The sun set an hour ago, a red ball dropping into the sea, and in the moonlight that falls on the untamed hills of Griffith Park's east side, Jose Macias trudges up a steep dirt track called Cardiac Hill.
It's no easy feat for Macias. The substitute schoolteacher from East L.A., with hair pulled back into a ponytail exposing a friendly face glistening with sweat, weighs 270 pounds and stands 5 foot 7.
Leaning on a walking stick atop the woodsy incline, he breathes heavily, sucks down some water from a tube looping out of a fanny pack, and smiles as fellow hikers stream past him on the trail.
"It's great exercise," he says. "And you don't notice it as much when you're talking to people. Exercising in the gym, you can watch the clock just slowly tick by."
This is the world of night hikes — when Los Angeles is a sea of twinkling white lights and streaking red taillights, and where vast black voids hide myriad rolling hills blanketed with chaparral and scrub, oaks and sycamores.
From Griffith Park to Irvine to the Westside, cadres of hikers answer a call to hike these dark wilderness areas most nights of the week. They pound out tough miles in blackness and shadows, often mud, sometimes fog, without using flashlights, relying instead on moonlight, ambient city light and their own night vision.
Some come for the pleasure of a cool breeze after a long, hot day, or for the chance to hear a barn owl call from a nearby sycamore. Some come to share conversation or a post-hike meal; many have married after trudging along chaparral-lined trails together week after week.
But all who hike after sundown share a secret: Day hikes permit friends or strangers to maintain physical and mental distance at will, but night hikes are naturally intimate. Darkness kindles instincts to stay close, and the absence of conversation and sunlit details gives added importance to what is actually said and seen.
In Griffith Park, dirt fire roads and narrow paths used by deer, bobcats and coyotes wind through the flora haphazardly. Macias and others follow these routes.
On this autumn night, he's one of 19 hikers snaking up a string of dirt paths en route to Mt. Taco, a high point that takes its nickname from an odd-shaped water tank.
At the head of the pack is Carl Lowe, a retired aerospace worker with a kind face under a tidy sweep of gray hair. The lean 67-year-old has been leading Sierra Club hikes in Griffith Park for eight years.
"It's been a wonderful time, seeing people come and go," he says. "Some come there and meet and get married, that's quite a pull … Most of all, it keeps people younger, this exercise with a view."
Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday hikers gather for the free hikes led by volunteers from the local chapter of the Sierra Club. The hikes start at 7 p.m. sharp, from a parking lot near the park's merry-go-round, and they finish up at 9.
On this cool evening, 50-some hikers have shown up. In midsummer, six times as many may turn out to tear up the trails.
At the beginning of the hikes, Louis Alvarado, known as the "mayor of Griffith Park" for his longtime service as hike organizer, introduces Lowe and other leaders and calls out the hikes according to their level of difficulty. A No. 1 is literally a walk in the park; a No. 6, the most difficult level, is flat-out trail running. On this night, Lowe leads a No. 3 — a moderately difficult hike.
Lowe's hikers leave the illuminated parking lot and plunge into the darkness. After waiting a minute or two for their eyes to adjust, hikers follow Lowe up a choppy, narrow ridge path.
Unlike day hikes, on which you can scan the landscape while making tracks, darkness demands tunnel vision. Hikers rarely take their eyes off the ground directly ahead of them. Differentiating a harmless shadow from an ankle-breaking rut or a branch from a rattlesnake isn't something that can be done from the corner of one's eye.
But darkness heightens the senses. Above the din of conversations and warnings called out by Lowe and others — "deep hole on left," "watch the loose rock here" — the brain registers the swoosh of freeway noise, the Rice Krispies crackle of footsteps on leaves and dry twigs, the constant chirping of crickets seeking companionship.
Although plants and trees are within arm's reach, their colors are reduced to shades of black, gray and brown, and their shapes become shadowy masses lacking telling features. Hikers inhale California fuchsia, yucca and sage, but in the faint moonlight their flowers are indiscernible.
"Slow down," a woman yells out to Lowe. She's miffed by the quick pace but softens her tone by quickly adding: "You've got twinkle toes."
Lowe stops to let her, Lynn Fleischer and a few other stragglers catch up. "This is really tough for me," Fleischer says. "I used to do fours all the time but got lazy, and I work too much."