In Los Angeles, Ditching the Car for an Eco-friendly Trip
Los Angeles may feature an abundance of holistic arts, yoga and macrobiotic diets, but it's probably not the first city that comes to mind when you hear the term "eco-friendly." You can largely thank the 900 miles of freeways and highways in Los Angeles County for that. Few would dispute that the city's culture is a car-dominated one, with an obsessive focus on driving routes, smog alerts and the best times of day to avoid traffic. It's an obsession that has been mocked on "Saturday Night Live," captured in pop songs and recorded in academic essays.It's possible, though, to escape the routines of the typical visitor in the name of environmental friendliness. I set out to marry the city's organic cuisine and healthy, active lifestyle with something that it isn't widely associated with - leaving a small carbon footprint - by ditching the car and creature comforts of regular hotels.I discovered that it's possible to rely on the Metro, Los Angeles's imperfect but quite functional public transportation system, which includes buses, a light rail system and, yes, even a subway. I was able to find a comfortable yurt - that's right, the traditional Central Asian round tent - in a quiet, wooded part of the city accessible by light rail and just minutes from downtown. And all while saving some money in the process.My girlfriend, Brette, and I rode the long escalator into the bowels of the subway station at Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. "Wow," she said, "I can't believe this exists." It does feel strange to ride the subway in Los Angeles because it dispels the one huge stereotype nearly everyone subscribes to: that you need a car to get around. "And it's so quiet and clean," she said, touching her Metro Tap card to the turnstile (subtracting the $1.75 fare) and going through.The platform was mostly empty. The limitations of the subway quickly become apparent in that there are only two lines, purple and red, which basically cover the same route. The red line goes from downtown through Koreatown, into Hollywood, before terminating in North Hollywood. If you happen to live within walking distance of one of the 14 stations on the line, and your destination is also on that line, then the subway is supremely useful. But most of the approximately 500 square miles of the city remain unserved by the lines. Bus and light rail lines are more comprehensive and help pick up the slack.Pershing Square, in the heart of downtown, is, however, one of the subway stops, and it deposits you just a block or so from one of the city's major culinary destinations: Grand Central Market. It was founded as a large open-air arcade in 1917, and can still feel like a market at businesses like Torres Produce and Chiles Secos.But in recent years it's morphed into its current incarnation: a big, vibrant food hall peppered with a selection of popular restaurants. Opening a place or holding an event at Grand Central is an immediate notch in the belt of any Los Angeles chef. Food prices have naturally skyrocketed, but some good deals can be found.One of the best is the Fast Burger from Belcampo ($5), built in the In-N-Out style: American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and a Thousand Island-style sauce. The quality of the grass-fed beef is what makes this burger a bargain; natural juices run immodestly from the freshly ground patty, perfectly complementing the vegetables.The feel of downtown Los Angeles is unflinchingly urban - mere miles away, though, lies an entirely different world. We made our way to Union Station, the city's rail hub and the largest railroad terminal in the Western United States. A gorgeous, soaring structure erected in the 1930s, its architecture mixes bits and pieces of Art Deco and Mission Revival styles.We found the Metro Gold Line (also $1.75 on the same Tap card), one of the city's four light rail lines. It was uncharacteristically drizzly, and those of us waiting for the Azusa-bound line squeezed under the shelter on the outdoor platform. The announcement board said the train would be arriving in four minutes. Four minutes passed, then another four. Then another four. The platform was becoming crowded. Finally, it arrived. About 15 minutes later, we stepped out in the Mount Washington neighborhood and began the 10-minute walk to our lodgings.I found our yurt on Airbnb for $98 a night. It's essentially a big, round tent with a front and back door; a latticelike structure braces the frame. Wooden ribs support the dome, and at the top is a covered translucent wheel, or crown, that acts like a circular skylight. It's quite beautiful, and the luxuries - a proper queen-size bed, for example, as well as electricity - give the illusion of camping without any of the real down-and-dirty stuff. It turns out that while I find saying the word "glamping" to be slightly nauseating, the actual act is very pleasant.The yurt is set on a raised platform in a quiet, hilly section of Mount