It’s quiet there. Almost like you’re off the grid for the moment. The water trickles down below the concrete angles and every once in a while, a bike whizzes past, like a bee buzzing by your ear. The tranquility and secluded nature draw the homeless in looking for real estate. Their tents pop up and rest in the shade, underneath the bridges where cars continue on to their destinations. This other reality travels through numerous cities, like a spinal cord stretching from the San Gabriel Mountains to the shores of Seal Beach. Mother ducks and her chicks find refuge and safe passage through the waters. Teenage misfits throttle their dirt bikes and four-wheelers along the banks, testing the limits of a wheelie. Elderly men fly kites high in the blue sky and Mormon’s quickly transport themselves to new, unreached territories.
Then there’s me, riding my bike along the asphalt, breathing oxygen in and releasing everything else. I can’t keep up with the professional bikers in their revealing suits and space ship helmets. However, I stay consistent with my own peddling. This is where I find peace in the chaos of life. Surrounded by the world but simultaneously in a state of Zen. The San Gabriel River knows nothing else but peace and chaos.
In today’s world, the riverbed goes unnoticed. We drive over the bridges and don’t even spare a glance. Dirty homeless bums and ungodly amounts of waste, that’s the highest thought we can offer up. But before it was just hefty amounts of concrete and something to watch fill up on a rare rainy day, it served a purpose. One which used to be inevitably felt but is now like a hidden treasure.
Before myself, the homeless or the young misfit kids could find solace in a place like a concrete river, destruction was necessary. Chaos poured down the San Gabriel River, flooding and intruding on civilians living along the banks of the river. Before we had the opportunity to claim ignorance towards the riverbed, we had to first remember it and the damage which brought it into existence.
The San Gabriel River used to be free and flowed with no restrictions besides the ones Mother Nature has granted. The dirt banks were a safe haven for the Mission San Gabriel Archangel and a prime resource for those seeking materials such as gravel, sand and rock. As the San Gabriel Mountains deteriorated and crumbled from erosion, little gifts of sediment were left along the river. Los Angeles found itself to be quite the fan, considering the high amounts of concrete and asphalt they were in the process of beginning to lean on.
Along the river, others soon found release in the presence of the river of San Gabriel. For seven days a week and nine cents an hour, workers toiled and strained over harvest season. Refuge was found when sweat was soon washed away in the baptism of refreshment as workers splashed and played in the waters travelling down from the mountains above. In the middle of a natural chaos and eroding mountains, peace was found in the sediments; in the heat of the sun when demands were heavy laden and the value of work was cheapened, the river presented a place of relief. But soon another incident of chaos would find its way to the river’s banks.
As people flooded into the surrounding areas of the river, the waters followed suit. Heavy rainfall led waters to rise and houses to slide along with. Until enough rain led the people to make a change. Dam after dam, officials attempted to control the chaos of the river, until finally they tamed it with concrete and created the riverbed we know today. Then followed the construction of the San Gabriel Freeway in 1970 and immediately after that was when our genesis into our amnesia of the charity the river offered us.
However, there was one people group who still cherished the sanctity of the riverbed. The year of 2019 has found a 24% increase in homelessness in the San Gabriel Valley, an increase from 3,605 to 4,479. Now one does not need statistics, percentages or polls done by government volunteers or underpaid employees to know this. A simple drive over one of the riverbeds and you can see a tent or two finding their piece of solace for the day or night, possibly even week depending on the person. The riverbed has not been forgotten by the homeless because they still have a need for some peace in their chaos. The San Gabriel River has had its share of chaos but it has also consistently proven itself to be faithful as a safe haven for those looking for a moment of rest, which is why I find myself among the nomads in their tents.
I peddle and switch gears to accommodate the dips underneath the bridges where cars drive by oblivious to the restoration occurring. I breathe in sequence with my leg movements and think about how the river has changed over the years. The destruction it has seen and the calm it has given to many. While it may be forgotten today, I ride along the asphalt topped pathway towards the banks that are made of sand and not concrete. I see the fishermen casting their lines and hoping for a nibble, an abandoned toy car with graffiti tags on the back of the seat and a seagull soaring above the growing water levels. Little pieces of writing material like sediment, littered along the river for me to grab and use as my resources. I think of the 40-hour work week that begins again Monday, the 18-day old newborn I left swaddled in his pee stained blanket and the homework which is due at the midnight hour. The stress washes away like filth as the breeze of the river’s breath washes over me and bestows tranquility upon me. A homeless man waves to me and it feels like I might have found a home for my anxiety. The San Gabriel River, the 58-mile-long spine of the city, where chaos and peace’s lips meet.
Medina, Daniel. “The Other River That Defined L.A.: The San Gabriel River in the 20th Century.” KCET, 1 Mar. 2017, www.kcet.org/shows/departures/the-other-river-that-defined-la-the-san-gabriel-river-in-the-20th-century.
Yee, Christopher. “Homelessness up 24% in San Gabriel Valley, Twice the Rate across LA County.” San Gabriel Valley Tribune, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, 5 June 2019, www.sgvtribune.com/2019/06/04/homelessness-up-24-in-san-gabriel-valley-twice-the-rate-across-la-county/.