The story of how two friends hiked up a hill and jumped into the lives of strangers.
The story of how two friends hiked up a hill and jumped into the lives of strangers.
Two bottles of wine is how I got here. Two bottles of good red wine and I’m in LA. A spontaneous stop-off in the Lord Stanley in Camden, London, with my wife and a follow-up at the off license on the way home is it all takes, it seems, to fly 5,500 miles. As we got in she decided she wanted to visit her best friend who was writing a script in Hollywood. By the end of the first glass she’d booked the cheapest tickets she could find. By the end of the bottle, wine-fuelled jealousy ensured I’d IM’d friend and photographer Dan Wilton, visiting the West Coast on a photo shoot, to see if he fancied staying on and getting an airbnb with me. He did. I booked. We finished the wine and four days later were in a taxi at LAX.
Friends for ten years, Dan and I decided that, instead of the usual Londoner-abroad plan of hitting bars and sleeping ’til noon, we’d take a trip to Runyon – one of the city’s most popular hiking trails in the Hollywood Hills – and dig around for a story. The plan is simple but loose: meet, photograph and speak to people, and see where things go from there.
The park doesn’t look like much when you arrive, an old gate at its entrance leads along a dusty path – desert dust, fine and orange. People do yoga on a patch of grass as you enter and the main path splits in two, both directions, snaking up and around the scrub-covered canyon in a series of rising hairpins. You can see the enthusiasm drain from people’s legs at the first corner as they realise that this is actually a fairly seriously steep hill. Such is the American psyche; there is no going back.
Struggling with Dan’s camera equipment we take the shorter, but way steeper route to the peak where we can see tiny folk gathering in the distance. We huff and puff our way up there and, after one or two pauses to ‘just take in the view from here, yeah?’ we join them. It’s busy for sure, a steady stream of people stagger to the top, smiles cracking across their faces as they’ve climbed their own personal mountain. The majority of people stop, lean on the bench (or use it to do press ups) and take a selfie with the magnificent view immediately. Other, more serious types run up and carry on, doing laps, teeth gritted with determination and mild annoyance at the crowds in their way. Every type of person you can imagine is at the top: guys with baggy pants and big dogs, fifty-year-old fitness fanatics with twenty-year-old bodies; the rich, the very rich, the definitely not rich, tourists, guys and girls flirting with other guys and other girls – if there was better reception Tinder and Grindr would break up here. All walks of life talk to each other, help take pictures of groups, comment on dogs, do press ups, do lunges, shoot the breeze with their common man. It’s a heart-warming and communal sight in a city that has big, invisible barriers between social circles.
We stand and let it all sink in (get our breath back) and figure we should get on and meet some people. It can’t be that hard, this is LA and everyone likes to talk about themselves, plus they love London accents, right? Right. Our first subject is a no-brainer; two girls with matching outfits, matching sunny dispositions and matching dip-dyed toy dogs. Yeah, their dog’s ears were dyed purple and green. They are so LA. Michelle and Haylee and their dogs Sophie and Chanel are more than happy to pose and chat. Within minutes we find out that they met at Berkeley and their ex-boyfriends were in the same fraternity, they almost were in the same sorority but Michelle opted to do student government instead, they started dying the dog’s ears at first, then tried the tail, then the legs, then tried multi-colours – it’s as addictive as getting tattoos, they tell us, Haylee is the only one that gets Michelle, she understands her vision, and she’s the only person who dyed her dog too. People might think it’s crazy, but she gets it.
Their chat is one long sentence, punctuated occasionally with commas. But we’re off, our project, which was just an idea before we climbed Runyon had become a thing.
We meet a girl whose mum, resplendent in a pink velour tracksuit and bags of hustle and enthusiasm, is hell bent on her becoming a model. And not just a model, as soon as she becomes a model the mum has plans to create a TV programme about her model daughter and their life. They leave after giving several email contacts and numbers. “I don’t think she’ll become a model,” Dan says to me out of the corner of his mouth.
We realise two things; everyone speaks fast in LA. And the top of a canyon is a really hot place to be.
A topless guy comes over, interested in what we’re doing. His glasses latched into his neck chain, he’s wearing blue shorts and has the skin of a man who takes his top off a lot. He introduces himself as Bill Wagner III and, when we ask what he does, proudly announces, “I am finance!” What does that even mean? “People ask what you do and your essence is what you do. I describe myself as finance because I spend my life getting money for clients,” he explains. “I get money for people and I’ve been doing it for ten years or so now. You asked me one question and I answered with one word, I am Finance. That’s it.”
