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Exploring the L.A. River : Small Tales From Along Lario Trail

Times Staff Writer

WILLOW STREET BRIDGE, LONG BEACH, TO ALONDRA BOULEVARD BRIDGE, PARAMOUNT

South of Willow Street Bridge, river reeds pulse like sea swells in a morning zephyr; birds caw and peep and peck in the mud; the sun sparkles on a lukewarm stream that is (believe it or not) ripply.

North of Willow Street Bridge is the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The Los Angeles River is now a mammoth concrete drainage ditch, a matte monument to flood control. Taming a river is one thing, the Explorer thinks as he sets out on the second leg of his trek to the source. Emasculating it is another. The Great Los Angeles Eunuch.

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Follow the Seasons

Elsewhere on God’s green footstool, from Chad to China, the great rivers follow the seasons, overflowing their banks when deposits exceed withdrawals. Occasionally, so does the L.A. River. The results can be tragic.

But exciting. The Explorer recalls the mighty, murky stream that splits Paris into Bon Ton and Bohemia, flexing its fluids every spring to creep up on a schlepping city. In the morning, commuters gather at the Pont de l’Alma, the old bridge that’s guarded by a stone statue of a Zouave soldier. “River at Zouave’s Knees,” the headlines read. “Zouave Up to His Waist.” Even “To His Neck!”

It’s a harbinger of sorts, like the buds on the chestnut trees. As the Paris Herald once trumpeted, cribbing shamelessly from a homesick Yank: “The Seine Also Rises.”

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In the summer, the Los Angeles River just squats there.

Still and all, it has its uses. On this particular morning, skid marks on the dry, flat bed of the river squeal on the hot rodders who’ve gotten in a little extracurricular (and illegal) drag racing the night before. Cyclists have peeled off the dike-top riding trail and are practicing barrel rolls on the slimy algae near the channel. A pair of acrobatic skate boarders careen like kamikazes down the smooth sides of the banks.

And at the center trough itself, a man in a silver hard hat is busting his considerable tail.

The man, “Pete from North Long Beach,” pauses to wipe his brow. “What I’m doin’ you can see for yourself,” he says. With a large shovel, he is scooping what he calls “stuff” into two pails. The pails are almost full of green-black goo, indescribably disgusting.

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“Don’t look like much,” Pete concedes, “but I bring it home and slop it into my garden.

“You betcher bippy it works. You should see my artichokes. Takes only two of ‘em to make a dozen.”

Up on the bike trail, telltale beige blotches herald the approach to an equestrian enclave. On the other side of the dike on the east bank, amateur grooms in high boots tromp around a row of stables, one of them called “Just a Little Bit of Country.”

Just south of Wardlow Road Bridge, trucks have dumped piles of sand at regular intervals, for reasons beyond the Explorer’s ken. Close by, a stout steel cable has been strung from dike to dike, attached to a pole and a pulley on the east side, to a square concrete pillbox on the west. Suspended from the cable, above the middle of the river, is what looks like a cross between a phone booth and an outhouse. Even comatose, the river retains its mysteries.

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North of Wardlow, a man in a flannel shirt sits high on the dike, watching his big yellow dog, far below, give chase to a flock of disoriented sea birds. The man’s son sits beside him, pegging pebbles at the birds.

“I’m Tommy,” the man says. “The little fella is Thomas. Wouldn’t you think it’d be the other way around?”

The Pacific River

The Explorer asks Thomas if he can identify the stream he’s aiming for. “Sure,” Thomas says. “That’s the Pacific River.”

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Farther upstream, a railroad bridge is distinguished by the quality of graffiti scrawled on its sides:

Dead Cops. Anarchy. Subhumans. Punk Lives. The Insane. Hate. Agression (sic). DISCHRGE (sick). Crewd.

Nice neighborhood.

In contrast, an ad-hoc inlet paralleling the river on the east side has relaxed into a bucolic pond, half a mile long. Under the penumbra of untended plane-trees, the water is clear enough for glimpses of foot-long fish.

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A sign reads “Trespassing Forbidden by Law,” but a maverick claque of mallards can’t read. Cruising around clumps of water hyacinths, they dive for the fish and come up laughing, scattering butterflies as they shake droplets from their saucy heads.

The whole of the pond is enclosed by mesh fence topped by spiky barbed wire. A sylvan setting for the benefit of absolutely nobody. In a cleared space by the Del Amo Boulevard Bridge, scraped smooth by a broad board, two young men hunker down over a wicked-looking switch-blade knife.

The Explorer hesitates, then moves in to watch. One of the boys balances the tip of the knife blade on his knee, whence he flips the dagger end over end until it sticks vertically into the ground. Nice shot.

“Seen this game before?” the boy asks.

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“Seen it?” the Explorer says, “I used to be neighborhood champ.”

The other boy looks up, faintly interested. Just faintly.

