Boys move to uncharted spaces by instinct. The first step to manhood is leaving your yard alone. We map the world beyond our parents command first by foot, then by bicycle.
What is this strange world, we ask ourselves. How far can I go? How high? How fast? Who am I? What is my nature?
The channels of the LA River are an imperfect playground for boys, yet irresistible for that very reason. There is communion with frogs and other strange fauna down in the wash, and the call to adventure along new pathways. The wash liberates one from the street grid. There is refuge from cars, and in the quiet, unique sounds. An alternative transportation corridor connecting neighborhoods, an in doing so a place of escape unto itself. A bridge to Terabithia in the middle of the Valley.
On Feb. 17, 14-year-old Elias Rodriguez disappeared on his way home from school. The local TV news took up his cause and the city posted a $50,000 reward for his return. A tipline was was established. Foul play theories were entertained.
Two weeks later his battered body was found 20 nautical miles away, on a sand spit in the Glendale Narrows, dragged there by storm waters. He tried to cross the Pacoima Wash on foot in a rainstorm and paid with his life. Glen Oaks Boulevard was three blocks away, civic minders were quick to point out, he could have safely crossed the wash there. Let this be a teachable moment.
Well, sure, if you enjoy GMC Yukons whipping past you at 50mph, three abreast, stray dogs and bicyclists be damned, that sort of advice makes sense. This is not how boys think. The straight line to Elias’ grandmother’s house takes him through the hole in the chain link fence behind the Cesar Chavez Learning Academy, across the wash and up onto 7th st. It was a route he had taken before. Kids from the school who lived in the neighborhood took it all the time, on the down low.
That we should have miles of pre-paved walking and bike trails off-limits to the public, is a failure of civic imagination. Fencing it off with chain link and putting up hazard signs and pretending this will save the life of a boy like Elias is insulting. The least we could do is build a pedestrian bridge from the school to the neighborhood it serves. But that would entail admitting the alternative to the street grid exists.
If storm water was rising a bit more rapidly than Elias was expecting, once he descended the embankment reversing course would feel like a kind of defeat. You do what makes sense in boyworld: draw from the well of courage, make a dash for it and hope your footing holds.
That’s would I have done. I look at Elias Rodriguez at 14 and think: that was me. (Was? You still do stupid manchild bulls*** all the time -Mrs. UpintheValley) This is true. I love climbing trees, bushwhacking, walking the railroad tracks and into the dark underbrush of the Favela. That it is forbidden only adds to the appeal.
In The Terminator trilogy, the savior of mankind turns out to be a boy from the San Fernando Valley. Savor that for a moment. Heroic efforts are undertaken in the Old Testament of the first film to save his mother, Sarah, merely so John Connor can be born. T2 begins with 14-year-old John fleeing a Herod-like death sentence carried out by the shape-shifting T1000.
What does John do? He gets on his bike, and eludes his executioner by pedaling down into the storm channels of the LA river. This is a world he understands because he’s been down there before. By design, a natural pathway of escape from a pursuing truck. A world where a boy might seek advantage.
John Connor had Arnold Schwarzenegger to rescue him. There was no such deus ex machina for Elias. Once he lost his grip, the stormwater would have been moving at a good clip. There is the possibility he was knocked unconscious early in his journey. This would be a mercy. For the first three miles, the slopes of the wash are at 45 degrees, and there would be hope even a poor swimmer could grab hold of something and climb out. Once it merges with the Tujunga Wash, the sides go completely vertical, twelve feet high, a true storm channel, a veritable freeway of water. The odds of escape under one’s own power would fall to zero. Down and down you would go, past Grace Community Church, and Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles, past CBS and Warner Bros and past the Zoo you went to on school field trips. You would bob like a cork within a shouting distance of hundreds of houses, you would pass beneath street crossings with cars visible to you, windshield wipers flicking madly, deaf to your cries. You would skid and roll and bounce past the private riverfront esplanades of Studio City, and wish for the superpower of Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, to elongate your arms like rubber, to grab hold of some kind of railing, and pull yourself free. To arrive soaking, bruised and bedraggled at the patio door of the nearest house and ask to use the phone to call your mother. But that only happens in comic books and movies.
Isn’t this an argument for higher fences and greater restrictions on ingress to the river system? No, the opposite. We lose one or two boys a year to the storm channel. We lose dozens to hit and run drivers on the boulevards of LA. The River should not be a place of danger, but of exploration. We’re dealing with human nature. If there is no boyhood to be had in the Valley now, there will be diminished manhood in ten years, even less in twenty. The answer isn’t more time in front of a screen.