A Day on the River: The LA River

I went to check out a portion of the LA River I haven’t photographed yet, the Glendale Narrows, in Atwater Village, 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles.

The LA river was once a real river system that the Spanish named the Porciuncula. Native Americans lived on the banks long before the missionaries rolled in. Up to the turn of the century it was the only water source for Los Angeles.

Now, well, you know the story.

The Glendale narrows is one of the few spots on the river which still has an earthen bottom. It’s also the part that has seen the most attention towards creating more public access and improvements.

After stopping for a carne assada burrito, I parked just west and uphill of the river, on the edge of Silver Lake and ate it happily, well, most of it, half of it, then I started walking.

Here we go.

I find power lines and God romantic.

A little further downhill I chanced upon some street art; a pleasant surprise and more proof that sometimes protest happens quietly.

The scene reminded me of a cemetery: death of the modern world.


This is what we look like from the televisions’ point of view.

After taking a few shots of the impromptu outdoor installation I crossed the street to the entrance of the trail, a place they obviously spent some money on, designing a snazzy gate with a sculpture of a heron.

But pop below the street and this is what greets you.

I walked a little bit down the path, a couple of people on bikes passed me with barely a glance. There weren’t any hikers out there but me, it’s not really a trail despite being in my book of LA hikes. It was fully cemented and I had to keep checking over my shoulder for suspicious characters.

Graffiti was everywhere, which added a nice touch to the urban vibe. The thing I don’t understand is: why do they have to write on the trees? It’s not like there is a lack of cement down here.


On the flat part of the ground there, there was a drainage pipe that lead into an abyss that inevitably sets one to conjuring something horribly morbid, at least I did.

I passed in front of it hoping to get a good picture of the darkness. I pictured it being a closely-cropped window into a dark secret. As I got in front of the hole I could see a body in there, dead or alive, real or imagined, I wasn’t sure, so I snapped the picture on the run, too chicken-shit to focus.

I kept walking, quickly.

As I neared a bridge I could see a bunch of junk lined up underneath. This was definitely some bedouin’s encampment. My camera was in my hand ready to document the findings but I saw hands and arms moving in the shadows so I put it away, respectful not to take pictures of a person’s home in front of them.

I wouldn’t want to be treated in some gawkish, zoo-like manner even if I did live on the streets.

I came upon a man and woman sitting casually on a couch, engaged in mid-day conversation. I greeted them with a smile and the woman said hi, seemed comfortable with me passing through. The man drank water silently from an old 40 bottle. I tried to take in as much as I could without slowing my steps and appearing to stare. There were boxes of children toys, old chairs, piles of books, even what looked like cupboards filled with pet food.

There seemed to be separate rooms organized around the pillars and boxes of junk. (which I apologize for calling it that twice now because I’m sure it is anything but junk to these people) What I’m trying to say is there was architecture. There was a sense of home about it. It all looked quite domesticated; except for being under a bridge and next to a river that smelt like shit.

Believe me, these folks’ dwelling was way more interesting than the river, and I wished I could have stayed and taken pictures, talked with them about their life, learned a little something; but instead, I kept ‘hiking’.

A little later I saw a couple of tall birds wading in the water.

If you look to the right, you can see one swimming in the water. That’s not a duck. It’s a heron.

The thing is, that’s not the bird’s natural color, or coat. I’ve never seen a heron with black feathers that reflected light. The sign at the front of the trail showed a picture of two birds that looked like this one in size and shape.

Except neither of the two in the picture were covered in oil.


The highlight of the walk, if you could call it that, was where the river narrowed into a chute, causing a rapid of sort.

Here’s a panorama of the scene.

I left the river and walked back through the neighborhood to get a sense of the community. The area felt old school, it had a La Bamba sort of vibe: heavy industry, a bunch of dried lawns, an arid hillside, slanting sun, an ice cream truck that played Yankee Doodle Dandy with a Salsa beat, sharp-angled shadows, electric lines cluttering an otherwise blue sky.

The neighborhood looked starved for water, which is strange because a 100 years ago this was probably the most verdant patch in the valley due to the river coming together with the Arroyo Seco here.

A man on a bike I had a passed along the river was riding in my direction again. We exchanged polite nods. I bet he was wondering what I was up to like I was wondering the same of him. Was he just riding around? Traveling somewhere? Looking for trouble.

What is this gringo doing walking around the hood? What’s he taking pictures of? And what’s with the goofy grin?

I took a picture of him over my shoulder… because I’m creepy like that.

Notice that his head is decapitated by the sunlight.

Underneath the freeway there were murals that looked like they were drawn by children. It pleased me to see them relatively free of graffiti.

Again, notice the sharp angles. The contrast of shadow and bright light. A freeway. An ominous bridge. Power lines. Children’s drawings. This is what Los Angeles looks like when you walk the tract.

I retraced my steps, reached my car, and navigated back onto the 5 freeway which skirts the river into the San Fernando Valley. I took the 5 to the 134 and then that to the 101, and finally exited at Coldwater Canyon, which always makes me wonder if there is once a reason for that name. LA has an inventory of streams that we’ve covered up and hidden, built over, chained-up.

Sometimes when you are driving, like Beverly Blvd., by the country club near Rossmore, a cloud of mist will appear on an other-wise clear night. Those are caused by streams that still flow, only underground and out of sight.

While stopped at the light I offered a homeless woman “my old burrito”. When her eyebrows formed a worried, upside down V and she looked askance at the paper bag I held out the window I explained it was only an hour or so old, from lunch. She laughed and took it.

The light turned green. I guided my car towards the hills and then veered west for a mile or so, passing the river again along the way, and then pulled into my building.

Home at last.

If I had a canoe I could have taken a more direct route. Straight up the Porciuncula. Like the Gabriellino Indians long before.

As I’m writing this I look out the window at a sky humans have seen for a thousand years. An ancient people used to sit by the Porciuncula and watch the stars appear in orbit long before the Ventura Freeway, the Galleria, Mulholland, all of this shit was here.

Those people have disappeared, leaving me in their place.

If you’re interested in taking a guided tour of the whole river, click here.


2 thoughts on “A Day on the River: The LA River

  1. They say that nature laughs last. I don’t see that Heron laughing very hard.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this and makes me want to explore Los Angeles even more than I already have. Though not always beautiful, it’s always interesting.

  2. I’ve come to learn that that heron is not a heron, and it’s supposed to look the way it did. My bad.

    But yes, the bird wasn’t laughing and the water still smelled like shi. Like you said… LA is interesting.

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