“The river talks. Breathes. Moves. Sometimes, it even makes music. I know that sounds insane, but it’s true.”
I wondered at the clarity of the man’s eyes as he talked, their color set against the massed brown of his hair and beard. He made a modest outline against the trail, his clothing colored with the dust of an outdoor life. I gathered that he was a gold prospector, something I was surprised to find still existed in 2016.
“Spirits are those who are cut from the earth,” he continued, explaining that when the San Gabriel River below had flooded this canyon in the 1938 floods, several hundred such lives were cut out from the canyon. He stopped talking as three other men walked up, each hidden behind their spherical brown beards and hair. Our speaker leaned back.
“I was about to come looking for you three; I can’t take all three of these girls on my own,” he joked. I didn’t find the joke funny, and mixed a grimace into my smile for the sake of principle.
“You wouldn’t know what to do if you did,” one of the newcomers said with an actual chortle. We all walked up to the parking lot together, me asking our friend about trails, the other three inexplicably jumping around like monkeys when they thought we weren’t looking.
(A later google search proved the history he had told impossible, as the total death toll from the 1938 floods was 115.)
Below us, the river hollowed out the sound best called “rushing,” the water blue above pastel boulders. “It looks clean,” my youngest sister Jennifer had said with surprise. We had hiked that day through thin forests pinched between chaparral slopes, picking our way afterwards through large, spiky succulents that lay scattered like sea urchins upon the canyon walls.
It seemed strange that this silence was only one hour from our sidewalk-entrapped home in Long Beach, California. In Long Beach, the San Gabriel River looked dead, a steep concrete channel with brown water stenciled in the bottom. I looked into the blue of this mountain stream and could almost believe that this river had a voice. The waters fit into two pockets in my mind: the thick brown of the urban San Gabriel, and the icy blue of this mountain stream. I could not understand how they formed a single story.
When we drove out of the San Gabriel Canyon, I glanced away from the damp box that ushered the canyon’s water out through the city streets. And as we made our way down the 605 freeway, worrying over our newly-discovered caffeine withdrawals, I hardly glanced into the river that ran alongside.
It wasn’t until this Monday that I met the river again, as I stood on a bicycle staring up the San Gabriel River Bike Trail in Seal Beach, California with four others: Bryan from the Coffee House Writers’ Group, Norbert from an event I had created on Couchsurfing.com, my sister Jen, and her boyfriend Andrew.
Surfers changed quickly in the parking lot behind us, their eyes hesitant to leave the perfect sets breaking across the mouth of the river. “You lead,” Norbert said, and we started up the San Gabriel River with the waves to our back. I felt a chill as I left the ocean behind; I had organized this event, but mostly because it scared me. I loved the ocean we were leaving, but I didn’t know the river, and I wasn’t so sure I would like it. I glanced behind me as we rode, and tried to set my pace with the bikes behind.
At first the river was wide with the sea, grey and glassy. Migratory ducks rippled the surface as they dipped below the sun that had drawn them from colder climates; a cormorant balanced on a telephone wire, feathers spread in a damp blessing as his wings dried. We pulled up beneath the power plants past PCH. “Look for sea turtles,” I suggested, but the sea turtles stayed hidden from all but Jen, who just glimpsed the saucer of a turtle’s body below the screen of the water.
“Mandarin ducks!”, Norbert shouted as we rode. “I would recognize them anywhere.” He had spent much of his life in Taiwan, so he should know, but the presence of mandarin ducks seemed impossible with what I knew of California species. I shouted the information back anyway to Jennifer; she had spent her entire sixth year of life obsessing over the image of a golden bird in an animal book labeled “mandarin chick.”
Our bikes skimmed along the top of the riverbank, the path dropping off on one side into banks made from the same Catalina-sourced boulders that formed the Jetty behind us. White egrets mirrored themselves against a backdrop of trees.
“The tide is going out,” I said at one point, pointing to the swirl of water along black rocks. Sanderlings followed the pulse of the water, pouring down like one body to the exposed sand, streaming back with legs blurred below grey feathers when the river once more covered the beach. We passed under the shadow of the 405 and 605 freeways, and I felt an odd sense of loss for all the times I had passed over this overpass without seeing the birds below.
The river breathes. My thoughts echoed the words of the prospector as the sanderlings moved in and out, shifting between the rhythm of the waves and the slower beat of the tides.
And then, just like that, the ocean ended. Boulders ran across the river, cutting the river in two. Behind us, blue water flowed out toward the coast; in front of us, concrete banks cradled a brown line running from the mountains. A small waterfall linked the two with tiny rapids.
We were on the same path as the 605 freeway now, but I hardly noticed the sound of the traffic. Instead, my attention was absorbed by the slender shapes of black-necked stilts dotting the edge of the water, their legs long and red, their beaks long and black. They moved like clouds, startlingly elegant against the blank field of concrete to their back.
