King of the Hill

Photos by Anne Fishbein

Thirty years ago this month, Sol Shankman suffered his first angina attack. His doctor told him he’d better get busy, and a neighbor suggested he start walking in Griffith Park, just up the hill from the Los Feliz businessman’s home. So Shankman took to the hills for a hike of some three miles, as he has done almost every day since, stopping only for illness or travel and never due to inclement weather (though he does start at 6:30 a.m. to beat the sun and heat). “If I miss a day, I feel it,” he says. “My life is very park-oriented — it comes first, not second. I love it.”

The hiking isn’t so easy now, or quite so fast, but that hasn’t really slowed him. The proof of that was in the slew of hikers at Shankman’s 90th birthday party in August. Just about everyone who walks the trails knows Sol, including Koreans who bow and call him “Papa.” He estimates that 80 percent of his friends are people he has met in the park.

That is important for a man who has survived two wives. “In 1980, my first wife died, and I was absolutely devastated. I walked every single day, including the day she died and the day of the funeral.” And at 86, after his second partner died, Shankman fell in love with a woman he met walking, and she with him. “To fall in love at 86 didn’t seem like a reasonable possibility,” he says with quiet amazement.

Now suffering from macular degeneration, Shankman can no longer read without a magnifying glass, but he still has a keen eye for plant and animal life. On a recent walk, he offered a wild mustard bloom to a companion and asked if she could see a long-stemmed white flower blooming anywhere. “It’s about time for them,” he says. “Coming up here to see the greenery, I don’t need a glass. I feel the presence of a hawk, or the quail. When I’m reincarnated — and I don’t believe in it — I want to come back a hawk.” Whatever happens, Shankman’s will provides some $15,000 to the city — to help create more parks.

When he was younger, Shankman took a far more impressive hike, walking (over several weekends) the California beach from the Mexican border to the Oregon line. But it is Griffith Park that has sustained him. “The park has been a perfect retirement. It soothes me, it caresses me, it tells me that it’s okay to go on living.”

And the relationship continues to evolve. Occasionally, Shankman plants something. One year it was 100 Watsonia bulbs, another time he spread a pound of (or about 500,000) poppy seeds. More recently, with the help of some of his friends, he placed an old outdoor chair at a junction on the trail. He put it there just in case he gets tired and needs to sit down and rest a while. He hasn’t used it yet.

—Tom Christie


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