Sometimes Eric Stolp's head fills with voices. They squawk and yammer and scream this warning: Los Angeles' angels are bad angels, evil angels, the fallen angels of Satan.
Watch his intense eyes scanning the grubby Skid Row skyline and you can almost see vulture-winged creatures hovering in the shadows, waiting for night to fall. Even in broad daylight, it's not hard to understand why Stolp itches to flee this Hieronymus Bosch landscape by catching a Greyhound for Maine.
"The green! The trees!" he'll say, tugging at a strand of beard, stroking his mad-scientist mop of hair. "It's so much more life-giving."
But Mollie Lowery knows that nature alone can't deliver Stolp from his demons. So here they sit, looking straight into each other's eyes.
If she is thinking about the time he assaulted her, it doesn't show.
As he sits on a cot covered with clean, threadbare blankets in this well-lighted refuge that Lowery helped to create, Stolp says what he's thinking:
"I trust you, Mollie."
And trust isn't easy for someone like Stolp, who sometimes puts more faith in the voices in his head than those spoken by human lips. That becomes particularly problematic when he hits the road, as Lowery gently reminds him.
Not that she is immune to the call of the wild.
Truth be told, Lowery had hoped to be living now on her own 47-acre swatch of paradise, preparing for what she calls her "third major production"--leading llama packing tours into the electroshock beauty of the Eastern Sierra.
Plans changed, though. Her highly touted programs for homeless people with mental illness--LAMP, LAMP Village and LAMP Lodge--still need her. The merry band of activists who have sworn allegiance to her unusual vision still struggle to make it their own.
So, for now, Lowery still hikes among the Skid Row sanctuaries, through streets decorated with graffiti and razor wire, where pandemonium hammers the ears and the smell of urine hits high in the sinuses.
For now, she remains cheerful in her self-imposed limbo.
As they sit in this remote meadow, a six-hour drive from L.A., it's easy to envision the scenes Lowery and Virginia Orenos paint of their adventures in the mountains behind them: hauling backpacks into bear-scarred trees, fording swollen rivers with climbing ropes, crossing High Sierra passes where lungs grasp for wisps of oxygen.
When they pause between stories, return to their tuna sandwiches, Witcher Creek chuckles . . . a scrub jay squawks . . . the aroma of sun-baked pine duff mixes with the tranquilizing scent of sage.
They have hiked out to this secret spot on a Saturday morning, on one of Lowery's rare escapes from the city. Now, on the three-mile stroll back to "the property," Lowery's long legs promptly haul her into the lead.
After 18 years as Lowery's backpacking partner and frequent accomplice in altruism, Orenos says she is used to scrambling to keep pace.
She recalls, for instance, the trip that planted the seed for Lowery's latest project. One afternoon, the pair lay on the bank of Lake Sabrina, alone in the wilderness. Orenos dreamily offered: "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a house near here?"
Orenos grins. "Two months later, Mollie called. She had returned and taken photographs of several properties. She said, 'Want to go in on a place?' "
Orenos, a Guatemala-born special-education teacher, didn't have the money, so Lowery used an inheritance to purchase a pink cinder-block house on 15 acres, on a gentle slope far below Sierra peaks and high above the Owens Valley. When an adjacent 32 acres came on the market, she and a friend managed to buy them, too. Then, characteristically, Lowery began cooking up plans to let others in on her good fortune.
Eastern Sierra locals put Lowery's chances of realizing her latest vision--of getting the permits to raise llamas and to lead pack trips into the Sierra wilderness--at slim to none.
But none of them has seen what she does on Skid Row.
Paul Koegel, a Rand Corp. anthropologist, spent two years studying Downtown's mentally ill population--the most difficult group for care-givers and policy-makers. Ditching his behavioral scientist's reserve, Koegel confides: "I'm slightly in awe of Mollie."
In 1989, after numerous squabbles and setbacks, Lowery and crew launched LAMP Village, a transitional housing facility for the homeless mentally ill. County supervisor Ed Edelman called it "a beacon in bleakness."
At the opening ceremonies, Mayor Tom Bradley leaned to Lowery and said, "This is true grit." Then, uncharacteristically, he gave her a big public hug.
Now, Bradley adds: "Her low-key approach sort of catches you off guard. But before you know it, she's like a whirling dervish, getting things done, and you don't know how it happened."
Lowery was born Mollie Ellen Raddatz in August, 1945. A middle child amid six brothers and sisters, she grew up on the border of Panorama City and Van Nuys, in a stucco tract house on a pepper-tree-lined dirt road.