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Stairway to Heaven

First published in the May 21 print issue of the Glendale News Press.

Everybody is afraid of something, as they say. For me it’s women and mimes, particularly female mimes. You never know what female mimes are thinking, which is spooky.
Speaking of spooky, how about the hike we took the other day, past the portals of hell down near NASA JPL in La Cañada Flintridge. Devil’s Gate Dam has a rep as a playground for the occult, and there are steamy stories of seances and love affairs and mysterious disappearances. The place is a little creepy to begin with, what with that devil’s visage in the surrounding rock and all that graffiti on the underpass.
And a new lake has popped up, suddenly, amid a severe drought. Like I said, spooky.
Back in the 1940s, an aerospace genius by the name of Jack Parsons grazed these grounds. Parsons was the ultimate mad scientist, as influential perhaps as Wernher von Braun. When he wasn’t inventing new rocket fuels, he was running off with his wife’s sister. Then his buddy L. Ron Hubbard stole the sister.
Obviously, Parsons and Hubbard were pretty tight, and together they reached out to other worlds, including the occult at Devil’s Gate Dam. Later, in the ’50s, a couple of children vanished there. A serial killer later confessed, though the bodies were never located. Hence, theories about the portals of hell still abound.
Now, we’re hiking it. What a pure and pristine place to take 50 hikers on a too toasty afternoon. If I can’t be with my grandbaby, why not 50 complete strangers, some stranger than others. But all pals, you know. One way or another.
They are all part of this exercise group, the Happy Hour Hiking Club, a rag-tag army of ne’er-do-wells, teachers, exotic dancers, singers, media types, pickpockets, attorneys — just a cross-section of America, really.
We meet for hikes across Southern California, then shuffle off to a local dive to hydrate. When the hike ended Saturday, we fled to Dish, which is about as divey as a Burke Williams, about as earthy as La Cañada gets.
Anyway, you should join this rag-tag hiking club some time. We’ve been doing it for years. Along the way, we have managed a few smiles, a few friendships, a marriage or two, even more divorces, some curt and hurtful asides, some gimpy knees (on Saturday, poor Beverly ganked a knee).

First we hike, then we drink: Join the Happy Hour Hiking Club.

So really, it’s like a family, this group. Camaraderie. Pain. Bloodshed.
You know that drop-off point at the high school, amid the Wizard of Oz oaks? Probably not, but that’s where we met up for this hike to the portals of hell.
“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” I said in my pre-hike pep talk, quoting Churchill. “We have before us many, many long months of … hiking.”
I think that sums up this marvelous sport pretty well.
The last time we hiked was in November. That’s how long it took me to recover.
Yet, there is no doubt I’m a real man. I mean, I’m brusque with contractors and demanding of maître d’s. I can saddle a horse, install a dishwasher and I vacuum the house almost daily. I’m sort of a real man/housewife, which is pretty common these days.
On the plus side, I once wrote the entire lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” on the back of a matchbook cover, on a warm prairie night outside Chicago in 1973, with Becky Metschke sitting sideways on my lap. That was quite the feat, given how much Old Milwaukee she’d had. She’d slide off, I’d write another line, she’d climb back on, I’d write another line. Very formative years.
Despite that early trauma, my legs still worked fairly well. Then I blew out my left schnitzel during COVID. My bad. I thought I could jog my way out of the alienation and ennui that had swept across our little town. As it turns out, gin helped a whole lot better.
Then I quit gin. Well, as the New Girl will tell you, I quit gin every morning and resume gin every night.
To her credit, the New Girl doesn’t judge. She just sits sideways on my lap, slipping ice cubes into my mouth, telling me little fibs. In between, she knits.
She is also quite brainy and, from all accounts, drop-dead gorgeous, which is really lost on me because I appreciate people only for what’s on the inside, not the outside, which explains Bittner and Billable Bob. And Big Wave Dave. And most of all Miller … all the demented sidekicks who have gotten me through these mad and difficult past few years.
And you, for instance, always you.
Marry me, dear reader. What a hike we could have.

To sign up for the Happy Hour Hiking Club, go to the columnist’s website, ChrisErskineLA.com. On the blue box to the right, click for info on the Happy Hour Hiking Club.

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