Why I’m up here on top of Dante’s Peak is a bit of a mystery to me. I mean I know why I wanted to hike all the way up here early New Year’s morning, I’m just not so sure why I insist on subscribing to the idea of, “Well it beats sitting at home doing nothing.” Does it? And that’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know the answer to that question, “Does it beat sitting at home?”
Robyn, a yoga instructor and dog owner who I occasionally run into on my morning hike through Griffith Park, is the one who told me about the annual celebration up at the peak. Though admittedly she had never ever gone before, she only heard about it through someone else, who had also never gone before either. It just sounded like a good idea to them. And so it goes in Los Angeles.
I wanted to do something different to ring in the New Year because, 1) As a New Yorker, I generally loathe New Years Eve, Times Square and parties. I’ve never kissed anyone at a New Years party before. Okay, once, with a live-in girlfriend over New Years in Canada, but that lacked any of the passion and sexy edginess that I always imagined it should have. That, “Oh the hell with it, I don’t even know your name, let’s just kiss,” type of abandon.
Instead it had all the hallmarks of, “Well we might as well kiss. We live together, right?” Which brings me to reason 2) I’m alone in Los Angeles…Lonely town USA. So, why not at least try something different. My alarm goes off, I’m up at 4:30 am, and it is incredibly dark out in the Hollywood Hills. And it’s cold out. Not Canada cold, or even Chicago lake effect cold, but it is California cold. I’ve lived in many different cities in North America and on some level or another I was equally cold in all of them. I’m in LA with only a bag of clothing, because I don’t know how long I intend to stay here, so I’m not very well prepared for the cold. I’m wearing a medium weight jacket and long johns under my jeans.
“This just may suck a little,” I think to myself.
And I jump in my car and drive off.
But I soon forget about the cold because I’m excited by the deep dark pitch-black night, and the lack of traffic on the road. It’s so quiet I roll down my windows just so I can hear the gravel on the road crunch underneath my tires. It’s all a bit eerie as I drive up to the entrance of Griffith Park, that I have previously Googled mapped the hell out of the night before so that I wouldn’t get lost on my way up to the observatory. There I will park and begin my trek, up to Dante’s Peak, where I’m told some Korean people will be celebrating with some traditional music at sunrise. I’m imaging a quiet, introspective celebration, people in flowing robes, with some burning incense, a gong, some bells echoing across the valley, a flute, maybe followed by some big tribal Kodo style drumming. The vibrations lifting trail dust up from underneath my feet.
First thing I see is this wolf size coyote dart across the road just ahead of me as I turn in to the entrance of the park, racing across the median of Los Feliz Blvd. I’m giddy and grinning from ear to ear.
“This is going to be awesome!”
And then I calm myself down, “Shhhhh, okay be cool Grady.”
“But that was awesome!”
“Shhhhhh, yes wildlife is awesome. It is. Just try and keep it together.”
In a matter of seconds I’m completely lost. There is a set of orange construction cones in the road, redirecting me up a completely different path, eventually leading to a roadblock. A dead-end. So now I have to pull a u-turn and I see now that there is a small fleet of cars following me, like ten cars. All of us now in a single file, low speed chase, pulling the same sad awkward u-turn. My headlights light up everyone’s confused, slightly annoyed faces. And they all have this look of, “Where are you taking us?” And I’m like, “No, no, don’t follow me. This is not my town. I’ve never driven up here before. I don’t know where the f**k I’m going.” Yet somehow I’ve been relegated to the position of pace car.
Worst first Indy lap of the year ever.
We wind around like some giant Celtic mythological snake chasing it’s own tail. Is it the year of the snake? No, rabbit I think. I really want to be following someone else right now, someone who knows the way.
And now I can’t get the last shot of Field of Dreams, out of my head. Only in this case the cars never actually make it to the ballpark.
“If you build it…and make sure to leave very clear directions on how to get there…with some very well lit signs…a sign post or two…maybe even a few cairns of stones…they will come.”
Luckily another car now appears on the main road and I quickly elect him “supreme leader”, and follow on his tail and up the correct road and through…a tunnel.
“A tunnel! I didn’t see this on the Google maps! Holy shit a tunnel…this is sooooo awesome!!!”
“Shhhhhhh be cool Grady. Yes tunnels are awesome, but it’s just a tunnel.”
And we continue climbing up, up, up, towards Griffith Observatory. Multitudes of cars line the roadside and extend all the way up to where I imagine the observatory parking lot to be. So I find a space along the side of the road and park. And then most of the other cars follow suit and park directly behind me. Though a few drive past us. I would think that observing all of us parking below would be evidence enough that the lot was full, but that’s magical thinking in LA for you.
I get out and begin walking uphill, joining the throngs of people making their way up to the top of Dante’s Peak. Did I mention already that’s it’s dark? It’s a new moon, so no moon. That kind of dark. The city is glowing below us, like in all those films where the lovers go to make out. Now I’m reminded once again that I’m single and now I hate the Korean version of New Years too. Even though this isn’t the actual day of the Korean New Year. They follow the Chinese calendar. True dat. So, sometime in February I guess. Now everyone I notice is either carrying flashlights or wearing headlamps.
