LA North

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed on KCRW.

I took a nice trip the other day to the farthest edge of Los Angeles.

The outer limits of the LA empire are a four hour drive from City Hall. It's my favorite part of the city, even though -- legally -- it's not part of Los Angeles at all.

To get there, I pointed my car north out of LA proper on Highway 14. The towns get smaller and more exotic sounding as you go -- Palmdale, Lancaster, Mojave, Pearsonville.

I blasted up US Highway 395, past ancient magma flows and red cinder cones. The open road. My first speeding ticket in about two decades cut into the fun, but even that didn't spoil the day.

Out my left window, the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada came into view. Mount Whitney. The Three Sisters. Glaciers without names. Under a blanket of snow, almost close enough to touch.

This was the Owens Valley. The fabled land that Los Angeles invaded and conquered in the early 1900s. Not with armies or LAPD goons, but with secretive bag men and a self-taught engineer named Mulholland.

William Mulholland was the kind of tough, stubborn Irish goat who creates cities. He came to California by walking the jungles of Panama from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In about 1903, he drove a wagon from LA to the Owens Valley, strewing empty liquor bottles across the high desert.

After he caught that gorgeous sight of the Eastern Sierra, Mulholland cooked up an audacious notion.

Since the Owens Valley sits at about 4,000 feet of elevation, and Los Angeles sits at about 800, why not build an aqueduct and let gravity drain the Owens River – the whole dang thing – 230 miles south to LA.

He built it. And the rest really is history.

Sleepy Los Angeles became the mega city that some predicted even then. The rural San Fernando Valley gave up growing wheat to grow backyards.

And the Owens Valley -- well, it basically died.

My reason for going was to observe Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who flew up by helicopter to make peace with the locals.

They've been at war with Los Angeles since Mulholland's day. Usually the war is more figurative than real. But the casualties – they are all too real.

Just as you drive into the valley, a vast salt pan fills the view to the east. It's so big and amazing as to be picturesque, for what it is – a dry lake bed.

Before Los Angeles took the water, Owens Lake had boats and cargo barges. Towns on the shore. Now it spawns scary dust storms, too gritty and alkali to breathe safely.

The rest of the valley is mostly scrub brush. And Los Angeles owns it all, 400-something square miles – a bigger area than is contained within the true city limits of LA.

Villaraigosa came up for a few hours to promise that, for the first time, Los Angeles South would own up to the damage it did in LA North.

Courts have already ordered Los Angeles to do the right thing, so this gesture was somewhat symbolic. The mayor opened a spillway that released some LA water back into the lower Owens River.

That stretch of the river had been dust for decades until recently. Villaraigosa vowed it would never be dry again, and talked of someday seeing bass and beavers and cottonwoods.

It was a small step – the water is re-collected for the aqueduct down river. But it counted for something.

To complete the symbolism, he paddled a canoe on the river for about an hour while me and the photographers gave chase in our own craft.

Then the mayor and his aides got back on their chopper and flew home to LA South.

Citizens of there are free to visit LA North any time we want. There are no fences – and it's our sagebrush. Just be courteous of the locals.

For KCRW this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.