Drifting and striding 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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Hollywood being what it is, I found myself shortly before Christmas at the same party as Julie Newmar, the legendary actress who played Catwoman in the Adam West Batman TV series of the early 1960s.  That’s her above at the party.  As I’ve discovered since, having mentioned it to various people, there are some who find this the most exciting thing they’ve ever heard, others who haven’t a clue who the lady is: generation has something to do with it, but not everything.

Ms. Newmar and I exchanged a few pleasantries, and I did notice that she was a little unsteady on her feet, holding people’s arm for support, and I did hear her tell somebody that she gave up high heels about five years ago.  There’s much debate online about just how old Julie Newmar is, but nobody seems to think she’s less than 75, so to have been strutting in stilettos till the age of 70 doesn’t strike me as the worst record.  And whatever age she is, she’s still looking pretty damn good on it. 

In fact it’s not easy to find a picture of Julie Newmar walking, whether as Catwoman or as herself: photographers seem to have preferred to see her lounging around.  I don’t really blame them.  The day after the party I looked up her blog and found an entry from 2009 titled Up and At ‘Em, in which she tells us that sadly “The crunch is, I barely can walk these days,” but not to worry, she says, “I can fly … Flying is the key.  As a concept, flying beats walking any day.  In my case, it means walking intensely, as in an intensity of purpose.”

She also compares herself with Franklin D. Roosevelt (not a comparison many of us would make, I think), “Like me, Franklin Delano Roosevelt couldn’t walk, and he rose above it to run the United States of America for four terms as President.  We never heard him complain.”  Indeed.

Now, it so happens that I live within walking distance of the location used as the outside of the Batcave in the 1960s TV series, it’s in Bronson Canyon, which is itself part of Griffith Park.  In fact, the Batcave isn’t really a cave at all, it’s a short tunnel, the remains of quarrying work that used to go on in the area. The interior, of course, was elsewhere, in fact on a sound stage at Desilu Studios in Culver City. 

Nevertheless, in honor of Batman and Catwoman, and especially in honor of Julie Newmar, I decided to walk up there on Christmas Eve and found that a surprising number of people had had the same idea. Good for them.  Good for all of us.

The walk started at the corner of Foothill Drive and Canyon Drive, another of those frustrating roads posted with the message “No Access to the Hollywood Sign,” the truth being that no road actually gives access to the Hollywood sign, however we define “access.”

Along Canyon, it being Xmas, a few people had decorated their gardens, including the one above,  Christmas balls adorning a euphorbia and a century plant. Not far from here, not that long ago, one of the houses once had a full size cross outside, big enough for a real crucifixion, which I guess is another version of the Christmas story.  Eventually the walk took me into the park with its various signs warning against fires and rattlesnakes, and this particularly fine sign forbidding alcohol. 

Now admittedly that’s a very shallow glass out of which to drink booze, but those bubbles sparkling both in and out of the glass strike me as a triumph of alcohol-related design, though frankly not one likely to deter the determined boozer/walker.

Access to the “Batcave” is on foot only and there’s a locked barrier across the track leading up to it, to prevent vehicles entering, but once you get up to the cave there’s evidence that bad boys have found a way to drive up there and do doughnuts in front of the cave entrance.

Of course there are no bats in the Batcave, let alone cats, and their attendant men and women, but once you emerge on the other side there are ravens on the hills and hawks circling, and if you turn to the left and look up you do actually see the Hollywood sign, rather distantly, which is arguably the best way to see it.

I’m not sure that Batman did much more walking than Catwoman or Julie Newmar but there is this great cover from Detective Comics.  "Beware of Batman!  He’s a walking bomb."  Well, aren’t we all?

Saturday, December 24, 2011


 ONE: The Trona Pinnacles are one of the most exotic yet most seen bits of landscape in America.  They look truly extraordinary but they regularly appear in car commercials and have been in all manner of SF movies, not least Lost in Space and the Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.

We went walking there and for several hours were pretty much the only people around for several hours although there was one terrible moment when we first arrived and I’d parked in what I thought was a nice isolated spot, when a minivan pulled up about ten yards away.  Since the area covers nearly 4000 acres this seemed an unnecessary intrusion, but perhaps the driver saw me, thought there’s a desert hound who obviously knows the perfect spot and decided to join me.  Fortunately not for long.  In this case, the passenger, a pleasant enough middle-aged woman got out of the car, raised her camera, took a single photograph and got back in the car and drove away. The woman’s desert walk had covered maybe twelve feet.

But then at sunset three or four cars arrived, each one driven by a single man, and every one of them got out, walked to an isolated spot and sat there silently and alone till the sun went down.  These are the kind of desert walkers one appreciates.

