The early-morning sun has just begun to gleam off the towers of Wilshire Boulevard as Renee Kelly leans against a wall on Grand Avenue, her chin slightly raised, her demeanor seemingly detached from 18 Crenshaw High students and alums raising an Eco-Club banner for a photo — “Building Bridges to the Outdoors,” it says. I take in Kelly’s French-manicured, square-tipped fingernails, her bejeweled sunglasses, her thick black hair twisted and tucked neatly under a black baseball hat. Then I walk over to her to ask whether she knows what she’s in for: a 13-mile walk down Wilshire to the sea.
“I did it three years ago,” she tells me. “So let’s see if I still got it. I’m middle-aged now.”
She is 19.
Three hours and nine miles later, as I limp along beside her, nursing blisters, under the 405 overpass in Westwood, Kelly’s hair is still neat and her lips are still glossy. She turns and asks me about my first impression of her.
“I didn’t think you’d be this friendly,” I admit. “And I didn’t think you could finish this hike.”
She shoots me a look.
“The bangles threw me,” I explain, pointing to the jingling column of gold on her wrist.
“Oh,” she laughs. “I do trail work with my bangles on. I forget that they’re there.”
As it turns out, Kelly, the daughter of Jamaican parents who never once went camping, earned her outdoorswoman credentials three years ago, when Bill Vanderberg, the Eco-Club’s leader and dean of students at Crenshaw High, persuaded her to come on a camping trip to Death Valley. Kelly was in 10th grade then, and perilously close to dropping out of school.
“I was going through things,” she says.
The trip turned her life around.
“It was freezing cold,” she remembers. “The wind was snapping in our faces, our tents blew down, and everything broke. All our cars got stuck in the mud.” But she got to play on the magnificent Eureka Sand Dunes, and saw the precipitous, snowcapped Panamint Mountains rising high above the salty flats at Badwater. “I realized that if I wanted to go on more trips, I had to show up at school more,” she says. “And so I did.”
Kelly graduated last year, and now studies nursing at Tuskegee, with plans to be a park ranger on the side.
Just past 12:30 p.m., Vanderberg calls for a break and pulls out a map. We are at Barrington in Brentwood, having already marched through the Miracle Mile, past the La Brea Tar Pits, down the moneyed stretches of Beverly Hills, where the women perched at sidewalk café tables with their stretched cheeks and puffy lips looked like some odd species of bird, and one student, Mar’cel Stribling, observed socks in a window costing $3,000. (“They better have a lifetime warranty!” he declared.)
“This is going to be the tough hour,” Vanderberg confides. “It’s been four hours already, and we’ve got some complaints coming in about feet.”
A fit, no-nonsense kind of guy with tea-colored skin and a friendly smattering of freckles, Vanderberg took over the Eco-Club a few years ago and began to model it along the lines of the Boy Scouts, in which both his sons had participated. “I wanted it to be like the Scouts they have in Europe,” he says, “coed and without the morals.” He motivates people with a balance of encouragement and I’ll-bet-you-can’t-do-it daring. Even his secretary, Annice Muhammed, came on the hike in part to prove to her boss that she can do it.
“He thought I’d be a typical female, and I’d be complaining the whole time,” she says. “I told him, ‘You don’t know what I’ve lived through already.’ ”
It occurs to me that Vanderberg’s doubt may have just been an effective motivational strategy. As he folds up the map, Vanderberg looks down sternly at one girl’s feet; she’s wearing slip-on tennies. “Where are your socks?” he demands.
“I’m not answering,” says the girl, 18-year-old Maria Diego, batting the world’s longest eyelashes.
Diego is last year’s Eco-Club president, and she’s spent the whole day walking with her friend Carla Rivera, 17. The two have known each other since elementary school but only got to be friends on a backpacking trip to Yosemite. “And now we’re ‘Diego Rivera’!” chirps Rivera.
“I got close to Mr. Vanderberg because I wasn’t a real good student and I had to go and talk to him a lot,” says Diego. The Yosemite trip was their first, and it was exhausting. She and Rivera struggled to keep up along steep switchbacks, and Kelly, the club’s president back then, worked hard to keep their spirits up. “She was always motivating me,” says Diego. “And at the end, I looked back and realized I’d done something I thought I could never do.”
Did it improve her schoolwork?
“For a while,” she says, looking down at her inadequately shod feet. “I got off track again this year.”
“Sometimes she needs to be bad,” Rivera teases.
“But now it’s okay again,” Diego says. “I just had to get back to nature.”
At 2 p.m., we hit Lincoln Boulevard. Diego and Rivera start running into the ocean breeze. Vanderberg shouts to them to slow down, but it’s no use. When we cross Ocean Avenue and hit the soft dirt of the walking path, Miss Muhammed, as the students call her, lets out a whoop and high-fives everyone around her. Mar’cel Stribling boasts loudly that he could walk the whole thing again. Renee Kelly, however, gold earrings glinting, camera swinging calmly from her wrist, just beams a broad, quiet smile.