Last week, Shea and I conducted a two-day workshop for employees of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) in Los Angeles. Before I go on, I have to thank Amy Lethbridge, MRCA’s deputy executive officer, whose idea it was for us to present the session, and Jamie Cabral, MRCA’s chief of interpretation, who went to great lengths to plan and implement a full and truly entertaining itinerary for those hours outside the session.
Amy and Jamie were extremely generous with their time and energy, so the next time you’re in Los Angeles, find them and give them a big hug. Amy even gave me a Dodgers hat to take home to my six-year-old son, and while I had to burn the hat because it says Dodgers on it, it was still a very nice gesture.
Jamie spent the better part of Wednesday showing us all the LA sites only tourists visit.
Neither Shea nor I had ever been to LA, so when Jamie picked us up at the airport the day before the session, our heads were filled with preconceptions but very little actual knowledge of the city. When Jamie asked us what we wanted to see, we said, “The stupidest, most brainless tourist stuff you can think of.” This is how we ended up eating at Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n’ Waffles in Hollywood at 10:00 that night.
Our time in Los Angeles (seen here from Vista Hermosa Natural Park, an MRCA site) was an interesting lesson in how our expectations of a place affect our experiences at that place. This is why it is important that brochures, websites, and other media portray an accurate sense of place and convey interpretive themes to visitors who have not yet arrived at a site. Nonpersonal interpretive media are often the first contact visitors have with a site, so they create expectations that will affect visitors’ experiences.
My image of Los Angeles was based almost exclusively on what I have seen in movies, so I knew that certain preconceptions wouldn’t hold up. We arrived to find that the city had not been destroyed by a volcano, climate-change-induced tornadoes, or alien overlords, so that was a good start to the day. And we found that places like Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier are indeed populated, at least in part, by attractive people on roller blades, so our good luck continued.
Seeing the famous Hollywood sign from the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard itself was a thrill simply because it is famous. However, the sensation was the exact opposite of what I have experienced at sites like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. I’ll never forget looking over the south rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time, in part because no photograph or preconception can ever prepare you for what you see in person. The Hollywood sign and Hollywood Boulevard, on the other hand, look precisely like what you think they’re going to look like, which is why the only people standing there taking pictures of it are tourists like Shea and me.
One of the highlights of the trip was being in the studio audience for a taping of the Jimmy Kimmel Live! TV show, which Jamie set up for us because, I reiterate, she is so cool. I had prepared myself for the fact that the studio would be smaller than it appears on TV. I had not prepared myself for the fact that it would be way, way smaller than it appears on TV. Because I had envisioned an experience much glitzier in a slightly bigger space, I left feeling a little underwhelmed about the whole notion of late-night TV.
Before the show, the audience was instructed on how and when to laugh and applaud during the show—something I knew would happen. Afterwards, I found myself wondering why people like me would go along with these instructions, only to be essentially treated as a prop by the one person they were there to see, in this case Jimmy Kimmel. For some reason, audience members do comply without hesitation, which is why I found myself cheering wildly for a musical guest named Chantelle, whom I had previously never heard of. I’m still not sure I’m spelling her name correctly. (Note added September 11, 2010: Turns out it’s spelled Shontelle. See the video of our horrible high five on YouTube.)
I also wondered afterwards why I enjoyed it so much, which I absolutely did. Is it the proximity to fame, glitz, and glamor? Maybe it was because one of the best jokes of the night related to graphic design. Kimmel, channeling my professors from graduate school, critiqued the cover of the new book Kardashian Konfidential like this: “I imagine this is what it would look like if a unicorn got drunk on cosmos and vomited on a book. It’s easy on the eyes.”
Every preconception I had about seeing a Dodgers game in person was accurate. The stadium is beautiful—a monument to the game. The weather was perfect, and the palm trees scattered around the stadium (though not on the actual field—that may have spiced things up a bit) reinforced the fact that we were in one of the nicest places there is to watch a game. Again, it was a thrill to actually be in a place I had previously only seen and heard about through various media.
And the fans, per their reputation, arrived late in the game and left early. During the game, they amused themselves by doing the wave and bopping beach balls around the stands, even during tense, important moments. All of this was in complete keeping with my expectations.
Finally, the workshop was conducted at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas, an MRCA site. I had an idea of what the setting would look like because I knew that the site is nestled among the same mountains where the TV show MASH was filmed. Fans of the show The Biggest Loser would perhaps recognize the setting, too, because it is filmed at the ranch.
As with any great experience, though, it was not the setting but the people who made the difference. The MRCA staff who participated in the workshop were a particularly engaging group, and they tolerated two days of our nonsense, which our wives will tell you is an impressive feat. Some workshop participants even took Shea birding over lunch.
Here we are at the King Gillette Ranch with Amy, who loves LA.
My experience in LA was indeed affected by my expectations. I was a bit let down by the glitz and glamor of Hollywood because, let’s face it, nothing can quite measure up to what is portrayed to the public. Other experiences exceeded my expectations—in part because my expectations were colored by friends telling me things like “It’s a big scary place” and “SO LONG, SUCKER!” The Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall (pictured here) and MRCA’s Vista Hermosa Natural Park in downtown Los Angeles were beautiful surprises, and seeing a game in Dodger Stadium was every bit the baseball experience I expected.
Ultimately, I left Los Angeles with highly positive associations, not because of Venice Beach or Jimmy Kimmel or even Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n’ Waffles, but because the time I spent there was with people like Amy, Jamie, and the MRCA staff, who see its beauty and are enthusiastic about sharing it with others.