“We called it mumbletypeg,” the Explorer says.

“What a fruity name,” Boy No. 1 says. “We call it ‘blades.’ ”

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“Makes more sense,” the Explorer concedes.

In-and-Out, Heartbreak

Boy No. 1 attempts his next shot, flipping the knife from his elbow. It catches the earth, but the angle is too low and the knife tips over flat. In-and-out, heartbreak.

Across the river, on the far less interesting west bank, Kittle’s Nursery displays firs and fruit trees, and an RV park bakes in 100-degree heat. It’s a lot cooler under the trees of DeForest Park, a river-front recreation center where the Explorer finally finds access again to the bike trail atop the dike. This time the asphalt path is identified by a small sign: Lario Trail.

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(Later, the Explorer, his curiosity piqued by this man Lario who has provided such healthy pleasure for so many, calls the Long Beach Department of Parks and Recreation. They never heard of Lario and, in the best tradition, buck the caller to the Department of Planning and Building, where at least one of the river’s conundrums is unraveled.

(“Nice idea,” says Richard Backus, a pleasant and patient official, “but there’s no one called Lario that I know of. Actually, it’s an acronym: L.A. River and Rio Hondo, the two rivers that the trail follows.” Ah so.)

Onward and upward. Mushing through the brush beside the dike north of Long Beach Boulevard Bridge are two more boys, each 14. Steve and Brian. No last names, please, the reason being that Steve carries a BB gun and isn’t all that sure that it’s legal.

With singular and irrelevant lack of success, they are attempting to “ping critters.” Critters? “ You know,” Steve says, “gopher snakes, alligator lizards, the frogs that live in the sewage lines. There’s wild dogs too, but we don’t ping them .”

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“We’re out here almost every day,” Brian says. “We get a bunch of other kids and play ‘ditch ‘em.’ It’s like hide and seek only more complicated.

Refrigerator Box

“Sometimes when we’re bored we get into this refrigerator box--four of us--and roll down the wall (the concrete slope of the bank). Shakes you up pretty good, but it’s something to do.”

“When the river comes up a little,” says Steve, “people raft down it. You can get caught in the drainage ditches, though. They suck the boats right in.”

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“Besides,” Brian says, “if they catch you it’s a $500 fine.”

“Naw,” Steve says with authority. “It’s only $60.”

The boys say they don’t come out to the river after the sun goes down.

“The gangs have their rumbles,” Brian says. “Chains, knives, even guns. The police helicopters come down in here sometimes, to pick up the guys who get knifed or shot. It’s pretty dangerous.”

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“The joggers just keep jogging, though,” Steve says, “every night after work. You can’t believe some of them. I mean, some of them have to be over 40!”

It’s a long, lonely walk in mid-afternoon, all the way upstream to Alondra Boulevard Bridge in Paramount. East of the dike are a few baseball diamonds, a golf course or two, stables, a show-horse training ring. The other side of the river is dominated by Used Ocean Cargo Containers, outside of which are stacked enormous blue, green, red and yellow box cars, building blocks of a baby giant.

Down by the river, a single pedestrian slogs along, a stout, balding, bow-legged man in T-shirt, blue shorts, black socks to his knees. He is carrying a full shopping basket, and stops now and then to look into the channel and catch his breath.

Winded himself, the Explorer retraces his steps. Just south of the San Diego Freeway Bridge, a man putters in the riverbed. The Explorer climbs down the dike to take a closer look.

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The man has a rake and a homemade broom fashioned of twigs. Methodically and painstakingly, he is sweeping debris into the channel. The man, about 45, stands well over six feet and sports a neat beard and a clean flowered shirt.

His name is Johnson, “just Johnson.” From Long Beach? “No, I came over from Compton. I’m just helping out the city, tidying up, you might say.”

Is he paid for his labor? “Naw,” Johnson says. “I just feel like doing it sometimes, Makes me feel good.”

Treasures a Cigarette

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Johnson resumes his work, then stops for a moment, hesitating before he speaks. “I sure would treasure a cigarette,” he says.

The Explorer hands over the remains of a pack of Pall Malls. It seems little enough.

The sun has half an hour to fall over DeForest Park. The Explorer sits on a grassy verge and watches a girls’ baseball game, fiercely contested between the Cubs and the Tigers. It is a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell.

Across the street, a man in a straw hat and Bermudas clips his hedge, while his wife waters the lawn. From a park bench, a very old woman smoking a corncob pipe cheers for the Tigers. Under a tree, a young couple necks with urgency, intensity.

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From down the road, a stout, purposeful woman who looks like Margaret Rutherford looms on a sturdy bike, half a dozen junior cyclists in tow. “Come along, children,” Miss Marples shouts over her shoulder. “No stragglers.”

The convoy cuts across a corner of the baseball diamond, then up a rise toward the riverside bike trail.

Bless you, Mr. Lario.


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