Photo: Dusk in downtown Los Angeles

Palm trees mix with skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow

By Andrew McCarthy

From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

A meander down memory lane reignites the excitement, euphoria—and ambivalence—that only Tinseltown can inspire.

"Careful,” the woman climbing beside me warns.

“There are scorpions and snakes in here.”

“Of course,” I mutter to myself, “this is L.A.” The steep terrain we’re on is uneven and cracked; the scrub sunburned. My hands search for purchase. A hawk circles overhead.

We’re high above Los Angeles, scrambling up Mount Lee on our way to view the famed Hollywood sign, that bold symbol of this industry town.

I’ve always had a bit of a New Yorker’s snobbery about Los Angeles. In New York, my thinking has gone, you are defined by your accomplishments; in L.A., your identity is more elusive.

Dreams, it’s always seemed to me, are what make L.A. buzz. The very initials, L-A, have become synonymous with glamour and image, sunglasses and success. But dreams, as we know, can prove ephemeral—and they invite shattering. Out here, they also can come true.

They did for me in 1983, when, as a young actor, I traveled west in preparation for my first movie, Class. Put up at the legendary Hollywood haunt Chateau Marmont, my head swam. (That my room was next to the bungalow where John Belushi overdosed just a few months earlier only added to the mystique.) I’ve always said that, for an actor, there is no more intoxicating place to be when you’re “hot” than L.A. It’s a town where you really feel your success—or lack of it. I will never forget the time I was driven to a screen test in a stretch limousine and, after bombing the audition, had to take a bus back to the hotel.

Still, no matter how much I’ve tried to be cynical and dismissive about Los Angeles over the years, the place always draws me back—luring me in, seducing me, and getting me dreaming again. Like a man with a lover he can’t quit, I return time and again.

So I’m out here once more, trying to reconcile the many visions that Tinseltown promises with ghosts of my past, ghosts that seem to track me wherever I go here in the land of perpetual sun.

It seems fitting to begin at the site of L.A.’s most brazen symbol of dreams and aspirations. Known the world over, the Hollywood sign was erected in 1923 as a billboard by real-estate developer (and newspaper magnate) Harry Chandler, who was trying to sell a parched, rocky plot he dubbed Hollywoodland. At some point in the 1940s the “land” part of the sign was removed while the sign was being repaired—and the rest is history.

“It’s nice when you’re here pursuing your dreams to look up and see it,” Diana Wright, an L.A. native, says as we do just that. Silly though that may sound, she’s right. I’ve never caught a glimpse of the sign and not felt in some way energized by its mere presence.

“There are very few things that manage to bring L.A. together; the Hollywood sign is one of them,” she goes on. Wright works for the publicity firm that represents the sign and has given me access to an area usually off-limits. As with any familiar L.A. celebrity, image is everything. (The sign can be tracked on Twitter, followed on Facebook, and visited 24/7 on its very own website, where video cameras stream shots of it in all variations of the unflaggingly sunny weather.)

From this height, L.A. sprawls expansively below. I make out the dome of the Griffith Observatory on a hilltop to the east. It was here that James Dean gained screen immortality during a knife fight scene that included a young Dennis Hopper in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. And it was here, on my first trip to L.A., that I sat one night drinking beer on the hood of my unemployed actor-friend’s car while looking out over the twinkling lights of the vast cityscape. I still remember his vow, a promise I dared not even dream of making (and about which I have always retained a deep ambivalence): “Everyone in those houses,” he said, “is gonna know my name.” Directly in front of me, off through the haze, the unlikely urban jumble of downtown rises. To the west, beyond the towers of Century City, lie Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean.

Up close the sign is huge, each corrugated-steel letter 45 feet tall and held with iron supports. It seems indestructible. Yet if an unlikely patron saint hadn’t come twice to the sign’s financial rescue, this hillside might easily have become part of a housing development.

