Bipedal Stories

Exploring the world on two feet

Los Angeles

We dropped our bags at the hotel, The Farmer’s Daughter, on Fairfax Avenue. The neighborhood was liminal. To the south were Ethiopian strivers–restaurant proprietors and hairdressers. Neatly kept, one-story homes and apartment buildings sat back from the sidewalk palm trees. To the north were offbeat boutiques and gritty bars that at once disdained and coveted the wealth that glittered a mile to the west in Beverly Hills. Across the street was a shopping megalopolis, The Grove.

We walked along Third Avenue, stopped for dinner at Mercado, an upscale Mexican restaurant. I ordered a beer. Across the street was a Trader Joe’s. Security guards escorted a man from TJs. He was screaming. He marched across Third Avenue, entered Mercado, brandishing a bible.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” he declaimed.

Restaurant staff emerged from the kitchen, sheathed in dirty aprons. They took him by the arms, tried to walk him back outside. “Wait!” He pointed at a table–a father, mother, and two young children. “All I ever wanted was to be on ESPN. It didn’t happen. We’ve got to love one another.” He bowed his head. The line cooks and sous-chefs trundled him out of the dining room. I drained my beer. Our tacos arrived.

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Wednesday

We awoke early to visit the University of Southern California. The campus is an island of affluence in a working class neighborhood. Our tour guide was a chemical engineering major from Chicago–earnest, wholesome, ambitious. I wanted to restart my life. Here.

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Thursday

We got up, coffee-ed, and walked to a gym on Beverly Avenue. Old School, a weight room with a few treadmills packed in the corner. Two incredibly fit trainers, men in their 20s, worked with middle-aged women. The young guns cajoled, complimented, and coached their clients through reps with light dumb bells.

We showered, changed, and motored out to Pasadena for a business meeting. The town is upscale–exclusive restaurants and boutiques, a Scientology synagogue half a block from Colorado Avenue, and battalions of activists collecting signatures for petitions against human trafficking and animal rights.

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We returned to the hotel, napped. We drove to Bel Air for a late dinner at Vibrato, a jazz club owned by Herb Alpert. On our way back to the hotel, we took Mulholland Drive. Los Angeles glittered below.

Friday

We drove to Malibu, California as we see it in our dreams. We hiked past mansions into Escondido Canyon Park.

“How much do you think these houses cost?”

“I would guess at least $20 million.”

We marveled at the real estate of the 1% of the 1%. We drained our water bottles.

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After our hike, we drove to Santa Monica, rented bikes, and pedaled along the Pacific. We rode through the bohemian and slightly carney spectacle of Venice to Marina Del Rey, a collection of nondescript condos that could have been transplanted from San Diego, Miami, or anywhere senior citizens congregate to collect sun and Social Security.

At midnight, we drove to LAX for the journey back east.

Healdsburg, California

I parked at the farmers market. The skies were a chilly scrim of fog and rain. When I’d crossed the Golden Gate Bridge less than an hour and a half earlier, a warm sun had shone on San Francisco and Marin County.

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Sonoma County represents a kind of paradise, a geography of upper-middle-class aspirations–fine wine, organic produce, and artisanal crafts and baked goods. Healdsburg was a manifestation of these ideals.

Downtown was a New England post card, but without the dilapidation, the unemployment, and the opioid addiction. Bearded hipsters and beautiful women partook in the weekend’s wine-tasting festival.

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I was on East Coast time,  fatigued and disoriented from my early wake-up and six hours in the claustrophobic dimensions of United Airlines’ economy class. A glass of wine might fell me. I opted for Flying Goat Coffee.

The cafe was clean and well-lighted, with white-washed plaster walls and tables carved from reclaimed redwood. The patrons tapped away at MacBooks. The chalkboard menu featured organic this, hand-crafted that, and gluten-fee whatever. The staff wore nose rings. I felt at ease.

“Are you having a good day?” The barista seemed sincere. I was caught off guard. I shrugged, betraying a hint of authenticity. She nodded. She understood that my shrug communicated a complexity of emotions. When you travel, you ache for connection, a sense that someone sees you as a human being. I’d found it. I left a $5 tip for my $2 coffee.

I walked down Center Street. More wine-tasters, more couples, more restaurants and shops dedicated to the finer things. On Monday, the weekenders would be back in Silicon Valley, writing apps to shatter our attention or creating robots to subjugate humanity. Today they were indulging in olive oil and Pinot Noir.

Healdsburg is a city for the contented, the well adjusted, the wealthy. I turned right on Plaza Avenue, walked north on Healdsburg Avenue, and got back in my rental car.

Winter Storm Jonas: Devon

Jonas pressed north on Friday afternoon, preceded by apocalyptic forecasts. On the other side of my windshield, a thin winter sun disappeared behind a brigade of thunderheads advancing on Long Island.

