Claire Evans is on a mission: to get you to love L.A. She's come up with a jam-packed itinerary to show off the not-always-obvious magic of this sprawling, jumbled-up city — a hidden garden built as a labor of love by an Iranian immigrant, a taco stand that may or may not be able to serve you, a mini-train ride that gives you a glimpse of Walt Disney's barn.
But right now she's lost.
Somewhere around this tidy Atwater Village neighborhood with its square front yards and tired landscaping, there's an entrance to the L.A. River — but where?
It's one of those summer days when the thermometer reads 88 before 11 a.m., and her companions are starting to wilt. "But," she says, running back from yet another dead end, "I promise it will be worth it!"
At the end of the third street she tries, she finds it. Not a dusty chain-link fence, but a lush, watery oasis flowing below her — a thrilling strip of real live nature running through the parched city landscape.
Evans and her boyfriend, Jona Bechtolt, hold hands as they cross the narrow pedestrian bridge over one of the only unpaved stretches of the L.A. River.
Going deep into L.A. can be exhausting, but for these urban appreciators, it's worth it to see something totally unexpected in the city they call home.
Like Instagram-era Huell Howsers, Evans and Bechtolt are wide-eyed L.A. explorers, their love of the city fueled by a tireless enthusiasm and often expressed in exclamation points. Their mantra might be: "Get into it!"
The pair, members of an indie pop band, are dressed appropriately for their day of adventuring. Evans, tall and thin with short, platinum-blond hair, wears a T-shirt featuring the local punk legend X. Bechtolt, who has a ring of star tattoos on his right arm, wears rolled-up jeans and an Angelyne T-shirt bought from the self-created celebrity out of the back of her hot pink Corvette.
"L.A. rewards curiosity," says Evans, 29. "It's a big city and not everybody wants to go tromping all around. But if you allow yourself to cut out and through and across and between all these little micro-pockets and mini-cities, you feel like you are traveling through the universe, like you are a space explorer."
In case you're feeling grumpy — "I already knew about the L.A. River," "I've ridden those mini-trains," "Who are these hipsters?" — let's be clear: Evans and Bechtolt are not authorities on the city, and they don't claim to be.
They both grew up in Oregon, not Los Angeles, and they've only been living here together for three years. (Although, to be fair, Evans went to college at Occidental, so she has logged an additional four years of L.A. exploring).
But even if L.A. is in your blood, it's a tough city to wrap your head around. Tom Carroll, known for his YouTube series, "Tom Explores Los Angeles," has lived in these parts all his life, and he still struggles with contextualizing the city.
"If I can find these very specific locations and ideas and really focus on them and research them, and I do that over time, then maybe these will be anchor points that start to connect to each other, and give a broader picture of the city," he says. "At least it allows me to see it from different angles."
Bechtolt and Evans are doing something similar. Over the last year they've taken a break from making new music with their band, YACHT, and have been making an app instead. It is called Five Every Day, and as the name implies, it tells users five new things to do in Los Angeles every day. (The app is free.)
"It was just being completely disappointed by all the alt weeklies, event calendars, and all of the websites being too broad and not having any voice," Bechtolt said. "It was too many options for a city that is already overwhelming."
Evans, who also works as a freelance writer, is responsible for the adjective-laden copy.
"It has kind of become like a meditation now," she says. "The daily practice of loving L.A."
The day begins with a failed attempt to get breakfast burritos at Tacos Villa Corona on Glendale Boulevard (a sad sign in the window says they won't be taking any more orders for 30 minutes), and a stroll through the Atwater Village Farmers Market, where clementines are purchased and a warm and pungent Korean broth is sampled.
Evans and Bechtolt live in Silver Lake, but this morning Atwater is teeming with their friends. On the way to the market they run into Ben Jones, a video artist and fan of their app.
"Sometimes I don't have the self-confidence or time to know what I'm supposed to be doing," he says. "They do it for me."
There's lunch at Thank You for Coming, an "experimental food and art space" that makes large vegetarian sandwiches, with beautifully colored hibiscus sodas, and then a walk back to Tacos Villa Corona where, this time, they get lucky.
But it isn't until the river is found that it feels like the adventure has really begun.
Egrets! A grey heron! Running water — in earshot of the 5!
After the river has been appropriately appreciated, it's time to walk back to the car and head to Griffith Park for a ride on a mini-train.
Evans points out that there are three mini-train experiences in the city's largest park — including the popular Travel Town — but the one at the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum is their favorite.
It's set up like a large-scale miniature train set, and the 10-minute trip takes riders through a fake abandoned mine, and past an assortment of meticulously restored railway cars and the Disney barn, where he once ran switches for the private mini-rail system that went around his home in Holmby Hills.
"Keep your arms inside," says the old man who collects the tickets. "I don't like to clean up blood."
When the ride starts Evans turns back to her fellow riders. "It's like pure joy," she says.
Not-so-pure joy is a hike up to Amir's Garden, a hard-to-find spot that Bechtolt and Evans first heard about on an old episode of "Visiting ... With Huell Howser." The garden was created by the late Amir Dialameh over the span of 30 years, and sits on nearly five acres of what was once a fire-ravaged hilltop in Griffith Park.
Making the half-mile trek straight up the hillside is a bit grueling, and by the time they reach the top Bechtolt and Evans are out of breath. But the garden is shady and green and dotted with benches and picnic tables.
Thirty minutes later, Bechtolt and Evans are looking for parking in Chinatown. Their original itinerary included a stop at Roy Choi's restaurant Chego for more food, but no one's hungry enough for giant rice bowls, so they head to the newly opened Chinatown branch of the ice cream shop Scoops, known for its unusual flavors, like "brown bread."
Next up: the Velveteria, a newish museum in Chinatown devoted entirely to velvet paintings that Evans and Bechtolt have been meaning to check out. The potent smell of burnt sage is a bit overpowering at first, but it dissipates over time.
Evans listens as museum founder Carl Baldwin talks about the various artists featured in the gallery, and the role velvet paintings have played throughout the years. In the meantime, Bechtolt has discovered the black light room.
"Are you ready to have your mind blown?" he asks.
"Yes — no — I think so," Evans says.
After checking out a room of velvet paintings of naked people, and the bathroom (filled with velvet paintings of people on toilets), Evans and Bechtolt head back to the car.
There are still a lot of items left on the itinerary — the Lotus Festival at Echo Park Lake, an amazing cosmetic shop in Little Tokyo, maybe dinner somewhere in Monterey Park. But Bechtolt has to get home and showered for a show that night at the Mint. The day is coming to its natural close.
But there is time for one last stop, at their favorite picnic spot: the palm tree garden in Elysian Park. As large family birthday parties wrap up in the field down below, they talk about other tours of L.A. they might have done.
"We could have done a Westside day — hiking in Malibu Canyon and going to the beach," Evans says.
"Or we could have done a Valley day," Bechtolt says.
"You could do a day for every part of town," he says. "That's the part that makes it so great — it takes multiple days, weeks, months, years to know a fraction of the city's offerings and its possibilities."