Descanso Garden, La Canada, California
On Thursday afternoon we flew from Dallas to Los Angeles. We watched "A Beautiful Mind" on the airport movie show. We checked into the airport hotel we pricelined for ourselves at a frighteningly low rate, and headed to Pasadena for dinner in a thimble-sized rental car the kind folks at Budget provided us.
We arrived in due time at Cafe Bizou, a cozy restaurant crowded with holiday-relaxed Californians. We met two dear friends from our old church in La Crescenta, the the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills, Florence and Edith. We had a wonderful meal, and talked for two and a half hours. I enjoyed the sauteed sanddabs and the erudite conversation. I remember Edith saying something about how nowadays theology doesn't really matter--it's all "what do you do".
On Friday morning, we ate oatmeal in the Westin restaurant, then headed up into the mountains. The Angeles National Forest just north of La Crescenta is a kind of home for us, a place where we hiked regularly and knew as our own.
We drove just inside the forest, with its stark mountains and head-high chapparal "elven forest" trees, to the Clear Creek Trail. When we lived in La Crescenta, we'd spend Thanksgiving morning hiking this trail, before retiring for lunch at the wonderful Flintridge Inn, to partake of fresh salmon or roasted duckling. Now the Flintridge Inn is gone, and we live in Texas, but the trail lives on.
The Angeles National Forest is arguably the first national park (a few definitional matters, I believe, give other areas similar claims). The Clear Creek Trail stood as it always stands, a gentle trail sloping down a pretty sharp decline into a ravine called George's Gap, before resuscitating at the other side of the gap into an area called The Pines. We enjoyed a cool hike down the trail, which we surprisingly had largely to ourselves. We saw birds and the red berries of pyracantha, the southern Californian equivalent of English holly berries.
The trail has been renamed, slightly, to "The World of Chapparal" trail, which is apt. Its scrub oaks the size of a grown man, mountain mahogany, and ceanothus create a canopy no more than eight feet high.
When we had finished walking, we drove back down the Angeles Crest Road, with vista of the majestic San Gabriel Mountains all around us. We went to Ichiban Restaurant in La Canada, where we had ample portions of sushi for two for a total cost under twenty dollars. We used to eat here a lot, although my taste when we lived here was more for tempura than for sushi.
In the early afternoon, we made our way to a place we both love, Descanso Gardens. This public garden was founded by Manchester Boddy, a newspaperman whose photos always make him look like something from a 1930s screwball comedy about
monied people in Hollywood. Mr. Boddy was an idiosyncratic fellow, with many virtues and a few peculiarities.
One of his traits that might qualify as both virtue and peculiarity was his recognition that his foothill estate could support a camellia forest and masses of azaleas. Neither plant is in general well-suited to the dry southern California weather, but in this stretch of La Canada, both thrive, blooming in the wintertime.
We used to have annual memberships in this garden, and come every weekend to walk among its ever-changing wonders. The three varieties of camellia--japonica, reticulata, and sasanqua, all bloom at different times, so that from November through February the camellia forest is alive with blossoms and falling blossomes.
The rose garden featured delicate white roses, while the fairyduster enlivened the native garden. We saw curious and attractive ducks in the duck pond, ranging from the exotic to the commonplace.
The sights are so wonderful there, with canopies of live oak covering much of the area, gnarling and twisting in the way that southern California trees sometimes do. In the distance, the mountains stood off, a bit standoffish.
We stopped by our friend Edith's house in La Crescenta for a visit. Edith has a charming home in the foothills. We had a great chat and ate oranges fresh from her citrus trees.
We drove into downtown Los Angeles to meet friends for dinner. However, our friend Susan and her husband Robert phoned the restaurant to advise that Susan, a doctor in Rancho Cucamonga, had been felled by the flu.
We went ahead and ate a fine meal at Engine Company Number 28, a place where we have, for ten years or more, met friends on special Fridays. I loved the grilled tilapia and rock shrimp upon which I dined there, and we had charming conversation with one another in a holiday-decorated quiet setting.
On Saturday, we drove into Manhattan Beach, where surfers enjoyed the incredibly active surf, a hint of the rains soon to come to Los Angeles. We ate "steel cut" oatmeal at a charming neighborhood place called The Koffee Kart, and then headed into the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. We went to the homes of our friends kenmora and his wife H., as well as their vivacious and charming five year old daughter B. After a brief visit, B. went next door to a friend's, Ken and I were packed off to the film called "Chronicles of Narnia", and my wife and H. spent the afternoon cooking up a bread and chatting. I really enjoyed the Narnia movie, after which Ken and I adjourned to the New York deli in Century City Plaza. Ken writes screenplays these days, and it's always interesting to me to learn about this pursuit.
Late that afernoon, B.'s friend C., a four year old dynamo, came over for a sleepover, and we all enjoyed playing with two very active children. H. made us all heavenly lamb shanks, which made for a wonderful dinner. I provided Ken and B. with jaws' harps. We enjoyed dining and talking with our friends, until we "pegged out" around 10:30 on New Year's Eve and headed to our hotel. As we quietly made our way to the elevator, a loud jazz band played, and rows of people in chairs behind ropes wore fake top hats that said "happy new year". We adjourned instead to a world of Richard Brautigan novels and an AA Milne mystery, and watched the year come in on its merry televised way.
On Sunday morning, we drove back to the foothills, to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Tujunga. Our dear friend Carmen and her fiance Greg have a wonderful home there amid misty Verdugo Mountains, and we visited with them, Carmen's sister's family, and our dear friend Karla. Once again, I found it hard to stick to the points-abstention common to my Weight Watchers experience, as Greg cooked out skirt steak and ribs. We enjoyed talking to these old friends whom we do not see often enough. Karla and Carmen, both realtors, assured us that the price of housing had climbed so much since we left that we soon decided we could no longer afford to live where we lived but five years ago. We were amazed at the housing bubble which has sent prices skyward.
We eventually drove back to the airport and caught our flight. The incoming rain meant our flight was delayed, while the drought in Texas meant we landed in 75 degree midnight weather in January.
We love our friends, and southern California. We resolved to visit more often.
When people ask me if I prefer California or Texas, I say that I love them both, but slightly prefer Texas.
But the emphasis in the phrase should always be "I love them both".
There is a Unitarian hymn with lyrics by Carolyn McDade which is what the foothills of California in January mean to me. It has the following lines:
"Come walk in the rain with me
That I might know your mind
And I’ll bring you hope when hope is hard to find
And I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the wintertime"
When we hopped into our vintage/retro blue Chevrolet (a replacement for the postage stamp car, whose brakes proved bad) rental, the rain fell joyously, and we walked in the rain, and knew our minds, and the roses bloomed, on the first of January.