There are places on this Earth that promise a peaceful easy feeling, places that suggest a chance at serenity. Hawaii, Yosemite, Martha's Vineyard. Los Angeles, typically, is not on that list.
It's a city of unrivaled opportunity and heart-wrenching disappointment, frenetic energy and inertia, creativity and writer's block. There's all that smog and so much pent-up frustration that a mistake on the freeway might just get you shot. Despite our sunlight and swaying palms, Los Angeles lost its title as the capital of mellow a long time ago. It's too busy or too gritty, too nouveau riche or too superficial. Choose your epithet.
Bertold Brecht wrote that "The angels of Los Angeles / Are tired out with smiling." Truman Capote compared this place to "a jumble of huts in a jungle somewhere." But not every Angeleno flees the area when the need to relax arises; there are places close by or within a relatively easy drive where you can catch your breath. Ask around, and you'll find a surprising number of contemplative niches that begin to contradict the angriest descriptions of the city. Joan Didion even waxed poetic about our gridlock, if you can believe it. "The freeway experience ... is the only secular communion Los Angeles has," she wrote. "Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes
In case you're not ready to experience rush hour as meditation, here are a few less challenging Southland destinations that encourage a feeling of quietude and peace.
Cemeteries are some of the most beautiful and contemplative spots around, Beverly Coop ays. Just look, here, at Hollywood Forever. Coop and pal Jenna Moerk are sitting on the steps of the island mausoleum dedicated to William A. Clark Jr., founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ducks preen in the surrounding pond, and headstones and monuments rise from grassy earth in every direction.
"I walk around and wonder at who might've known these people, who grieved for them, who's still grieving for them," says Coop. Moerk adds: "I've been to all the cemeteries around here. It's quiet time. No one bothers you."
Spend an afternoon at Forever and you'll realize two things: that relaxing graveside is far less macabre than it sounds; and that you're not the only one who enjoys it. There are benches throughout the property, but the best vantage points are by the countless shrines and tombs lining the 63-acre sprawl.
Mourning passersby whisper of loved ones lost, but other visitors seek out graves of fallen heroes buried here -- Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield, Cecil B. DeMille -- or chuckle wistfully about how a stroll through these stones is about all you need to put life into perspective.
Seekers of all stripes have long adored the Bodhi Tree Bookstore, and three decades of footsteps have worn pathways into the varnish of its floors. Regulars grab complimentary cups of herbal tea and drag green lawn chairs into favorite corners. Some buy books and others don't, but the staff doesn't seem to care either way.
"This place lends itself to calmness," says longtime visitor Karin Meidel, reclining by a window and paging through a book on a personality profiling system. "People come here looking to improve themselves; people here are a little more evolved."
The selection is heavy on metaphysics and mysticism -- with shelves labeled Astrology; Native American Shamanism; Inner Healing Dreams; UFOs -- but there are also mainstream favorites like the newest "Harry Potter" and plenty of purely rational, scientific fare. Music piped throughout has a soft New Age flavor and complements the scents that emerge from racks of incense, perfumed soaps, candles and essential oils.
Overstimulated? Head next door to the used-book section. The subject matter is the same, but it's so quiet you'll hear your own footfalls, and the only scent in the air is of yellowing pages.
You may think you've come to Brand Library in Glendale for a book, but the surrounding park will beckon. There are soft grassy slopes and sunlight, and if you listen carefully you'll hear the nearby thwack of bats on balls and snippets of laughter on a perpetual breeze. Everywhere you look you'll see another tilted grassy slope, another tree to rest your back against, another city dweller strolling absent-mindedly and not looking the least bit guilty about it.
The library, housed in the 1904 mansion of wealthy Glendale benefactor Leslie C. Brand and resting in the foothills overlooking the city, is renowned for its art and music collections. The pristine white building conjures up an Indian palace with its arches and grand bulbous domes. An art gallery and concert room sit adjacent to the main facilities, and the Brand estate extends on all sides. There's a baseball diamond, a sandy playground for children, and enough grass, open space and hiking trails on the nearly 500 acres out back to exhaust you. Trek far enough and you'll find a waterfall.
Why read at home? Plop down in the library and page through an art book and listen to music. Or close your eyes and forget why you came and let everything go slow.
It's good that the Dodgers aren't the Yankees. If Dodger Stadium was packed to the brim every game, then there wouldn't be patches of empty seats high in the top deck, and you wouldn't be able to camp out in the worst seats in the park, all by yourself. Average attendance this season is 44,722, which leaves more than 11,000 empty seats on any given evening.
Love baseball or hate it, it doesn't matter. Pack a picnic and head to the game a little late. Buy the cheapest ticket available ($6 for adults, $4 for kids) and climb stairs until your legs ache. Search for wherever people aren't.