Bill Wagner III is visiting from Houston, Texas. He’s a character, that’s for sure; gravelly voiced with 100mph chatter. A real sharer: “I know I don’t look very Mexican; I look more like a German guy, but I’m from Mexico City. I speak Spanish and Portuguese and I’ve travelled all over the world but I’m more than half Mexican, my mom’s Mexican, all my uncles are Mexican, everybody’s Mexican in our family. We moved to Minnesota so I grew up playing hockey and all that stuff – I was the only Latino guy in my whole town. Then I joined the Navy when I got out of school. I was on aircraft carriers doing missions in the Mediterranean, going down to the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, over to Australia. We dealt with a lot of the Aussies back then and partied in Perth. There are more women in that damn town than you know what to do with. There would be like six women to every guy in Perth. If you like women, it’s a fucking paradise.”
Dan and I realise that we’re not just standing on the top of a canyon in LA, getting gently sunburnt and taking pictures. It’s transporting us into the lives of complete strangers. We’ve worked together interviewing and photographing hundreds of bands and public figures. But there’s no press release for these people, there are no fallback questions. This project is actually quite intimate and personal. If only for a few minutes, we’re exploring that person’s life. We’ve just grown up in Mexico, been a lone Latino teen playing hockey in Minneapolis and then a horny sailor, far from home and landing in a nirvana of hot ladies. It carries on as we live more lives. We share people’s holidays, celebrate anniversaries and birthdays, become millionaire grandmas in Cape Cod sweaters, Korean tattooists and hippy guitarists, army men training with their sergeants, a guy with ‘Toonerville’ tattooed on his back and TVR on his head (we later find out it stands for a pretty badass gang), a Mexican engineer dressed head to toe in stars-and-stripes Lycra cycling outfit who rides for an hour before climbing the canyon every week in an effort to keep his beer belly at bay. Joel, a scruffy guy with a poodle called Pony lets us into the story of how he came to be holding his really old, one-toothed dog; he got Pony at a pagan festival from a religious sect wearing white robes and turbans who had found him in the Laguna Mountains being raised by feral cats and could not keep him at their temple as they were on their way to India. “He even jumps like a cat,” says Joel proudly.
People stop by and just want to talk – worryingly a lot of people have never seen a film camera before. A burly man in a bright orange T-shirt and what appears to be a bulletproof vest stops by – he definitely has seen a film camera. “Have you ever seen the video for Outkast’s Hey Ya?” He asks, “I directed that.” He knows how the reflectors we’ve brought with us work too and positions one to throw light under his peaked cap as we take his portrait. Bryan Barber, it turns out, is a big-time music video producer and his vest isn’t to protect his neck, it’s filled with 30lb of weights – he’s hitting the trail for the first time in a year to get in shape. “I am proud of that video,” he says. “I know the Outkast guys from when I was in film school, that’s when I met them. We kind of developed together; I developed as a filmmaker and they developed as a big, international pop group. A girl who lived in the apartment above mine dated Andre, so when I was doing a student film he would come to my table reads.” Then, putting into words what Dan and I had noticed, he says, “Everyone’s equal on the mountain because you have earned your way up there. It has nothing to do with your economic background or your ethnicity.”
The favourite person we meet is also the quietest. She’s called Yolande, a mild, older lady with sparkly eyes and genuine warmth about her. She opens her incredible story casually mentioning she was a Playboy Bunny in Chicago for four years until she moved to LA in 1972. “I was running away from a very bad guy: a Greek who thought he owned me,” she says. “Then I met Yabo Yablonsky who wrote Escape To Victory – that movie with Sylvester Stallone, Pelé and Michael Caine. We used to live just off Mulholland in a little cul-de-sac called Woody Trail. We’d have parties right in the middle of our road; there was another writer next door to us, the grand dame of improvisational comedy Viola Spolin lived across from us and was always having great parties with great actors. Down the street there was a hypnotist and then next door there was Sir Lancelot. He was an exotic personality, he fought in the Korean War and came back a very damaged soul, but he was so exotic and so funny that we became very good friends. There was a little lady right across from our property who lived in this little cabin. She was called Blanche and one of the first pioneers who came from Oklahoma, avoiding the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. She was about eighteen years old, got on her horse, rode to LA, got herself a job in the movie industry and saved up money to buy pieces of property for $1 an acre. She bought all this land around the Canyon and built her cabin on her days off. She was there until she was 102. She died right in her own property. She was a very interesting woman.”
It’s not your usual adventure story, there’s no peril at all, but it is one about how two Englishmen went up a mountain and come down having explored over thirty wildly different people’s lives. All because of a little red wine.
Canyon, a book by Dan Wilton and Josh Jones, is published by Ditto Press.