TWO:  I drive a Jeep, not because I want to prove myself in some manly way by cresting rocks and swamps, but because I want to go walking in places an ordinary saloon won’t take me.  I know that in Death Valley people thrash their saloon cars over some nightmarish terrain, but I assume these are rental cars.  And I was certainly glad to have a four wheel drive on the road to the ghost town of Skidoo where the below picture is taken. 

Skidoo was once a mining town and although there’s not much sign of a town anymore, the hills are scattered with mining debris and open shafts, their entrances fenced, but I’m sure you could fall in if you were really determined.

I always find it strangely satisfying to walk a couple of miles into the hills and look then back the way I’ve come and to say to whoever’s with me, “Hey, I can see my car from here.”  There it is on the far left, with the arrow.

Of course I always some anxiety that I’ll look down and see some bad seed has arrived, broken into the car and is now stealing my stuff.  So far this has never happened, but there’s always a first time.


THREE: And speaking of feral furniture, we did of course find some wrecked TVs and sofas on our desert travels – in some cases they were inside trailers that had themselves been wrecked.  The picture above is taken in Trona.

And the one below was the best score of all – also in Trona – a wrecked house the railway line and the chemical factory, and inside along with a derelict sofa and  fridge, there was a piano (or at least half a piano.). Here is a picture of my desert walking companion, walking on a piano. Does it ever really get any better than this?


Monday, December 19, 2011


I don’t want to come across as some kind of Charles Manson obsessive, but if you’re of a certain age, if you live in Los Angeles, and if you also have a taste for walking in the desert, it’s a name that tends to come up once in a while.

The Loved One and I just came back from what is turning into a tradition; a short pre-Christmas road trip into the Mojave desert, to get away from all that holiday cheer.  We drove up to Death Valley, via Ridgecrest and Trona, and we took a side trip to Ballarat, which is called a ghost town, a term that I find increasingly problematic, though that's a matter for a different post.

Ballarat is a great place to do the kind of walking I do in the desert.  You drive there, park the car in the dirt, go for a walk, and poke around in whatever you happen to find.  In this case that includes some ruined houses, a graveyard, the former jail.  There are also a few abandoned trucks, including this one, a Dodge Power Wagon.

There is also, perhaps surprisingly, a little museum-cum-store, run by Rocky Novack, one of the town’s few full-time inhabitants.  He told me that Ballarat currently has a population of eight, mostly miners who live in trailers and work at the Briggs Mine a few miles down the road.  It’s a dirt road, of course.

Rocky also assured me that the truck pictured above had once belonged to the Manson family, and frankly I was skeptical, but it turns out there’s at least decent circumstantial evidence that it might have.  Manson and his crew largely used dune buggies and the occasional school bus for transport, but the Manson story as told in Desert Shadows by Bob Murphy, an eccentric but well-informed book about Manson in the desert, certainly features a few Dodge Power Wagons. The inside of the cab roof of the one in Ballarat is painted with stars, which certainly seems very period, and just the kind of thing one of those arty Manson girls might do.

Whatever the truck’s provenance, the fact is, once you’re walking in Ballarat you’re most definitely walking in Charles Manson’s footsteps.  The family used Ballarat as a gathering point before going deeper into the desert via the Goler Wash to the Barker Ranch where they lived for a time.

Recently, despite not being a Manson obsessive, I’d been wondering if I could make it to the Barker Ranch.  I knew the place wasn’t in great shape: a couple of years back a fire had destroyed all the wooden parts.  I wondered if somebody had done this as an act of ritual cleansing but apparently not.  The general wisdom is that somebody stayed there overnight and their propane stove got out of hand.

Before that, the Barker Ranch had become just another cabin available to passing hikers, campers and desert rats - there are quite a few cabins like that in and around Death Valley. They’re available on a first come first served basis, and you can see how that could create problems if some Manson-type was already in situ when you arrived.

I also knew that to get to the Barker Ranch we’d have to drive up the Goler Wash. Online sources, as is the way, told me both that a moderately experienced driver of a 4 x 4 could zip up the Goler Wash without difficulty, while others said the route was a serious challenge. Conditions are no doubt changeable. 

Rayner Banham said the greatest asset a man can have in the desert is “creative  cowardice,” and believing this, I drove the miles to the mouth of Goler Canyon, parked, then walked up the wash to see if it looked passable in a vehicle, given my admittedly limited skill set as an off-roader.  