Get settled, put your feet up. Down below, throngs of fans cheer and boo and drink and instigate the human wave -- but here at the lip of the giant bowl there's a balance between the fans' tunnel vision bravado and the nearby expanse of sky.
It's not the same with other sports. "You can watch a tight, well-played football game, but it isn't exciting if half the stadium is empty," former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn once wrote. "But you can go to a ball park on a quiet Tuesday afternoon with only a few thousand people in the place and thoroughly enjoy a one-sided game." Indeed you can, and it doesn't much matter who wins.
James Irvine Garden,
The James Irvine Garden in Little Tokyo tells a story that's worth hearing. But first you have to find the space, on a recessed plot at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Take the lobby elevator to the basement and walk through an institutional-looking hallway to the doors that open to the garden. The painstakingly landscaped Japanese-style sanctuary is hidden just enough so that it's often empty.
Cross its perfectly manicured lawn, traverse two wooden bridges and you'll discover the fountainhead. The spring represents "the immigrants coming from Japan," says Robert Hori, director of board and donor relations at the center. Then the stream divides.
"One path is a turbulent, chilly path, and the other moves slowly, contains more placid waters," says Hori. "These are the two sides of the immigration experience: those who saw Japan as their homeland, and those who saw this as their own country." In the end, the two streams merge into a pond that symbolizes the great American melting pot.
Renowned landscape architect Takeo Uesugi designed the space, and during the construction process he was joined by many gardeners, landscape contractors and nurserymen from throughout the Japanese American community who labored free of charge. The garden was finished in 1979 and two years later was given the National Landscape Award from the American Assn. of Nurserymen, presented by Nancy Reagan.
It's a non sequitur, to be sure, a sliver of serenity sandwiched between Hollywood's Kaiser Permanente facility and the goliath Scientology headquarters. But resist the urge to flee concrete and traffic and instead pull into the parking lot at 4860 Sunset Blvd. Look for the sign that says "Church of All Religions." Walk under the arched gateway. Follow the marigolds.
Each Self-Realization Fellowship temple has its own character, some sitting on regular-sized city lots and others spanning acres, but the spiritual tradition's late founder Paramahansa Yogananda made sure that each was a mecca of tranquillity. Everyone is welcome, all religions and creeds; bring along your Bible, Koran, favorite Buddhist sutra or Nietzsche book. And don't expect proselytizing.
A lot of people come here from Kaiser, explains Ken Francis, the soft-spoken gardener who tends the property full-time. Some just looking for peace, others awaiting a loved one in surgery. Francis doesn't know all of their stories; he just trims and landscapes and does his best to keep up with the garden's 62-year legacy.
The marigolds merge with impatiens of all colors, leading to a small octagonal gazebo surrounded by greenery, a fish pond and fountains overhung by palm fronds and giant bamboo stalks. Doors stand open at either end, and the gazebo is empty except for marble benches and floor tiles that are cool to the touch despite a scorching sun.
Beyond the gazebo, seek out hidden nooks a la the Secret Garden. A metal chair swathed in bamboo. A clearing through a low trellised gate with just enough space for the stone bench and you.
Beach access, Malibu
When you're feeling hopelessly mired in the complications of city dwelling, it might do you good to toss your day planner and cellphone and crawl toward the coast. Malibu is perfect for sunburn and catharsis, but the crowds can be a problem. Even once-upon-a-time uncrowded beaches such as Point Dume brim with bodies on any moderately sunny day. Where can you find serenity on the sand?
Avoid the beaches with giant reputations. Instead, troll Pacific Coast Highway for obscure stretches accessible from the road via overgrown pathways and rusty metal staircases. Look for the small signs announcing "beach access." Park on the shoulder -- look out for the busy traffic on PCH -- and make your way downward. Be forewarned that some property owners along parts of the Malibu coastline are famously annoyed by beachgoers, and visitors are required by law to stay below the "mean high tide line" (the highest point the tide will likely reach that day). There are no lifeguards posted on these stretches, so don't swim alone, and parents: Watch your children. Despite the hassles, such a journey has much to offer.
There's a gorgeous spot along Escondido beach, just south of Zuma. Another, accessible via the Zonker Harris beach access way, is about 300 yards southeast of the Malibu pier. There are also plenty of access spots along Malibu Colony Road and Broad Beach Road that run parallel to PCH.
Claim your own. But you might want to think twice before telling your friends.
Meher Mount, Ojai
There are plenty of parks and gardens open to the public, but few feel as homey and intimate as your own backyard. It's just this kind of intimacy that distinguishes Meher Mount, the roughly hewn ecumenical meditation center that sits atop Sulphur Mountain overlooking Ojai Valley.
