Photograph by Drew Fellman
I came to L.A. from New York for pilot season in 2003. I was 30 at the time, not a kid but still young enough to get excited about being allowed onto a studio lot. After my audition (“Delivery Guy,” nailed it), I wandered around Paramount’s sun-splashed campus and brushed shoulders with a blond woman wearing little more than false eyelashes and an air of confidence. As I admired her tan, I thought of my friends back in New York who were buried under a mountain of snow. For a minute I felt guilty about my good fortune, then just as quickly got over it and headed to Griffith Park to play golf.
Later, as I munched on a “Number Three, Animal-Style” at the Burbank In-N-Out while taking in the swirling peach sunset through the window, I realized that I’d just had the greatest day any human has had since the beginning of recorded time. Five months later I was unloading my things from a U-Haul into an apartment in Atwater Village.
The bliss didn’t last long. Within a few weeks the 1980s vibe of my apartment complex
and the town’s pervasive strip mall sprawl stood in stark contrast to my series of prewar New York apartments and the 18th-century log cabin that was my childhood home in Pennsylvania. There’s something unsettling about arriving in a city that’s too new; it’s an unmoored feeling. Many cities are like an urban Grand Canyon, with a majestic vastness of layer upon layer of brick, stone, and concrete built over centuries. It’s proof that there was life well before you and that there will be life long after you. L.A. seemed more like a Twitter feed—a constant stream of trendy places that were instantly gratifying but ephemeral. As I wandered the city in search of the past, I started to doubt if the real thing was out there.
It was, but it took me seven years to find it.
Cut to 2010, when I stood in a crowded elevator en route to my publishing job (hey, an actor has to make a living), with my body smooshed against the inspection certificate on the wall. I spotted the city’s seal with tiny, faded lettering: “Founded 1781.” I squinted. Must be a misprint. I had never encountered much of anything that dated back to 1881, let alone 1781. The city I thought began with Googie architecture had been founded just five years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I had no idea. Even more embarrassing, I had already spent months traveling the country to research a book about the culture of historical war reenactors, from modern-day Confederate soldiers in Florida to politically correct (if that’s possible) Nazis in Colorado. Yet I hadn’t ever looked in my own backyard.
I began checking out every library book I could find on the origin stories of L.A. I learned about pobladores, the term for L.A.’s original 44 settlers, for instance. Then there was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who may not have a holiday like Christopher Columbus does but who was the first European to navigate much of California. He even made a pit stop in present-day San Pedro and Santa Monica in 1542. There were stories about the native Tongvas and blow-by-blow accounts of the 1846 Battle of Dominguez. Chock-full of fascinating factoids, I started proudly referring to myself as an Angeleno. Seriously, go onto Facebook. It’s all right there on my Timeline.
But it was after a lunch of Chinese food in San Gabriel that I discovered my mission. My wife, Wendy, and I drove past a small beige sign that boasted city with a mission. At first I thought it was another one of those unfortunate mottoes dreamed up by a planning committee, until we stumbled upon the Moorish-style adobe for which the city and valley were named. Constructed in 1771, the San Gabriel Mission is one of the oldest in California’s so-called Mission Ladder, a chain of religious outposts built to extend Spain’s reach into the New World and convert natives into tax-paying Christian subjects. (OK, that part isn’t so cool.) Mass has been performed there every day since it was founded. Smell the incense.
As the faint sounds of a recorded service filtered into the courtyard, I felt—finally!—as if I’d stepped back into another century. I wanted to share my historical revelations with anyone who wasn’t aware of our rich past. (I learned later that every fourth grader in L.A. has to do a mission report, but the material was all new to me.) I needed to confront the masses with my knowledge about the Masses—but how? Then I stopped in front of a sealed glass case with a Franciscan friar’s habit, sandals, rope belt, and walking staff. I knew what I had to do.