Now, I’m not saying I couldn’t have done it.  The canyon walls were narrow, the track was steep, there was water flowing down the wash (it had rained the previous night) and the real problems were some rocky outcrops, described in the literature as steps or falls, places where a vehicle might get grounded or stuck, where you might pop a wheel or a tire. I thought it was perfectly possible that the Jeep would pass over the obstacles, but it seemed perfectly possible that it wouldn't.  Being stuck in Goler Wash, quite apart from the risks to self, spouse and vehicle, would have made me look like a complete idiot, something I generally try to avoid. 

So we settled for a walk instead.  It was a great walk.  The canyon’s walls were high but not oppressive. The rock was full of amazing colors.  Cactuses grew up the sides, apparently sprouting straight out of the rock.  There was also dung at the sides of the track, evidence that there were burros in the area, but we didn’t see any of them.

We knew we were never going to walk all the way to the Barker Ranch – it would have been a ten mile round trip – and in any case it was just a burned out cabin.  Only later did I read that the fire at the Barker Ranch had given the Parks Service an interesting problem.  They had contemplated restoring the place, not least to provide accommodation, but I think they feared they could be accused of restoring a Manson shrine, and maybe they also thought some bastard would burn it down again, and so in the end they decided to leave it as it was and it’s now officially designated as a “ruin.”  I rather like that.

As I have said elsewhere, I consider myself a pretty decent walker, but nothing more than that. I don’t really think of myself as a true hiker, but Death Valley, makes hikers of us all. And walking there often involves you in some scrambling up rocky slopes, and just occasionally in what the guide books call “canyoneering.”

There’s a great deal of information available about walking and hiking routes through Death Valley, some of it contradictory or course.  The Park Service publishes a sheet listing “day hikes” and they include the Telescope Peak Trail, a 14 mile round trip described as “strenuous.”  Just for good measure they add, “Climbing this peak in the winter requires ice axe and crampons.”  I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a day hike:  I’m absolutely certain it doesn’t constitute a walk.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


As I was walking through the Corralitas Red Car Property I spotted the above chair, not very close to and apparently not belonging to any house.  I wasn’t sure whether it had been deliberately put there by someone who thought this was a perfect place to sit, or whether it had simply been dumped and tossed down the hill.

And it struck me, not exactly for the first time, that as I go walking I often see abandoned chairs or sofas, and once in a while I photograph them, though not always.  It hasn’t quite turned into an art project as yet, though one day it may do.

In fact when I went to walk around the chapel that features in the Cabarat Voltaire video of Sensoria, with my pals Steve and Julia, we found a complete three piece suite left on the forecourt of an empty workshop that was up for rent.  It struck all of us as pretty funny.  How did it get here?  It certainly didn’t look like the kind of thing that would ever have been inside the workshop.  So had somebody gone to the trouble of loading the thing into a van, transporting it here and there placing it on the forecourt?  Would it have been any more trouble to take it to the dump?

In Edgelands, a book which I’m still gamely poking around in, the authors (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts) write, “The feral car seat is another emblem of edgelands.  Every childhood should have one.  In an age before computer games, sitting in one of these, making engine noises was as close as a child could get to the open road.  Or you could strap the seat to a go-cart and find a slope.  And you can rock them on their metal runners, survey your empire of feral knotweed, balsam poppies and willow herb like an old hillbilly on a wooden veranda.”

Well yes indeed, though as I’ve observed before many of the phenomena the boys identify as features of edgelands are present right in the middle of cities.  That car seat above was located just off Hollywood Boulevard, outside a marijuana dispensary.  The sofa below was on Los Feliz Boulevard, a fairly swanky LA street.

I also see plenty of abandoned televisions and computer monitors when I’m out walking.  This is more understandable in many ways: you can’t just put them in the trash – the garbage men won’t take them.   They need to be “recycled.” When we bought our new TV the delivery men said they’d gladly take the old one away if we paid them fifty dollars.  We decided to save the money and the old TV sits in the junk room and every now and again we think we should do something about it but we never do.  Although the “something” thus far has never involved thinking about taking it out into the street and leaving at the side of the road.

As a man who does a certain amount of walking in the desert, I do of course come across lots of human jetsom, including this TV.

The TV here has been used for target practice, and as an Englishman I find the whole idea of hauling things into the middle of nowhere in order to shoot at them pretty alien, although the evidence is that it strikes many Americans as perfectly standard behavior.

There’s a passage in Rayner Banham’s “Scenes in America Deserta” where he reckons that people in the desert only shoot manmade things.  His observation is that they shoot the hell out of chairs and TVs and road signs, and certainly out of cars, but the things that are native and natural to the desert tend to be left alone.  I’m sure this isn’t literally true, the odd cactus surely gets shot up, but I do suspect he’s on to something.

