I arrive at the Westridge Road Trailhead around 6:30am expecting the small parking lot to be empty as it is every Monday morning. Why there are so many cars at the trailhead? And what’s this police car doing parked at a 45-degree angle, sticking out into the street? Is someone being robbed?
The dirt lot, which holds nine cars is jammed, but with only about four black cars parked askew. I see an open spot, I try to pull in, but these cars aren’t following the usual routine and it’s not going to work.
“What’s going on?” I ask the woman standing by the first car. “Police activity?”
“No,” is all she answers.
“You guys know you’re taking up about five parking places, right?” I say.
No answer. I turn my car around and drive about 75 yards down the hill to street-side parking. There are two motorcycle cops standing and talking across the street. Good thing I have leashes in the car for my two pointers that usually jump out directly from the car onto the trail. Just as I get the first leash on Rosie, I hear the woman’s voice calling to me.
“Ma’am! We’re moving this car. Do you want to park here?”
“I do!” I answer and get back in the car to make my life easier.
I thank the woman and let Rosie and Angle out the back of the car. They race up the trail, knowing exactly where we’re going since we do this nearly 300 times a year.
Start of the trailhead. Notice the trash can 400 yards up the trail.
Within a few minutes, we run into Jill, one of the “regulars” that I see almost every morning up here on the hill.
“Do you know what happened down below? I saw police cars.”
“Michelle Obama is here,” she says and smiles.
“Wow! You saw her?”
“Yes, I said, ‘hi’ and she said ‘hi.’”
“How cool! How far do you think they’re going?”
“I saw them around the oak tree, so they might be going all the way to the Nike tower.”
“Darn it! I came up here late so I could time it to get groceries afterward. I could have been here on time and seen her, too. I can’t believe I missed her.”
“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” Jill said. She walks back down to the trailhead and I continue up the trail, thinking how I wished I had been there at dawn as usual. How disappointing to have missed a chance to see the most elegant First Lady since Jackie Kennedy!
Next I run into Castela and her golden retriever, Beau.
“Did you see Michelle Obama?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she says excitedly. “There were lots of people around her. I recognized her, but I couldn’t remember her name. I pointed and said ‘I know you!’ Cort was with me. He was throwing the ball for Beau when they walked past.
Castela walks back down the trail and I keep going up, feeling myself fall farther and farther behind the group I would love to catch. Almost at the 1-mile mark is a sign designating this trail as part of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. This had been my intended turn-around point before I heard we had impressive company on our trail. If I turn around now, there’s no chance I’ll see the Obama group even as they come back down the trail. Maybe if I go to “The View,” as we call it, I’ll see them coming back down. It’s warmer than usual even for early in the morning, and I don’t have water for the dogs, but this is a special event and I decide to stretch us all a bit to make a try for an historic sighting of political royalty.
I run into Debra and her golden doodle Charlie. She’s buzzing with excitement.
“I saw her,” she says, assuming I know what’s happening. “I spoke with some of the secret service guys at the trailhead and heard them announcing the people who were coming up the trail to the other guys on their team.”
“Wow, looks like I missed her. Doggone it!”
“Yes, it’s thrilling to have her here with us.”
I keep going, but several times waiver, ready to admit defeat and simply slink back home. But each time, I remind myself that I had decided to go to The View, so OK, I’ll go to The View.
Luckily for Rosie and Angel, we run into Cort and Michael, two more regulars. Michael has a bottle of water with him and is happy to give my girls a drink. Both men eagerly tell me about seeing Michelle and her group of eight to ten people.
“They’re moving at a really good speed,” Cort says.
I thank Michael for the water and once again convince myself to do what I said I was going to do – go to The View. When I get there, a prominence overlooking the entire area, I don’t see anyone on the trail. I can see 100 yards down this short drop in the fire road to the oak tree, which is the 2-mile mark, before it starts to climb once again. I stop and stretch, stalling in hopes that the fast-moving group will suddenly appear, but no such luck. Oh well, I tried. I start back down, accepting what had seemed like inevitable defeat. I think of how often I had seen people electrified by seeing Wilt Chamberlain during my many walks, hikes, bikes, runs, and racquetball games I had with him. At breakfast once with Wilt, we spotted baseball star Reggie Jackson in a booth on the other side of the restaurant. “I wonder what he’s doing here,” I said. Wilt’s response: “Everybody’s got to be somewhere. I suppose that was his summary of dealing with fame. Just seeing Wilt jolted people with energy just as I’m seeing here on Westridge Trail over Michelle Obama. I may have missed her, but I’m seeing her presence in my friends’ exhilaration.
After a drink, the dogs happily race up and down on the trail as we move closer and closer to the car. I spot some dog poop another hiker left on the trail, so I bend to pick it up. Cold. Not my dogs’. The trash can that is nearly 400 yards from the end of the trail is in sight. I won’t have to carry it far.
The trash can overlooking Santa Monica Bay . Looking to the trailhead 400 yards from the trash can.
I toss it in the can and feel a presence behind me. Another hand discards something into the same can. I turn to see who and it’s Michelle.
“I was hoping to see you!” I say and she smiles. I point at her and say fiercely, “I miss you!!”
“We miss…” A pause. I picture the White House. I wonder what she’s picturing. She censors herself and says “Well, we get to do things like this.”
We both turn and keep walking toward the cars. We fall into step. A baseball cap and sunglasses protect her from the sun. She’s wearing a tank top and over-the-knee tights. I’m in shorts since it’s so hot and humid.
“How did you find this trail?” I ask her.
“My friend,” she says pointing to the blonde man in the first row of two hikers. Michelle and I are in the second row of four. Her younger daughter is in the third row of four and there’s a fourth row of two behind them. There’s only one other woman beside the two Obama women.
Her friend turns his head toward me as we all keep walking at a good pace. Friend: “Would you please tell her this is more humid than usual?”
LH: “Yeah, it’s really muggy.
MO: (With resignation) “Oh, well.”
LH: “I know it’s not like Florida where I was recently.”
Blond Man: “Or D.C,”
LH: “Yeah, I lived there a year and D.C. is brutal.”
Blonde Man: “You can cut that humidity with a butter knife.”
MO: “That’s the one I’m talking about.”
A few more steps and a change of topic.
MO: The dogs get to be off leash?
LH: Yes, it’s one of the few legal off-leash trails for dogs.
MO: “Do you think Bo and Sunny would like it here?”
It seems like she’s asking her friend in front, but after a beat with no answer, I jump in.
LH: All dogs love it here. But I have never seen a Portuguese Water Dog yet.
MO: What breed are these dogs?
LH: They’re English Pointers, really sweet dogs.
My dogs usually roam 50-150 meters ahead of me, but when I fell into step with this large group, they are hanging back, feeling something is different. Yes, something is different – I’m hiking the last quarter mile of the hike with the former First Lady of the United States!
LH: Come here, Angel.
Angel eases up in front of us but keeps moving at our pace.
MO (pretending to speak for Angel): What have you got for me?
LH: I’ve got a treat.
And I hand it to her.
MO: How often do you come up here?
LH: Every morning.
MO: What a great way to start the day.
LH: Yes, the sunrises are spectacular.
We curve toward the last straightaway before the parking lot.
LH: You know, I hung out with Wilt Chamberlain for almost 30 years, and the buzz you guys created on this hill is the same as it would have been if Wilt had walked through here.
MO: (laughing) He would be pretty recognizable.
LH: I know! We were in Helsinki together and some guy way across the street is yelling, “Wilt!”
MO: He would be hard to disguise.
LH: Right a baseball cap and sunglasses wouldn’t be enough.
MO: (Chuckling) And he couldn’t pull his hair back in a ponytail.
We’re almost to the parking lot and Rosie and Angel have run ahead. I have to keep an eye on them so they don’t cross paths with a moving car. One last thing to tell her:
LH: Your staff was really nice to us this morning.
MO: That’s good to know.
