Jul 2, 2007

That Windy Day in May

This all started with the fire in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, California on May 8, 2007. Or maybe it began last summer when I bought a bicycle and was searching for some good hills. Living in Silver Lake, which isn't very far from the park, I pedaled up the road behind my home one day and scanned the horizon for the biggest hill. In seconds I spied my goal. Near the top of the tallest hill that wasn’t a mountain in Glendale was the Griffith Observatory, like a marker holding my place, a gleaming, domed point B that beckoned.

Amazing myself, I made it to the top on the first try without once resorting to walking my bike at any point. Immediately, I was hooked on the exhilaration along with the sense of brute, physical accomplishment and also probably the endorphins. For a year or so I would make that ride a few times a week.

Before long I was continuing on, past the observatory and up Mt. Hollywood Drive, which led to the road down to Travel Town, the LA Zoo and the Autry Center on the Glendale side. I would say, “I go up Vermont to the observatory and then over the hill to Travel Town,” as much to impress myself as anyone to whom I was insisting upon relaying the details of my addiction. “Wow,” some of them would say blankly, “Great.”

As the months passed, I watched the subtle shift in hue of the vegetation and the deepening sprawl of shadows as the northern hemisphere tilted away from the sun and fall faded to winter. (Stopping regularly at the observatory, I had gotten into the habit of thinking in a celestial manner.)

In the winter months the sun's heat would flick off like a bulb around 3 PM and the sweat that flowed and soaked my clothes during the grueling ride up would become a cold, wet envelope pressing against my skin as I hurtled down the hills into the darkening chasms. It was heavenly.

All was well and taken for granted until a Tuesday afternoon in early May, when I noticed the sunlight streaming into my windows seemed different; it was muted and orange-ish. I went outside and it looked like one might expect the end of the world to look, at least as far as the lighting was concerned. Overhead was a cottony grey plume of smoke waving slowly back and forth in front of the sun.

I walked up the road behind my house so I could get a look at the park, about three miles away. Perfect timing, I got to see a wall of flames crawl up and over the hill top and out of view. It took about 20 seconds and was completely horrifying. I had never seen fire like that from a distance. In the glaring midday sun it was burning so brightly and moving so quickly that I now remember it more as a surreal image one might recall from a particularly vivid dream.

And so it came to pass. The sense of loss and grieving churned in me for days afterward. The Youtube fire videos merged in my memory with what I had actually seen and my longing for the park became a veil through which I saw everything for weeks.

Somehow I stumbled upon the LA Parks web site and its Griffith Recovery Blog. I started posting comments about what I was experiencing at the park, or initially the park entrances, because that was the extent of going to the park in those first weeks after the fire.

I talked to rangers and guards at the park entrances and I called the rangers' office and Rec. and Parks for news about the park’s status. The politeness, sensitivity and empathy of everyone I spoke to balanced the uncertainty of all the conflicting information I was given.

A few weeks later, a community meeting took place at Friendship Auditorium that was as much a letting of grief and coming to grips as it was a progress report and planning for the recovery, passionately orchestrated by Councilman Tom LaBonge. He was unflagging in his enthusiasm, whether he was fielding questions from dejected hikers and equestrians or listening to the comments of a neighborhood resident who was concerned about her cough since the fire. He introduced the fire fighters to a cheering crowd, bringing them to the stage, bestowing heartfelt honors upon them. He cajoled a cautious and doubtful seeming Jon Kirk Mukri, Rec. and Parks’ general manager, about re-opening the park.

Then the lights went down and the audience grew quiet. Familiar sounding music started playing as a piercing spotlight suddenly illuminated a large cake in the shape of the Griffith Observatory that had rolled out onto the darkened stage. The music swelled and out of the cake burst Tom LaBonge, dressed as a chaparral bush, along with two scantily clad dancers. He belted out “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going” as we jumped up and down in ecstacy, waving our arms in the air, waving like we just don’t care. He grabbed a bucket of rose pedals and flung them out over the crowd. We were all reaching up to grasp them as they drifted down, like floating memories of the park that had been swept away as ashes on that windy day in May.

Not really, but I think he would have done it if that’s what he thought it would take to whip people into his vortex of optimism for the park’s recovery. We need more guys like him.