The Angeleno Hiking

“Ah, man. You’ve gotta go hiking! You’ve gotta hike! We go hiking all the time.”

Friend at a party

“That’s the thing about living in LA. I always forget we have all this just a few miles away. Mountains and desert and everything.”

-Me, every time I go hiking.

Looking for someone to touch my butt and go hiking 🥰

- Every tenth Tinder bio.

Nobody walks in LA. Everybody hikes. Everybody of a certain strata anyway. The LA middle-class. This is not a purely financial distinction although money has a lot to do with it. It’s more a geoeconomic distinction, relating to one’s closeness to money. If you have at least one rich friend and participate even tangentially in one of the culturally significant industries — tech, entertainment — if you could be called a hipster you at least partly belong to this class. Where one hikes, how one hikes, how one waxes poetic about hiking are as much markers of class and status as the car you drive. More so even. The hiker who does Griffith is very different from the one who does Runyon, but both of these city hikers are significantly different from the hiker who hikes Angelus Crest or Malibu. The distance one goes to hike is as important in the status of the hiker as the distance of the hike itself, same with the amount of others on the trail, and the numbers of your friends who have heard about the location. Joshua Tree or Death Valley are major markers of hiker capital, even more so are National Parks further away. The prestige of the National Park one hikes is balanced only by the amount it’s known. The ultimate coup is to hike a trail in a famous park like Zion, but a trail still as yet unknown, or to hike in a park just as great but unknown to anyone in your group; Esclente or Capitol Reef.

What gives hiking its magic to the Angeleno? There are reasons given; a break in sameness, ‘fresh air’, quite/ solitude, exercise, spiritual connection to nature. These should’t be discredited out of hand, but nor should they be taken as such. There are many signs in the language of hiking that have implicit dichotomies within them, dichotomies that deserve to be explored.

A Break From The Norm

A hike is taken as an opportunity to break from the norm for the city dweller, and it is this undeniably. Terrain, smells, sounds, all of these are out of the typical, but this is a break that reinforces, not a break that breaks. To take the Structuralist move here, hiking is an activity that poses as opposition to the dictates of city life while reenforcing them. The foray out to the alpine world of Angelus Crest or even the quarterly weekend trips to Idyllwild or Tahoe are a self defeating escapes to utopia. This — trees and rocks and birds- is opposite to the that of the urban landscape, and yes it’s nice to get out there for a while, but it’s unlivable, isn’t it? The National Park as the anthesis to the city reinforces the truth of the city; the escape is wonderfully unlivable. Nature is unnavigable except by heroic survivalists, tent camping is great for a few nights but ultimately uncomfortable, and the isolation of the woods is too much to bare. One is sent fleeing the camp-sight smelling like smoke and grateful for the cafes and air conditioned office buildings of the city — i.e refreshed. This extends to the towns that cater to the hiker; mountain towns like Arrowhead, desert towns like Joshua Tree. These are beautiful places, but the trajectory of opinion on a trip there is parabolic, tracing a line from, ‘it’s just so nice to get away from it all. I love being out here,’ to, ‘I am getting kind of board though. I don’t think I could be here like, ALL the time.’

The obvious critique aimed at these self reinforcing break’s from normality is that they lead to more of the same, a sort of circular action. One leaves the city to get away from the city but comes back to the same city which they will need to leave agin soon.

Fresh Air/ Quite: Solitude

The smell of trees, herbaceous shrubs, the feel of wet air. The hiker seeks freshness as a tonic; a trigger of deep breath, a dive into a new place that is quite literally full throated. Through breath the human body imbibes the outside world. Little is more indicative of new experience and new perspective than new smells. The hiker seeks fresh air to fully place themselves in the new. Through this thinking the smell of the city is dull at best, foul at worst. When asked to think of urban smells what jumps to mind are smells that assault; trash, shit, exhaust. The idea of the smell of the city oppresses the mind’s nose in a way that is rarely true of the external experience. It is true that there is shit in the city, human and otherwise, trash is common, and so are the varied smells of human chemistry. It is also true that through the air of the city also blows the smells of flowers, trees, and the sea, natural smells as rich and diverse as the smells sought after by the hiker. Also present are the positive smells of human making; coffee, cooked food, incense, the exhaust of clothes dryers, perfume. The city is as full of positive smells as the woods. If anything, the smell-scape of the city is more diverse. What is it then that the hiker seeks when they flee from this diversity? Rather than more good they look for less of the bad. Trash, shit, car exhaust are not only reminders of a present humanity, these smells are the unfortunate detritus of human existence. The higher the status of the human the less they come into contact with the fetid. A rich man rarely sees days old food scraps, a wealthy woman does not change the diapers of her own child, and the powerful do not live so close together as to have to smell car exhaust and unwashed bodies. The powerful can afford not to smell the presence of any but those they chose. Running from the city to suck in the untainted air of mountain or beach is running to a place where anyone, even the middle class — can be the ruler of their own kingdom of solitude.