Sitting back on a leather couch in the dimly lit library of his Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, that unlikely advocate explains to me his reasons. “It’s our Eiffel Tower. In truth, it’s more. The Hollywood sign represents dreams the rest of the world comes to us for. It’s not political; it’s pure American Dream. Pure Los Angeles.” Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner pauses, still dapper in red silk pajamas at 84.

“When I came out here from Chicago, spiritually, I came home. I was a dreamer and a romantic,” he says, shrugging. “There was only one place for me.” I nod and, glancing out the lead-glass window over his shoulder, spot a fan-tailed peacock strutting across the manicured lawn.

“It’s Shangri-la,” Hefner continues—and suddenly I’m not sure if it’s Los Angeles he’s talking about, or the hilltop fiefdom that this self-made American dreamer has created for himself.

Hefner’s commitment to his version of the L.A. dream is unyielding, but there are facets of the town that are changing, fast.

“In the ten years that I’ve been here, it’s become a new place,” consultant and Texas native Wendy Smith tells me from across the table at The Tasting Kitchen, a popular eatery in one of L.A.’s hipper neighborhoods, along Abbot Kinney Boulevard in oceanside Venice. Not that long ago, I recall, nearby street gangs had made this a dodgy area; now I need to make my way around svelte moms with yoga mats rushing to class.

“Entertainment still drives this town,” Smith continues, “though for people who live in L.A. it’s more about perception. The fashion community is thriving, and design, and finance. There are enclaves of genius here. And a very real art scene has just exploded.”

That art scene is one of the main forces transforming a downtown area I’ve associated with all-night shoots requiring scenes of urban blight into what is now, arguably, L.A.’s trendiest neighborhood. “Living downtown is like living in a Rolodex of artists,” multimedia artist Andre Miripolsky tells me. “The dream, the Holy Grail, is to make downtown a vital urban core. In the past few years it’s been the shining light of L.A. Everything else has been struggling, but downtown is holding.” Miripolsky, with his bald pate and thick glasses, is like his art—vibrant, buoyant, and joyful. For 15 years he has lived and worked in a studio loft space in a converted brewery, recasting a place I remember as filled with lost nights and shady characters into an oasis of possibility—a path that many fellow artists have followed.

I eventually get myself sorted out in the chaos of cloverleaf exit ramps for several converging freeways downtown and point myself west, toward the Pacific. Los Angeles’s traffic is notorious, and yet I’ve always found something exhilarating about driving here. Maybe it’s the American notion that “there’s nothing that a hundred bucks and a full tank of gas won’t fix.” Whenever I fire up my engine, it feels like possibility is waiting just around the corner. Anything may happen.

Chasing the sun on the Santa Monica Freeway with the top down and radio on, I’m suddenly reminded of the car accident I had along this road. Everywhere I turn in L.A., another ghost of my past presents itself for a reckoning. If I were a local, most of these memories would have faded into my everyday life. But I’ve been coming west intermittently (though regularly) over an extended period of years, so streets and buildings that would go unnoticed with daily familiarity to me resonate with meaning and significance.

I can’t visit the Beverly Hills Hotel without remembering drinks I had with an outsize Italian film producer. Whenever I pass a nondescript street off Olympic Boulevard I recall the pyramid scheme I got suckered into by someone I trusted. The sight of an old restaurant on Sunset Boulevard inevitably brings to mind the director who terrorized me in my youth. Otherwise benign landmarks chart the passing of time, the accumulation of a life lived. They either threaten to bury me under their collective weight or add up to not just knowledge of a place, but a relationship, a connection that in some way needs to be, if not honored, at least accepted.

Not all of my memories of Los Angeles are fraught, of course. Most are fond recollections of events and places that tie me, in some small way, to the legacy of Hollywood history. Among these is one of my favorite Los Angeles institutions, a place that has been luring patrons to the heart of Hollywood since 1919 and that I always head for to get my L.A. bearings. Step over the stars of John Barrymore and Gene Autry on Hollywood Boulevard and enter into the world of Musso & Frank Grill—the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. Here, red-tuxedoed waiters bearing trays of lunchtime martinis and chops shuffle among red leather-padded booths along dark-paneled walls, just as they did for Charlie Chaplin, who dined here so often that he was given his own booth.

