Sunset at the Hollywood Sign. The wind in my hair, the sun in my face, and some unicorn dust in my heart. Not down where the sign has only the font size of a phonebook when you look up, but as close as you can get. It must be possible.
But first of all you need to know that you can’t actually touch the letters, nor can you sit on them like in some romantic movies. The letters are contained in a high-security zone. It is this way because some bright members of the human race simply cannot pull themselves together, and they vandalized the sign. The noise you may now be hearing is the sound of my eyes rolling.
Like all of Hollywood and Los Angeles, the Hollywood Sign is a dilapidated backdrop that tries to sprinkle stardust in the viewer’s eyes. During the 1970s, the letters almost crumbled from lack of proper weatherproofing. The first “O” partially collapsed, creating a “U.” The third “O” simply fell over at some point.
Welcome to HULLYWO D!
Knowing this background, which sounds as professional as the Boston’s notorious Big Dig Project, I set off. I must get as close to the myth as possible. Unknowingly, my plan fit perfectly into the Sign’s history: short-sighted and maybe a bit daft. I set off in heat that topped 93F on a journey into the Hollywood Hills, over deserts of dust, and into total darkness with insufficient charge on my phone. Before the end, I will need two flight attendants to save me.
It is 4 pm. I’m sitting at the Griffith Observatory over Los Angeles looking at my map. I find a footpath that will take me through the Hollywood Hills to a point just above the Hollywood Sign. I had seen the sign before on my big solo trip through the USA in 2017. But that was from the bottom. You have to see it that way of course, but the second time, it feels like drinking soda after the fizz is gone.
The map says it is about two and a half miles from the magnificently domed observatory to the to sign. Two and a half miles. Pfft. A few days ago, I walked 16 miles through the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The Hollywood Hills. They are nothing!
I fill my water bottle with the free drinking water at the museum. I throw three layers of sunscreen on my face. And off I go.
here are windswept green signs pointing toward the hills to the hiking trails. The ground is sandy. There are low bushes on the hillside. They reach only to my knees. So there is no possibility of shade that would prevent the direct, hellish sunlight from reaching all the way into my spleen.
Still, if I walk slowly and carefully, it will work. The sun does not set until 7:30 PM. That’s over three hours from now. There is no reason to rush. Unfortunately, the words “slow” and “careful” do not appear in my vocabulary. So, I stomp up the first hill and then back and forth on the paths like a chicken with its head cut off, by taking a thousand photos. I have a helluva view of the Griffith Observatory and the Los Angeles skyline.
Germans. A German couple. From Ruhr Area. My hometown area. Even after four months in the USA, I can recognize the accent right away. They offer to take my photo to show the scenery. I let them. Then they ask if want to go to a lookout where they just came from and point to a short distance ahead.
I tell them, “No, I want to go up to the Hollywood Sign.”
“From here?!” they ask, incredulously, as if I had just said I was going to walk barefoot to the North Pole.
“Sure, it’s only two and a half miles,” I say offhandedly.
A few minutes later, I look again at the map and find that the paths drawn on the map have nothing to do with reality. I’m still almost two miles away from the sign! I decide to take a path that goes straight up and avoid the annoying switchbacks that were put here for old people! It will take me directly to the top with only a 37% incline. Then I just need to walk along the ridgeline until I get to the Hollywood Sign. So, like a hippo, I start huffing and puffing up the dusty vertical path as I breathe in the hot, dusty air. My eyes begin to water and are sticky from the dirt, and I’m sweating like crazy.
Then there is a small stone bench just a few yards away. With an inscription: “Hey, How ‘ya doing?”
I snort, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
After a short break and several deep draws from my water bottle, I look out into the never-ending, bleak, brown expanse ahead of me. The Hollywood Hills look as verdant as the Moon after a Romulan attack. And they are not the simple narrow ridge I saw from below, but an eternal sea of rocky dunes. Maybe they even move. The shifting Hollywood Dunes.
Before I fall completely into the mirage of the west coast, I hike on. Without a map.
What’s the point? I can see the sign from here. Hasn’t it come significantly closer? The air flickers as I stare. A mosquito tries to attack me, but then flies away. Scared off by a two-foot barrier of dust, sunscreen, and sweat.
After landing three times in a cul-de-sac, I stand up on a scree slope with roots, and possibly rattlesnakes. My face has turned a bright scarlet. My water supply has dwindled to only a sad puddle at the bottom of my bottle.
I look again at the map and send a message and a photo of my precarious situation to my boyfriend in Wyoming.
“What are you doing again?” he asks when he sees me beaming with dirt all over my face, glowing red cheeks emerging amongst thorns and death-ray-like sunbeams.
