Climbing to Meet the Dawn: Regulars Think It’s Worth It

Staff Writer

Before light, as the eastern sky is just turning orange, shadowy figures start moving up “the hill,” as Charlie Turner calls it--the trail to the top of Mt. Hollywood.

The 83-year-old Turner is always there at that time, with a few friends. For them and for scores of other Angelenos, this 1.4-mile uphill path from the Griffith Park Observatory to the park’s second highest peak is a daily ritual.

Turner’s aim is to be at the top just as the sun emerges, a yellow ball of light over the San Bernardino Mountains. From that vantage point, they also have a panoramic view of Los Angeles.


“It’s worth getting up this early for this,” says Charles Cato, a retired businessman from Echo Park.

Cato was among six walking with Turner on this morning, a group Turner likes to call his “regular irregulars” because he never knows how many will be there on a given day. One of them, Ray Pohlman of Beachwood Canyon, keeps a list of names and phone numbers of regular trail users on his home computer and says it contains almost 100 people.

Brunch With a View

Many friendships have been forged by this trail through the mountain’s craggy terrain. It is the most popular of the park’s 53 hiking trails, Griffith Park’s chief ranger, Lucia Ruta, says, noting: “There’s easy access, from the observatory parking lot, and it’s the shortest distance to the top.”

Larger numbers come on weekend mornings for potluck brunches in Dante’s View, the garden Turner volunteers his time to tend, about two-thirds of the way up the mountain.

On this morning, as Turner, Cato and the others set out, an early morning fog is below them, covering the city.

The hill has the feel of a small town, because faces are familiar enough that everyone speaks to everyone else. Michael Hartman, a studio employee who daily runs up and down the mountain “to unwind” after getting off work at 6 a.m., stops to tell them how the previous night’s winds made the building where he works in Hollywood “sway and sway.”

Then he runs on. Turner, a small, thin man with a trace of a smile always on his lips, resumes his pace, which is somewhere between a trot and a shuffle and is quite fast.

Suddenly, a shrill cry rings out from a promontory above. The park has a lot of wildlife afoot at dawn--deer, coyote or raccoons--but this sound does not come from an animal.

“Koreans,” someone says. There are always several Koreans on the trail, and many are doing exercises which involve letting air out of the lungs with a yell.

Sam Suk, a daily jogger who is convinced that the trail--not modern medicine--has cured his hypertension, passes by. The reason Mt. Hollywood is so popular among Koreans, he says, is that it looks very much like a mountain near Seoul called Namsan.

The group reaches Captain’s Roost, which, like Dante’s, was a garden started by one private individual who hauled trees, cactuses and other plants up the mountain and tended them himself. But unlike Dante Orgolini, who became rather famous before his death in 1978, no one knows anything about “the captain,” even his name, Turner says: “He’s a complete mystery.”

The garden is more elaborate than Dante’s, Turner notes. The Roost is tended by another volunteer, a cook named Lorenzo Martinez.

“They have more of a vandalism problem than I do,” Turner says reflectively. “After the Challenger crash he planted seven trees in a circle, as a memorial, but in two weeks somebody cut them down with a machete.”

Turner says that after breakfast with a few friends from the trail, he goes home, then returns in mid-afternoon to Dante’s to rake the pathways and tend to its plants and magnolia, pine, pepper and gingko trees.

Invariably, trail users who know his habits search him out then too. “People want to talk, and sometimes it’s hard to get work done,” Turner says. “An hour can go by so quickly.”

“Everybody loves Charlie because he’s so accepting of people,” says Vicky Lacko, a Burbank housewife who is one of the morning trekkers. “He never criticizes anybody.”

It takes Turner’s group about 30 minutes to reach the top, and by that time the eastern sky has gone from orange to pinkish gray.

The sun, they report, is behind Covina in the southeastern sky. When you come every day, you learn such things, says Tom La Bonge, a regular and a deputy to City Councilman John Ferraro, whose district includes the park.

Adding another fact he has learned, he says, “A sunset takes a long time, but a sun rise is over in less than a minute.”

While they stand at the top, they greet Kyang Jang, a 29-year-old refrigerator repairman from Koreatown who is doing sit-ups on a wooden table. “It’s fresh in the morning,” he says simply. “I like the rising sun. I like to see these people.”

As the outline of the sun’s ball dissipates in white light, La Bonge says they recently saw snow covering Northridge. Sometimes, Turner says, they can see the ocean at Long Beach.

The changing view makes the trail special, Maxine Silverstone, a woman who drives over from Bel-Air, said. “Every day is completely different.”