Actually, "meditation center" is a stretch: The place is meditative, certainly, but the only structure on the top plateau is a small house where the caretakers live with their daughter. The space is less formal than it is a friendly backyard that you're welcome to stroll through, sit in and gaze from -- at panoramic views of Mt. Baldy, the Channel Islands, Topa Topa....
The dry and rugged landscape conjures up the retreat's late founder, Agnes Baron, the self-proclaimed "witch of Sulphur Mountain" who spent the last decades of her life fighting an uphill battle to keep Meher Mount open to the public and away from developers. The breezy quietude, broken occasionally by a woodpecker's tapping, recalls Baron's muse, Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master who kept silence for the last 44 years of his life.
Perhaps the prize spot on the 175-acre property is underneath an old oak tree; ask the caretakers and they'll take you to it. Heavy branches overhang a wooden bench and shade you from the sun, and the atmosphere underneath the leafy umbrella is so peaceful and calm that you may well forget to emerge until the sun's setting.
It might seem impossible to find a contemplative niche across the street from that pulsing hub of consumerism, Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza. But trust that opposites can coexist, and find yourself standing on the hot asphalt of a parking lot, staring up at a towering black glass office building.
The freeway roars nearby. Walk between that building and the neighboring Jerry's Famous Deli, however, and you'll hear water flowing over rocks. In this interior courtyard a carefully choreographed stream gurgles down the edge of a massive stone triangle and winds its way through the rest of California Scenario, one of two California sculpture gardens designed by artist Isamu Noguchi. The 1.6-acre site, completed in 1982, explores the crossroads of place and identity that so fascinated Noguchi, himself the combination of two lands and cultures -- the child of a Japanese poet father and an American mother.
At first glance this is a landscape of hard surfaces and sharp edges, but a closer look reveals that cut objects combine with others to suggest arcs and curves; that concrete, granite and rock are mitigated by gentle slopes of grass and sand. The garden "combines all the different landscapes of California in one spot: Desert, mountains, plains or central valley," says Amy Lyford, an associate professor of art history at Occidental College. A redwood grove tickles the boundaries of sand and cacti. Shade commingles with sun, wet with dry.
Los Angeles subway
Remember when you were little, sitting in the back seat of the car while mom or dad drove? You'd stare at your hands or out the window and let the engine's droning carry you toward sleep. As an adult, a ride in the back seat might still serve as a soothing lullaby. But how often do you get that opportunity?
A subway ride can come close.
The Los Angeles subway and light rail systems are vastly underused, so in the middle of the day or later in the evening cars are plenty empty for make-believe. Plug in to an iPod if that's your thing, or just listen to the whirring of wheels-on-tracks and stare out at Los Angeles from above and underneath. Let your eyelids droop, and end up wherever you end up. Then grab another train and head home.
Or stay awake and experiment, explore. Chinatown to Union Station on the Gold Line, then on into Hollywood via the Red Line. As daylight wanes, consider taking a break from riding to watch the sun set from the raised platform of your choice.
This list is just the beginning; once you start looking, the region begins to seem like a contemplative place after all. Other worthwhile destinations include the Getty Museum complex, the garden behind the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the sprawling acres of trees and flowers at the nearby Huntington Library and hiking paths in Griffith Park, Angeles National Park and Runyon Canyon. The sandy landscapes of Death Valley and Joshua Tree are must-sees. And of course there are hundreds of oases that you'll stumble upon if you encounter this bustling cityscape in the right frame of mind.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Hollywood Forever Cemetery
6000 Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood, (323) 469-1181
Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Bodhi Tree Bookstore
8585 Melrose Ave.
West Hollywood, (310) 659-1733
New bookstore, open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Used bookstore, open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
1601 W. Mountain St.
Glendale, (818) 548-2051
Park hours: daylight until 10 p.m.
Library hours: 1 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
1000 Elysian Park Ave.
Los Angeles, (323) 224-1500
losangeles.dodgers.mlb.comfor game schedule.
James Irvine Garden
244 S. San Pedro St.
Los Angeles (Little Tokyo)
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Hollywood Self-Realization Fellowship
4860 Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood, (323) 661-8006
www.yogananda-srf.org/temples/hollywood/hollywood.htmlOpen 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
For more information about Malibu beach access ways or for directions, contact the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors: beaches.co.la.ca.us/bandh/main.htm or (310) 305-9545.
Gates open at dawn, close at dusk.
There are no lifeguards or other safety features at these beaches; use at your own risk.
9902 Sulphur Mountain Road
Ojai, (805) 640-0000
members.tripod.com/Ezad/Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
The caretakers request that visitors call before arrival.
Los Angeles subway
Schedules at www.mta.net or call 1-800-COMMUTE.