The other morning, I needed to get some reading done for work. I could've driven to my office. Or sat on a bench at the beach. Or taken the Big Blue Bus to Powell Library at UCLA, where I teach. What I did instead was set up a folding chair next to the freeway.
My destination was a parklike circle of land defined by the Santa Monica Freeway, the South Bundy Drive offramp from the westbound lanes, and South Bundy itself. Can you picture it? I'm talking about a spot that is not, let me be clear, a real park or playground.
To get there, I rode my bike from Venice along Ocean Park Boulevard, traffic thickening east of Lincoln Avenue, increasing again as I got closer to the 405 Freeway. At Bundy, busy lanes of morning commuters came together in a snarl that wasn't at all welcoming to a man riding a bicycle. The light switched and I rushed to turn left, wondering if I was making a mistake.
FOR THE RECORD
The name of a school where the author teaches was incorrect. It is Mount Saint Mary's University, not Mount Saint Mary's College.
I've lived in Los Angeles only two years. When I first took the South Bundy exit by car, I remember being surprised by the pine trees, the bushes and all that shade — an unlikely and mysterious oasis. For months I wondered: Was it accessible from the sidewalk? Would it be risky to trespass? When could I carve out a few hours to find out?
In Los Angeles, and everywhere else I suppose, we're all pretty good at not seeing things. But in this city perhaps more than others, staggering beauty and ridiculous wealth coexist with strip malls and homeless encampments, and we barely notice. I used to be jarred by the contrast, but I am a guy with a wife and a kid and a job and not a whole lot of time. I stopped seeing the dissonance too. And I stopped noticing the park that isn't a park at the South Bundy exit.
Until finally, there I stood, backpack full of manuscript pages and a folding chair. I didn't even need to climb a fence. The chain link stopped, and there was a small path and no sign forbidding entry.
A decade ago, in my mid-20s, I walked out the door one day in New York City and did not stop going until I hit New Orleans. I slept in ditches and under bridges and came to know a few things, mile by mile, an average of 30 every day, for months and months.
One thing I learned was what a young body was capable of. I also saw how our roadsides hold surprises: the clutch of flowers growing beside a dumpster, the way blue glass and torn metal from a car accident twinkle in direct sunlight, and how a thousand orange butterflies can hover above a coastal highway. I grew to love the shade of a nice highway overpass. I became a connoisseur of gas station breakfast sandwiches. But one thing that really surprised me were the green spaces created by freeway ramps.
There is a lot of great real estate, untended, uninhabited — wasted — by the side of the road. In one of the Carolinas, I camped in the lee of a freeway ramp and woke up the next morning to a deer padding quietly around my tent. Again and again, I plunged into vivid landscapes that most people, out of habit, distraction and even fear, ignored.
Past the fence, I sat down beside the Santa Monica Freeway. Under the shadow of the pine trees, the temperature felt cooler and birds chirped. I looked around in disbelief: I felt as if I had worked some sort of trick.
I was surrounded yet completely alone. How often do we spend time in places that aren't designed for us, where no obvious rules or expectations have been established? Wind from cars looped off the 10 and rustled the trees, and I did my reading, occasionally wondering how many of the drivers, if any, noticed me.
And then, I wasn't alone. A man with a beard, carrying a plastic sack, came in along the same path. His white T-shirt and jeans were clean but his sneakers were grimy. He rooted around in the bushes and retrieved his own chair, and after a while, we nodded at each other. The day was warming up, and I began to detect the faint tang of urine. The world cruised by.
By the time I got to the end of my manuscript, the man was gone and it was late morning. I packed up my bicycle and pedaled home. I'd spent a few hours in a secret place in plain sight for much the same reason I walked to New Orleans: to remind myself that I could.
There are the things we can do, the things we should do, and the way we actually live. It's easy to be busy, to follow all the usual cues. It's quite normal to settle for what's comfortable and familiar. For one morning, I did something out of the ordinary. I set up a folding chair in a not-park beside South Bundy Drive, staking a claim on one of the unseen places right in front of us all.
Nathan Deuel is the author of "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East." He is a lecturer in the writing programs at UCLA and a writing instructor at Mount Saint Mary's College.