My test of manhood begins at 4 in the morning in Glendale, California, on the first day of the hajj. The pigeons are still sleeping. In some countries they call pigeons squab and eat them as a delicacy. In America, we tend to let them feed on our scraps and then get pissed when they shit on our cars—a resource turned into a filthy, disease-ridden nuisance.
You can learn a lot about a place by its birds. By the time I get to Highland Park the roosters are waking up in hidden coops. Two hours and six miles later in South Pasadena the sun is up and the bourgeois parrots are squawking like mad on telephone wires. That’s another thing we’re good at in America: kidnapping exotic animals from their natural habitats, importing them in cages, and then setting them free.
The only people awake at this hour are Latino—Mexican, mostly. Prep cooks, bakers, and doughnut makers in Highland Park, landscapers in Pasadena. Except for the odd jogger, white people in these parts don’t surface until around 8. Latinos, especially Mexicans, are the glue that holds this city together. Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows this to be true, at least on a semiconscious level. But walk through the city three hours before you usually wake up and you’ll experience it in a way you could never appreciate otherwise.
I’m twenty-nine and hovering near poverty when this journey begins—the scent of failure and emasculated rage wafting off me like a rat decomposing in your cupboard. I’ve just been laid off from what should have been my dream job, staff writer for the L.A. Weekly. When I was in high school, I imagined such work would entail lots of drugs and sex and long nights cultivating elegant prose. Instead I found myself working for a company that treated writing like my ex-girlfriend treated sex—a never-ending, soul-sapping negotiation. My dissatisfaction became more readable than many of my stories. Like a true child of the eighties, I was downsized faster than you can say Reaganomics. To the pliant goes the health insurance.
Unemployment has a way of inspiring introspection, and the conclusions I arrive at are not good. My thoughts drift to the last woman generous enough to sleep with me before my sacking. She nicknamed me “Tender Hands”—sadly, not for any extraordinary sensual prowess, but for my smooth, womanly, work-free hands. It’s a cute-enough moniker when you’re a staff writer for a well-known publication, but beyond pathetic when you’re unemployed.
Tender hands …
When the apocalypse comes, when our crumbling economic order finally collapses for good, I’m fucked. Can’t hunt, can’t fish, can’t raise crops, can’t find water, can’t fight, can’t kill. I’ll die a horrible, painful, embarrassing death—on my knees begging, or maybe alone and broken like a dog. Maybe I’ll get lucky enough to catch a head shot from some wacko in a three-bedroom modular defending his lawn gnomes and aspirational furniture into eternity. But odds are, I’m going to drink untreated water from a drainage ditch or a scum-coated pond and contract diarrhea. I’ll shit myself to death—which is how most people on Earth meet their untimely ends.
Imagine shitting yourself to death.
Something else soon dawns on me: I am going to be poor the rest of my life. This would be fine if I had grown up that way. If I had learned to scrap. But I grew up in the suburbs, predestined for higher education. I’d spent my entire existence reading and cultivating ideas and masturbating plaintively out of boredom. I’d never done a day of real work in my life. Writing was the only thing I was remotely good at. And I even got lazy with that.
Now I’m unemployed and tethered to a collapsing industry, poor and useless—the most humiliating combination imaginable.
In theory, I have options. There’s always public relations. But whether it took a few weeks, a month, or even a year, it would be only a matter of time before that gutless profession drove me to gun up an office. Most of my other mental career explorations also end with me gunning up some imaginary office.
So I decide I need to flee, to get out of Los Angeles for my safety and the safety of those around me. I may be done for, but there is no way I’m going to take my lot like a slob, stewing in my own filth, watching TV in sweatpants until my unemployment checks run out. No, I need the dignity of flight—to leave all my shit behind like a goose and see if I can find a new watering hole thousands of miles away.
Afghanistan looks promising. Maybe losing a limb to a roadside bomb or a landmine would absolve my class guilt. A PR gig could look pretty good to someone with a stump. But long, aimless rambles are one of the few human joys I have in this life. I can’t bring myself to risk it.
Then it hits me like Ike Turner: how about a walk? A really long, punishing walk. I’ve always been capable of dainty, Thoreau-like strolls. How about a feat of strength?
I check the map. Punishing snow-capped mountains to the north, with the revolting Central Valley beyond. Ocean to the west. Orange County to the south. Ugh.
That leaves east to the desert. But where in the desert? I’m no survivalist. I can’t just wander out into the middle of the Mojave. Then I see it—a small town just miles from the Salton Sea: Mecca, California.
It just so happens that December is fast approaching and so is the hajj—the time when Muslims make a sacred pilgrimage to their Mecca. Perfect.
Except the hajj lasts just four days and my Mecca is 160 miles away …
Fuck it, I say, I’ll walk it in four days. Can’t blow a perfectly good metaphor just because I’m soft.
Be clear, this isn’t one of those gimmicks writers do to get book deals. You know: my year of working at Walmart; my year of living with Mexicans; my year of drinking breast milk. No, this is about salvaging a shred of manhood: 160 miles in four days with no training and no real gear—other than a few days’ food and water. This will be my attempt to satisfy the delusion that I’m an actual human being—capable of noncommercial acts of creative insanity.
It is a cold December morning, even after the sun comes up. My breath—heavier than normal thanks to the weight of my pack and two years of fitness-free living—spews uncontrollably from my mouth in cloudy white streams. But it feels good to be moving, to have some actual direction.
