Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Stargazing in Hollywood

I have long intended to start a blog dedicated to reviews of planetariums and observatories. It would be even more niche than markontour’s usual output, so perhaps it’s just as well it never happened. But if I were ever to start Stargazersontour, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, which I visited this weekend, would have to be the first entry.

Located on a southern slope of Mount Hollywood, the observatory was gifted to the city by a nineteenth century mining magnate born of parents who lacked imagination in the naming department – I give you Griffith J. Griffith. Despite this early handicap, Griffith grew up to be enormously rich and, more importantly, came to believe that “if all mankind could look through a telescope it would change the world”. Putting two and two together he bequeathed to Los Angeles an observatory and park to put it in.

Much like the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in London, it was once possible to conduct serious astronomical science from the Griffith Observatory. An inversion effect caused by cool sea air meeting warmer air above as it blows inland and being held in place by the mountains means that the atmosphere above the park is particularly clear*. The light pollution alone must make proper research impossible these days, but it is still fantastic that for the price of a few minutes queueing you can enjoy a look through a proper observatory-sized telescope until 9pm each night.

Moreover, the views from atop the mountain are astounding even in daylight – Los Angeles sprawled out in all its glory to the south, with the Hollywood sign as a northern backdrop. It’s worth the visit just for those images imprinted on your memory.

From these heights it is abundantly clear that Los Angeles is the city of the automobile, and yet I was easily able to make it to the observatory by public transport, via metro and an electric bus service on the way there and, after gliding noiselessly in the bus past the drivers struggling back down the hill to their tank-sized automobiles, for the remainder of the return journey I pedalled a city hire bike back downtown.

This is all part of a huge push by Los Angeles’s climate-action mayor, Eric Garcetti, and it is going to get better for mass transit (public transport) users, cyclists and pedestrians, as the mayor is investing heavily in new rail and cycle lanes, along with bringing in bus priority lanes and even a pilot congestion charge.

But back to the observatory. On my first trip here I enjoyed a cracking, if hyperbolic, planetarium show. This time, without someone to whisk me past the very long queues, I focused on the exhibits. To be honest, it was a bit too packed to properly enjoy, but for some reason the crowds thinned out near the arrestingly beautiful ‘Cosmic Connection’. Designed by Kara Knack from her collection of celestial jewellery, I didn’t manage to read the blurb, but as far as markontour is concerned she had fashioned a ribbon of Milky Way from jewels, twisting its way up from the terrace cafe.

At the end of the Cosmic Connection I pauseds at the replica of the Aztec Calendar Stone, depicting that astounding indigenous American society’s understanding of time and space in twenty signs and thirteen numbers. The original is twelve feet wide and three feet thick, but I doubt it has the colour of this uplifting artistic interpretation.

From here I wandered up to the stunning entrance lobby and the Foucault pendulum. OMG! A 240-pound (“heavy” in European numbers) brass contraption that, once push-started, would swing continuously for infinity unless physically constrained, and always in the same direction, courtesy of a ring magnet in the ceiling. And yet visitors willing to watch awhile will see the pendulum knock down a series of mini-skittles arranged around the circumference, one every ten minutes to be precise, suggesting that the pendulum is most definitely changing trajectory. The explanation? The pendulum’s swing stays constant, but the Earth rotates. Brilliant. I read the plaque and then spent a happy twenty minutes explaining it to each new arrival until an actual tour guide displaced me..

There’s a ton more to enjoy in the Observatory, but on a fine day (and are there any other sort in LA?), you have to head off for a ramble in the Hollywood Hills.

I believe what I was doing from this point on is called “hiking” hereabouts. In Britain hiking requires boots with cleated soles to navigate muddy sheep tracks, and involves spending a good part of your day getting lost searching for ‘rights of way’ that are clearly marked on the map, but don’t exist in reality or would take you nonchalantly off a cliff edge (many of our rights of way were added to Ordnance Survey maps by well meaning, but desk-bound cartographers utilising information from centuries old land deeds). In LA, the solid, dry paths are extremely well-marked and if you did somehow get disoriented you would need only to open your eyes or follow the sound of voices to get back on track.

That’s not to say that there isn’t tranquility to be found in Griffith Park. Markontour was largely alone to traverse the northern trail peak and then, rejoining the crowds, still enjoyed half an hour’s hushed silence at the top of Mount Lee, looking down on to the iconic Hollywood letters. I wasn’t expecting this most famous of summits to be just a scrubby mound with a few old planks and breeze blocks for makeshift seats, but it was all the better for it.

Looking down from Mount Lee, the Hollywood reservoir shimmered in the sunlight to the south west, while the tree-hidden mansions of the Hollywood hills spread down the mountain towards the towers of downtown Los Angeles. If I hadn’t run out of water and food at this point I could have stayed all afternoon (the downside of being proven wrong about the inevitability of burger and ice-cream vans at the peak).

As it was, I decided it would be best to run back – a decision that paid dividends despite strained glutes, because I returned before the cafe had run out of food and still had daylight time for a quick visit to Echo Park. But that is for another blog.

* Los Angeles’ erudite mayor, Eric Garcetti, explained this to me properly today and I can only apologise for mangling the science here..

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