After dark, no one can see you sweat
THE sun set an hour ago, a red ball dropping into the sea, and in the moonlight that falls on the untamed hills of Griffith Park’s east side, Jose Macias trudges up a steep dirt track called Cardiac Hill.
It’s no easy feat for Macias. The substitute schoolteacher from East L.A., with hair pulled back into a ponytail exposing a friendly face glistening with sweat, weighs 270 pounds and stands 5 foot 7.
Leaning on a walking stick atop the woodsy incline, he breathes heavily, sucks down some water from a tube looping out of a fanny pack, and smiles as fellow hikers stream past him on the trail.
“It’s great exercise,” he says. “And you don’t notice it as much when you’re talking to people. Exercising in the gym, you can watch the clock just slowly tick by.”
This is the world of night hikes -- when Los Angeles is a sea of twinkling white lights and streaking red taillights, and where vast black voids hide myriad rolling hills blanketed with chaparral and scrub, oaks and sycamores.
From Griffith Park to Irvine to the Westside, cadres of hikers answer a call to hike these dark wilderness areas most nights of the week. They pound out tough miles in blackness and shadows, often mud, sometimes fog, without using flashlights, relying instead on moonlight, ambient city light and their own night vision.
Some come for the pleasure of a cool breeze after a long, hot day, or for the chance to hear a barn owl call from a nearby sycamore. Some come to share conversation or a post-hike meal; many have married after trudging along chaparral-lined trails together week after week.
But all who hike after sundown share a secret: Day hikes permit friends or strangers to maintain physical and mental distance at will, but night hikes are naturally intimate. Darkness kindles instincts to stay close, and the absence of conversation and sunlit details gives added importance to what is actually said and seen.
In Griffith Park, dirt fire roads and narrow paths used by deer, bobcats and coyotes wind through the flora haphazardly. Macias and others follow these routes.
On this autumn night, he’s one of 19 hikers snaking up a string of dirt paths en route to Mt. Taco, a high point that takes its nickname from an odd-shaped water tank.
At the head of the pack is Carl Lowe, a retired aerospace worker with a kind face under a tidy sweep of gray hair. The lean 67-year-old has been leading Sierra Club hikes in Griffith Park for eight years.
“It’s been a wonderful time, seeing people come and go,” he says. “Some come there and meet and get married, that’s quite a pull ... Most of all, it keeps people younger, this exercise with a view.”
Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday hikers gather for the free hikes led by volunteers from the local chapter of the Sierra Club. The hikes start at 7 p.m. sharp, from a parking lot near the park’s merry-go-round, and they finish up at 9.
On this cool evening, 50-some hikers have shown up. In midsummer, six times as many may turn out to tear up the trails.
At the beginning of the hikes, Louis Alvarado, known as the “mayor of Griffith Park” for his longtime service as hike organizer, introduces Lowe and other leaders and calls out the hikes according to their level of difficulty. A No. 1 is literally a walk in the park; a No. 6, the most difficult level, is flat-out trail running. On this night, Lowe leads a No. 3 -- a moderately difficult hike.
Lowe’s hikers leave the illuminated parking lot and plunge into the darkness. After waiting a minute or two for their eyes to adjust, hikers follow Lowe up a choppy, narrow ridge path.
Unlike day hikes, on which you can scan the landscape while making tracks, darkness demands tunnel vision. Hikers rarely take their eyes off the ground directly ahead of them. Differentiating a harmless shadow from an ankle-breaking rut or a branch from a rattlesnake isn’t something that can be done from the corner of one’s eye.
But darkness heightens the senses. Above the din of conversations and warnings called out by Lowe and others -- “deep hole on left,” “watch the loose rock here” -- the brain registers the swoosh of freeway noise, the Rice Krispies crackle of footsteps on leaves and dry twigs, the constant chirping of crickets seeking companionship.
Although plants and trees are within arm’s reach, their colors are reduced to shades of black, gray and brown, and their shapes become shadowy masses lacking telling features. Hikers inhale California fuchsia, yucca and sage, but in the faint moonlight their flowers are indiscernible.
“Slow down,” a woman yells out to Lowe. She’s miffed by the quick pace but softens her tone by quickly adding: “You’ve got twinkle toes.”
Lowe stops to let her, Lynn Fleischer and a few other stragglers catch up. “This is really tough for me,” Fleischer says. “I used to do fours all the time but got lazy, and I work too much.”
Fleischer’s computer-training job requires her to travel a lot. She takes advantage of hotel gyms, but “no matter how much treadmill you do, it doesn’t compare to hiking,” she says.