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The first flakes fell at about 7 p.m. I checked the snow blower, walked two blocks to fill a gas can at the corner station. The roads and sidewalks were empty. The neighborhood huddled in warm, well-lighted living rooms, the cupboards bursting with the bounty of panicked buying from just a few hours earlier.

When I awoke on Saturday, powder swirled in 35-mile-per-hour winds. The street had vanished beneath of foot of snow. I stepped outside. Ice crystals stung my face. I fired up the snow blower, cleared a path for my dog, and walked him to the edge of the driveway. My fingers went numb, sensation snatched by the windchill. As I walked back inside, the path was already disappearing. After a mid-day break–light flakes, stray beams of sunlight–the storm intensified. Snow drifts climbed the windows, concealing daylight and inducing claustrophobia.

By Sunday, Jonas had passed. More than two-feet of snow left the neighborhood in paralyzed silence. I grabbed my coffee cup. Secondary roads weren’t yet passable by car, so I laced up my boots and marched into the chilly sunshine for signs of civilization. I made it to the main road, which had been plowed, but not really cleared.

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I walked down a narrow, winding street toward Starbucks. Traffic was relatively thick with drivers attempting to escape cabin fever. A three-ton black Chevy Suburban motored toward me, skidded, and pinned me against an unyielding snowbank. I hustled to the bipedal safety of the shopping center. A plow pushed piles of snow around the parking lot. It was running out of places to put it, a challenge that all of us would face in the week ahead.

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Delaware Water Gap

I pulled down an unpaved road deep in the pines. I parked in a gravel lot at the southern tip of the Delaware Water Gap, where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge in the Appalachian Mountains. I took two water bottles from the trunk of my car, put them in my pack, and set out on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail for Mt. Minsi.

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The December weather was uncharacteristically clement. After 20 minutes, I was sweating through my moisture-wicking textiles. I stuffed my pullover in my pack. The trail was a series of steep steps on stone and timber, short descents on mud, and steeper ascents on quartzite outcroppings. My legs were sore, my breathing heavy. The trail was empty. What if I twisted an ankle? Or encountered an extra from The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s 1978 Oscar-winning film about rural Pennsylvanians traumatized by their service in Vietnam?

I sat down, drank from my water bottle, ate some chocolates. The sun poked through the baffle of grey clouds. I shuffled out onto a ledge. I was both in the middle of nowhere and within shouting distance of Interstate 80, which rolled west on the other side of the Gap.

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I reached the summit of Mt. Minsi. Cloud cover was thick, but I could see the outlines of Mt. Tammany on the New Jersey side. Some 1,500 feet below, the Delaware River flowed toward Philadelphia, Wilmington, and the Atlantic Ocean. The summit had the bleak beauty of the Northeastern U.S. in late fall. The deciduous trees were barren. Their decomposing leaves painted the paths and fields in a mulchy brown. The spiky evergreens stood sentry over the emptiness.

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The forecast called for rain. I retraced my steps to the gravel lot.

Traverse City

I walked down South Union Street past meticulously restored mission-style homes. As I entered the business district, the clapboard homes gave way to three- and four-story red-brick buildings. The coffee houses, brewpubs, and bearded hipsters were notes of Brooklyn in Northern Michigan.

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I stepped inside Brew, a local coffee house. A United Nations of ethnicities tapped away at MacBooks. The floors were wide planks of distressed pine. The walls were exposed brick. It was New York, maybe Chicago, but without the prices and the workaday aggression. I could live here.

I ordered a coffee, muffin, flipped through the Record-Eagle, the lively local paper. The front page featured extensive coverage of the annual Cherry Festival, which had just concluded. I stepped back outside and walked to the marina. Grand Traverse Bay stretched before me, vast and grey beneath the overcast summer sky. The Bay is a harbor of Lake Michigan, the greatest of the Great Lakes, the inland seas that facilitated development and industrialization in the Upper Midwest.

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A light rain blew in off the harbor. I walked back to my car, a rented Chevy Cruze. I motored through the city and then north on Peninsula Drive, which runs along a spit of land that juts into the Bay. Big homes backed up against the shore, money from Chicago. I lunched at the Jolly Pumpkin, a brewery and distillery. I continued north to the Mission Lighthouse at the peninsula’s tip. Crowds climbed the stairs to the lantern room. Families snapped photos of their summer vacation.

I drove south on Bluff Road, which runs along the other side of the peninsula. I stopped at Chantal Winery. Northern Michigan is the viticultural capital of the midwest, blessed by the the same mild summers and abundant fresh water that make it the largest producer of cherries in the United States. I bought a few Chantal blends for my return to the northeast. I checked my watch. I had an hour to get to a concert at Interlochen, the legendary music colony, some 30 miles to the southwest.

