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Thrill Ride

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THRILL RIDE: It's summer and time to take the kids someplace they'll never forget, a vacation they can remember with fondness far into the grim adulthood undoubtedly awaiting them.

Who knows how many of today's dreary careers in law, dentistry, investment banking and all those other white-shirt-and-tie whatnots are sustained and made bearable at odd moments during the grinding workaday by happy memories of childhood visits to the lake, the sea, or the pine-scented mountains?

And in the case of many former Tucson children, the list must surely include the most humongous, and alarming, amusement park on the face of the planet -- Los Angeles, California.

Most of us have approached Los Angeles by car at one time or another, and our family's recent visit was no exception.

We left the Baked Pueblo on a Thursday afternoon, headed north up Interstate 10 and zipped through Phoenix, no problema. The kids watched a video -- Men In Black -- and chatted on the phone with Grandma as we rolled effortlessly through that vast urban tumor metastasizing across the Arizona desert. Three-million-plus and growing, how very impressive.

But while Phoenix is breathtaking in its scope and audacity, and is often compared to Los Angeles these days, such comparisons are weak at best.

For all its growth potential, Phoenix lacks an essential ingredient present in the Los Angeles area, a quality central even to the personalities of many of Shakeytown's 18 million or so residents. (Eat your hearts out, Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.)

Los Angeles, you see, is a myth-making factory, the world's largest. And like chocolate once was to Hershey, Pa., mythos is to L.A.

Its citizens spend their days making it, processing it into many and varied permutations; they eat it and excrete it. The very air reeks of it.

And when they're not talking about movie stars or people making it rich in the new garment district, Angelenos seem to talk about how wild and weird their city is, like so many tireless quality-control Keebler elves constantly worrying over and tweaking the chief product of their vast mythmaking apparatus.

I confess that this thought -- a rather cheap, though colorful one readily available at any Wally-Mart of the mind in Greater L.A. -- hadn't occurred to me until after we'd visited the Universal Studios theme park and were back on the freeway, hunting for our next family-fun adventure.

We'd just dropped several hundred smackers to be splashed to the bone in an ill-conceived Jurassic Park ride complete with cheesy anamatronic rubber dinosaurs; we'd watched, spellbound, as stage actors and screen actors melded into a 3D nightmare world in the Terminator II exhibit, the ultimate media mix, by the way; we'd gotten a headache from all that bouncing around in the clever Back To The Future ride.

And suddenly there we were, hurtling down the 405 at 80 miles an hour, trying to keep up with -- and not be killed by -- all those hundreds of thousands of Angelenos who were merely out performing their mundane, workaday routines.

Much faster than any theme park fakery, truly dangerous, and with a high admission price (a well-running automobile), L.A.'s freeways are a science-fiction dream/nightmare come to life in our time.

Try riding backwards on an L.A freeway sometime -- in the jumpseat of an Angeleno friend's 4x4, if you dare. At dusk, as thousands of headlights are coming on, with all those potentially lethal vehicles incessantly advancing and retreating in a mad, ever-forward charge under a crazy tangerine sky. And in the opposite lanes, a vast Mississippi of machines, encapsulating who knows what weird L.A. lifeforms, flowing cherry red to the smoggy horizon.

In the million-year history of humanity, such a sight is surely bizarre beyond comprehension to all but those of us who've grown up with it.

And why does this awesome beast, this Los Angeles, exist at all?

Because some early filmmakers stumbled off the train in Flagstaff 90 years ago and found it too cold, so they moved on to Hollywood. Because the Okies fled the dustbowl in the 1930s, heading west to pursue their dreams in the rich California agricultural fields; just as the Mexican nationals, and indeed people from every country on earth, today come by the tens of thousands, month after month, to work and live in L.A.

Because mythmaking, ultimately, is humanity's most pervasive activity, our major industry. Because someone was -- and still is -- always telling someone else the story of a better life elsewhere and tomorrow. And in America's time that elsewhere and tomorrow has been Los Angeles.

For many, the myth became reality. Countless people have grown rich in Los Angeles. Millions more lead comfortable lives well beyond the simple expectations of their emigrant ancestors.

But myths can fade and go out of fashion, too. A few summers ago we made the obligatory family pilgrimage to Disneyland. Wandering through Tomorrowland, even the kids were struck by the sadly shopworn nature of that 1950s version of the future.

Many Angelenos today seem to feel the same about their parents' or grandparents' dreams of the good life in La-La Land.

They complain about the freeways, they complain about the water, the air, the ever-increasing crowding, the immigrants, the schools, the taxes.

And you can feel a new incarnation of the myth rising from the

ashes of the old, Phoenix-like.

Oops -- did I say Phoenix?

Some Angelenos have already given up on the increasing mess around them and have moved to Phoenix. These days, hundreds reportedly commute via commercial airliners to their offices on the coast.

And this time around, just about every middle-class couple we talked to in L.A. County is dreaming about moving to Flagstaff, Prescott or Redding.

Meanwhile, the press is reporting that many wealthy Southern Cal executives are taking helicopter lessons. And why not? For $200,000 -- merely twice the cost of a fancy car -- they can buy their own choppers and avoid freeway hassles all together.

Which only goes to show: well, nothing really. Although one is tempted to pontificate that while myths may change, thrill rides -- like summer vacations -- will probably never go out of style.

Drive and/or chopper safely, everyone!

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