On Sunday my wife surprised the family with a guided hike around the old Hollywoodland neighborhood in Los Angeles. Our guide was Hargobind Singh, or Hargo for short. He met us at the corner of Hollywood and Highland and drove the four of us (plus another couple who also lived in Los Angeles) in his immaculate minivan a short distance to the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood of Hollywood.
As he drove he shared a little history of the Hollywoodand area. It was established as a housing development in early 1920s and specialized in building storybook fantasy houses: castles, Tudor homes, and the like. The Hollywood sign was erected as an advertisement for the development project and read "Hollywoodland." It was meant to stay up for just a year, but people liked it and it soon became a symbol for the motion picture industry, not just the housing development. The neighborhood has been the home of many famous folks, including Aldous Huxley, Bugsy Siegel, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson, and James M. Cain.
While in the minivan I peppered Hargo with questions about his tour company, LA Active Adventures. An amiable and calm fellow, Hargo told me he started the company about three years ago on his wife's advice. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Hargo had become the de facto tour guide for visiting relatives from Texas, and he ended up discovering a lot of hidden gems in Los Angeles. The idea behind his company is to offer tours targeted at people who live in LA and want to see things other than the usual tourist attractions like Universal Studios, Disneyland, Hollywood Boulevard, etc. Hargo told me that up until a couple of months ago, the business had been basically paying for itself. But then he offered a deal on a Groupon-like site (I can't remember which one) and 1700 people signed up for tours. Now he's very busy, conducting 2-3 tours per day.
Hargo crossed Franklin and parked near the Beachwood Market. We all got out and followed him as walked up the sidewalk at a good clip. In a couple of minutes he pointed out a staircase (top photo) and said that the hike would consist of 865 stair steps and two-and-half miles. My 13-year-old daughter and her friend groaned, but the prospect of a vigorous hike sounded great to Carla and me.
By the time we went up the first set of stairs, my thighs were burning and I was huffing and puffing, even though I consider myself to be in pretty good shape. I wondered how many steps I had just taken, but I was too embarrassed to ask Hargo. (We ended up climbing about five more staircases, most of them even longer and steeper than this one).
Hargo was knowledgeable about the neat old houses in the neighborhood. We took turns posing for photographs in front of this faux Moorish entryway, which had a wooden door encrusted with large colorful cut glass.
Further along the way, we came across this nifty little treehouse, which was built in a tree that seem to be growing on public property.
Here's an example of a storybook architecture house with a lovely curved roof.
There were plenty of toyon trees along the walk. Another name for the toyon is the Christmas berry or the Hollywood plant. The berries are edible, and can be eaten raw or boiled. Click here for a close-up of the berries. (NOTE: I removed the original photo, as several commenters said that the berries were *not* toyon, and replaced it with the photo above, which shows what Hargo told us *are* toyon berries. Again, do not use this photo as a source to identify toyon berries, especially if you plan to eat them because you could poison yourself.)
This is the most well-known staircase in the Beachwood Canyon area. Made from granite, the center divider was originally a cascading fountain that was converted into a garden after the fountain stopped working.
At the top of the staircase I noticed these copper pipes with large metal nuts on them. The sets of nuts were numbered from 1 to 8. Hargo told me what they were for, but I would like you to guess their purpose.
Did you know that the city of LA was made in India?
The Hollywood sign popped into view many times during the hike. As you can see, the weather was spectacular. It was about 70° at noon.
Hargo told us the scientific name for this plant, but I only remember the informal name: the Mercedes-Benz plant.
You can see why in this picture.
This is a fennel, or wild anise, plant. Hargo told us an interesting story about it: when Spanish missionaries came to California they brought fennel with them to grow in their medicinal gardens. They used it as a kind of air freshener, tossing it on the ground of their buildings so that when people walked on the fennel it would crush the plant and release the sweet smelling volatile oils. As a result, fennel seeds would stick to people's feet and the plant started growing in the wild. It's all over LA now.
Here's an example of a castle, one of many in the hills of Beachwood Canyon.
We got a nice look at Lake Hollywood, a reservoir and dam that William Mulholland designed in 1924. At the time the reservoir provided the city with most of its water needs. Of course back then the population of Los Angeles was 1 million people (today it's 11 million).
Welcome to Hollywoodland. Now Relax and Slow Down. After all the stairclimbing, I didn't need to be reminded to slow down. Carla asked Hargo if any of his clients ever had trouble completing the hike. He said occasionally people will tell him that they can't go any further, and he will walk back to his minivan and drive back to pick them up.
The man who lives in this house is in his 90s. He's an artist who worked and lived for many years with an Indian tribe in Alaska. According to Hargo, they gave him permission to paint this image of a beaver on his garage door.
On our way back to Hargo's minivan I saw this old
Toyota Land Rover, which I ought to submit to Old Parked Cars.
This hike turned out to be a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. Hargo gave us a 50% discount ticket for a "future adventure," and we are definitely going to use it.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.