100 staircases, 35 miles, two days, and too many new friends to count

One week ago today I woke up in a public park in the heart of Los Angeles to the sound of a jogger’s frenzied footsteps. I emerged from my tent, pitched near the same reservoir I, too, had run around a hundred times. But now everything was different. I had walked to this place from downtown, 16 miles, a few of those miles spent walking up the public stairways that lace through the hilly neighborhoods of LA. I, along with dozens of other people, were now at the halfway mark of the BIG PARADE, a two-day, now-annual, join-when-you-can urban hike.

I looked at the guy chugging down the path and two things suddenly struck me as funny: 1) The thought of running, not walking, and 2) The fact that he was by himself.

You may remember that I had written about last year’s BIG PARADE for GOOD, and about the perceived novelty of walking in LA. But I didn’t finish the walk last year. A dull pain in my left knee had transformed into a quite undull pain by the second day, and at mile 30 I had to quit, missing the final push to the Hollywood sign.

Leaving the walk last year was one of the most depressing choices I have ever made (a choice made slightly better by the self-administration of a very strong painkiller). I saw my role on the walk as that of the militant advocate, the Walker who would show them that yes, people do walk in LA, thankyouverymuch! I would reach that Hollywood sign in a defiant tongue-out to all those sorry drivers who will never know the thrill of spotting a secret staircase in their neighborhood.

But this year I was a little nervous. Of course I still felt that same urgency to walk, but in addition to my severe public hobbling, I had seriously wrenched my ankle on a really big hike a few weeks ago. All I knew is that I really, really wanted to finish. But it was with some trepidation, and not very much training, that I embarked upon this year’s parade.

Beginning at 8am Saturday morning, we departed from Angels Flight and walked 12 hours through the skyscrapers of downtown, through the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and Disney Hall, into Vista Hermosa Park and Historic Filipinotown, and through a tunnel under the 101.

We went past the Victorians of Angelino Heights into Echo Park, way up into Elysian Heights where we hit a 750-foot summit in Elysian Park, then headed down into the dirt-and-stone stair streets of Fellowship Park, and landed in Silver Lake. You can see all the maps and destinations on the BIG PARADE website.

There we slept in our grassy, completely city-permitted campsite at the Silver Lake Rec Center (which was peaceful and pleasant except for when the clubbers came squawking out of Spaceland at 2am).

The next morning we spent another 12 hours making a loop around the hills of the Silver Lake Reservoir, along the route of a former streetcar, then headed into Franklin Hills and Los Feliz.

In Los Feliz Heights we walked past mansion after mansion into Griffith Park, past the Observatory, through Bronson Canyon, through Beachwood Canyon. And finally, the bonus section: By evening we planned to walk around the Hollywood sign for a final, sunset summit of a legitimate mountain, Mt. Lee.

This year everything was bigger and better. The route was streamlined and improved to encompass some pretty cool landmarks, where people would meet us to talk about LA history like the former Corralitas Red Car streetcar route or building of the Hollywood sign. Live music was waiting for us at two locations as we rested. More people in general knew we were coming, and surprised us with amazing little stands set up with water and fruit and home-baked cookies along the way.

The walk was earlier this year, too, meaning we had the small comfort of June Gloom keeping temperatures cooler and skies cloudier. And there was even a prologue walk, a Friday stroll through the Mt. Washington neighborhood east of downtown.

One of the biggest signs that the word had gotten out came in Echo Park, where we were approached by a cameraman and a reporter from KTLA. Yes, our little band of stairmasters made the local news! You can see Parade founder Dan Koeppel explaining the theory and route, then me, being interviewed by Cheryl Getuiza about what I was most looking forward to during the walk. I even managed to work in a little architectural history to my answer. And I managed to walk, talk and smile without tripping or falling. (This is big for me. For someone with “walk” in her name, you’d really think I’d be better at it.)

