All that stood between us and the completion of our 25-mile odyssey across Sunset Boulevard was one last crosswalk.
After an interminable wait, the signal at the intersection of Sunset and the Pacific Coast Highway finally flashed green. Our legs spent but our spirits strengthened, three friends and I wordlessly plodded the final steps of the undulating journey we began 10 hours earlier.
We walked from the shadow of the 110 Freeway to the shadow of a lifeguard tower. We walked through 10 Los Angeles neighborhoods and two more cities, and we came a crosswalk away from a couple of others. As we glimpsed pocket after pocket of our vast metropolis, the iconic street supplied us with unrelenting reminders of our lives here.
This August will mark 15 years since I moved here for college from my hometown of Santa Clarita. Millions of Angelenos, including one of my companions on this expedition, have me beat by decades. But in that time, I’ve become acquainted with Sunset by car, and now also by foot. Walking the entire boulevard reminded us all of personal experiences we had long forgotten, memories we will never forget and history we had only read about. We remembered what we love about our city and what we don’t.
We walked by the erstwhile locations of old stamping grounds Sunset Beer Co. and the ArcLight Hollywood. We walked by the Black Cat, where a plaque commemorates its role as the site of a 1967 LGBTQ civil rights demonstration. We walked by the third-floor window at Kaiser Permanente, across from L. Ron Hubbard Way, where I anxiously looked out as my mom underwent emergency surgery. To the north, the Griffith Observatory rose out of the day’s fog to greet us. Later, we walked by Paul Revere Charter Middle School, where O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown had attended their daughter’s dance recital on June 12, 1994, hours before she was killed.
As we passed the chain’s original L.A. location, the uninitiated received an abridged version of the Zankou Chicken murders. We learned about the peculiar rock ‘n’ roll Ralphs, with which most of us were somehow unfamiliar but one of us had frequented. The store earned its once-unofficial moniker because of its proximity to music stores, and it has leaned into it in recent years with tacky graphics.
We learned that one member of our group found the beloved Northern Thai Food Club overrated. He said the khao soi was thin, prompting a rebuttal and subsequent squabble. He graciously agreed to revisit it together, I think to shut me up. We strolled by the site of the loudest show I ever attended, Swedish DJ Sebastian Ingrosso’s set at the Palladium, when I was in college. The speakers were so deafening I can’t forget it when I’m deciding whether to bring earplugs for concerts today.
We passed restaurants serving more than a dozen countries’ cuisines — and that was just during our first five miles. Later, the food and resident diversity thinned. We passed so many fancy homes, most of them shrouded in shrubbery, and so many private schools, most of them marketing themselves to passersby.
Census data shows that, with few exceptions, the street gets both whiter and wealthier with each step west. The census tract where we began was 16% white, according to 2020 figures, with median household income of a little more than $60,000. As we waited to cross PCH, we stood in a tract that was 80% white, with more than four times the median income. Of course, that phenomenon is not unique to Sunset among Los Angeles’ major streets. In 2015, I walked a chunk of Olympic Boulevard, from Broadway to Fairfax Avenue, as part of the Great Los Angeles Walk, and noticed the same trend.
Some years later, I found a copy of Kevin Roderick’s book “Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles” at the library, recruited a few intrepid friends, and set off from One Wilshire to walk the entire 16-mile thoroughfare. After we reached the water, some of us fell asleep on the Expo Line ride back downtown, equally thrilled and tired.
That was February 2022. This year, we aimed to build on that feat, setting our date for Sunday, March 12. We began at Aquarela Coffee, a lovely Brazilian shop on Figueroa Street, a few hundred feet north of Sunset’s terminus. After the barista wished us luck, we stashed some pão de queijo, a cheese bread made from cassava flour, for later and embarked.
Because I lack a strong sense of direction and our city lacks a comprehensive grid system, walking the same street all day is oddly relaxing. If I’m walking more than two miles in L.A., I’m typically checking a navigation app every turn or two. On this day, we only needed to use our phones to see how far we were from the nearest public restroom.
Usually that was quite far. In Beverly Hills, Will Rogers Memorial Park and its restrooms, made famous by George Michael’s lewd conduct, were a welcome sight amid extravagant wealth and pedestrian-unfriendly streets. Soon the sidewalks disappeared and makeshift trails emerged. Sizable Metro buses and speeding sports cars threatened a few feet away. We saw more motorcyclists than cyclists and more mushrooms sprouting below us than fellow walkers.
Overall, navigation apps tracked our trek at about 55,000 steps and about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. One member of our group, trooper that he is, completed this while wearing a pair of Cole Haan sneakers that looked a lot like dress shoes. We ate and stretched for about an hour but moved for the other nine. On a zoomed-out map, our route looks haphazard: We began by meandering northwest for nearly four miles, then made a 115-degree turn and headed exactly west for almost five miles. For the remaining 16-plus miles, we zigged and zagged at no discernible angle until we reached the ocean. That’s Sunset’s path, dating back to its days as a cattle trail.
We spent surprisingly little time waiting to cross streets and too much time nervous about nearby cars. Several honks seemed aimed our way, though we could not be sure they were exasperated in nature. At times, walking this city feels like disobeying its well-orchestrated wishes. Wouldn’t this place be a lot better if it were a little easier to experience on foot?
A friend from Boyle Heights met us on the sand and graciously dropped us off on his way home. Never has a twilight drive from the beach to Chinatown felt faster. In 28 minutes, we were back where we started. And, no, we didn’t take Sunset back, though our friend’s route home took him along what was, until 1994, also Sunset Boulevard, now Cesar Chavez Avenue.
The goal is to complete a similar long-distance walk annually. Next year, maybe we’ll do Ventura Boulevard. Or maybe we’ll go north-south and do Figueroa. I’ve been inspired lately by Chris Arnade’s “Walking the World” Substack and Cody Hofmockel’s TikTok feed, where he chronicled his walk from near San Bernardino to Las Vegas, and the friends who walked 50 miles across L.A. last year. I’m also a hiker, as are the other members of our group. Scaling Southern California’s tallest peaks provides a purer rush than perambulating its most famous streets, but the streets stick with you.
Fusing the pursuits could be ideal. For a couple of years, I’ve dreamed of ambling out my Northeast L.A. front door onto the nearby Arroyo Seco bike path, carrying that to Lower Arroyo Park, the Rose Bowl and Upper Arroyo Park, and connecting through Hahamongna Watershed Park to reach the Gabrielino Trail.
From there, I envision touring all 28.8 miles of trail to Chantry Flat, then marching the 15 miles back home. At roughly 52 miles, it’d make for some weekend. Want to join?