The river moves, I thought, and it moves between opposing worlds.
This river was a refuge. Between the rush of the freeway to one side and the sterility of comfortable neighborhoods on the other, the harshness of the river transformed into something soft and safe. It felt odd to me, and unexpected, a thought sharp like the tang of metal. I had only seen one pair of black-necked stilts before, in the wetlands just before Sunset Beach, and in some way those two birds felt far more real than the dozens upon this concrete. I wanted to move the idea of these birds elsewhere, into a space I might call “natural.”
I hadn’t been looking for nature in the wetlands, I saw; I had been looking for control.
A bike appeared just before a bridge, heavy with weathered packs, propping up a cardboard sign reading “Eat Vegan” in red paint. An unsavory image appeared in my mind of its creator: a Free Spirit, somewhat pretentious, most likely of the Tortured Artist variety with a hollow scowl for weekend bikers. I looked up the bike path to confirm this suspicion, but was met by the sight of a young man sweeping up the dust that had accumulated on the bike path below the bridge. He looked up as we passed. I could tell he was someone with very few possessions, and yet among those possessions he numbered this broom to keep the path safe for the cyclists who would rarely know.
I decided then that he was the best person on this bike path, and felt a tang of guilt for my previous judgments.
The wheels rolled over the five-mile mark just we stopped off for lunch at El Dorado Park. Jennifer and Andrew ate all the hummus and announced they were turning back towards home, and then we were three. Bryan, Norbert and I finished our lunches and hopped back on our bikes. The conversation turned to writing, and Norbert’s translation work.
“I also have a fictional cat,” he ended.
I snapped out of passive listening. “Wait, what? Your cat is fake?”
“No, but he’s plush,” Norbert explained. “His name is Sebastian of Estonia.” He went on to tell me that Sebastian had received a personal letter from the Prime Minister of Estonia. “He even fell in love with a Finnish cat he met online,” he ended.
“How did that turn out?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“He messaged the Finnish cat, but she replied that she already had a girlfriend.” He paused for a moment. “The Finnish cat was lesbian.”
As we passed the 7-mile mark I wondered how often that sentence had ever occurred in the English language.
By now the river had changed. The banks looked the same, concrete above a straight-edged brown stream, but the birds were gone. It felt disarmingly quiet. The houses huddled to either side, sheltered behind their stucco and wooden fences. We passed an equestrian center near Long Beach Town Center, where plump horses trotted through the large dirt corals.
“Halfway there!” I shouted back. I could feel the distance in my legs. We biked through dry parks, under streets, past a recycling plant and through several evolutions of the houses behind the fences. The river stayed beside, thin and brown. Soon rooms appeared along the river, walled with plywood and roofed with corrugated metal, and cut with square windows. It wasn’t until I looked at a window and saw a horse staring back at me that I realized these were stables.
We passed a house painted white with the story of the Christian God written in black letters, but I hardly had time to read the first section, “Who is God?” before we had cycled past.
Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the concrete section of the river ended. Between the river banks stretched dirt, with dry clods and a thin layer of dead grass from the last flood. “Coyote,” Bryan said, pointing into the river, and we watched as a coyote trotted across the dirt before he stopped and became invisible.
I looked up to see the 605 freeway again, and realized I had forgotten about it completely, Somehow the thought that freeway had lost its hold on me settled in with a deep peace, and the pulse of my legs on the peddles quickened. The path was my space now, long and vast, a thread pulling together the stories of the mountains and the ocean and this dry, dead place that held its own vitality. The river was not pretty, nor was it meant to be. It was harsh, ugly, formed for its own sake and not caring for my opinion. I could ride along that space if I shared it as it was, in all of its strangeness, as gloriously bizarre as myself, and my fellow cyclists, and the sweeping man below the bridge.
We had ridden 25 miles from Seal Beach, and my quads ached with a fullness that almost felt toxic. The pavement, mottled now, continued to flash past my tires. We were a part of this distance.
And then we crested a small dam, and the river re-appeared in its full breadth. Yellow trees dropped leaves into the water, eclipsing a railroad bridge vibrant with graffiti. I heard birds again in the trees.
The river even makes music, the prospector had said. And he was right. This space was its own song.
I had come to the San Gabriel River expecting to find it haunted by itself, a polluted river that carried the ghost of its mountain beginnings where the water ran blue and the canyons sounded only with hawks. I had come to find the spirit of a river, cut from the earth. Aesthetically, this is what I found. But at the same time there was a consistency in the river that I could not ignore: this water was its own self, regardless of what I might think. It carried its own stories.
The river talks. Breaths. Moves. And who am I to deny that.
To learn more about exploring urban rivers, follow the LA River Trek as we explore the Los Angeles Watershed on bike and on foot beginning February 5th. Subscribe for free to the LA River Trek or follow @larivertrek on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and stop by our Rain Day Watershed Fair and Photography Show on February 27th.