I don’t think Banham was much of a walker.  All the images I’ve ever see of him, show him in a car or on one those very cool sixties bikes. These days however there are various “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” tours run by Esotouric, that involve walking as well as bus riding.  “Please be prepared to talk a stroll,” the website says rather gently and plaintively: they’re dealing with Angelinos after all.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Having got this “haunted house” thing in my head, I dug out a cutting I’d kept from LA Weekly’s annual “Best of LA” issue.  There in the Mind and Body section was a listing for “Best Haunted Hiking,” that read in part, “Where do you go when you want to see a ghost train?  Corralitas Red Car Property sits on land formerly part of the Pacific Electric Streetcar line which cut through Silver Lake on its way to Glendale until it was decommissioned in 1955.  Bordered on both sides by the skeletons of abandoned cars and machinery, the public trail near the old rail is as creepy as it is cool.  Relics of the big red cars are still visible.”

Sounded good to me.  As you see from the map, the Red Car Property is a strange, bent finger of land, than runs between people’s back gardens, and not really very long, less than a mile end to end.  (It's the red bit, I thought it should be clickable but apparently it's not.  Blogger eh?) There have been various attempts to redevelop it, including a plan to build new houses there.  LA is, of course, the home of the impossible real estate plot, but even so it’s hard to imagine how that would work, the land in the corridor is more or less flat but it rises sharply on one side, drops sharply on the other, there wouldn’t see to be room for both houses and an access road.  In any case, so far it’s come to nothing.

I know bits of Silver Lake reasonably well, but not this part.  I used the map and information from a website named www.modernhiker.com.  I gained access at the corner of Alessandro Way and Lake View Avenue, right opposite the Holyland Exhibition which alas was closed when I was there.

Initially the route runs alongside a chain link fence above the freeway, then widens out into open land, a desire line running across the middle, before narrowing again, and remaining unpaved as it takes you between people’s houses and back yards. This land isn’t public, and it certainly doesn’t belong to the properties that line it, but as is the human way, the locals have spread themselves, encroached, extended their gardens, parked multiple cars and trucks on the land.  Someone seems to have made a shrine to a dead pet, at least one hopes it’s a pet.  And nature has played is part too: there are escapee yuccas and cacti cascading down the hillsides.

In various places as you walk along you can see multiple main roads, you’re in sight and loud earshot of the freeways, and you can see mountains and indeed Forest Lawn cemetery in the distance.  It’s a very LA landscape at certain points, at others it feels like you could be in rural Arkansas.

Like I said, it isn’t a very long walk, there and back is just a couple of miles, although it’s easy enough to extend it in various directions.  Journey’s end, such as it is, is an arrangement of concrete blocks set on a hillside above Riverside Drive.  I have read that these are known as the Stonehenge of LA, but I’m not sure to whom.  In fact this City of Los Angeles Historic Landmark # 770, and the concrete blocks were once the footings of the Pacific Electric Red Car Viaduct. 

A website called http://redcarproperty.blogspot.com/ has pictures of the Red Car line, including the viaduct (above), but it takes a pretty enormous feat of the imagination to picture exactly how this fits with the current topography.  As you see, at the time I was there someone was using the footings as bases for art works.

As for the haunted hiking, the ghost train, the skeletons of abandoned cars and machinery, the relics of the big red cars – I didn’t see a damn thing.  Maybe I was distracted or unobservant or preoccupied, but I suppose it’s in the nature of ghosts that they only show themselves to certain people.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Earlier this year the Art in the Streets exhibition at L.A.’s MOCA (the first big show curated there by new director Jeffrey Deitch) was a huge popular success, despite being criticized in some quarters as being too much like a theme park.  

A forgivable sin, I thought.  In order to give the feel of the streets, the gallery contained installations, or you might even call them “sets,” that recreated the feel of walking through graffiti-scarred neighborhoods. 

The best, for my money, was a work titled “Street” (and sometimes known as “Donut Time”) created by Todd James, Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, Devin Flynn, Josh Lazcano, Dan Murphy, and Alexis Ross.  A section of the gallery had been turned into a fantasy urban enclave, litter strewn, tagged, hemmed in by dead ends and chain link fences, complete with a dubious-looking convenience store and tattoo parlour, the whole place duded up with faux advertising signs and neon. The piece had wit and humor, and yet there was something edgy and creepy about the environment.  You had the vicarious thrill of knowing you were safe in an art gallery, while walking through a place that would make you pee your pants if you’d encountered it in the real world.