Fleischer is only a minute or two behind the pack, and she’s doing fine. But not all hikers do as well.
“One time I had a psychic healer who couldn’t make it up this particularly steep hill,” Lowe says. “She was crying. I was behind her, pushing her fanny up the hill.”
A mother and daughter showed up in platform shoes, he said, shaking his head; they also had a rough time.
A young couple near the center of the pack have been speaking French since the hike started, barely acknowledging those around them. Farther back, Lucky, a black Labrador, pulls Robert Rubisa of Glendale up the trail.
“It’s the highlight of his day,” Rubisa says, keeping a firm grip on the leash. The 37-year-old Romanian immigrant learned of the hikes from a pal last year.
“He kept bugging me. Six or seven times,” Rubisa says. “Finally I did it and was hooked.”
After a few moments of silence, he reflects on how in-the-moment hikers can be. “There’s no intelligence test. Anyone can do it.”
It is also a great equalizer. Rubisa tells a story about how once he was making small talk with a hiker and asked his profession. “What do you do?” he inquired. “I’m hiking,” he was told.
The Griffith Park hikes are among the most popular, but there’s an equally dedicated group that joins Ed Lubin every Friday on a five-mile hike in the picturesque hills above Pacific Palisades.
Unlike the Griffith Park hikes, Lubin’s follows the same route to the same destination (Parker Mesa Overlook) each week. He’s led this hike for the past 16 years.
On one night, the sky was full of stars and the view of the ocean from the overlook was spectacular in its clarity. The lights of Catalina Island, 40 miles away, as well as the landing lights of aircraft approaching LAX were laser sharp; the full sweep of coast hugging Santa Monica Bay was breathtaking.
“If I were in Italy, I’d say, ‘Oh, my God, what a view!’ But I’m right here,” marveled newcomer Sara Bragin of Mar Vista. “We think heaven has to be somewhere else.”
A week later on the same route, fog had reduced visibility to 20 feet and blocked moonlight, leading to stumbles and brushes with brush. And it was cold.
But none of that mattered. The friendships that develop during Lubin’s hikes continue beyond the hike with a festive dinner at the Souplantation in Brentwood.
At Griffith Park, participants gather for a post-hike potluck at the nearby Crystal Springs picnic ground. Hikers cover three dozen tables with cookies, cakes, pies, casseroles and every kind of salad. Hot dogs, chicken and burgers sizzle on grills.
A boombox plays Latin jazz, and soon a dozen couples -- some still in their hiking boots -- are dancing.
A lone coyote watches from a nearby soccer field. He and the hikers are not more than a hundred feet from motorists zipping past the park on the 5 Freeway.
Alvarado eventually stands on a bench to announce that this is the last cookout of the season. A collective sigh follows.
Then the park’s honorary mayor and keeper of the night-hike rituals reminds the faithful that cookouts will resume again in April.
And on that note, the dancing continues.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)SNAPSHOT / Sampling the night life
The end of daylight doesn’t mean the end of hiking. But it’s best to begin night hiking with an organized group. The local chapter of the Sierra Club leads a number of free evening excursions throughout Southern California. For more information, go to www.angeles.sierraclub.org or pick up the chapter’s “Schedule of Activities” at a local sporting goods store.
* Griffith Park: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7 p.m. Hikers take off on a variety of two-hour hikes, from easy to difficult. Fabulous views of the city and Valley. Meet at the upper merry-go-round parking lot.
* Signal Hill: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7 p.m. Three groups, from slow to fast, cover three to five miles. Meet at Hill Street and Redondo Avenue.
* Irvine: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6:30 p.m. Easy, moderate and “tiger” (fast) hikes range from four to seven miles on hilly trails. Meet at the Turtle Rock Community Park parking lot.
* Puente/Whittier Hills: Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.; not for beginners. These five- to six-mile hikes follow switchbacks through lush canyons. Take the 60 Freeway to 7th Avenue and head south; turn right and park on Orange Grove Avenue in Hacienda Heights.
* Santa Monica Mountains: Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; no beginners. Five- to eight-mile fast, strenuous hikes for the adventurous set. Locations vary; all trail heads are north of Sunset Boulevard between Pacific Coast Highway and the 405 Freeway. Meet one block west of Topanga Canyon Boulevard on Clarendon Street in Woodland Hills.
* Pacific Palisades: Fridays, 6:45 p.m. Take a spin up to Parker Mesa Overlook -- and marvel at the moon over the ocean. The five-mile hike is about two hours, with 1,100 feet of gain. Meet at Los Liones Drive and Sunset.
-- Scott Doggett
Scott Doggett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.