“They all came here,” lunchtime maître d’ Manuel Felix, a dapper gentleman in a gray suit with a Felix the Cat tiepin, tells me. “Susan Hayward—whoa!” he exclaims, shaking his hand as if he’s just touched a hot skillet.

I ask Mr. Felix how long he has been presiding over the tables at Musso & Frank’s. He fixes me with a stare. “Since before you existed.” Then he smiles. “But we’ve changed with the times. We’ve put in electric lights, an icebox, and air-conditioning. And the new room.”

“New room?” I look at him, confused. The place looks exactly as it did when I first walked in more than 25 years ago. Even the menu seems the same.

“The room in which you just ate—we added that room in 1955.”

As things change, it’s a stabilizing thought to know that Musso’s abides. I walk back out into the hard, midday light. The heat is rising off the cement in vapors. There’s not a breeze to be felt. I know where I need to go.

It wasn’t until the past half dozen years that I discovered what so many Angelenos always knew. Pass under the San Diego Freeway, and you glide over the invisible line into what the locals call the Westside. It was out here, close to the Pacific, where I finally found my comfort zone in this sprawling metropolis. I had been to Venice Beach before, and the Santa Monica Pier, and Malibu, but it wasn’t until I spent some time up in Santa Monica Canyon several years ago that the easy pleasures of the Westside penetrated my urban shell, and I began to see what many of my friends were passionate about.

“I know people who never go east of the 405 Freeway,” Genevieve Mow, a Santa Monica resident, assures me. I can understand why. The ocean breeze, the daily strolls on the beach, the smart restaurants, the neighborhood feel—this is the L.A. lifestyle.

Days pass with ease by the sea. Early one morning after taking a sunrise yoga class (L.A., baby!), I wander along Second Street in Santa Monica by the stalls and tables set up for the twice-weekly farmers market. I buy a freshly squeezed orange juice and watch some of America’s healthiest (and, dare I say, happiest-looking) people go about their business, buying organic greens and pausing for a chat with their neighbors. I stop to purchase some wheat-free bread, and the tanned girl serving me asks if I really need a bag. I make my way toward the sea a few blocks away and pass by the art deco Hotel Shangri-La. Memories of a wild night there long ago bring a smile. I cross over Ocean Avenue and amble into Palisades Park, a narrow strip of green peppered with fronded palm and eucalyptus trees. I have shot scenes for movies and television shows in this park. I have also stared out at the ocean here and questioned how long I still want to act.

I stand on the cliff high above the Pacific and look out on the endless ocean, as I’ve done so many times before. The Santa Monica Pier, with its Ferris wheel and roller coaster and arcade, is just off to my left. Two young, fit joggers glide past. I finish my juice, take a seat on a nearby bench, and settle into my long familiarity with the place. I tilt my face up to the sun.

Then, as if from far off, rolling slowly across the ocean, a thought begins to waft toward me. And I realize something that I suppose I’ve always known. No matter how much I may try to pretend otherwise, Los Angeles, and all that it represents to me, has played a large part in who I’ve become. What might have happened to me had a place like L.A. not existed? It’s the singular place where my wildest dreams have been shown a playground for possibility.

My mind drifts. As the California sun showers down, feelings of expansion, and hope, hover around me. Dreams of “What if?” and “Why not?” begin to take shape. Images of successes start to dance before me and foster more scenarios of opportunity. Sitting on this bench, on this morning, it all feels so attainable, so within reach. After all, this is L.A.: the dream factory.

Andrew McCarthy wrote about pearl diving in the South Pacific and Catherine Karnow photographed Transylvania for our October 2010 issue. Both are Traveler contributing editors.


Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities

2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

  • Picture of a volcano on Reunion Island

    Who Will Win?

    Browse photos of nature, cities, and people and share your favorite photos.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Get Social With Nat Geo Travel