June 30, 2016

Photo Essay: The Flora and Fauna of a Secret Native Garden (Updated for 2017)

I've been fortunate enough to experience incredible hospitality since I first started coming to California. I've been welcomed into people's homes, holiday dinners, swimming pools, family celebrations, and more.

And it's not just the invitations that are extended—which are more than I've ever experienced in my life.

It's also the willingness of strangers to agree to let me come visit their studio or workshop or—in the case of Quail Hollow—their home garden.

circa 2017

And all I had to do was ask.

Quail Hollow is a wildlife and bird habitat near the Verdugo Mountains, but it's not a park.

It's literally Ken and Rhonda Gilliland's backyard.

In an attempt to stave off encroaching urbanity, they've amassed three houses on six lots (the garden taking up three of them).

As a garden, it's both wild and manicured—with wooden bridges softly arching over rock-walled water features...

...and stone pathways winding through native plants and trees that harbor likewise native birds and other wildlife.

Sure, a few birdbaths and feeders with seed are put out to attract some feathered friends...

...but some of them would probably end up here anyway, in this rare patch of nature in an important flyover zone, just five miles southeast of Hansen Dam.

But Quail Hollow manages to attract over 100 species of birds, including California quail (of course)...

circa 2017

...mourning doves, turkey vultures, hawks...

circa 2017

...hummingbirds, woodpeckers, scrub jays...

circa 2017

...and band-tailed pigeons (a close relative of the extinct passenger pigeon, and California's only native).

circa 2017

It may even get a visit from a rarity like the Least Bell's Vireo (*though that's not what's pictured above).

But I guess that's what happens when you've got enough trees, bushes, and plants...

circa 2017

...for them to nest in, perch upon, and snack on...

...from California sage, manzanita, and toyon (a.k.a. "California holly," both red and yellow)...

circa 2017 the lilies that were about to bloom, despite the hot June weather.

Since they're native to California, they're used to our weather.

They can survive without a lot of rain...

circa 2017

...and they don't need to be watered in the summer.

They will fruit and seed and root and bloom against all odds.

And when they do, they'll attract the butterflies, the bees...

circa 2017

...the dragonflies, and, of course, the birds.

You might even see a Great Blue Heron stopping by.

The entire property is outfitted with scopes, and Ken tries to photograph as many of the winged creatures as he can spot, keeping detailed records of all of his sightings.

He's an accomplished birder, but he's also somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades.

He renovated the main residence to have a Queen Anne-style porch...

...for which he carved all the wood himself, on a jigsaw.

circa 2017

He's also a 3D digital artist (modeling birds, of course), a painter...

...and the proud papa of a Lesser Citron Cockatoo named Elsa.

I walked away from Quail Hollow thinking, "That's so LA"—but it's the LA that I know, and not the one that other people think they know.

It's so LA to love birds and flowers, to learn how to do everything yourself, to document what you've seen, and to want to share it with others—without receiving anything in return.

Ken only opens Quail Hollow up to outsiders once or twice a year, so I consider it a privilege to have been welcomed into his inner sanctum. It's the kind of place where you could easily overstay your welcome—so you either have to drag yourself away, or let someone else to do it for you.

Because there are certain flowers that won't bloom—and birds that won't emerge from the brush—until after you leave.

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More Than Apples: Oak Glen's Native Garden

Photo Essay: The Secret Street Legal Collection at Vic's Garage (Updated for 2023)

[Last updated 6/6/23 11:51 AM PT—Otis Victor Edelbrock, Jr., the son of Edelbrock founder Otis Victor Edelbrock, Sr., passed away in June 2017. Its Torrance facility has closed, and its Southern California operations are now headquartered in Cerritos and the annual car shows no longer take place.]

In LA, every celebrity probably has their own secret car collection.

The question isn't so much, "What kind of car do you have?" but, "How many cars do you have?"

And unless you're friends with Jay Leno, you'll probably never get to see them in person.

Fortunately, we've got access to some fabulous car museums that are open to the public (the Petersen, Automobile Driving Museum, Nethercutt, and Mullin, just off the top of my head)—even if some of them are hiding in secret, and take some finagling to get in.

The Petersen Vault is considered a "hidden" collection, but all you really need to get in is an advance reservation and a paid ticket. (And don't even try to take photos.)

But what about the Honda Museum in Torrance? Or its neighbor, the Toyota USA Automobile Museum?

Once again, the secret to getting in seems to be knowing the right people.

But there's another private car collection in Torrance that's not allowed to be called a "museum"...

...because all of its cars are gassed up and ready to roll at any given time.

And it's not that the public isn't welcome at Vic's Garage—you just have to figure out how to get in.

Looking for a Sign

I don't always see the signs.

I'm always looking, but I'm always missing out on something.

And such was the case when I was driving through Los Padres National Forest through Frazier Park, about two hours north of LA.

The first time I drove through that way, I met up with a friend who asked me if I'd seen the sign for a fire lookout. I hadn't, so on my way home, I looked for it—and couldn't find it.

But when I returned to Frazier Park, this time I refused to leave until I found the lookout—even if I never actually found the sign for it.

I've never visited a fire lookout tower that was actually occupied.

And that seems like a shame.

I suppose technology has supplanted the need for a human being to actually keep watch over the forest for wildfires...

...but sometimes, you need a warning that something might be amiss...

...before things really go wrong...

...and computers delay, until they detect a verified disaster-in-the-making.

Is that a cloud, or is it smoke?

Better safe than sorry.

We spend so much of our time on the ground, in the weeds, that it can be tough to gain some perspective over things.

And somehow, it seems like the only way to do that is to get up high somewhere... it in a plane, from a skyscraper, on a wire, or atop a mountain.

It feels safe up there, where you can see everyone and everything—but they can't see you.

But this lookout, on top of Frazier Mountain, isn't protected anymore.

No one spends their days there, sleeps there, eats there, or washes their hands there.

There's hardly anything left there. The scavengers have taken everything out of there, leaving only an empty shell.

So who's keeping watch over us, now?

Maybe it's a good thing to not always be looking out for trouble. If you expect it, it's sure to come.

And even if you see it coming, you can't always do something to stop it.

Maybe sometimes, it's better to be taken by surprise.

For more of the Frazier Mountain Fire Lookout history (and additional photos), visit

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