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.

Friday, January 31, 2014


When I was out and about walking, beating the bounds of Hollywood a couple of weeks back, I came across an interesting bit of ruin – an abandoned gas station on a strangely large plot of land, on Western Avenue, just south of Sunset Boulevard.  There were fences all around the lot, but in any case it was the end of the day, it was getting dark and there were no lights in the place.  But I was intrigued.  This is how it looked on Google earth.

 So a couple of days ago, I went back.  Still, thinking I might do my “every street in Hollywood” project, I didn’t go directly.  I walked down Wilton intending to turn left at Sunset but I dunno, I guess I was enjoying the walk and found myself a few blocks south of Sunset on Lexington (“drunk and dirty more dead than alive” as they say, though not about this Lexington) and I had to back track.  My eventual route looked like this:

Well, in daylight the place wasn’t much more visible than it had been in the dark.  The fences were at just the right height to prevent you looking in, and although there were gaps here and there I could only get a very restricted view. 

Yes, the place was definitely an abandoned gas station, but it must have been abandoned a very long time ago because there were palm trees growing up between the pumps. There was also a huge area of space behind the gas station, with sheds, bits of furniture, multiple garbage cans, and although it didn’t look exactly lived in, it didn’t look like it had been left completely to the elements.  Somebody at least went in there and swept up once in a while.

I still couldn’t see over the fence, of course, but this is why a camera isn’t such a bad thing for the urban explorer to have. By holding up my arms and pointing the camera over the fence I could manage to get some pictures.

They’re not exactly the most revealing pictures about who, why, when, or how, but then I did some zooming in, like Decker in that scene in Bladerunner that once seemed unimaginably futuristic, all that “Track 45 right.  Stop. Center and stop. Enhance 34 to 36. Pan right and pull back. Enhance 34 to 46. Pull back. Wait a minute …” Wait a minute indeed.  Was that a person sitting in there?

 Well, the more I look the more I’m sure it wasn’t a real live person.  I think it was an inflatable or perhaps a solid rubber version of the Hulk.  Incredible.  Another ruin deity presiding over his domain. 

I did a circuit of the streets around the whole of the ruined lot and found myself around the back of some brand new building project that’s going up on Sunset Boulevard.  I think it’s going to be a new Target but I could be wrong. I rather liked what I saw.  It looked like some sort of medieval fortress, crenellations, bizarre fortifications.  I’m going to bet it doesn’t look nearly as good when it’s finished, but I’m sure it’ll look better in a couple of decades when it’s in ruins and being demolished.

On a final note, I know that Hollywood has some reputation as a sexy, if not a sexist, place.  I encountered two rather dubious examples of the male gaze on my walk.

First, above, another manikin, some company for the Hulk perhaps, offering to buy junk TVs.  You can see there’s been some serious amateur breast enhancement here, but I think I’d have to say I’ve seen worse boob jobs in this town.  The women on the left look disapproving, though whether of the manikin or of me taking the picture it’s hard to say.

And secondly there was the above example of street art – a “slap” – of Frida Kahlo, kind of nice in its way, but then somebody had drawn a mustache on her.  I still can’t decide whether this is needlessly and superfluously cruel – I mean nobody needs reminding that the lady’s top lip did sprout some serious growth - or whether it’s some cleverly subversive reference to Duchamp’s Mona Lisa.  I hope it’s the latter, but maybe it’s both.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


As some of you will know, the only blot on my otherwise flawless, crime-free character is a bust for being a pedestrian on a motorway – England. M1, hitchhiking, 1970s – and I wish I could say it’s a long and interesting story, but it’s not.

In any case I wasn’t really ON the motorway, just on the grassy bank beside the motorway.  To actually set foot in the middle of the lanes on, say, the Hollywood Freeway, now that’s what I call being a pedestrian.

And although I still haven’t personally lived that dream, a couple of weekends back I did see a number of cops strolling about on the 101 north of downtown, thus:

There were half a dozens police cars, and they got in front of the traffic and brought it to a standstill so they could deal with a miscreant some way down the track.  I was in the front row of the cars that they stopped.

They did arrest some guy – guns were pulled though none fired, and the guy went quietly, hands up behind his neck,  but oh my there was some serious strutting by the cops as they set foot on the freeway.  That’s some Hollywood walking you’re doing there fellers.

