I'M NOT HERE for the silicone or Bentleys. I don't want to get my picture taken with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. I've come to grind my teeth on a little of L.A.'s sweet grit.
My buddy James—a fast-talker with wild eyes and a grizzly bear of a beard—picks me up at LAX. He's lived here for three years but still keeps a GPS on the dash. "This city," he says, "makes no sense." He's talking about more than the tangle of roadways. He's talking about a city that is not so much a city as it is a mess of neighborhoods, each with its own personality, making L.A. a kind of smog-belching, schizophrenic beast.
We park along the L.A. River at Atwater Village and step into the concrete channel. I have alternating views of the freeway and the mist-haloed San Gabriel Mountains. This is not the barren watercourse from Terminator 2. Bass populate the river. Horseback riders splash along its banks. There are islands thick with trees that are decorated with garbage. I quickly spot a dozen species of waterfowl.
Ducks honk. Semis blast their horns. A group of spandex-clad bicyclists races by on the riverside path. James and I find a tunnel, full of graffiti and shadows and broken glass, that takes us under the freeway. When we emerge, we are at the doorstep of 4,000-acre Griffith Park, one of the largest urban wildernesses in the country.
We enter the 53-mile network of trails, and soon trees crowd around us, hushing the grumble of the city. At the end of our seven-mile hike, the sun begins to set, and the neon glow of the city makes the sky a bruised purple. We drive to Koreatown and Masan, a restaurant known for its monkfish stew, which we order, along with live octopus. The legs twist on our plates like dying snakes, and I chew them to a paste—if you don't, the suckers can latch on to your tongue.
"You want dessert?" James asks, and I say, "I want to shoot some guns."
Just past Skid Row we find the Los Angeles Gun Club, the kind of nondescript building that could pass for a paper-clip warehouse. Then you approach the door and hear the snap-snap-snap of muffled gunfire. Inside, the air is heavy with gun oil, and the walls are busy with racks of every firearm you can imagine. James and I opt for an AR-15, an assault rifle that jerks in my arms like something alive as I fire rounds down lane four. I am surrounded by men with forearm tats who fire pistols while their girlfriends clap and squeal. After blasting my way through three bricks of ammo, my hands are trembling and I can't shake the grin from my face.
"What do you think?" James asks.
"Unreal," I say.
EXPENSE REPORT: Hiking the L.A. River and Griffith Park: free. Dinner at Masan (213-388-3314): $60. Guns (thelosangelesgunclub.com): $90. Drinks at HMS Bounty (213-385-7275): $100. Breakfast at the Trails (323-660-8006): $5. Thai noodles at Sanamluang Cafe (818-764-1180): $12. In-N-Out Burger stop: $10. Ice cream at Scoops (323-906-2649): $5. Total: $282