Ever since I first heard that the now-retired space shuttle Endeavour would be coming home to Southern California, I knew I had to see it. As plans evolved to include a low altitude flyover of the Los Angeles area, it was obvious that one of the "iconic" landmarks that would be chosen for its photo-worthiness was the Hollywood sign. I started planning to go to Griffith Observatory for the event, as that would afford great shots of both the world famous Observatory and the world famous Hollywood sign. Of course, I knew it would be crowded...but I had no idea HOW crowded!
On Friday, September 21, 2012, the Endeavour's departure from Edwards Air Force Base was delayed an hour due to fog up in the San Francisco area. The shuttle was to take off from Edwards AFB, do a low flyover of the area surrounding the base, head north to Sacramento, on to the Bay Area, then down the coast to LA. Thank goodness for that extra hour! I left my house in Arcadia at 9:00am; it took 18 minutes to get to Griffith Park...and then an hour and 15 minutes to get up to the Observatory.
This part of Los Feliz is usually pretty crowded, but I've never seen it like this before; absolutely bumper-to-bumper from the moment I turned right onto Los Feliz coming out of Griffith Park. And then going up Vermont and the other roads to reach the Observatory...oh my goodness. My clutch foot hurt like hell by the time I finally got up there; the whole way up--going uphill, obviously--the bumper-to-bumper traffic never moved fast enough to get out of first gear, or even to take my foot off the clutch. (I did occasionally put it in neutral to rest my foot, but it was barely worth the effort; as soon as I shifted, the traffic would move again...one car length at a time.) There were THRONGS of people heading up to the Observatory on foot and bikes, just a constant, thick stream of people.
Eventually, I came to the first of several roadblocks where police/traffic enforcement were making cars turn around. I couldn't believe it. I'd spent nearly an hour getting that far, and now they wanted me to turn back?! I don't think so. I whipped out my disabled placard and they waved me through. That worked at the first two roadblocks. Unfortunately, at the third and final one, it did not. The traffic guy came over and said the Observatory lot had filled up by 7:30 that morning and there was no point continuing up the road as there was no parking available, even street parking. He gave me two choices: turn right [I think the street was Western Canyon Rd] to try to find a place to park, or head back down to the Greek Theatre, park, and take a shuttle bus up. I did both.
First I turned right to see if there was any street parking, although I had no idea how I could possibly walk up to the observatory; I conceded in my head that if I had to park there and hope to get a glimpse of the flyover, so be it. I kept going...and going...and there wasn't one square inch of space available.
I eventually turned around [no small feat considering how narrow the road is!] and went back. At the intersection where I'd been turned away, I again asked the same guy if I could head up, and he again said no. So I headed back down to the Greek Theatre, only to find HUNDREDS of people lined up waiting for the shuttle bus, and absolutely no parking anywhere. They had even opened up a dirt lot for parking, and it was packed, too.
By this time it was after 11:00, and the planes were due to re-enter Los Angeles air space at 11:30. It wasn't looking good. I thought, "I'm HERE...and yet I'm going to miss it!"
I don't know why, but at this point I decided to go back up. And you know what? At that final roadblock there was a DIFFERENT traffic guy! I showed him my disabled placard and asked if I could please go up and he said yes. :) He moved the barricades and let me through.
Every square inch of street parking was filled, and when I got up to the Observatory's two parking lots, they were completely packed, too. But I spotted what looked like an available space and decided to pull in. An officer walked up and said that they had to have at least enough space for a fire engine to get through; a driver in another parked car told me to pull in in front of him, so I did. Turns out these were not actual parking spaces, but people were being allowed to park there--as long as you stayed with your car. Ugh. How was I going to get great shots of the shuttle flying over the Hollywood sign if I had to stay with my car?
One great thing about the experience was the friendliness and joy exuded by everyone up there. Those of us who'd parked where I had were all talking and sharing information, some were listening to radio updates on the shuttle's whereabouts, and we were complaining about the heat. It was hot up there!
At some point I--along with EVERYBODY else--threw caution to the wind and left my car. I figured that if the police really had nothing better to do than ticket a car with a disabled placard on a momentous day like this, so be it, I'd just pay the fine and be done with it. (Note that I was NOT blocking passage for emergency vehicles, and I would be just a few feet away if something happened.)
I walked some 20 feet to the spot I'd pictured in my head from the first moment I heard about the flyover, along the fence to the right of the Observatory. From there I could get pictures of both the Hollywood sign and the Observatory when the planes flew over them.
The atmosphere was absolutely electric. I've been going to Griffith Observatory my entire life; even when I lived out of state, I'd occasionally go up there when visiting. I've NEVER seen so many people, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, buses, and other modes of transportation up there as I did that day.
But it was amazing. People were talking to each other like old friends, and the anticipation while waiting to finally spot the shuttle was crazy. No one could get signals on their cell phones up there, so news and updates on the shuttle's current location were spotty. Every once in a while someone would return to their car to listen to the radio, then come back and report "it's over Malibu right now," "it's heading this way," etc.
It was well past 11:30 now and we were all getting antsy. "WHERE IS IT?!" But not in an angry way, just an excited, "I can't wait to see it!" way.
Then, all of a sudden, just before noon, there it was! We spotted it approaching from the left of the Observatory. Wow!! What an amazing sight. I started snapping pics like crazy.
But then it disappeared. We lost sight of it behind the Observatory. A few minutes later some people started leaving. But I, and others, kept saying, "that CAN'T be it! that just CAN'T be all there is to it!" So we stayed. I said there was no way it could do a flyover of Los Angeles and NOT go past the Hollywood sign, as that's the most iconic of all the iconic landmarks in LA. I mean, really, ask anyone around the world to name a landmark in Southern California and odds are they'll say "the Hollywood sign." So we waited.
And I'm so glad we did. About ten minutes later we saw it approaching again, this time from the right of the Observatory, flying DIRECTLY overhead, then banking to the left for its approach to the Hollywood sign. The planes were flying at 1,500 feet; I was at 1,100 feet, so when they flew overhead they were RIGHT there!
A lot of people had hiked up onto the mountainsides, including just under the Hollywood sign, and I know they had an awesome view! (A lot of people passed out from heat exhaustion, too. There were many, many fire and paramedic trucks up there that day, and a lot of activity rescuing and treating people who had passed out.)
There really are no words I can think of that adequately describe the exhilaration I felt that day. It wasn't just the actual event itself, i.e., seeing the flyover of the shuttle, but the total, shared experience with the throngs of people who'd also turned out to see it. As others have said, this wasn't a once in a LIFETIME experience, but a ONCE experience. And I'm proud and happy to say I was there.