Interlochen

City Island: The journey

I pedaled north on 1st Avenue. The bike path was meant to protect me, but construction and distracted cabbies encroached on my space. At 103rd street, I evaded a pincer movement executed by a garbage truck and a construction site flagman.

I pedaled across the Willis Avenue Bridge to the Bronx, the borough of my birth. The cabs disappeared. The new construction ceased. Manhattan madness gave way to a landscape of auto body shops and Latin American groceries. I rode north on 3rd Avenue, then Webster Avenue, to Fordham Road. I biked through the convergence of crowds, off-price commerce, and diesel-bus fumes.

At Southern Boulevard, where Fordham Road winds through the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx Botanical Gardens, the traffic accelerated to autobahn speed. I was wearing a short-sleeved polo, shorts, and a cheap bike helmet. I was vulnerable. I jumped the curb and pedaled along the mostly empty sidewalk. A pothole, broken glass, or some other totem of neglected maintenance pierced my front tire. By the time I reached Pelham Parkway, I was riding on rim.

I stopped at a “24-hour flat fix” gas station. The mechanic detached the front wheel from my bike and removed the tire and tube. “Five minutes,” he said.

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I bought a Diet Pepsi. Would I wind up stranded on Boston Road in the central Bronx? It was a long bus or subway ride back to Manhattan. And what would I do with my bike? By the time I drained my soda, the mechanic had replaced my tire’s inner tube and reattached the front wheel to my bike. “What do I owe you?”

“Five dollars.” I love the Bronx.

I continued down Pelham Parkway. Jake LaMotta once lived here. A neighbor from my childhood, a New York City cop, retired to this neighborhood. The buildings are well maintained, some with art deco flourishes. No graffiti. The neighborhood is green. Parks, an equestrian center, golf courses. Pelham Parkway is almost suburban—a car is a must—but with an urban density and vitality that the suburbs lack.

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I dismounted at Pelham Bridge. A tugboat guided a barge down the Hutchinson River. Co-Op City, all utilitarian massiveness, loomed on the distant shore, a display of the government’s power to establish an instant population center on top of reclaimed marshland. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor once lived here, as did my sister-in-law. The nondescript architecture evoked a tinge of melancholy.

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The barge passed. I crossed Pelham Bridge and then City Island Bridge to City Island. City Island is in, but not of, New York City. There’s not a single Starbucks. The island is marinas, sea-food restaurants, boat and sail making workshops. Small single-family homes sit on tidy plots of green, more Merrick, Long Island than Bronx, New York City.

I bought a cup of coffee. A young mother pushed a stroller along the sidewalk. An FDNY fire truck idled on the other side of the road. Cars gathered on either side of City Island Bridge for ingress into, and egress from, the big bad Bronx beyond.

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I retraced my route. Rather than return to Manhattan via the Willis Avenue Bridge, however, I took Fordham Road to Sedgewick Avenue. I rolled down Sedgewick, then climbed Undercliff Avenue past the Stadium Motel, a halfway-house throwback to “the Bronx is burning” 1970s. At the High Bridge, the oldest bridge connecting two boroughs in New York City, I pedaled back to Manhattan, 138 feet above the Harlem River roiling below. I landed in Washington Heights, Edgecombe Avenue, and pedaled south. The journey was complete.

The vortex

We parked our rental car, a sprightly Chevy Sonic, in a lot off Highway 180. Bell Rock loomed in the near-distance, rising from the sage brush and crushed red-rock soil. To the right was Courthouse Rock, another natural formation that betrayed the handiwork of a master sculptor.

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We checked our water bottles. We reapplied sunscreen. After months in the Northeast’s sunless desolation, our complexions were fluorescent-white. We had no melanin to protect us from Arizona’s beneficent brightness.

We followed the hiking path, empty at this hour, into the desert. Lizards darted before our footsteps. We stared at the face of Courthouse Rock, a rocky facade of footholds and ledges. Our son raced ahead, scampered up the facade’s footholds. He paused on ledge, smiled down at his water-bottle-toting, sunscreen-daubing parents. We were in the West. The sun shone. The blue sky, brushstroked with cumulous clouds, unfurled before us. We were free.

Sedona is, by some New Age accounts, a locus of energy vortexes (not vortices) that promote improved mental and physical health. Bell Rock is among the most powerful of these vortexes, enhancing our masculine vitality, our feminine empathy, and the balance between the two. We hiked past juniper trees, which were plugged into the site’s spiritual power plant. I felt something between awe and gratitude. So much power, so much beauty.

A butterfly landed on my daughter’s shoulder. She allowed the creature to rest. Our son returned from his climb. We still had several miles to hike. Our shoes and socks were already caked with red dust, oxidized iron particles. The energy within us was strong. “Let’s see whether we can scale Courthouse Rock,” I said.

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