Washington, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles known for its steep and winding streets. The owners left the keys and some lovely touches: tea and coffee, an electric kettle, a French press, even a bottle of inexpensive wine. There were travel books in the night stand, as well as a small portable heater. The back door led to the outdoor bathroom and shower area, with a dry composting toilet (and instructions for how to use it) as well as a sink and shower with a "gray water" system (it runs off and feeds the plants in the garden; the hosts provide all-natural soap).Using the outdoor shower was one of the highlights of the stay: I was expecting to take a quick, freezing shower and immediately towel off and run back inside. But the water heater worked well, and I was able to take a relaxing, warm shower in the drizzly, 50-degree weather, right next to an enormous prickly pear cactus on the hillside.While the city's public transit system proved mostly reliable, I decided to try other transportation options. CicLAvia is an initiative that creates daylong open-streets events for biking, skating and walking. The aim is to get people to explore their neighborhoods by means other than cars by creating large, open public spaces out of Los Angeles's streets."L.A. is mostly known for destination points - you go from point A to point B," said Romel Pascual, executive director of CicLAvia. "You do that in a car and you miss everything in between. This makes you slow down and appreciate the in-between moments."My brother, Loren, in town for a visit, and I decided we would rent bikes and participate in the San Fernando Valley edition of CicLAvia. We met at Retro Xpress Bicycles on Victory Boulevard and asked for two day rentals. "Well," the man behind the counter said, pursing his lips, "we don't have many bikes left." He stopped and pointed at two pink girls' bikes that were way too small. "This is all we got left." I couldn't tell if he was just trolling me or if he was serious.He was serious. We walked out with the two bright pink bikes and two helmets for $19.95 apiece. The ride up to the corner of Van Nuys and Roscoe, where the event began, was mostly uneventful - we did get a few honks, hoots and hollers from passing cars. Once we were in the confines of the four-mile stretch of CicLAvia, no one cared.The entire boulevard was closed to traffic, and tents and food trucks were set up along the sidewalks. It was a giant street fair; there were lots of pets, children and residents of all ages. Many were biking, others conversing and getting to know one another. Mr. Pascual was right - it was enlightening to slow down and get an up-close perspective on the neighborhood, all while strengthening a sense of community.I had covered four of the five major alternatives to cars in Los Angeles: foot, bike, subway, light rail. That left the bus. Brette and I embarked on an epic trip (Line 733) from downtown to Venice one afternoon - it was a good 80 to 90 minutes to make the 14.5-mile haul and reach the big roundabout near Main Street and Venice Way, just steps from the Venice Boardwalk.Our destination was Seed Kitchen, a restaurant opened in 2008 by Eric Lechasseur and Sanae Suzuki that specializes in vegan, macrobiotic meals. I ordered a saisai doniburi macro bowl ($12.95), which contained kale, shiitake mushrooms, beans and Japanese pumpkin. I was surprised by how flavorful it was - the balsamic miso dressing certainly helped.But why pay at all for your food when you can snack free on the plants and flowers that grow all around you? That's the philosophy of Pascal Baudar, a Belgian-born forager and wild food consultant. He leads regular classes and excursions into Los Angeles's forested areas in search of edible plants, mushrooms and flowers.Brette and I paid $20 each to join him one morning close to the Tujunga Wash, near the Angeles National Forest in the far northern part of the city. Our group of six began a leisurely stroll through the forest, and Mr. Baudar stopped to point out dozens of plants that have culinary uses: bright yellow mustard flowers, elderberry, curling dock and watercress.We spotted a couple of men carrying large bags of watercress they'd picked near the Wash. "Those guys," Mr. Baudar said, "they make mistakes." I asked him what he meant. He explained that we were at a horse crossing, and where plants grow in water, you want to pick plants upstream of any animal activity, to avoid possible bacteria. Mr. Baudar had other useful tips, including how to differentiate poison hemlock from edible hemlock look-alikes. (Cow parsley and Queen Anne's lace, for example, have tiny hairs on their stems; poison hemlock has smooth stems.)Later, we sipped on a homemade soda he had made from elderflowers and munched on our trove of wild plants. I was learning that Los Angeles's sprawl and geographical diversity work for it in many ways. They yield an impressive breadth of eco-friendly activities, which, with a little work, can take place without spending one minute in a car.