Summer’s Welcome Man

It is about 6:30 p.m. The heat of the day is dissipating, and the evening aromas of Griffith Park’s native foliage begin to waft around a cluster of maybe two dozen people in sneakers and daypacks.

“Welcome, everyone!” shouts a large, cheerful, gray-haired man, his arms spread wide, a football clutched in one hand, a colorful map of Griffith Park printed on his T-shirt. “It’s the longest day of the year!”

Behind him is Griffith Observatory, fenced off for construction. Ahead is a short trot up the trail to the summit of Mount Hollywood, and a spectacular sunset, moonrise and ceremonial tribute to the summer solstice.

“This is the Charlie Turner trail,” shouts the man, quickly adding, “named after Charlie Turner.” Then a plaque honoring George Harrison, “who by the way was my favorite Beatle. Anyone else, your favorite Beatle?” Then to a woman in office clothes: “You ever ride in a police car? You want to ride shotgun? Hey! Tell the fire truck to come back! Is KTLA up there?”

This is Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, a one-man celebration of all things L.A., the platonic image of a small-town mayor mysteriously transplanted to the nation’s second largest city. And the host of an annual June 21 hike up Mount Hollywood. LaBonge himself has been hiking up this hill — okay, this mountain — every summer solstice since the early 1980s. In a city with few civic rituals, this one marks the unstoppable clock of nature as does, say, a grunion hunt, and combines it with the friendly pomp of City Hall.

“We’ll see you up there,” says LaBonge, who turns to give instructions to staffers in cars from the city motor pool. Most of the group moves on up the Charlie Turner trail. But I’ll wait for LaBonge.

And here he is. “Isn’t this beautiful?” he asks. Up the trail the view is even better, with the Palos Verdes Peninsula and, behind it, Catalina. The ocean itself is invisible, shrouded by the marine layer. Or is that smog?

LaBonge now has disappeared, caught up in a discussion with some staffers. Up the trail is Captain’s Roost, where the native plants give way to the staples of L.A. backyards — oleander, bottlebrush, jacaranda — then, beyond, back to the sages and the artemisias, the same fragrant plants that greet hikers in most of the natural spaces left in the city, from Will Rogers to Runyon Canyon to Debs Park.

And now, at the top, there are dozens more people — where did they come from? — and two fire trucks, a row of flags from many nations, and tables of potluck dishes from around the world. And here’s LaBonge, who caught a ride in a city car. He climbs on a picnic bench and, again, spreads his arms wide.

“Welcome to the greatest spot in the whole wide world!” shouts LaBonge. “Mount Hollywood! Griffith Park, Hollywood, California!”

There are introductions, speeches, posing for photos, a reminder to everyone not to forget the annual September walk from Mission San Gabriel to Olvera Street to commemorate the city’s founders.

“When’s our hike next year?” LaBonge quizzes the crowd, then provides his own answer.

“June 21. Every year. June 21! The first day of summer!”

Then there’s a bustle of packing up and loading city cars, and people scramble for a spot on one of the fire engines. No one seems to notice, at a minute or two past 8 o’clock, the sun dip behind a mountain to the left of the Hollywood sign. The streetlights glitter below in the eastern San Fernando Valley.

We’re walking down the wide trail now, but my wife says it doesn’t look quite right. A black car bounces from behind us and pulls alongside, and the window rolls down. It’s LaBonge.

“This is the long way,” he warns. “You want a ride back to the top for the shorter trail?” No, we’ll walk back up, but thanks.

“This is the spot, huh?”

It is. Especially now, as the giant, perfectly full moon rises to the east, directly opposite from where the sun just went down. It’s an electric shade of orange, deepened, no doubt, by the day’s accumulation of smog in the distant San Gabriel Valley.


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