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Scenes From the L.A. River : Exploring With Ants in His Pants

Times Staff Writer

ALONDRA BOULEVARD BRIDGE, PARAMOUNT, TO FLORENCE AVENUE BRIDGE, BELL

Even as far up as South Gate, there is a stiff crosswind coming off the Pacific. Not exactly a gale, but a good deal more than a whiffet, which is a blessing.

The breeze aeroflows down the smooth, sere concrete west bank of the Los Angeles River, picks up the perfume of the channel--almonds and sheep dip--hits the east slope and bounces over the Explorer’s head into Downey, which may or may not deserve it.

The Explorer has stopped pedaling and is enjoying one of the cigarettes that make him such a lousy cyclist. For his third leg up the river to its source, he has commandeered his daughter’s racing bike, making full use of the Lario Trail that runs atop the east dike.

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He rubs his sore bottom--they don’t make explorers the way they used to--and wonders where everybody went. Yesterday, down in Long Beach, the riverbanks were alive with laity. Today, with the exception of a lone dirt-biker a mile back, there is nothing but crawly things. The meek may inherit the earth, but the pismires are taking over the L.A. River.

Not that they actually go down into the mephitic sump. Even the ants know better than that. Instead, they stake out their turf along the bike path and send out scouting parties, rarely venturing lower than halfway down the dike. (Do they know something the Flood Control District doesn’t?)

On this stretch, the ants have chomped a minicave into the asphalt and are stocking up for leaner days. First the greens--bits of leaf from nearby Hollydale Park. Then the protein--the tail of a lizard who won’t be needing it any more. The nub of a hot-dog bun provides the carbohydrates, but the carcass of a defunct caterpillar is bypassed: too much cholesterol. Empires rise and fall, but the ants, in their infinite wisdom, go on forever.

The morning had started on a happier note. Approaching the Lario Trail by land, the Explorer had sought permission to park his car in the lot of a tidy, one-story office building hard by the Alondra Boulevard Bridge.

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A cheery secretary had readily granted permission, and had been drawn into a quiz on the L.A. River. “Funny,” she had said, “we work right beside it but I have no idea where it starts. Somewhere in Northern California?

“Let me pop into the back and ask the boss. He’s very

knowledgeable. Mr. Cool.”

“Mr. Cool? You can get away with calling your boss Mr. Cool ?”

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“Of course. Mainly because it’s his name. Tays Cool. He runs the company: Cool Fuel Inc. I know, I know; you thought it was refrigeration.”

The secretary had come back in five minutes. “Mr. Cool is busy,” she’d said, “but the consensus in his office is that the river starts in Tujunga. It’ll be hard to trace it to the first drop , though. Nobody should be walking up the river in this heat. Mad dogs and Englishmen, you know.”

The Explorer tugged his forelock and barked.

On two wheels now. The Explorer skims along the east bank, past the Compton Par-3 Golf Course (“Public Invited”), under the Compton Boulevard Bridge, beside the aptly named Banana Park, and fetches up at Rosecrans Avenue, where a portage is necessary to regain the trail north of the bridge. (Well worth the detour: Under a Rosecrans street sign, a literate graffiti artist has neatly lettered “And Guildstern.”)

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Past C&W; Truck and Equipment Co.; Commercial Grinding Inc.; Castle Metals. Not a promising start, people-wise, until an old railroad bridge crossing the river into Lynwood on the west. The trail stops again, and while he is bulling his bike through a hole in the fence, the Explorer encounters Rolf Gr.

Mad at the River

It’s a spooky bridge, this one, with rails long since stripped for scrap and old ties rotting along the right-of-way. Rolf Gr, though, in his late 20s, has found a use for the relic, bouncing his dirt bike down the track and making a heckuva racket.

“Just call me Gr,” shouts Gr. “It’s Polish, and there are a lot of Zs and Cs and Ws that nobody can pronounce anyway.”

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Rolf Gr is angry at the river, or rather at those who have made it what it is.

“Look at that thing,” he says, gesturing toward the wide and virtually useless basin. “All that space, you’d think they could do something with it. Dam it up for boating, why not? Run a railroad along it.

“OK, OK, so it floods. Put the tracks on stilts. Better yet, run amphibians. Can you imagine cruising up to L.A.?”

Gr is right. It’s a desolate vista, a wasteland all the way up to the Rio Hondo, veering off to the west and no improvement whatsoever. No central channel, even. No water. Just a threadbare coat of unspeakable slime.

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Back to the car and across the river.

Access to the stream is difficult for a spell. South Gate has let down the team. The Explorer--not for the first time and surely not the last--must trespass, climbing over fences and other impedimenta simply for the chance to see zilch.

