about the game.
“There’s this pokémon that everyone’s looking for here,” said Berland, “Charizard. They’re trying to get that one.”
“Charzar?” I said.
“Yeah, Charizard, a dragon guy.”
“Have you caught him?”
“Well, I don’t have him completely. He evolves. There’s like a baby one, Charmeleon.” He had that one and showed me on his screen. It was much like a stegosaurus, only with a tail of fire. The game was tied to key search words on Google, Berland explained, so that Charizard was found here, where something like dinosaurs, at least in our imagination, once roamed Wilshire.
Nick Neely grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he spent his youth roaming the oak, chaparral, and redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Now he lives in Hailey, Idaho with his wife, the painter Sarah Bird. His essays, articles, and poems are published in journals including Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, and Orion. His first book, Coast Range, was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing. His second book, Alta California, was published by Counterpoint Press in 2019.