Joe Douglass, 92, has led a hiking group on weekly treks through Topanga… (Sandy Banks / Los Angeles…)
It sounded like a leisurely stroll on a lovely morning.
I'd been invited by an 80-year-old retired teacher to join a troupe of senior citizens on their weekly hike through Topanga State Park. They begin across the street from a Tarzana country club and end with breakfast at Gelson's bakery.
How hard could this expedition be? I'm 35 years younger than the group's leader. I ride my bike, walk my dogs and own a few workout DVDs.
But by the time we reached the crest of the Caballero Canyon trailhead, my glutes were groaning, my breathing was heavy and my calves were crying for relief.
The old folks weren't trying to show me up. The physical challenge wasn't the point.
I was there to witness their commitment to a 30-year ritual that is easing their way into life's winter by grounding them in perennial spring.
The gear was the first clue I was out of my league. My hiking companions, in their 80s, had water bottles strapped to their fanny packs and wore sturdy boots, caps and gloves.
I had my cellphone, my notebook, my asthma inhaler and my Kim Kardashian-style toning shoes. "She's wearing rockers," one woman whispered, clearly troubled by my footwear choice. Another offered me her walking stick when we had to navigate a rocky hill.
They seemed to know every inch of this 11,000-acre urban wilderness, with its shadowy forests, rocky ravines and 36 miles of meandering trails. In 30 years, they've seen old trails swallowed up by new homes and foothills charred by wildfires change from black to green again.
About a dozen hikers typically turn out for the Tuesday morning trek each week. The youngest is 59. The oldest are in their 80s — that is, if you don't count the expedition's leader, 92-year-old Joe Douglass.
Douglass, who lives in Atwater Village, began bringing them here in the early 1980s, when a few hikers from his Sierra Club group wanted something close to their San Fernando Valley homes. The group swelled to dozens over the years, adding spouses, neighbors, tennis partners and friends from the gym, the office and the kids' carpool line.
The troupe has weathered illnesses, defections and deaths to become an indispensable social outlet. When Eleanor Coskey lost her husband and hiking partner, "this was my support," she said. "I knew I could come here every week and they would help me through" the grieving process.
And Douglass is "the glue that keeps us all together," said Nena Lefitz, the retired teacher who invited me to visit.
Douglass led the hikes until last summer, when surgery for a kidney stone led to serious complications and a months-long convalescence. He's on the mend now but not up to hiking. But he shows up almost every Tuesday, walks the level part of the entrance road, then sits and waits on one of the boulders scattered along the trail for the group's return.
At 92, he's ruggedly handsome in his hiking boots, sunglasses and jeans. A widower and retired engineer, Douglass was a solitary hiker in his youth.
He never imagined he'd collect a pack of admirers who consider him their wilderness guru.
Douglass calls the group his Tuesday Morning Irregulars. "They don't all like to hike," he told me. "Some won't stay if it's too hot or too wet or too cold."
A tall man in a safari hat chimed in. "Some of us only show up for the Gelson's gathering afterward," he joked.
But most of them turn out week after week, year after year, in sunscreen, parkas or raincoats. Sometimes they haul gardening tools up to the top of Caballero Canyon to lop off limbs that block the trails and root out invasive weeds.
Douglass has taught them to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds them. "You see the flowers start budding; you know what's coming," said C.C. Villines, who joined the group 13 years ago.
She greeted Douglass on Tuesday with the news that two more tiny leaves had sprouted on the misplaced iris that seems to defy the canyon's hostile surroundings and blossom every year. The observation delighted him.
His absence on the weekly walks has been, for the hikers, a sobering reminder of life's fragility.
Douglass doesn't bother to sugarcoat his irritation at the loss of independence.
It's painful for a man who used to hike the High Sierra alone and backpack 100 miles a year to suddenly require an aide and a walker to make it up a tiny hill.
Last year, he was riding his motorcycle and leading two long hikes each week. "I was having fun at 91. At 92, I could barely get out of bed," he said.
His illness struck just before his birthday last summer. "It was miserable. Miserable," Douglass said. "Worst birthday I ever had. Everything just changed so fast."
His infirmity might make him less valuable as a physical guide but more precious as a model for life.
"Some didn't think he was going to make it," Villines confessed. "We had to ask ourselves how much longer are we going to have him, this man who's taught us all so much?"
His hikers, after all, are aging too. "Something Joe has instilled in us is 'Enjoy the journey,' " said Hallie Mason, who is recovering from back surgery. She can't return to hiking yet but comes every week for the camaraderie.
"I used to hike with the Sierra Club," she said. "You walk as fast as you can, as far as you can. You brag about how much ground you cover.
"Here, we just enjoy the day and each other's company. If it wasn't for Joe, we'd just be trudging up a mountain — not enjoying everything around us."