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Following a dirt path into Los Angeles’ wild past

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Mulholland Drive has always been one part dirt, one part sky and two parts imagination. Ninety years ago it appeared, along with other visions perhaps not equally majestic, in the mind of the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department. Being a “make it so” sort of fellow, William Mulholland raised a million bucks and, 11 years later, one of the nation’s first scenic parkways scooted along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains.

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Since then, it has become a cultural icon, international shorthand for body drops and lovers’ trysts, for ultra-cool celebrities and canyon-echoing bacchanals, for a local wildness that refuses to be tamed even by the encroaching miles of strip malls and swimming pools. The sudden sweep of headlights, the powdery scratch of rubber against loose gravel, the lap of the Valley falling away into light-punctured darkness -- Mulholland is as much genre as thoroughfare.

And that’s the part that’s paved. The part that’s not -- about nine miles between Santa Maria Road and Encino Hills Drive -- is proof of what many people have suspected for years: At least part of Los Angeles exists in a dimension separate from the rest of the world.

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If you want to know why people came to the pueblo back when there was no water, no palm trees, no Charlie Chaplin, back when surfing was a bizarre ritual conducted on islands thousands of miles away, if you want to know why people still come, even as they keen about smog and traffic, crime and housing prices and the vacuous Left Coast, all you have to do is walk along the stretch of road known as Dirt Mulholland.

About a mile and a half west of the 405 there is what looks like a fire road proceeding through a series of gates. It is part of the original two-lane parkway, and it heads up to the crest of the mountains, past an abandoned Nike missile control site. It forms the northern border of what is now known as the Big Wild: 20,000 acres of parkland stretching almost from Mandeville Canyon Road to Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

“It’s the nation’s largest metropolitan wildlife area,” says Reva Feldman, chief operation officer for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which oversees the land, including Dirt Mulholland. As recently as 1999, the group added 1,500 acres above Mandeville Canyon -- the WestRidge-Canyon Back Wilderness Park. “It was slated to be developed for more than 500 homes,” Feldman says. “It was a significant victory for us because it was the largest single piece of open space left in Los Angeles.” A mountain biker, Feldman spends a fair amount of time on Dirt Mulholland. “There is no place in the city like it,” she says. “No views in the city like it.”

Heading west, on the left are hills Irish-green in the springtime, with glimpses of Pacific Palisades and the ocean on a clear day, and on the right is the San Fernando Valley, rolled out like a rug. The only sounds are the wind and the rusty call of crows, the satisfying crush of feet on rocky soil and the whiz of the occasional mountain biker sailing downhill.

The sky is close enough to accidentally bump; planes taking off from Burbank seem to be at eye level. You are on the edge of the Earth, riding on the shoulder of some giant as he strides through the wilderness. That there is a world, much less a city, nearby seems highly unlikely until about a half-mile up the road, when you approach what is left of the entrance kiosk to LA96C.

One of 16 missile control sites established around Los Angeles during the Cold War, LA96C was a small compound -- barracks, generator, water tanks, radar tower -- used to guard the skies above L.A. It was abandoned in 1968 but the buildings remained, a weird bit of Cold War history jutting from the scrub above the Encino Reservoir. The city of Los Angeles bought it in 1995 and turned it into San Vicente Mountain Park. Like much of the land surrounding Dirt Mulholland, it’s managed by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which added bathrooms, picnic tables and a ranger residence.

But more important, the group kept and fixed up the radar tower. At 1,950 feet, LA96C occupies one of the highest points in the city. Gazing southeast from the tower’s round platform, downtown looms against the sky like Oz; to the west shines the luminous seam between ocean and sky.

Eight years ago, rumors of plans to pave Dirt Mulholland sent up a cloud of protest, Jack Nicholson and Don Henley being two of the more prominent voices. The outcry was so great that the conservancy applied for national landmark status for Dirt Mulholland. The request was denied, but the talk of paving it ceased. Then during the 1997 El Nino rains, the city closed most of the washed-away road to vehicles. It was simply never reopened -- west of the LA96C is now reserved for foot and paw and bicycle tire.

Other trails into the Big Wild branch off from Mulholland -- the stout of heart and lung could hike or bike to Rustic Canyon or Topanga Canyon or even Will Rogers State Historic Park. Hundreds of folks, says Walt Young, chief ranger of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, show up on foot and bikes during weekend days, entering from all approaches to lose themselves in the real wild side of the city.

On a recent Saturday when the sky was laughably blue and the clouds followed their own shadows over the hills and out to sea, mountain bikers outnumbered the hikers and dog walkers by about three to one. Up and over the hills they went, through tunnels of grass and wildflowers, throwing up grit and small stones in their wake, traveling along the top of the world, five minutes from the 405, 10 minutes from the nail parlors and burger joints of Ventura Boulevard.

Parkway preservationists like to say that 90% of the second-largest city in America lives within 15 miles of Mulholland Drive.

Standing on the last few miles of one man’s dream of dirt and sky, that seems simply and gorgeously impossible.


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