Less successful, it was generally agreed, was an installation by Neck Face, a recreation of a scary alleyway with a lifesize model of a sleeping bum. It seemed a little too Madame Tussaud’s.  Neck Face was reported by the New York Times as saying his family ran an “unofficial trade constructing haunted houses” – whatever that might mean.

Hollywood is supposedly awash with ghosts, and there’s a brisk trade in tours to visit the sites.  Legend has it that Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift haunt the Roosevelt Hotel, that the ghost of Harry Houdini lurks in the ruins of some house or other (scholars disagree about which one) in Laurel Canyon, and that the wraith of Peg Entwistle still lurks under the Hollywood sign.  Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Vogue Theater, the Queen Mary in Long Beach have all been claimed as places where spirits are want to walk abroad.

Only recently however did I discover that there’s a place in my own neighborhood known locally as the Haunted House (that's it above).  The actual address is 5672 Tryon Road, and its owners seem to have abandoned it about a decade ago, which is surely a mystery in itself.  Who abandons a house in L.A.?  Even if it’s one that looks like it belongs in the swamplands?

It’s at the top of a flight of 150 steps, the kind you get in some parts of LA, here officially named Saint Andrews Walk (no apostrophe as far as I can tell).  This is a pretty swank part of the neighborhood, far swankier than the part I live in.  Across from the steps is a vast, much crenelated house that used to belong to Nicolas Cage.  

But Saint Andrews Walk is less than swank, a place which, according to an article by Adam Kear in a recent Oaks newsletter, “is a favorite hangout for drinking, drugs, and other nefarious activity.  Tagging, litter, and loud late night noise are a continuing problem.”

To be honest I don’t walk down Saint Andrews Walk very often – I’d lived in and walked around the area for a few years before I even knew it was there.  The problem with walking down 150 steps is that at some point you tend to have to walk up them again,  but I do use the stairs once in a while, and I console myself with the knowledge that I can break the ascent halfway up where there’s a level area, a bench and a kind of balustrade. This however seems to be ground zero for bad, and possibly criminal, behavior: arrests have been made. 

I’ve only ever seen a few people hanging out there, and I’ve never witnessed criminality, but there’s plenty of evidence that at other times some drinking, drugging and partying must go on.  Litter gets strewn on the steps, bottles are thrown into neighboring gardens, and there are some low-level graffiti that are very almost certainly not art, though this one might be construed as an example of psychogeographic mapping. 

The bad behaviour all looks fairly small time, but even so it must be hell to have it happening on the other side of your garden fence.  Kear reckons that the “Haunted House” is “the major reason problems on the stairs have continued.  It is a classic case of ‘broken windows’ theory.  It sends a message that no one is watching and no one cares: just inviting criminal activities on the stairs.”  I don’t know enough urban theory to be sure if this is true or not.  But it’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it, that people are so attracted to haunted houses?  You might think that sinister, neglected, ruined, potentially dangerous houses would repel people, but in fact people, people just like us, in fact us, we're inexorably drawn to them.

I’m assuming the people who hang out on Saint Andrews Walk are young, because once you reach a certain age, drink, drugs, partying and other nefarious activities are more enjoyable when done in private.  Tagging and graffiti, on the other hand, are obviously public forms.

When MOCA had its street art exhibition, lots of graffiti appeared in the streets around the museum.  Director Jeffrey Deitch was blamed.  His exhibition was just too darned inspiring.  This seems just slightly unfair.  Would you blame the director of the Van Gogh Museum if somebody looked at the pictures and then cut off his ear?  Well maybe you would.  Anyway, both the graffiti and the outcry seemed entirely predictable.

Now, I discover that Jeffrey Deitch lives right in the area, barely stumbling distance from Tryon Road and Saint Andrews Walk, but his house remains free of grafitti.  It’s free of ghosts too, I think, though Cary Grant was once a resident, and in the picture it does look as though the ghost of Jesus is lurking on the wall behind him.

During the street art exhibition Deitch got into further trouble because he painted over a mural he’d commissioned for the side wall of the gallery, from the artist Blu.   The art was too “political” apparently.  A supporter of Blu claimed to have been at a party in Deitch’s house, and painted this on the bathroom wall:

I suppose its heart is in the right place, but it looks pretty fake to me: that T looks all wrong, just a layer of Photoshop, right?  And the lack of apostrophe?  Well, that could be real or feigned illiteracy - who can tell anymore?  But as a matter of fact I think Jeffrey Deitch would have a much swankier bathroom than the one in the picture.  He commissioned the artist Richard Woods to turn one room of the house into a “super-Tudor Pop environment,” so that he can do his partying in private.  Well you would, wouldn't you?