knowing the roads

Some time ago, I read JB Jackson’s Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. The details are a bit fuzzy, but at some point in the book, he suggests that what was lacking in landscape scholarship was an odology, a study of roads. It was a suggestive idea at the time, and though the specifics of Jackson’s argument have long since fled, the word has stuck with me, and it came back to me on today’s ride.

For going on three months now, we’ve lived in the shadow of Griffith Park without ever making our way up there, so I took advantage of today’s spectacular weather to pedal my way north (the full ride is here or here). I’d been a little worried as to how my legs would take the grade, but it went smoothly, aside from one break on the way up to take some water while sitting in the shade of a sycamore tree.

It’s been years since I visited the Observatory proper, and cresting the shoulder where it sits took me back to a kind of childlike state. There’s a broad green lawn, a tall white monument at its north end, and then the broad face of the Observatory at the edge of the hillside. There’s much more to write (probably not by me) about the Observatory proper, but I took a couple of minutes to saunter up to the roof.

It was not, to be fair, the most beautiful sky one has ever seen. Lingering ash and smog to the east threw up a haze on the Angeles National Forest, and Long Beach was lost in a haze of marine layer and ozone. What was neat, though, was to see Western Normandie (even though the story works better if it’s Western) slicing south from the foot of the Park, all the way south into an indistinct away. A couple of intrepid souls (congratulations to them!) walked the length of Western yesterday, and leaning against the railing of the Observatory, it almost made sense why.

One might argue that the straight road extending to the horizon is one of the archetypal images of the west, and Western might pick up on something similar. Reyner Banham wrote that it was those boulevards like Western that first began to give shape to an otherwise formless city, and again, it’s easy to see from the Observatory.

As for how all of this gets back to biking: One of the limits of both Jackson’s work and Banham’s appreciations is their position in the automobile. For both, understanding the road came out of an understanding of the automobile; knowledge of the former flowed from the experience of the latter. But getting on a bike, taking the wide curves of the Park by bicycle, pushing south on Vermont on traffic, leads to a different kind of knowledge. Scenic, perhaps, but also more visceral, material, a physical experience of the road.

I wrote a piece this past summer about motorcycles and back roads, finding something suggestive in Robert Pirsig’s description of the unframed experience of the motocycle. This – what I’ve written here – doesn’t speak directly to it, but I think it makes a similar point: There’s something to knowing this city, its long boulevards, by its roads; and knowing those roads through a bike is, I want to think, different than knowing them through a car. I don’t know how yet, but it was a beautiful day to ride.

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