I have about forty pounds of provisions with me—water mostly, but also food, clothes, and a sleeping bag. The extra weight is fine on my legs, but not so much on my feet. I’m wearing a pair of hefty boots I used for mountain climbing and long-distance hiking trips before I became sedentary. But walking on pavement is different from walking on a dirt trail, and even though it feels good to be on the road, trouble is boiling underneath my socks.
You may ask why I feel the need to carry forty pounds of supplies walking through one of the densest, most populous counties in the country. It’s because Los Angeles isn’t built for humans. It’s built for cars. Walking through South Pasadena can be a quiet, lovely experience. But as nice as it is to gaze at other people’s conspicuous wealth, you can walk four or five miles before you encounter a store—and that’s an awful lot of ground to cover when you’re dehydrated.
Preparedness is a step toward manliness, or so I reason, anyway.
In keeping with that sentiment, I planned a route. A roving wander would be more fun, and probably more liberating. But if you set out to cover 160 miles in four days, you’d better know where you’re going. My plan for the day is to walk thirty-two miles, mostly along the Arrow Highway, to the Puddingstone Reservoir in San Dimas, sleep for eight hours, wake up before dawn, and then walk forty miles to a hotel in San Bernardino. There, I will assess my physical and mental well being before continuing on my long journey to Mecca.
Things begin well enough. The cool morning air in South Pasadena gives way to unseasonably warm noon temperatures in Temple City. For the first fifteen miles of my walk, life is good.
This part of the San Gabriel Valley is stocked full of pleasant, one-story little boxes—occupied mostly by Chinese families. Mushrooms sprout from their otherwise perfect green lawns.
I once learned from a mycologist that mushrooms only grow naturally in Southern California under a canopy of fallen oak leaves. The weather is simply too dry for them to survive in the sun without constant watering. If you see mushrooms out in the open in Los Angeles, it’s a sign of unapologetic waste. They simply can’t exist without excess. A brief and disheartening sensation of kinship with the mushrooms unexpectedly overwhelms me.
I walk up Longden Avenue, mile after mile, house after house, no bathrooms, no shops, no public buildings—an uninterrupted parody of the suburban dream. In one ten-mile stretch I pass only one park—it doesn’t have a bathroom. These neighborhoods are wealthy and well groomed, but have sacrificed all shared space and any sense of community to become impenetrable and fortresslike to outsiders. A true green desert.
And so I rest in the shade of electrical boxes on the sidewalk and pee in the bushes of houses I find particularly gaudy or ecologically offensive.
Finally, after eighteen miles of walking, the lush, shaded, wealthy L.A. suburbs open up into something I’m not expecting—hell. Otherwise known as Irwindale. I have arrived at the Arrow Highway, a six-lane surface street with no sidewalks, no trees, and not a shred of humanity. The surrounding landscape is hollowed out, empty except for the scars of industry. Almost worse is the Irwindale Speedway and its massive parking lot. Light and reflected heat pulse in all directions. Hundreds of freight trucks blaze past at unsafe speeds. With no sidewalk and no breakdown lane, I’m forced to walk in the right-hand lane. An unceasing volley of horn blasts and waves of hot air dog me as the trucks pass inches to my left.
Thankfully I make it one mile to a stoplight, where I make eye contact with a Latino guy in a pickup truck. “Mind giving me a ride to a safe spot?” I ask. “Sure, hop in,” he replies, mercifully. Two miles later, on the other side of the 605, a sidewalk reemerges and the man pulls over to let me out—into the Covina ghetto. “Thanks,” I tell him. Hood rats cruise the streets in beat-up, barely functional hoopties. Teenage Latinas and Asian girls line the main drag, hands on their hips, bored out of their minds, waiting to get pregnant. Many of them already are. The fertility in the air hovers as dense as smog. As I move deeper into Covina, Irwindale suddenly makes perfect sense. It’s an urban-planning stopgap. A poisonous, industrial Gandalf screaming to the proletariat hordes, “You shall not pass!”
I want to impregnate every girl I see and lead my illegitimate progeny on a mission to conquer the western ’burbs, marching to the sea like Sherman, burning every green lawn in sight—especially the ones with mushrooms. Instead I meet Carlos, a tiny, clearly gay community college student, who, with his hair parted evenly down the middle, bangs folded around his ears, somewhat resembles Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. Carlos sees me from the window of his city bus and is curious enough to get out and ask me what I’m doing. I tell him I’ve been laid off from my job, and with the absence of anything else to do, I’m walking to Mecca.
“Cool,” he replies.
For the next mile or so, Carlos tags along with me—promising to show me a spot to buy Gatorade. In the meantime we talk about life in Covina. How he hates it. How he wants to get out and move to Los Angeles one day.
“I’m working at Sizzler right now,” he says. “Maybe I can get a transfer to a different franchise when I graduate.”
Carlos is a nice kid, and I appreciate his company after nearly seven hours of walking in isolation. He has a plan, even if it isn’t a big one, and I admire him for it.
After twenty minutes of chatting, we reach the store as promised. Inside, two cholos sporting Raiders paraphernalia eye us dismissively as we purchase our Gatorade.
“Faggots,” they yell at our backs as we leave.
Carlos flinches knowingly, as if expecting some kind of projectile to follow the words. When none does, a wave of relief crosses his face. As I start to say goodbye, Carlos invites me back to his apartment. A part of me wants to join him. This kid deserves some sympathetic company. I almost feel bad enough to toss a pity hand job his way. But I’m not the charitable type. And I have to keep moving.
A few months later, two teens are arrested for plotting to gun up their Covina high school. The news doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Photo by Michelle Pullman
Feb 1, 02:10 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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