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Driving Through Los Angeles’s Canyons

The park.

Photo: Katie Shapiro

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, Laurel Canyon was simply “the canyon.” It was where my brothers and I climbed steep streets on our bikes and built forts in the eucalyptus-scented hills. Sure, some of our classmates’ parents were becoming known as artists—Ed Kienholz and Carole King—but it was only later that I came to understand that the canyon was undergoing a burst of creativity that would someday be likened to San Francisco’s Haight in the 1950’s or, with some exaggeration, Paris in the 1920’s.

A place of great natural beauty, central in Los Angeles though also hidden and highly quirky, the canyon attracted such now-legendary rockers as Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall (“Blues from Laurel Canyon”), Mama Cass, Graham Nash (“Our House”), and Joni Mitchell, who lived, loved, partied, composed, and sang their hearts out in cottages and bungalows in the snaky streets off Kirkwood and Lookout.

That era may have ended when canyon ladies like Mitchell came “wrapped in songs and gypsy shawls” and found true love with shaggy, starry-eyed guitarists, but the canyon retains a special unbuttoned magic. And on a recent visit from New York City I spent a few days driving through Laurel and its nearby canyon cousins.

I limited my explorations to the terrain between Mulholland Drive to the north and Sunset Boulevard to the south. These roads set the parameters of the canyons, which are, geologically speaking, former streambeds that cut through the Santa Monica Mountains, the camel’s hump that divides the city from the valley. Though I drove maybe 30 miles in three days, the tiny streets and hidden, shady folds make the canyons feel far more vast and intricate.

Day 1

My first stop was the Canyon Country Store, on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the most tangible relic of the area’s musical heyday. The Country Store is a neighborhood institution and a purveyor of surprisingly good wines and delicious custom-made deli sandwiches. Resolutely ungentrified by Tommy Bina, who has owned the place since 1982, the red-brick building still packs a flower-power punch in its psychedelic murals, bougainvillea-splashed patio, and palimpsest of a bulletin board from which, in the same afternoon, I could have enrolled in a reflexology class and found my pet gainful employment (“We are looking for a talented parrot or any other kind of bird to sign to a recording contract.”—The Laurel Canyon Animal Company).

Bina is an enthusiastic cicerone to all things canyonesque: he pointed across the way to a house, now hiding under some bad horizontal siding from the 1980’s, where Morrison wrote “Love Street” (“There’s this store where the creatures meet/I wonder what they do in there…”). Afterward, in the store’s basement, he showed me the former apartment where Mama Cass (of the Mamas & the Papas) briefly lived upon first coming to L.A. When Bina converted the apartment into more wine storage several years back he found Cass’s flute, whose worn case he touches with the kind of reverence that guides in other settings might gesture at, say, Proust’s evening cape or Chekhov’s pen.

Sharing the building with the Canyon Country Store is Pace, as in “peace” (or: “Peace, man!”), a restaurant in the space that during the 1960’s housed Café Galleria, which hosted open-mike nights for canyon habitués. In a room hung with black-and-white photos of the musicians, I dined on the establishment’s most popular dish, cedar-planked salmon; it was by far the best meal of the drive.

Earlier, while Bina and I were downstairs in his store, he drew my attention to the brick building’s river-rock foundation, a clue to a different piece of the canyon’s story. In old L.A., the area was undeveloped countryside; remote and rugged, it was first reached in any organized fashion in 1913, when Charles Spencer Mann built a trackless trolley (it ran on electric cables) that brought hunters and hikers up from Sunset Boulevard. A development known as Mann’s Bungalow Land provided cottages for these early weekenders, and the first (wooden) country store, its foundation bolstered with rocks harvested from the then-open streambed, sold them provisions. The rest is real estate—and therefore Angeleno—history.

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