Crap, I didn’t even think about that. I will admit that more often than not, I’m like a pathetic Jack London character just waiting to be eaten alive by nature. Sometimes I really have no business being out anywhere in the elements, ever.
So I follow closely, the hoards, as they begin to thin out along the steep trail, up into the dark hillside. And because I’ve got my New York street walking pace on, I’m quickly passing all these families, and couples, locked hand in hand, arm in arm. I easily hoof it past them all, making my way from one glowing pool of light on the trail to the next. And I’m breathing very rhythmically, in and out, in and out. And with each step and it naturally falls in line with the song that is now running through my head, Billy Jean. And I wonder which came first, the rhythmic breathing of my body or the song in my head? Which came first? Who influenced who? As I continue to step through the dark and into the light.
Now I’m excited again, thinking about the ceremony and how cool and unique this New Years celebration is going to be. The people range the very young to the very old, and they are a couple hundred strong by the time I reach the top. And they are all Korean. I’m one of maybe two or three white people up here. I see another pale skinny guy like myself, and a woman. Which I thought might be the case, but I mean really? C’mon, no one else?
I’m suddenly reminded of the one time I went to the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City. Me coloco solamente. Everyone around me is being really loud and obnoxious. They are shouting to each other and on their phones, laughing, screaming, stumbling around drunk, taking pictures, playing loud music from their iPhones. So it’s true there are asshole Americans in every culture. Who knew?
And here’s the thing I’ve just now realized. Actual sunrise isn’t until 7:30am. I’m already up here by 5:30am. And it’s really cold and super windy. The sky is light for a really long time before the sun actually peaks over the horizon. I’m so dumb. I could have gotten here at 7am, parked, powered it up the hill Billy Jean style and been much less cold and less irritated by everyone up here.
The musicians finally arrive in ceremonial dress. Brilliant colors of orange and yellow, and with drums and string instruments just like I imagined. They gather in a circle. It looks very promising. And then they start playing. It’s awful, really awful. Nothing magical about it at all, just some weak tones completely lost in the rush of the wind. I once again have chosen the wrong party to attend.
After being nudged a little too close to the edge of the cliff by a few drunken Korean kids horsing around, I decide to leave this party and move to a quieter space.
Just as I start to leave, I see this earthy, yoga type woman pushing her way thru the crowd and back down the hill to a little isolated precipice. So I follow.
She is standing in some sagebrush over looking the canyons on the edge of a cliff. This, I think to myself, would be a nice end to the year, meeting someone new. Maybe share a little moment together as the new day arrives, just a brief connection. Who knows, right? So I casually make my way towards her but careful not to get too close and invade her space. I will make some small conversation with her, about the cold, the dark.
“I saw a coyote this morning…that was pretty awesome,” I will say.
She looks up directly at me as I approach and immediately turns and moves to another area and away from me. Fine. Jeez. Never mind then.
So here I stand once again, by myself, my feet firmly planted in the sagebrush, right on the edge of a 60 foot drop, facing the horizon, occasionally looking up, watching it get a little bit brighter and a wee bit lighter. Hands in my pockets cold, knees shaking, tears in my eyes from squinting because of the wind raking my face numb. I think that probably from a distance, it might appear as though I’m peeing into the bushes. And then it happens so quickly I almost miss it. That one single microcosmic moment when the sun just peaks over the horizon and it’s like the scene in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, when the Mothership opens it’s main hatch and lights everyone up on top of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. I watch the line of sunlight climbing up my body, and I can feel it warming me, so I quickly unzip my jacket, take a deep breath, just as it reaches up my neck and around my face. And I close my eyes as the sunlight kisses my chapped lips.
“Oh man where is that earthy yoga chick? Dammit.”
Then I hear this collective gasp and awe, coming from up the hill, as everyone bursts into applause for the first sunrise of the New Year.
And after another minute, it’s done. It’s here, the New Year. That has now turned into a regular day, just another day in Los Angeles, hard to differentiate from any other. I linger for a moment longer and then slowly tramp the dirt down back to my car. But not without making one last wrong turn on the trail and somehow I wind up having to walk back up the road I came in on to get to my car. Don’t ask. But as I’m walking I ask myself the same question I do every year, “Was that the best way to celebrate? Was that ceremony? Did I honor the old and ring in the new?”
Well at the very least, from where I was standing on the peak, it was the only celebration of it’s kind.
View of Death Valley from Dante’s Peak via Shutterstock
John Grady is an actor and a writer from New York City. LA Weekly listed his award winning one man show Fear Factor: Canine Edition as one of the top theatrical performances of 2011. John performs live storytelling with the Moth Mainstage in New York City. His stories have aired on NPR, CBC Radio, and KCRW. Follow him on Facebook or at www.thejohngrady.com. Cereal rules his life.