Boardwalk Empire

Learning to love L.A. from the seat of a beach cruiser.

A decade ago I worked at a production company in Venice Beach, just a few blocks from the ocean. The rest of my life, unfortunately, was far away: On the nights that didn’t require me to ship half-inch videotapes to temperamental directors at dawn, I drove 14 miles home to a rambling bungalow I shared with three guys at the foot of the Hollywood Hills.

My bike, however—an aqua cruiser painted with a white Hawaiian floral motif—resided full-time at the beach. I needed my bike at work so I could escape.

Blessed with a few minutes of downtime, I’d slide my bike out of a storage closet and pedal furiously down the alley to the beach. But the water wasn’t my destination, nor the shady establishments on the edge of the sand—it was the undulating paved path that stretched between them into infinity. I’d weave past rental tandems and sporty recumbents, measuring distance by how many lifeguard stands I passed, turning around in just enough time to meet my next batch of demanding clients.

Somehow it only took a few moments on that boardwalk—with its endless stream of humanity clutching towers of soft-serve ice cream, squinting critically at the technicolor tableaus of Ray-Ban knockoffs—to put the world back into perspective. Perhaps it was because it felt like the one place where I could truly sit back and enjoy my city for what it was. Besides a high-stress job, I faced a harrowing two-hour commute every day that sometimes sent me to bed hating Los Angeles. Here, people, not cars, had the ocean-view real estate—and front row seats to the best show in town.

I’d roll with my fellow wheeled warriors, a community in motion, a whir of Segways and skateboards, Razr scooters and Rollerblades. A cast of characters rotated through like extras from a film set. The six-foot, neon-clad ponytailed rollerskater wearing a fanny pack. The bodybuilder heading to Muscle Beach on a skateboard, his skin so taut and tanned you could sell his bicep as a designer handbag. The dude pedaling a rusty cruiser, barefoot in a wetsuit, a longboard tucked impossibly under his arm. The homeless couple pushing a shopping cart wrapped in more American flags than a 4th of July parade.

A bike was just the right speed to take it all in. Heading north you’d be hit by offshore breezes of nag champa and weed drifting from the parlors offering various forms of body adornment and/or alteration. Southward, it was soft, pure, salty air, the blur of white-white sand, all bathed in that ethereal golden California light.

The best time to ride was right at sunset, as that light drained from the sky and a drum circle started to throb, echoing out over the retreating surf.

One night, working late, our office was tipped to a “red tide” rolling in, a bioluminescent phenomenon caused by an algae bloom. Co-workers in tow, I headed up the boardwalk to the darkest spot on the beach. As the waves crashed, they crackled with an internal electricity like a Tesla coil, seemingly choreographed with the distant lights of the ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. Traffic, work, it all melted away—at that moment, I knew I lived in the most magical city on earth.

In the past 10 years the city around that boardwalk changed: L.A.’s laying down bike lanes as part of a massive bicycling network; even CicLAvia, our massive open streets event, stretched from downtown all the way to the sea this year. And I changed, too: I shrugged off a day job that never seemed to fit, and eventually my car, as well. I bought a new bike and started writing about cities and transportation. In a way, perhaps, I wanted to find a way to make those too-short boardwalk excursions become the rule, not the exception.

But the boardwalk, it’s still there, and it hasn’t changed a bit. Boardwalks exist in a bubble—and isn’t that why we ride them? These little trails in the sand aren’t just a way to move along the coast, they provide a brief detour from reality. A guaranteed mini-vacation.

There I was, putting much-needed distance between myself and work, exactly like the tourists who had traveled halfway across the world. But somehow, we’d both ended up at the same place: On the edge of the continent, pedaling under a palm tree, watching a guy spray-painted silver stand motionless for money. And unable to stop ourselves from smiling.

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