Monday, January 27, 2014


As Tom Waits so eloquently puts it, “When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back.”  And I do, believe me, I do, especially when there are cacti in the garden.  And so it was that I went in search of a place called The Devil’s Garden, supposedly located at the western end of the Morongo Valley.  One of my sources for this expedition was a postcard bearing a photograph by Stephen H. Willard, one of the great, and increasingly well-known photographers of the Mojave desert.  His postcard looks like this:

Who wouldn’t be impressed?  And if you think that a vintage and undated postcard might not be the very best guide for a walking expedition, well I also had some information from a book by Choral Pepper titled Desert Lore of Southern California.  In it she says of the Devil’s Garden, “Here more species of cacti were observable than anywhere else on the Colorado desert.  In 1905, desert explorer George Wharton James wrote that the cactus thrived here as if specially guarded.’”  This is what George Wharton James looked like:

“Unfortunately,” Choral Pepper continues, “the spiny devils weren’t lethal enough.  In the late 1920s when rock gardens were in vogue, truckloads of magnificent barrel cactus … were hauled away.  Although the area has never really recovered, there is still a good display.”  Well, that was first written in 1994, though the edition I have of the book is from 1999, and she didn’t see any reason to update the text, so I still had some hopes.

Anyway, the map showed a dirt road called “Devil’s Garden” just that, not Devil’s Garden Road or Devil’s Garden Trail, and it looked accessible enough, and really not that long.  The plan, as is my way with these things, was to drive some of the way, walk the rest.

Well let me tell you it was a hot day, and the road was very, very much steeper than I’d imagined, and I although I believe I went most of the way to the end, it’s just possible that I missed a vital turn or gave up too soon, but in any case there wasn’t any kind of "garden" and no a barrel cactus in sight, and certainly nothing that looked remotely like that Stephen Willard postcard.  Such cacti as there were were scrubby stringy things, like these (admittedly nicely backlit) chollas.

There were however a couple of satisfying finds.  One: a good old wrecked car.  Sure, of course I believe that people who dump cars in the desert should be taken to a warm, well-lit place and run over a few times, and yet I can never quite get over the fact that a wrecked car always looked pretty good and cool at home in the desert; and sure, maybe clichéd as well.

And then, far more mysteriously, I found that someone had gone to a high place and dumped a number of photograph albums.  I think they must have had a very special reason to do a thing like that, but the reason remains unknown to me, not least because the albums had been out in the sun for so long that except for a few tantalizing spots and edges, every one of the photographs had been bleached to a desert whiteness.  No need to labor the symbolism there.

Next day I was in Moorten’s Botanical Garden in Palm Springs.  Stephen H. Willard used to live in a building that’s now part of it.  There’s nothing very devilish about the place, and although it’s fun to walk around, it really isn’t much of an expedition.  On the other hand it’s a very good place to see barrel cacti.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


I’ve been looking at Sebastião Salgado’s terrific new book Genesis.  After a long career photographing the world’s suffering, it’s his attempt to photograph the world uninfluenced by “modern life.”

Many of his previous photographs have shown dispossessed people walking, escaping war, drought, famine, and other disasters, or sometimes failing to escape.  There's nothing very "Hollywood" about most of this.

So it’s good to know that Salgado, now 69, is something of a walker himself, if for rather different reasons, and in rather different circumstances than his subjects.  Like Werner Herzog, who I assume must be a soul brother, he likes to create hardships for himself.  The pictures above and below are not, in fact from Genesis, but feature walkers respectively in Rwanda, the Bosnian enclave of Bihac, and Ethiopia.

To create Genesis he travelled for about eight months of the year for eight years.  This from an interview with Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian:
    "I walked for 47 days with 7,000 reindeer for the Nenets," he said. "For me, a Brazilian, in temperatures of -35C, -45C, spending 10 or 12 hours outside wasn't easy." His specialist clothing was discarded in favour of kit from the Nenets. "They said, 'Sebastião, you will not survive'."
      Endurance was also required in Ethiopia. He added: "I walked 850km because there were no roads. It was an incredible trip, fabulous, but for me very tough – I was 65 years old."