So to is this true with the sound. Sound, like smell, is a polluting sense but unlike smell — which pollutes the lungs — sound pollutes thought. Through the ears others can press easily into the mind, into the self of another person. A culture like that of Los Angeles, in which a singular sort of solitude to create and exist in a world of ones own making is the highest mark of success, requires then for those who can’t afford their own solitude, to seek one out. This is the drive for the Angeleno to run from the city, and this explains the vitriolic hatred the hiker feels for those who listen to loud music on the trail. Someone else’s boombox forces the hiker to come to terms with the fact that the trail is not so far from the city after all. This is not a space they own.

Like smell, the soundscape of the city also comes with as much pleasant as negative, natural as well as manufactured. Sound, however, is far more subjective than smell (which is still subjective but to a lesser degree). The steady murmur of cars on a slow street is tranquil to some. Ranchero or Banda loudly playing from a neighbor’s party could be festive, could be infuriating depending on the hour. In this diversity and overlap is the magic of the soundscape of a city. From the chaos of individual sounds emerges the overall sound of the whole, like an EEG scan, constantly changing yet singular.

Exercise

Productivity is the highest virtue of our culture. There is little room for activity that can’t lead to something. A thing that is not ‘productive’ is lazy, idle, selfish. Economic productivity is the standard mode, but even for things that can’t be monetized — or no tech mogul has figured out how to do so yet — productivity of some sort finds itself attached to most activities in way of excuse. There has to be a reason why one does something, more than simply for pleasure. Exercise exists in the class of secondary productivities that provide useful cover to something otherwise ‘idle’. A modern city hiker drives themselves out to the mountains to enjoy the view but feels unaccomplished if they don’t ‘earn a good meal’ through physical exertion. In the retelling of the experience to friends later, or in retelling to oneself, the justification of exercise must factor in. To have driven out to the mountains to sit and simply enjoy the view, or to walk a slow, leisurely pace for a few flat miles, would seem a waste of time — time being money, after all.

The productivity mindset foists accounting techniques onto experience, taking space from other motivations and other outcomes. A good walk can ‘burn calories’ but the most enjoyable path isn’t always the most strenuous. Trying to get ‘the most’ out of an experience is the mindset of the tourist. For the tourist visiting Paris this means seeing the Louver even though they don’t care for art, for the hiker it means working up a sweat even when it negatively impacts the overall joy of the experience, putting themselves on trails harder then what they can handle for the sake having done it.

The exercise one gets hiking is little different from the exercise one gets walking the streets of the city. Los Angeles is flatter then the mountains, but steeper than the desert. There are decent hills throughout LA County’s urban environments, and nearly endless expanses of walkable roads — in places where there’s sidewalk. If exercise is the goal, there’s enough of it to be had in the city, but city walking has no glamor.

Spirituality

Spirituality is a term at once nebulous and dominating in its weight. The highest domain of privacy, a person’s secret truth. Here the idiolect of culture lives in its most vital, untamed aspect. The symbols of culture, as in dream, morph and speak in the private bier of the spiritual. Faith or religion are collective experiences and the meanings of their symbols are collectively balanced. Spirituality, at least in the modern sense, is a private thing. This does not mean it is not influenced directly — through books of dream interpretation, astrology, and angle numbers — and indirectly — fantasy media depictions, drug culture — but only that the spiritual belongs to the individual ego alone, and each person is the final word on their spiritual interpretation of the cultural idiolect. No symbol is stronger in this lexicon of meaning than nature. The ameliorative effects of a walk through the mountains not only clear the lungs and burn fat but cleanse the soul. Being out in nature connects the spiritual person to something greater than themselves. Nature stands for this idea; connection, depth, being part of some great whole.