‘It’s an Eyesore’

Blumont Road parallels the river’s west bank in South Gate; Burtis Street too. Tidy houses. American flags. Fantastic rose bushes; neighbors vying for the lushest display. A man, trimming his bushes, says he has blocked off his backyard “so the kids can’t fall into that cesspool. No, I don’t know where it starts or ends, and I don’t care. It’s an eyesore.”

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He softens: “If I had to guess, I’d say it starts in the San Gabriels.”

A toddler on a Big Wheel disagrees. “China,” she says, definitively. “What was the question?”

A detour on Adella Avenue, then back to the river. On Burtis Street, a gang of workmen takes five from the nearby factories, lounging on ripped-out car seats and roasting wieners over a fire in the middle of the road. They are unconcerned with--oblivious to--the glop that’s seeping into the river, presumably from Universal Cast Iron, Strategic Materials, Caalco and the splendidly titled A-1 Nipple Manufacturing Company.

North of the Long Beach Freeway crossing is another railroad bridge, from which three precariously seated idlers dangle their legs, looking across the river at a mobile-home park underwritten by rows of palm trees. Under the idlers’ cut-offs, more of the dire graffiti of the ‘80s: Psycho, Malice, Carnage, Craze and the thought-provoking Endocrine.

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On the other side of a walkway on the west bank, in a cindery yard outside the Bell Foundry, assorted and indeterminate hunks of metal are protected--Lord knows why--by a mesh fence topped by spirals of barbed wire. From the wire hangs a pair of new blue socks. Instinctively, the Explorer looks down into the riverbed. There, only inches from the center channel, is a spiffy leather jacket, the kind Sgt. Harris wears on “Barney Miller.” The Explorer scrabbles down to reconnoiter. Suicide? Hardly likely, not in two inches of water.

Back up on the dike, more ants, these a quarter-inch long and of a luminous orange. For science’s sake, he allows one of the fire ants under his trouser and up his leg. He waits.

The Ant Encounter

Once, on a river bank in Tanzania, the Explorer, preoccupied with something or other, had not noticed when several dozen similar ants had decided to hold a conference on his right calf. These were the infamous “siafu,” or safari ants, said to be able to fell a small elephant. Word was that the ants just moseyed about the body of their prey until somebody, presumably the group spokesman, gave a signal. Then they all bit in unison, paralyzing their victim. Word was right.

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The American ant sends out no such pheromone. Alone, probably bored out of his gourd, he circles the leg at the ankle; makes a bee-line, or at least an ant-line, straight up the shin; hits the knee on the dead run; stops; diddles down the fleshy part of the leg; sniffs at the shoe, and hurries home to Mom. So much for science.

For a change of pace and a Pepsi, the Explorer ambles a few blocks into South Gate; past a billboard announcing “The Azalea City; 60 Years of Progress” right next to a smaller sign reading “Toad’s Discount Liquor”; then down to River Road in Cudahy, paralleling you know what.

Between River Road and river is the Berlin Wall, Cudahy-style: an eight-foot cinderblock barrier surmounted by a chain-link fence surmounted by three inward-leaning strands of barbed wire. Whether it’s to keep the river out or the people in is hard to say.

Nevertheless, there is a hole in the fence. There always is. The Explorer, by now an expert, tumbles through, snagging his shirt. A block upriver, just south of Santa Clara Street Bridge, is the main entrance to the bike path, the entrance he could have walked through like a man.

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Now there is life. On the path, just above a busy ballpark (Riverfront Stadium; you could look it up), is a phalanx of six bicyclers, three abreast, earnest and Oriental, or vice versa. Below, for the first time in many miles, there are kids at the water’s edge.

“Whatcha doing, kids?” the Explorer asks.

“Piddling,” says Amy, who is 7.

It seems a fair assumption.

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End of the Trail

It’s a short stroll now to Florence Avenue Bridge in Bell--the end of the day’s trail--but a stroll not without its rewards.

On the bike path is a middle-aged woman, well-dressed, well-groomed, well-coifed, walking a bulldog on a leash. She is a lot prettier than he is.

“No,” she says, “I surely do not mind talking for a spell.

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“My name is Kirstin Zardt, two I’s and a DT. I am 53 years old. My dog is Buell, two L’s. Named after an ex-husband.

“The mouth of the Los Angeles River is in Long Beach, by the Queen Mary. The source is in the west San Fernando Valley, possibly in Simi if you want to get picky. So?”

“So what?”

“So what do I win?”

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“Um. . . . Would you believe my admiration?”

“Not even dinner for two at Carlos and Charlie’s?”

“Not even.”

Kirstin Zardt shrugs, then addresses her bulldog.

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“Come along, Buell,” she says. “Try not to bite the man. I’m sure he means well.”

It is evening. The Explorer locates his car and checks his bearings in the Thomas Bros. map book.

The configuration of the community of Bell catches his eye. Bell, he notes, is shaped like a duck on a stick.

On Page 53 of the map book, an ant meanders about, then heads straight up the duck’s neck.

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