By the time we reached the point where I’d had to quit last year, I was feeling good. So good, in fact, I was able to stop for gelato at Gelato Bar on Hillhurst. Let’s be honest, though, I would have stopped there even if I was feeling bad.

But the emotional moment came for me right here, as we entered Griffith Park and started walking into Hollywood, with Griffith Observatory hanging like a planet in the sky. We were now walking into my old neighborhood, with all the trails and streets that I had explored during my first years in LA. I remember spending unemployed afternoons here, finding new staircases and paths, always thinking—like I heard many other stair enthusiasts say—I had discovered them all by myself.

As we dipped briefly back into my old neighborhood, Bronson Canyon, then up the beautiful stone stairs of Beachwood Canyon, it started to get dark. (You can watch this part, as well as the entire two days unfold, backwards, by reading my dutiful Twittering over at @BIGPARADELA)

We hit the road that wraps around the Hollywood sign like a long, wide ramp to the top. You can see the letters sideways mid-photo. The sun was starting to set and the wind was cool and damp.

But as we reached the saddle and walked onto the Burbank side, different air welled up from the Valley, warm and dry, creating an incredible temperature inversion that, unbelievably, lasted all the way to the peak.

Finally, we rounded the last bend. This is always a dramatic moment; you’re above the Hollywood sign, with those iconic letters reversed-out below you. But tonight the entire LA Basin was socked in with cloud cover, and we were quite literally floating above it.

Up here the sky was completely clear, the air was warm and dry and the only sound was the remarkably discernible performance happening at the Hollywood Bowl, a few miles and a freeway away. We posed for a group photo and people started to head back down, descending into the clouds that were streaming over gaps in the hills like waterfalls. Soon it was completely dark except for the flashlights bobbing light onto other people’s backs in the distance. I didn’t want to leave, hanging back until the very end to get my own moment on top of Los Angeles, the final notes of the Playboy Jazz Festival drifting into the sky.

The question that people ask me most about last weekend is an obvious one:  How did you feel the next day? The answer is absolutely great. I was sore, of course, and for two days I had a little trouble walking down the stairs in my own house. But any physical pain was anathesized by a pure, emotional buzz. Sure, I’ve done harder physical things. I’ve climbed bigger mountains. But the high from last weekend was unmatched. And then I realized why.

Last year this staircase scramble was just a finish line drawn above the Hollywood sign, an endurance contest, a chance to chalk up miles. It was something to prove, the same way I’d cranked through too many half-marathons or a truly insane mid-August 25K in the hills of Malibu. (It was really fun. But still. Kinda dumb for someone with ankles made from chewing gum.) I was out there killing myself thanks to some weird agenda.

This time I was just…walking.

And talking. This time, I actually met some new friends. Instead of being so focused on my mission to make it, I got to know the people I fell into step with, matching conversation topics to their sneakers to remember them for later. I gave people encouragement when they were feeling apprehensive, and, when they called it quits, gave directions to help people get back home on the bus. It wasn’t about who made it how far, it was about who joined us along the way. It wasn’t about steps at all, but the people—and dogs, there were lots of dogs!—who use them.

For the past week my brain has been buzzing with thoughts that all begin the same way: “Next year.” But instead of setting my own personal goals, I’m setting goals for the group. Next year we’ll set a new record of 100 people walking at one time. Next year we’ll have 20 tents in the campsite. Next year we’ll have even more people who give us bananas or brownies or water along the way. Next year we’re putting together a walking and step-themed soundtrack for pure motivation. Next year we’ll find someone to let us jump in their pool, dammit! Next year we could link the official walk and the prologue into an amazing, three-day Mt. Washington-to-Mt. Lee trek.

Next year…well, let’s just say I really can’t wait for next year. And I hope you’ll be there, too. It wouldn’t be the same without you.

Big Parade creator Dan Koeppel will be on a panel that I’m moderating at this weekend’s Dwell on Design conference named Improvising and Improving L.A. Transit. Here’s more information and a discount code.

You can see all my photos as well as the photos of all Big Paraders.

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