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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.

I began walking the stairways of Los Angeles in 2002, mapping them and connecting them. I created complex loops that ensured maximum steps without ever crossing the same stairway twice. I wrote about my urban hikes for BACKPACKER (“I Climbed Los Angeles,” June 2004), and that story started me down a new path: sharing my obsession. Ying and her husband, Andrew, experienced mountaineers, contacted me and asked if I’d lead them on stairway treks. I developed about a dozen routes, ranging in length from four to 25 miles, and posted them online. After the Los Angeles Times published a 2008 story about my fixation, I began offering public excursions, usually on weekday evenings.

And I continued to make discoveries. Some of the places I surveyed were small miracles. Once, when I scrambled up a hillside surrounded by a trio of freeways, I found a cabin, seemingly abandoned. The structure had once been the home of Paul Landacre, a mid-20th-century printmaker. The next day, I returned with a printout of a Landacre linocut called “Sultry Day.” It depicts the artist’s wife reclining in the cabin’s doorway. A cat lay beside her, and outside stood the same live oak and toyon trees growing there now. I climbed a thistle-covered slope to the cabin and stood by the old entrance. What I could hear was modern–cars roaring below–but what I could see was nearly identical.

As I explored L.A. on foot, something happened. I found myself falling in love with the city in a way I’d never imagined. I saw it as a backpacker sees an endangered wilderness–on the brink of ecological disaster, yet full of potential. I wanted people to see the hillsides as I do, with a sort of X-ray vision that could peer through the houses and development and expose the naked chaparral. I wanted them to see the stairways as I did, not as artifacts, but as arteries. Their number and health increase the city’s quality of life, which I’d begun to measure, more and more, as directly related to how much foot travel is possible, and beautiful, and enjoyed by many. I wanted people to see the city as a hiker might. To see a city with a future.

Thus, my community walk. But what to call it? For months, I’d struggled to come up with a name for the adventure, something that captured the size and spirit of the attempt. (Stair Trek? No.) The name needed to contain and imply what my foot journeys had led me to understand: that a more livable and open Los Angeles is not just a distant fantasy. L.A. is walkable right now, accessible and varied and filled with treasure not in spite of the city’s sprawl, but because of it. This wouldn’t be a protest hike–it would be a celebration. It would be The Big Parade.

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