Making one feel small is touted as an ego destroying move, but this is not necessarily so. Finding oneself to be a part and a piece of something grand can just as easily make the ego stronger. I am part of something huge, it says, I am important. Just as easily it can be a break that leads to the same rather than a break that breaks. One goes to the woods carrying the alienation of their experience in culture and finds that they are connected to something much larger. They are not their job, they are not their boss’s opinion of them, they are not their frustrations with their commute or the meaninglessness of filling out forms to fill out more forms. They are part of a giant whole, everything is simpatico, nothing needs to be changed.

The hiker walks mountains and ridges to feel themselves a part of a much larger whole, yet what symbol could better point to the wholeness, the emergent complexity and connection of nature than the city. Nature is a complex term in that it means two things at once. It means both everything — or at least everything that is not supernatural, I.e spooky ghosts and stuff — or it means all that has nothing to do with the designs of the human. If we go by the first then the city is indeed nature. How can it not be? It arises from natural causes; human chemical impulses, physical constraints and feedback loops, non human animal actions. If we go by the second meaning then there is very little nature left in nature. Even wilderness is effected by the human, both in the direct sense of there being nowhere safe from the reach of climate change, the polluting noise of international trade and travel, and micro plastics blown by wind and carried by tide. But there is an indirect way in which humans touch all of this type of nature. Even in the wild forests human zoning has an impact. What land is kept wild and what land is owned, where are national parks and monuments accessible and where are they difficult to reach? Whatever is kept pristine is kept that way for a reason.

Perhaps there is a third way to view the symbol of nature. If nature is taken to mean that which is other it may better fulfill what the hiker seeks in their spiritual wondering. Finding a place to interact with what is not the self is an enlarging experience. Even with this however, the city is not lacking. A city is a complex natural place formed as much by human drives as that which does not directly spring from the human mind, and in all this complexity there is countless difference. If spirituality drives one to hunt for what is larger than the self and what is other than the self, to bring one in contact with universes outside of the ego then their is no more spiritual place then city.

And So Much More

There are other reasons to escape the city for a walk that I struggle to critique. Of these, safety feels to me the highest. The modern city — even supposedly walkable cities like New York — are designed for cars. In a motor city the human body on the street is an accident. This oversight in design brings the pedestrian and the driver into unfortunate contact. Drivers focusing on the dictates of operating an explosive several ton hunk of mass may fail to notice pedestrians, or drivers embolden by the signs and meanings of the car — power, dominance — harass and threaten those on foot.

As the city is built for cars, so too is it built for white men. While hiking for Black people leads to threats of their own — I invite you to search the hashtag #beingblackinnature — the white man’s city is often hostile to those who fall out of the white man’s norm. Always under the gaze of the white man, women and people of color risk policing, both by the actual police, by anxious co-urbinites, and by themselves, for simply being out on the street. To escape this a walk as far away from the totalizing gaze of white society provides a necessary freedom.

Hiking The City

It could be argued that the issues taken with the city, the issues that drives this desire to see different vistas and smell the mountain air are issues avoided, not addressed, by the hiker. The city the hiker flees is one of car exhaust, asphalt, and honking; the world of cars and commerce. This is a world that the hiker tries to forgot when opening themselves to the spiritual power of nature. The city is the seat of their alienation. Must the city be this? Could it be otherwise? It seems clear that hiking has many benefits, including instilling a love of nature in the hiker. Those who hike are eager to protect parks and public lands. Could the imagination that pushes the walker to become hiker be pointed back to the city in a transformative move, a real break? Could the city become a place to hike? What changes to infrastructure must be made so that trash, shit, and car exhaust are not the standard smell of the street? What urban planing decisions could be unmade or remade so that a pedestrian embodied in any form feels safe? What investments could be made in the cultural and artistic life of the city so that city living is as spiritual an exercise as a mountaintop retreat?

Even letting oneself imagine a possibility of a city worth hiking feels utopian, but is the imagination so stunted that one can not imagine things being better? Is the same or worse, more and more alienation, the fate of the human endeavor and ultimately the fate of city? There’s no reason it must be.

*A piece from ‘On Foot In The Unwalkable City*

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