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Around the Foothills

'All they do is hike. I like to talk.'

June 09, 1988|DOUG SMITH

According to their published plan, the Rainbow Walkers were venturing to "Lost Valley" Sunday morning.

Every Sunday the group's leader, Eddie Johnson, conducts a walking lecture leading to one of the dozens of points of interest in the hills of La Canada Flintridge, his home for almost 40 years.

Among his favorite destinations are Winery Canyon and the "Fair Haven" estate of actor Victor McGlaughlin.

The sound of "Lost Valley" attracted me. It suggested sweat, steep trails and plenty of local lore.

The walk was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in front of the main entrance to Descanso Gardens. But at the hour, only four people had arrived. There was a young couple and a single man reporting for their first hike and a veteran of the group who turned out to be Siegfried Hillmer, a Los Angeles city attorney who oversees the city's pension programs.

About 10 after, Johnson walked up the broad, tree-lined street of expensive homes. He wore rumpled blue pants, a soiled velour shirt and straw fedora to shade his unevenly shaven, gray-flecked cheeks.

Upon his arrival, Johnson emitted a gushy laugh and distributed a newspaper that had published a letter he wrote about Nikola Tesla, the Croatian-born electro-physicist who invented the alternating current motor.

It quickly unfolded that Johnson, who lives in his parents' home nearby, is a follower of Tesla's work in electro-biology and is an avid Radio Moscow listener because of the Russians' greater interest in Tesla's more esoteric theories.

It was a chilly morning and dark clouds passed overhead, threatening showers. Johnson looked up and down the street and said he would wait a few minutes for stragglers. At that point, things didn't look very good for the Rainbow Walkers.

But they began to brighten. First a shiny Mercedes-Benz pulled up and a woman in an aqua jogging suit got out and joined the group. By 9:30, seven women, all seeming to be in their 30s and 40s, arrived in equally nice cars and outfits. Six were regulars and one, a La Canada real estate agent, was with a friend.

With his group at last assembled, Johnson said with a gush of laughter that the walk would avoid the trails, because of the threat of rain. Also, he said, he thought he'd go to the craft festival in Montrose instead of Lost Valley. Everyone agreed.

So they marched up Descanso Drive, passed in front of Verdugo Hills Hospital, crossed under the Glendale Freeway and filed down a residential street that brought them to a small, nearly empty park.

Along the way, Johnson recited the medicinal and narcotic uses of several plants, including a juniper in someone's yard and several varieties of weed growing out of cracks in the sidewalk.

"Sow thistle," he would say, pulling up a stray sprig with coarse ruffled leaves and a small yellow flower. "It looks like dandelion but it isn't."

What it is, he said, is a source of opium. The young couple seemed interested and asked how it could be harvested. With another laugh, Johnson answered evasively that the opium was in the milky sap.

In the park, several regulars stayed behind while Johnson led the toughest part of the hike along a quarter-mile of trail that was overgrown with native brush.

Next, the group stopped to look at rabbits in a cage behind a pet store and admired a cavalcade of Italian motorcycles parked at a motorcycle shop.

The young couple disappeared in the craft fair and were not seen again.

On the way back, Johnson said he founded the group five years ago because he was tired of Sierra Club hikes.

"All they do is hike," he said. "I like to talk."

His first week, only one young woman came, drawn by his announcement in a hiking magazine. They walked the trails behind Descanso Gardens, he said.

"She didn't come back."

Other women have come and gone, said one of Johnson's regulars, Lillian Liles, a private nurse who cares for a wealthy attorney.

"Some ladies come in their new pants and their high heels and their little sequined handbags hanging from their shoulders and think they're going to stroll through Descanso Gardens," she said.

The regulars return because they need the exercise and find Eddie a lot of fun, she said.

The group was spreading out as it passed Builders' Emporium on Foothill Boulevard. To those still clustered around him, Johnson was reciting the exploits of Vasquez the bandit, whose Robin Hood reputation was well-known in the area when Foothill Boulevard was still a stage route.

"A lot of the ladies were very heart-broken when they hanged him," Johnson said.

Then he pulled out a large, white flower growing under the freeway underpass.

"Angel Trumpet," he said. "It's poisonous, but the Aztecs used it to commune with the gods because it's a narcotic."

When the hike was over, a couple of the women went their ways. The rest joined Johnson for breakfast at Dona Maria's.

Next week's destination is Berkshire Bridge.

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