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As the solstice turns

MOST CLICHES, particularly those related to Los Angeles, are rooted in some semblance of reality. But the notion that the L.A. region is a vast strip mall whose only outdoor attractions involve surfing and driving around in convertibles has always irked me. Last month in Ojai, which is close enough to the city that you'd think people would know better, a woman who knew I was from L.A. saw my dog sniffing some tree roots and said, "I bet he doesn't get to do that very often."

So when I heard about 4th District Councilman Tom LaBonge's winter solstice hike in Griffith Park, I felt a civic duty to join in.

In case you were waiting for a parking spot at the Grove and didn't notice, Thursday was the official start of winter and the shortest day of the year. In less depressing terms, that means that Thursday (4:22 p.m. to be exact) marked the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, one of two times each year when the sun is farthest from the equator. (There's also a summer solstice on June 21, but it causes the days to be longer. Don't ask me to explain why — I was an English major.)

For the last decade, LaBonge has been leading hikes in Griffith Park to mark these occasions and remind his constituency just why they endure the high cost of living here. At 3:30 on Thursday, about 100 of us gathered at the foot of a trail near Roosevelt Golf Course for a half-mile hike to Griffith Observatory. As LaBonge led his flock up the trail, boisterously pointing out the scenery and, at one point, waving at a low-flying LAPD helicopter, I felt like we were Christmas carolers who didn't need to sing. So wholesome and low key was this scene that every cliche about L.A. was momentarily erased from my mind. Then a woman handed me a business card that described her as a "visionary." When I asked her what that meant, she said she specialized in "seeing possibilities." She also said she was a compulsive networker and would be e-mailing me soon.

Emerging from the trail to the lawn of the observatory, we were met by TV news crews. After some milling about, LaBonge stood at a podium, where the mike was not working, and shouted an introduction for observatory director Dr. Edwin C. Krupp, who then shouted an explanation of the astronomy behind the solstice. LaBonge noted that more people have looked through the observatory's Zeiss telescope than any other telescope on the planet. This was followed by several rounds of cheering about the splendor of Los Angeles in general and Griffith Park in particular.

OK, so the hike turned out to be a preamble to a political photo opportunity (and I discovered it's difficult to stuff upward of 10 business cards into the pockets of a Polartec vest), but here's the thing: Los Angeles may not have as outdoorsy a reputation as, say, Boulder, Colo., but for a place as urban and global and complex as this, our ability to get out and walk around in nature (and in relative solitude much of the time) is pretty impressive. There might have been an element of high school pep rally to this event, but its core message — "For God's sake, take a hike, people!" — was absolutely true.

So at 4:22 p.m., the winter solstice occurred. There was more cheering and more speechifying. But the action wasn't over.

In the ensuing 24 minutes, the crowd at the Griffith Observatory experienced an event that, given the vantage point and the crispness of the air and maybe the spirit of the holidays, had an extraordinary flavor to it. During those minutes, the sun set with a precision and grace that can only be described as the perfect intersection of art and science. As bright as it was, we stared straight at it as it fell like a water droplet below the clouds, below the tops of buildings and gently into the Pacific Ocean. A woman took out her cellphone and described the scene to the person on the other end.

Oddly enough, this wasn't irritating. In fact, it was the only truly necessary cellphone conversation I've overheard in ages.


mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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