“No idea. If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t be here,” I think.
After I almost crashed on a cactus, my tired eyes catch the glimpse of the beginning of a paved road. A sane person could probably have walked here quickly, easily and sensibly. But WHY, when you could do it in a slow, suicidal and crazy manner?
The thing is that I usually go a little nutso if something doesn’t work. That goads me even more to make it happen. So, being me, I use the last of my animal spirits to race past a group of tourists to reach the top of the Hollywood Sign.
I feel as if I am dying of suffocation and thirst at the same time as I claw my fingers through the meter-high chain-link fence through which I can see the huge letters. Right next to the Sign is a gigantic and picturesque transmitter tower for cell phones, radio signals and rescue. From here, perhaps I can send a signal: SOS. Or so.
I had been on the trail for almost three hours and covered almost five miles.
Looking out from the hill where everyone gathered (and not looking as dead as I feel), the view is disappointing. I can see only a small slice of the top edge of the Sign’s lettering. I know there has to be a better vantage point because this was definitely not worth almost dying for!
So I move away from the mass of tourists. Further to the right to find a secluded spot with a rock to sit on. From this position I have a fabulous view of the Hollywood Sign and all of Los Angeles. I can even see the damn Griffith Observatory from here.
Twilight begins to cast its long shadows over the countryside. The sky first turns bright yellow, soon joined by deep reds and pinks. Colors explode in a manner that is typical of California’s coast, yet it seems almost incomprehensible to the eye. Above the silhouettes of African-looking palm trees, the moon appears as a white, fragile sickle, like a ship floating on an open sea.
The Hollywood Sign first begins to shine with an orange color, then pink. It finally turns to silver as the sun sets. Los Angeles begins to shimmer like a diamond. I put on my headphones and begin to listen to Lana Del Rey as the cool evening air starts to settle over my battered skin. My legs are covered with red dust and filth. But I am here. Over the rooftops of Hollywood. Where the purple evening sky lies over a metropolis of broken dreams and great opportunities.
At this moment I feel the years of unhappiness and unrest from my old life have disappeared. I am beyond a life where I was sitting in an office full-time and struggled with my entire private life. I feel here in the golden glow of Hollywood that I’m finally living the life I always wanted to live. I have arrived. And so much is left to discover, now that the door has been opened wide.
This is a feeling for which I would climb five miles through hot dirt again, anytime.
So that I can get home quickly and easily in the dark, I scheduled an Uber to pick me up. I sit waiting on the street. What I don’t know is that there is a barrier further down blocking the road to public traffic. After 20 minutes and no ride shows up, I begin to get restless. It is now dark as night. Which could be because it IS night.
My cell phone only has a 12% charge. My bottle only has 5% water. My body only has 2% energy.
I decide to walk, following the road down the mountain. On my way I overtake a couple with a flashlight. However instead of using my phone’s flashlight, and depriving it of even more power, I choose to stumble through large potholes in the dark.
My only plan: run down into the city and try to get an Uber again. But that is only possible if my cell phone holds out.
Suddenly I am standing in front of a house and the road seems to end. I try to open my map. 7% battery. The indicator lights up red. Suddenly I feel cold, thirsty, tired, and downright shitty. I’m almost starting to panic.
Then I remember the couple with the flashlight and run back. As I stand in their light beam, I hurriedly explain what happened. They are both French flight attendants who have two days off in the USA. They listen to my story about how I got here and that I am now just wandering around in the dark. The woman almost faints.
“We’re here with a rental car,” says the man. “It’s right over there.”
He points behind the house as he adds, “There is a footpath that goes past it.”
“Where do you have to go?” asks the woman. She sounds concerned.
I tell them that I am at world’s end and my house is miles and miles away, but when I show them the map, they are thrilled.
“This is towards the airport where our hotel is! If you like, we’ll drive you home. That’s not a big deal.”
I am freaking out! Ten minutes later, I am thundering along the freeway at night, laughing with two French flight attendants. My phone only has a three percent charge on its battery.
Soon we reach a fast-food restaurant just around the corner from my Airbnb. They drop me off. I order a stupid sandwich and ask the waiter 70 times, “What?” because I am still so confused. At the same time I down almost a half-gallon of Coke.
Why did I trust the French? Because I’ve already traveled halfway around the world, both with friends and alone and this is not the first time this kind of nonsense has happened to me. Because I get a good feeling for things. And because life is an adventure.
This was not the only daring adventure that happened to me on my trip to LA. Find part one in Nutso in Los Angeles (1): How I went to Hell with Public Transport.