The Beauty of Traveling on Foot
In the course of training for a marathon, you run some very interesting places. My good friend Shikhar and I recently had the painful pleasure of a 17-mile run from USC to Downtown Los Angeles, over the Griffith Observatory, and down Vermont Avenue back to USC.
The Griffith Observatory overlooks the suburbs and shanties and skyscrapers on the route between it and our destination, USC
Vermont Avenue starts, in the north, in the beautiful hills of Griffith Park, near the famed Greek Theatre. Exotic tropical trees of every sort line the borders of quaint estates with stucco walls and tiled roofs. The Hollywood people who live here have a decadent eccentricity to them, a seeming unawareness of the poverty and dirtiness of Los Angeles that surrounds their little isle of California paradise.
Chris Pine’s home, in Los Feliz, the Griffith Park neighborhood where Vermont Avenue starts
Vermont straightens out into a flat, straight road at the bottom of the hill, and the scenery begins to change ever so slightly. Gas stations appear at every other corner, and rich houses are replaced by rich apartments. But the wealth of the hill remains present, seeping through every road and alley.
Gradually the paint on houses begins to fade, and little pieces of trash blow across the road before you. Cluttered trashcans mope on the sidewalk, while the first hints of graffiti show up. The people walking on the sidewalk beside you darken measurably in skin color. By the time Vermont crosses the 110 Freeway, the Griffith Observatory far behind you, you are in another world.
But gradually the skin tones shift again, and the ethnic composition shifts from majority-Mexican to majority-Armenian to majority-Korean as Vermont skirts the edge of Hollywood. Where trees formerly were nowhere to be seen, they now line the roads in perspicacious number, and manual crosswalk signals are replaced with automatic ones. The skyscrapers of Koreatown rise before you, and the English and Spanish signs are joined by Korean ones.
As you enter the Downtown area of Koreatown, you enter an entirely different world from the one you just left. Wealthy banks and corporations and important government divisions house their offices here, while a plethora of shops service the burgeoning population. The arts are paid at least nominal attention, while the architecture proclaims the success of those who live here. Cultural diversity abounds, yet urban homogeneity dominates. You are back in the city.
And then the city abruptly drops over a hill into relative squalor. You are still in Koreatown, as is evidenced by occasional restaurants and plenty of signs, but the shops become more shanty-like and the strip malls are fenced off. Graffiti now becomes much more evident as the architecture gradually looks more and more frayed. Meanwhile the Korean dominance is interspersed with various Filipino and Hispanic communities- their services and stores line the road.
Passing the police station on 11th Street, all the wealth of Koreatown is behind you. The population is now almost entirely Black and Hispanic. You are not entering spaces of abject poverty, but nor is the decency of wealth evident. As you push onward the towers of the University of Southern California come into view, and once you cross under the I-10 you almost immediately encounter the somewhat-trashy but not-quite-dirty blocks of student housing so familiar to USC’s students. For a wealthy and prestigious university, it is surprising how the once-great neighborhood of Adams is now quite messy.
Here Shikhar and I ended our journey, having traversed only 7 of Vermont’s interminable 23 miles. Below USC, to the South, I understand it only gets poorer and less appealing. As it winds through South Los Angeles it certainly couldn’t get any better. An article in the LA Times recently referred to South Vermont Avenue as LA’s Death Alley, the murder capital of the county. The 1992 LA riots started in this area, only a few streets over, at Normandie Avenue.
But the interesting thing about the sheer diversity of these various neighborhoods, these contrasting different worlds, is that you never really notice the process of the change, only the effects. You never see the change, only the changes. It is so gradual that it seems absolutely abrupt as soon as you notice it. I was reminded of a hike my Dad and I did once in the Olympic Mountains, where we traversed no fewer than 6 distinct sorts of ecosystem and scenery, all of which blended with each other so perfectly at the seams that no traveler would ever notice and categorize their differences as they happened. This was certainly the case with my Dad and I, as we meandered through lowland old-growth forest into upper Montaigne forests of thinner shrubbery and lichened rather than mossed trees, into the subalpine fir groves and thence to the mountain meadows, finally to emerge amongst the rocky pinnacles where the clouds caressed the peaks. Below us stretched the Eastern Olympic Mountains, yet no single phrase could describe the sheer unified diversity of clime we had just crossed. There was just too much to describe.
A brief look at the variety of ecosystems traversed in the Eastern Olympics, all in a single picture frame
It is this that is the beauty of travel, for no writing can ever adequately catalogue that most fundamental of the traveler’s experience: that uneasy notion held in the back of the mind that everything is changing, yet everything is the same, at once. In one moment one does not notice any change; in the next he is in another world, yet one with eerie similarities and congruencies to the last one he left. Robert Kaplan, a favorite journalist of mine who spent his early career driving, riding, and walking all over Eurasia as a reporter, has argued extensively against ideas about globalization, insisting that geography will always matter in politics. He lambasts the globalist elites who fly from airport to airport and claim to travel, and in this attack he cannot be more correct- travel is not merely GOING places, but GOING TO places. It involves a process every time, and if that process is shortened too much and made convenient and efficient rather than full, no ‘traveler’ can ever gain the full experience of what it means to know the ends of the Earth. There is glory in numbing the feet.