There are zero cars on Wilshire Boulevard today. Between Johnie’s Coffee Shop at Fairfax and the end of the road Downtown, the normally swarming thoroughfare lacks in automobiles entirely. It is 2014, Los Angeles, and this never happens.
But this is not the apocalypse. In fact, Wilshire is more crowded than I’ve ever seen it. In place of the beamers and hybrids whirring hostilely by the thousands, the street is ridden, sidewalk-to-sidewalk, with bicycles. A stampede of two-wheelers, manned by cyclists of all sorts. Families in five-packs on mountain bikes; UCLA kids on pastel beach cruisers; silver-haired women on single speeds, pedaling puppies in wicker sidecars. I’m on a black Dutch style with a basket in front. Purchased three months ago, after my move from New York to LA. It’s been virtually unused since, and we’ve been itching for a spin.
This is a special occasion. A city-sponsored event. Twice a year, Wilshire shuts down for the day, so the community can ride in the street. The image is a romantic one—two-wheeled Angelenos whirling down Wilshire. Not commuting, just riding. Compelled to acknowledge one another’s humanity without their cars to hide behind.
I am currently focused on my quads—on grinding them into my eastward climb up the hill towards MacArthur Park. I know a downward cruise is imminent, no more than a quarter-mile away, and I am looking forward to the reward. I take a powerful inhale and heave past a pair of teen punkers on blue BMXs. I love how it feels to pass people. I’m small and slow, so it’s not a common thing, but when it happens, I relish it.
“Power surge!” I hear Ben cheer from behind. I beam and toss a fist up in the air in acknowledgement, pedaling even faster. We both know I’m not riding objectively fast, but his enthusiasm is genuine. He’s proud of me. “Power surge!”
The crowd thins as we near the top. At last, I feel the apex, see the slope before us, and my stomach flutters in anticipation. Then, the descent. The wind-through-the-hair, hands-outstretched, lips-flapping-through-the-air descent. It lasts about eight seconds. I soar.
Ben and I catch each other at the bottom of the hill, smiling widely as we decelerate. Breathless, I start to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he asks.
“It’s just crazy,” I grin, reaching for my Vitamin water. “If you had told me three months ago that I’d be running a 5K race one day and biking eight miles the next, I would have had you committed.”
Ben throws his flaxen head back, releasing a rosy-cheeked “HA!” into the sky.
It’s true. I never planned any of this. But the week after my move from New York, my black boots were replaced with flip-flops. My hair was highlighted blonde. “Fro-yo” and “quinoa” became a part of both my diet and vocabulary. And most shockingly, I’d acquired a bicycle, a collection of high-priced workout clothes and a jogging regimen. As Ben trained for the LA Marathon, I trained for daily life as a Southern Californian.
In New York, I did not exercise. Like a good intellectual, I stayed inside. Drank cheap red wine by the window, a David Foster Wallace publication in hand. I had a few friends who worked out, but they kept that business inside too. Tucked away in gyms that looked more like clothing boutiques or cocktail bars from the outside. In New York, my workout consisted of walking to the L train in stilettos. I considered brunching on the patio “outdoorsy.”
But here I am, in the midst of a sunsoaked bike ride, a proven runner—loving it—and all the while thinking, who have I become?
It’s disorienting when you realize the qualities you’ve been faking all along have become your actual qualities. When the constant repetition of how you “live to hike” and experience “insatiable green juice cravings” becomes more than just talk. You tell a lie enough, and it starts to become real. Wasn’t it George Orwell who said, “I wear a mask, and my face grows to fit it?” I don’t know. All I read are fitness blogs now. And after all, it’s just a little green juice.
And yet, it isn’t. The green juice stands for something. An identity. A set of characteristics that seem innate to everyone else in Los Angeles, but that took a little more effort for me. Because, I moved to LA for love. And when a young, forward-thinking woman at the beginning of her life does such a thing, she has to dig a little to justify her choice. No 21st Century female wants to have changed her life for a boyfriend. I spent months convincing myself that the move as much for “me” as it was for “us.” That I’d always been a California girl at heart.
LA people hike, I reasoned. I walked almost a mile to the L train everyday, so I’ve really been a hiker for years. And where better a place for a lifelong vegetarian? I’ve always loved avocados.
“We’re more about kale now,” my native friend Megan informed me with a smirk, as we placed orders at Urth Caffé on Melrose. “Avocados are so last year.”
In New York, I knew all these nuances. What was in and out of style. Mason jar cocktails at The Commodore in Williamsburg? So 2013. Craft beers at Singlecut Brewery in Astoria? So now.
It’s not that New York was a superior city or even that I liked it better; it’s simply that I knew the place, and I knew myself in it. I liked who New York made me. The Brooklyn barfly. The pale-faced smartass. The girl who came on her own volition. But in California, I stood alone on the shore. Looking out onto the vast unknowable ocean of what it means to be an Angeleno, afraid of having no identity but “East Coast girl who moved for love.”
So what did I do? I dyed my hair, to start. Not the deepest move, but an understandable one. Changing one’s hair is a classic symbol of rebellion against the self. Blue after a breakup, jet-black during college. I dropped a cool $300 to go full-Farrah Fawcett blonde a week after settling in Los Angeles. The dye job started ironically. The same way you’d wear a fanny pack to Disneyland: with self-awareness. With humor. With the hope that people would see the blonde locks, then see the snarky brunette underneath and appreciate that my hair was more a comment on being blonde than actually being blonde. But three sessions in with my cheerful Santa Monica colorist, and I couldn’t see myself donning any other shade. I found myself becoming (and I shudder) bubbly, just to match the new hue.
A similar thing happened with exercise. It began with me gushing to my new friends and coworkers, a fraudulent glee smeared across my face, that I’d started running.
“Honestly, I’m loving it,” I’d lie. But two weeks passed, then four, then eight, and before I knew it, I was swapping running playlists with Ben and picking up my number for the Annual Hollywood 5K. They give a medal to everyone who finishes, but I hung mine up in my office, high and proud, like a Harvard degree.
And truth be told, it wasn’t even fake. It never was. Because, I learned something. Every city has a reputation, and some of the stereotypes are even true, but the idea of a place is undeniably different than the everyday experience of it. I’ll admit, I preferred the idea of New York. In theory, wearing all black and burying my nose in Wallace Stevens poetry suited me better than gossiping about celebrities and busting my ass to look hot in a bikini. But New York isn’t really that romantic and LA isn’t really that shallow, and in truth, dyeing my hair a vibrant color and pushing my body to run a race made me feel stronger and more independent than walking fast down 3rd Avenue and finishing a book that I didn’t even like to begin with ever did.
So here we are again. Back on Wilshire Blvd. Cruising toward Downtown Los Angeles. And as I glide in the sun, next to my beautiful man, on a Dutch bicycle with a basket in front, I think, yeah, this feels like me.
Photos of Amanda by Ben McCambridge