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The Big Parade: Hiking Los Angeles

My hike, like a million other trips each day in Los Angeles, starts with a ride on a rumbling bus.In the heart of Los Angeles, a band of hikers starts a local-trails revolution--one step at a time.

My hike, like a million other trips each day in Los Angeles, starts with a ride on a rumbling bus.
In the heart of Los Angeles, a band of hikers starts a local-trails revolution–one step at a time.

But it’s a Saturday in July, before six in the morning, so the passenger load is thin. By the time the vehicle delivers us downtown, three blocks from the bottom of Angel’s Flight, there’s just me, my girlfriend, Kalee, and the driver. The walk begins here, at the only state park in America at which the key piece of terrain can be counted in stairs (117).

If all goes as planned, Angel’s Flight will be the first of 111 public stairways that we’ll ascend over the next two days. Connecting them all, we’ll cover 42 miles on foot and gain more than 10,000 feet of elevation. We’ll pitch tents at a grassy intersection surrounded by apartment houses. And we’ll turn what was once my private obsession–climbing L.A.’s little-known network of staircases to train for mountaineering trips–into a symbolic backpacking journey in the heart of America’s most car-centric city.

After years of researching, mapping, and climbing local stairs, I’m ready to unleash a friendly, hiking version of a Critical Mass bike ride. With a procession of trekkers too big to ignore, we’ll show that backpackers have a place in the urban landscape as well as on its wilderness fringes. We’ll prove that local hiking happens where you live. And if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

But we can’t start without our companions. And at this point–we’re an hour early, as anticipation had caused me to lie wide-eyed and restless, unable to sleep–it’s unclear who is joining us, or how many. I’d invited friends and strangers via email and web postings. I’d reached out to hardcore hikers and novices alike. To be honest, I’d tried to invite all of Los Angeles. Over the previous week, newspapers, radio stations, and local bloggers had written about the walk.

Unlike a backcountry hike, this trek has stops and a schedule, so that anyone can join or depart at any time. A Facebook page, website, and Google group give timetables and instructions. Twitter updates will enable participants and observers to track our progress. The cost to join: nothing. Online, I had posted advice–be ready for the heat, wear comfortable shoes–but only one major rule: We will walk together. The swift will wait for the slow.

Now, I’m anxious to learn if the message had been heard. Will we reach our critical mass?

As we approach Angel’s Flight, I’m busy trying to organize the pages of my binder of timetables, maps, and crib notes for the little talks I’ll give at landmarks along the way. “Look up,” Kalee says. Forty people cluster at the base of the stairway. Some are outfitted with hydration packs and hiking boots. Others wear sandals or tennis shoes. I count about 15 familiar faces. I hand route maps to Ying–a five-foot-tall powerhouse who’d helped in planning and often joined me on practice jaunts, carrying a 50-pound backpack, just because she could. And there’s Alissa, our official Twitterer. I spy Lisa Anne, a photographer, who also came on some practice walks, and had been discouraged by a couple of them. “I’ve never walked so far,” she says now. “I don’t think I can do the whole thing.”

I know she can.

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