At mile 10 on Sunday, we reach a set of 14 flights crammed along two miles in the Franklin Hills neighborhood. I based this segment on a 1950s Sierra Club handout that is, according to my research, the first-ever recreational stairway route created in Los Angeles (the timing makes sense, as it was likely a reaction to the booming car culture).
We're going clearly uphill, now. The Hollywood sign seems tantalizingly close, though the route winds another seven miles before we'll actually reach our destination (and we're way behind schedule). We pass the Ennis House, a Frank Lloyd Wright edifice that resembles a Mayan temple; its exterior doubled as Harrison Ford's apartment complex in the movie Blade Runner. Below, we can see a sprawling mansion called Los Pavoreales--Spanish for "The Peacocks"--formerly owned by Madonna, and now listed by a local realtor as a "celebrity compound" for $7 million. At the neighborhood's hilltop boundary, we slip through a narrow public gate into Griffith Park.
For the first time in two days, we join traditional hikers and trail runners as we climb a fire road to the park's famous observatory. Lisa Anne--the photographer who thought she couldn't finish, but is still going, enthused and energetic--tells our group the scandalous story of Colonel Griffith P. Griffith, who'd donated the land for the park in 1896. The goodwill failed to help him beat charges of attempted murder against his wife seven years later.
By late afternoon, the 90F heat has thinned our group to 15. And attrition threatens to reduce our number further. Alissa has pushed on for miles with an aching knee and stuttering gait; we both know she's risking injury, and--after great hesitation--she heads home. Morgan--a longtime hiking buddy who'd recently completed a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike--suffers so badly from chafing that somebody asks, "Who invited Donald Duck?"
I may be in the worst shape of all. My pace is slowing. I'm tired. Darkness is falling. For 36 hours and as many miles, I've been focused on forward momentum. I knew there was elation in the line behind me, but I hadn't felt it; the information came via the Tweets of departing walkers. "The most fun I've ever had in L.A.," one said. Another wrote: "There's no stopping The Big Parade! LOL!"
But I need more than enthusiastic Tweets at the moment. My carefully planned timetable has us reaching the Hollywood sign at 7 p.m. Now, at 7:30, we're still more than four miles away. I fear the walk will soon become the trudge I'd made every effort to avoid.
What keeps me going? It's not that our final six stairways are exceptionally beautiful, which is true. The granite and stone flights of Beachwood Canyon are among the city's most unique steps, since they act not just as transport, but also serve as retaining walls that literally hold the community up. Nor do I find some deep, internal reserve of strength. That was spent on miles 30 to 35. And it's not a boost of emotional energy from the handful of committed troops who have gone the distance with me.
Surprisingly, my rejuvenation comes from people who've hardly ever walked in Los Angeles--though some have lived here for decades. People who've never known the stairways existed, or that you could even hike to the Hollywood sign.
These people are waiting, two dozen of them, at our final meeting point--the beginning of the homestretch. Some have waited patiently for hours. And they are living, breathing, hiking proof that my experiment is a success.
Our final climb ascends a stairway that leads from Belden Street to Beachwood Canyon Drive, and it falls into a unique category--even for a stairway obsessive like me. It is a circuit, or a stairway with two distinct sides. In order to allow walkers to hit every step, both up and down, we'll climb one side and descend the other. I make a brief explanation of what we're going to do. I decide that I'll wait for the end of the line. I need the rest.
By the time I start, paraders crowd the stairs on both sides. A giddy madness seems to have broken out--a silliness sparked by the up-and-down rules, by the prospect of finishing, by the new and familiar faces. Descenders walk shoulder to shoulder beside those still climbing. Along the 148 steps, giggling supplants the huffing and puffing. Those heading down exhort those still climbing. They dole out the goofiest high-fives this side of a Will Ferrell sports parody.
The nine of us who've walked continuously for 40 miles are tired and limping. Our feet are raw. But we're cheered and fueled by the whole scene, by the energy and the newcomers and the startling fact that we're all still together.
For me, I realize, it's time to let go so that I can be inspired, too. It's time for me to be led.