Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, June 4, 2012

WALKING WITH SNAKES



Last week I went for a walk in Runyon Canyon Park – what used to be the Huntingdon Hartford Estate, a name that means less to most people than I think it should. George Huntingdon Hartford (he never used that first name), was one of those great, tragic American heirs who lost a fortune and himself.  


His family owned the A&P grocery chain.  He was nine when his father died, at which point his trust fund was worth $1.5 million a year, and when his uncle died, admittedly a few decades later, he became worth half a billion dollars or so, which he proceeded to lose.  Mostly it went on bad business deals, but he undoubtedly had an extravagant amount of fun along the way, as a writer, publisher, art collector, producer of movies and stage plays, including a theater production of Jane Eyre starring Errol Flynn, at a time when Flynn was some years past his peak.


The 130 acres of canyon that became the Huntingdon Hartford Estate, were and indeed still are, just a couple of blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard.  Huntingdon Hartford bought them from John McCormick, the Irish tenor, who had built a mansion, guest houses and a terraced garden on the property.  It’s not clear whether Hartford ever really intended to live there.   He had Frank Lloyd Wright design him a Play Resort and Sports Club which would have looked as though three flying saucers had colonized the Hollywood Hills (an appealing enough idea), but a tidal wave of local opposition put an end to the plans, and although he kept the property (Errol Flynn stayed in one of the guest houses) by the end of the fifties he was ready to give the estate to the city, which promptly declined the offer. 


Furious, Hartford sold the estate at a cut price to one Jules Berman, a man who made his fortune by importing Kahlua, and who promptly demolished most of the buildings on the estate to make way for a more orthodox housing development.  No properties standing on the land meant no property taxes to pay, although some sources say that at least one of the guests house was still there at the end of the 1980s.  Berman couldn’t get his plans approved either, and in the end he too offered the land to the city, which this time accepted the gift.

I’d been in certain bits of the park before, had certainly appreciated the “beware of rattlesnake” signs, but I never thought that Runyon Canyon was my kind of walking territory.  Sure, it offers some interesting challenges, rugged, steep, bleakly hot at times summer, and in return it does give you some great views over Los Angeles, but most of the people don’t seem to go there for the walking.  They go there to jog, to run, to exercise, and all too many of them go there to display themselves, to preen, to show off their perfected bods, the men rather more exhibitionistically than the women.  I really don’t need that when I walk.


But this time I was walking there for a very good reason.  I’d had lunch with the wonderful photographer Loretta Ayeroff, who is a fan both of walking and ruins.  One of her series of photographs is titled Off Wilshire referring to the area of LA she lived at the time, when her daughter was newly born.  Every day she’d go for a walk around the neighborhood, baby strapped to her back, camera in hand, photographing quirky, undramatic, but very telling and sometimes mysterious details. 

She also did another great series in the 70s and early 80s titled California Ruins, extraordinary photographs of ruined places that included Alcatraz, some sinister military bunkers in Marin county, the Los Angeles’ Pan Pacific Auditorium before it burned down.  There were shots of gold mines, restaurants, the dinosaurs in Cabazon, and this particular image that I find incredibly and inscrutably moving.


         The title is "Huntingdon Hartford Estate," and since we'd had lunch on Sunset Boulevard it wasn’t going to be much of a stretch to walk up the hill, into Runyon Canyon, to try to find those steps again.  We went in the gate at the south east corner, not expecting much, not sure that we'd find them at all, and immediately, there they were, bang in front of us, the steps, the ones in the photograph.  They were so conspicuous, and so easy to find, that at first neither of us could quite believe it was the right place, and in a way we didn’t want to.  We had wanted it to be harder, more of a search, more of a quest. 

In one sense the steps hadn’t changed at all (I suppose the more low-lying and ground-hugging a structure is, the less likely it is to be ravaged by destructive forces whether natural or human), but everything around them was transformed.  Where there had been leafless, wintry trees there was now lush foliage, century plants, and huge gnarled cacti rising well above head height.  Here’s Loretta, in situ.
        

         We pressed on, not very far, until we saw something in the bushes, nothing very identifiable, perhaps the end of a wall, a chunk of fallen masonry, but definitely something.  We went through bushes and branches, and found a long low, raised concrete slab, a foundation, with a substantial fireplace and a chimney made of rough stone.  We assumed it must be the remains of one of the guest houses.  Had Errol Flynn slept here?


     The painting on the chimney seems strangely sophisticated in some ways, like a hastily conceived totem pole, less sophisticated in others.  Somebody had written “Beer” on the side in thin formless capitals, and beer had clearly been on the mind of many previous visitors.  There were cans strewn around, and fast food wrappers, and a couple of sleeping bags, though these didn’t look like they’d been used recently.   There were condoms too – unused, still in their faded yellow wrappers – the LifeStyles brand.  Beer, sleeping bags, condoms; the Hollywood lifestyle indeed.

         We pressed on up the hill, on our way to the ruined tennis court, and then to Inspiration Point, and we noticed that a group of half a dozen people had gathered and were looking at something very fascinating on the ground.  We joined them.  There, slithering across the dry dusty path, was a five-foot long snake.  Someone said “It’s a rattlesnake” but it quite obviously wasn’t – there was no rattle.  And eventually a consensus was reached that it was a fine rat snake, not the tamest or least snappy of creatures, but nothing that would kill you.  


What is a garden, or indeed a canyon, without a serpent?  What is an estate, or indeed a walk, without a ruin?



More details about Loretta Ayeroff and her work can be found here:






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