/ / / /
It’s a cool Saturday morning outside of the San Gabriel Mission, and I’m wearing an “Adult Monk Costume” I bought online and a pair of beat-up Velcro sandals from Rockport, clutching a green aluminum Coleman walking stick I purchased at Sports Authority. The night before, my barber, Loreta, carved a hideous “Friar Chuck” bald spot on top of my head, revealing a pasty crown of skin that had never seen daylight. Ever. I also have a sheaf of DIY pamphlets on L.A. history that I will hand out to anyone I encounter on my 26.8-mile journey.
Yes, that’s right: 26.8 miles. You see, a couple hundred years ago, the friars trekked between missions, in this case from San Gabriel to San Fernando, when the area was scrubland and the L.A. River flowed sans cement. Their path was the Camino Real, or King’s Highway, which is now a good chunk of the 101 freeway. Since that would mean certain death for me, my route starts on the sinewy sidewalk outside the San Gabriel Mission and leads past the affluent suburbs of San Marino, through the tree-lined streets of South Pasadena, down smog-choked Colorado Boulevard, around the corporate office towers of Glendale, and up the broad, boring stretch of Glenoaks. There is no donkey to lug gear or fellow padres to protect me from hostile natives, as the friars probably had, but I have enlisted a few Sherpa-like friends working in rotating five-mile shifts to carry my backpack filled with energy bars, water, a cell phone, ibuprofen, blister cream, muffins, freshly baked bread, and hiking shoes. (The sandals will start giving me blisters around mile six.)
The first potential convert I spot is a yuppieish fortysomething in San Marino. He holds a cup of coffee in one hand and an L.A. Times in the other. I clear my throat and proffer a flyer, but he raises his hand and walks away. I feel dejected but shrug it off. After all, his hands were full. Next a blond speed-walker races toward me, her arms by her sides like wings.
“Greetings, would you like a fl—?” I ask.
“No! No!” she says, flapping away.
Around that time a car passes by and the driver crosses herself. Another woman walks by me and mutters, “God bless you.”
I catch a glimpse of myself in a Lilly Pulitzer storefront and realize, I may have seriously miscalculated. People think I’m a Hare Krishna or a total freak. They think this is for real—and it’s not working. So I change my approach. When I hit Eagle Rock, I spy some glassy-eyed hipsters coming off an all-night trip. I greet them with 21st century irreverence. “Whoo-hoo!” I holler, dancing up to them and announcing my wacky reenactment. They dig it and gleefully caress my bald spot. From then on I take the experiment in stride. It starts to become fun. Then it becomes painful.
Nine hours and 19 miles in, my feet, legs, back, and mental faculties surrender. I read somewhere that Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions, owned exactly one worldly possession: a collapsible bed he took with him on these treks. Have to say I can’t blame him. I stop along the sidewalk behind the Burbank airport and, bent over in agony, I hear a puttering sound. Jay Leno cruises past me in one of his antique cars. If I possess the energy, I can reach out and poke him with my stick. But I don’t.
Through my haze I realize we are both lovers of the past, Leno and I, in the middle of our own historical reenactment. Only Jay’s includes sporting a denim work shirt and steering an open-air, steam-powered car, and I’m a sunburned phony friar trapped inside a smelly brown robe. He gives me a bemused look, which I choose to take as a sign from the comedy gods: It is time to call it quits. I wearily tap out my wife’s cell phone number and moan something about picking me up. Fifteen minutes later she and I are reunited, and I give her a big hug. I imagine it probably looks creepy—a friar locked in a long, romantic embrace with a woman—but I don’t care. My arms and legs have cramped up, and I can’t let go.
Did my efforts persuade anyone to Google pobladores when they got home that day? Probably not, but I limped away with a stronger connection to L.A. (and a final chapter for my book). Even now from the 18th floor of my new apartment in Hong Kong, I’m reminded of what Alta California governor Pio Pico once said: “The more you know about a place you live, the more you care about it.” OK, it was actually my friend Krissy who said that, but it’s true. In a town where people make a living out of making up stories, the most important tales are the real ones waiting to be discovered.
Charlie Schroeder is the author of Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment.