by Brooke Grasso
photography by Taylor Griffith
Twelve deer suddenly leap into a dirt parking lot that overlooks the mossy green Marshall Canyon Golf Course, the shimmering Live Oak Reservoir and the entire city of La Verne. They surprise a group of hikers—all friends—who are gathering at the trailhead. Instead of bolting, the deer stay and mimic the startled but appreciative hikers. The admiring group starts snapping pictures of the herd while chatting about their pending hike through Marshall Canyon. “I hope the peonies are blooming like they were last time; do you think we will see the secret waterfalls still flowing?” Then, as suddenly as they appear, the deer take off into the trees, the same way the La Verne Trail Trekkers do— together, side by side.
There are nearly 100 hikers in the Trail Trekkers club, many of whom meet at the Marshall Canyon trailhead every Monday, fully equipped with their walking sticks and fanny packs. For them, the nature and beauty of Marshall Canyon is commonplace. Although they are surrounded by its scenery weekly, they never take it for granted. There is always a new flower bush blooming, more deer crossing their path, or a new secret waterfall being uncovered. Whatever nature hides, the Trail Trekkers will find it. When the group crosses fresh paw prints in the mud, they start an investigation into what animal left them behind. “That’s a good size paw; see the claws?” Harold Richenberger, Rancho Cucamonga resident, tells the group who speculates it is a bear cub or mountain lion print.
The Trekkers have been on an up-hill evolutionary hike since La Verne resident Phyllis Helm created the club in 1995. Phyllis laughs when she describes the time she asked the city whether it had any hiking groups. A city clerk referred her to a group that walked around the streets but did not actually utilize the beautiful trails so close to them. That was not the answer she wanted. “So I said, ‘we have all these lovely trails in the hills here; why don’t we walk up there?’” She rolls her eyes as she mimics the city clerk, “’Oh, no, no, no, no, no, there are beasts, bugs and all kinds of snakes and bears up there,’” she told me.” Despite the “threat” of wildlife on the local trails, she started a women’s fitness group that immediately appreciated the natural Southern California beauty. The group’s journey took a detour when a man called and wanted to join. “The women said, ‘Nope, we don’t want him,’” Helm laughs. She checked this position with the city, which then and now serves as an information hub and place to sign waivers for new members. “They said as long as we were a city-sponsored group, we couldn’t discriminate.” So Helm called the man back and told him where to meet the then all-women’s group. He never showed up. “I think he was looking for a lawsuit,” she says.
In the present day, Phyllis’ previously broken hip and knee replacement do not warrant much hiking. Her more than 20-year leadership came to an end when she and her husband Bill, who recently broke his foot, took a hiking hiatus for health reasons. The club continued to thrive. The loving friendships were too tightly bonded. Other long-time, committed members stepped up to lead the hikes six days a week. Phyllis and Bill hope to join the group they know so well again soon, and although they would choose the less strenuous hikes, the shared camaraderie would be just as high. “I miss it; it keeps us young, and my doctor says you can’t walk enough,” Phyllis says as Bill huffs and interrupts. “Well, one guy [doctor] told her, ‘You better quit hiking, or in 10 years you’ll be in a wheelchair.” Phyllis snickers as she calls over her small, white, fluffy dog Sweetie Pie. “Well, that was 30 years ago.”
Sitting outside of the Bagelry at 2095 Foothill Blvd. (one of their frequent breakfast spots), the Helms reminisce about their many, many group experiences. They have at least eight three panel boards that are covered with an overwhelming number of group trips that include Morro Bay, Carpinteria State Beach, Santa Rosa Plateau, Mammoth Mountain, Anza Borrego State Park, Yosemite National Park and Zion National Park. The Trekkers have had more than 400 members attend their hikes throughout the years. who have all learned helpful hiking hacks along the way. Although six hikes per week sounds repetitive, the group number changes each day based on everyone’s schedules, and they always manage to schedule trips to new unexplored destinations. On the third Tuesday, the hikers take a “Huell Howser” trip and visit a new restaurant or historic site. Additionally, every Thursday the group does “Secret Stairs” hikes where they carpool to Los Angeles and explore historic stairs throughout the city. “They are such experienced and knowledgeable people,” University of La Verne alumna and Trail Trekkers member Donna Richenberger says of the current leaders, who rotate according to trail knowledge. “There are local places we can’t believe they’re taking us to.” Donna and husband Harold say they have seen places they would not have ventured to without the support of the Club. Sitting at Wähfles, at the end of a Monday hike, the Richenberger’s recall their Santa Monica hikes and their visit to the Great Wall of Los Angeles mural experience. While Monday and Friday are designated for Marshall Canyon Regional Park and Frank G Bonelli Regional Park (known as Puddingstone Lake to the group); the other days vary between Thompson Creek, Horse Thief Canyon and Chino Hills State Park. Every year, the group forms a closer bond by taking trips to farther destinations such as Mammoth and Anza Borrego where they can camp and hike. A destination unique to this year is an overnight stay in Catalina where the group will zip line at Descanso Beach and visit the Wrigley Botanic Garden.
Beyond providing amazing destinations, the Club has formed lasting camaraderie through hiking-induced friendships. “One woman told me that it really saved her life, because she moved here, and her husband died, and she didn’t know anybody. She came and started hiking with us, and she has lots of friends now. I think that’s been true of everybody,” Phyllis smiles. Maggie Marino joined the club because of the serious stress she was under as a teacher and says she found relief through hiking with the Trekkers. “I was glad I found this group at the time,” Maggie still sighs with relief. “I finally started looking forward to my Saturdays.” After retiring, Marino stayed with the Trail Trekkers and now has been a member for seven years. She says the Trekkers are very involved in each other’s lives outside of hiking, and the group was an undeniable support system when her father died. “We’re always here when people are ready to hike,” Julie Cosgrove, member of the Trail Trekkers and La Verne resident, says. They are there for each other off the trail too. Whether a member is retiring or moving away, the close-knit group always keeps track of one another because the friendships have extended outside of scheduled hiking time.
Julie leads the always-changing Saturday hikes and knows every trail, stream and historical site along the way. Although Julie has seen most of it before, she is always fascinated with the beauty that surrounds her. “Bugs are so perfect,” Julie says after seeing a small black beetle during the Marshall Canyon hike. “I hate ants because they’re so charming—then you have to kill them.” Every waterfall deserves a picture on their camera or cell phone, and even the sometimes too aggressive mountain bikers who zoom by get a friendly morning greeting. Her extensive knowledge and love for nature and Marshall Canyon emerged from her long history hiking with the group. She joined just a few months after the club was created in 1995 and has been hiking since.
After their hikes, the group ventures to a well deserved food outing. It is a long-lasting and looked forward to tradition. The Bagelry and Wähfles Café are typically the final setting where they revive their hike conversations and continue to inquire about each other’s grandchildren and new pets. And, of course, someone remembers the Peonies, the animal footprint in the mud and the no longer secret waterfalls. The adventure needs to be told to be remembered — and they tell it well.
To join the La Verne Trail Trekkers, contact La Verne Parks and Recreation at (909) 596-8776. Friendships required, hiking poles optional.