And then before I can load the dogs into the car and close the power door on the back, they are mostly gone and on the move. I watch the motorcade driving down Westridge Road. I take my usual short cut down Banyon, Arbutus and Chalon to Mandeville Canyon. At the stop sign, I meet up with the motorcade that’s turning toward Sunset Blvd. We all turn left on Sunset and I snap a dozen pics of the cars moving east hoping one turns out OK. One almost did.
Michelle Obama’s motorcade driving east toward Beverly Hills on Sunset Blvd.
A text from Jill who told me about Michelle being there asks me if I saw her. “Yes, I hiked and talked and laughed the last quarter mile of the hike with her,” I text back. Incredible. After thinking I’d totally missed my chance to see her like the other regulars had, I’m the one who got to slip into her circle for a few brief, blinding moments.
Jill texts back, “You can tell me all about it tomorrow.” But my plan is to get out of the heat by going down into Sullivan Canyon, the adjacent trail. I text that to her, but then an hour later remember that I told Michelle I go there every day. What if she comes back again? I text Jill that I’m be there on the trail tomorrow.
The regulars are waiting in a pack in the wide open space in the trail at the half-mile mark. They want to hear every word. What did we talk about while we hiked? I told them. Did the secret service guys get nervous? No, it was the end of the hike and they were all probably tired after walking 8 miles in the heat. My exuberance must have allowed them to let down their guard or maybe they thought I knew Michelle. Maybe I was one of a million donors that Michelle couldn’t possibly remember. At any rate, I didn’t feel any tension in the air as I joined their group. I didn’t feel anyone pushing me out. Maybe my years of hanging with Wilt had taught me not to intrude with anything personal. Stick with the weather and dogs. No photos, no autographs. Those were the things Wilt hated from strangers.
For several days on the trail, Michelle’s visit was the prime topic of conversation. Then things gradually got back to normal.
Thirteen days later on a Sunday morning, I’m up on the trail at dawn and see the black cars in the dirt parking lot again. This time one is half blocking the entrance, but I can squeeze past. Two more are backed into real parking places, but ready for a quick exit if needed. The fourth Ford Explorer is parked on the street and one female and two male agents are standing beside it. I let Angel and Rosie out of the car and say to the woman, “So Michelle is back, huh?” She smiles but says nothing.
I start up the trail. About five minutes into the walk, an athletic man in his twenties walks by. I see the coiled earpiece and say, “You’re bringing up the rear?” He answers, “Now I have to go catch them.” We laugh.
Jennifer, an early-morning regular, comes running down with her two pooches Jumps-A-Lot and Phyllis. I give them both treats while she tells me excitedly that she saw Michelle.
“I saw two guys with back packs, then my eyes were drawn to her – she’s tall. I said, ‘good morning,’ and she said, ‘good morning’ back. It wasn’t until I was already past her that I realized who it was. There were two more secret service men following. I asked, “Is that who I think it is?” They smiled and said “we don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jennifer is lit up with excitement. We chat, then she keeps on running.
Next I encounter Charlie, a week-end regular with his two Australian sheep dogs Atlas and Ranger. Charlie heard Michelle is on the mountain somewhere, but didn’t see her. He figures she must have gone to the top 4 miles up because he turned around at the 2-mile mark and didn’t see her.
This morning I don’t have time to go beyond the sign, which is the 1-mile turnaround point for me. I don’t need to see her this time. I had my brilliant moment with her and know very well that that Spectacular First Meetings can often lead to Disappointing Second Meetings. I’ll hang onto my tale I’ve written. But we can always hope she’ll decide to become one of our regulars and hike with us every time she’s in L.A. Maybe Angel and Rosie will even get to meet Bo and Sunny.
After all, like Wiltie said, “everybody’s got to be somewhere.”
Rosie and Angel
Water Rehab Specialist, Lynda Huey, MS, earned a bachelors and masters degree from San Jose State University where she also starred on the track and field team. Her own athletic injuries led her into the water where she learned to cross train and speed the healing of injuries. She has written six books on aquatic exercise and rehabilitation, books that are considered the foundation of aquatic therapy world-wide. Lynda is President of CompletePT Pool & Land Physical Therapy in Los Angeles.