A red-tailed hawk circles weightlessly, high in the otherwise empty blue sky above me. My mind is crystal clear. I’m aware of everything around me – the plants growing miraculously out of the bone-dry canyon soil; the coarseness of the brightly coloured rug between me and the stone step that I’m sat on; the heat of the searing sun on the back of my neck.
Behind me, a small golden statue of a Buddha sits on a hand-painted altar. And thirty feet or so away, sat in deep in meditation, with his faithful dog Tucker by his feet, is my guide, Danny Roman. A few moments earlier, he had placed some state-of-the-art Bluetooth earbuds in my ears and played me a recording of an icaros, a Peruvian chant, as he used a ceremonial pipe to blow the sacred tobacco rapé up my nose. I’m only a ten-minute drive from my five-star, West Hollywood hotel, but here I am, immersed in the wonder of spirituality and nature up here in Runyon Canyon. I would never have thought that I’d be doing this in the wanton urbanity that is Los Angeles. Blocking out my immediate surroundings, I could well be in Machu Picchu.
The previous day, Danny, founder and CEO of ‘Bikes and Hikes’, West Hollywood’s premier outdoor tour organisers, had asked me what kind of experience I’d be interested in. I told him I was entirely open to anything and asked for his recommendation.
“Escapism is my thing, we shall escape,” he said.
After an indeterminable amount of time meditating, we gather ourselves and start to head up the winding trail that leads high up into the Hollywood Hills. As we ascend, Danny opens up about his life, particularly about how came to create a successful business out of doing something he loved, in a place that he feels a very strong connection to.
Originally from Queens – his Croat parents having fled to New York from Yugoslavia in the 1970s seeking asylum and the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’ – Danny grew up in a very macho, working-class culture. It was then common for teenage boys to be in gangs and homosexuality was viewed as a weakness. He recounts the story of being in the back of his father’s car aged 15, sat behind his uncle, as they drove past a truck stop in Suffolk County, near the Hamptons.
“My uncle turned to my father and said that place was ‘full of dirty fags getting up to all sorts’. The statement stuck in my teenage, hormone-filled mind and the day after I got my driving license a few weeks later, I borrowed my father’s car and headed there to see it for myself. I never looked back! By the age of 16, I was a regular face on the NYC gay scene.”
His career path was equally as interesting. He got himself a job in the entertainment industry in NYC working in film production for the likes of Scott Rudin and Benny Medina on films including ‘The Queen’ and ‘No Country For Old Men’. Film production honed his organisational and people management skills but he wanted something more.
“I loved my job, it had broadened my horizons, but I felt like I needed a change. I didn’t want to be that guy from New York who never left New York, so when the opportunity came to move to West Hollywood, I jumped at it. I love it here. I immediately became that stereotypical WeHo gay who is all about living a healthy lifestyle and being the best I can be.”
Unlike most who move to L.A. to be part of the entertainment industry, Danny’s relocation to West Hollywood was an opportunity to get out of it.
“I’d been lucky to travel extensively and had always been an active person. I had gone on some cycling tours in different places around the country and it struck me as very strange that no-one was doing them in West Hollywood. So just to test the water, I paid a friend $100 to build me a cycling tours website. No sooner had the site gone live, than I received an email from a woman who wanted to take her whole family on a tour. So I got straight on the phone and asked friends to loan me the money to buy 10 bikes. Now I employ 45 people, and we conduct 50 tours every week taking people all over L.A. in a fun, eco-friendly and healthy way. We also have a VIP Department that sets up bespoke tours, some of which are pretty unusual. We had a couple that wanted to do a hike to the tallest point in the Malibu mountain range, and at the summit, we had a skydiver jump from a plane to deliver their picnic and champagne; and an engagement ring! We’ve also blindfolded a group of British bankers and transported them to a marijuana farm where they got to do a tour, learn the growing process and get high.”
As much as he loves what he does, running a business can be stressful and he tells me that he feels the need to get outside to re-balance himself.
“I’ve never understood why people would want to be stuck inside a gym to exercise. I hike up here with Tucker, 3 or 4 times a week. Getting my workout surrounded by nature is an important part of living in WeHo, it grounds me and helps me to reconnect,” he tells me in his no-nonsense, native New York accent whilst pounding up the steep trail ahead of me, holding a 25lb dumbbell behind his neck.
That need to be grounded must be doubly important for those at the epicentre of the Hollywood circus, many of whom live up in these hills. I can only imagine the pressures that global fame exerts on someone. Even the biggest of extroverts – perhaps especially the biggest of extroverts – need somewhere to retreat to and earth themselves. When money is no longer an object and everyone knows and adores you, it must be incredibly easy to lose all sense of reality and proportion. Many of them do, of course, the long line of Hollywood casualties is well documented, even relished by many. So it makes perfect sense to me that so many should want that feeling of solitude and spiritual reconnection that being up here in the hills high above the city offers.
Danny explains that also means a hike up Runyon Canyon can – and often does – involve a celebrity spot or two. As we reach a resting place he points out a few of the palatial hilltop houses.
“This area is where the cooler celebs tend to have their houses. That one is Drew Barrymore’s, that one belongs to Queen Latifah, Johnny Depp lives just over the hill and owns most of the street leading up to it. Over there is where Madonna lived, you probably have seen pictures of her hiking up here with her personal trainers-cum-lovers back in the day.”
Just then, we are interrupted by a tall, model-looking guy in nothing but a pair of black shorts and running shoes, sweat glistening over his perfectly tanned body, making his way back down the trail.
“Oh yeah, you’ll see a lot of that too,” says Danny, both of us transfixed on our unexpected, beautiful visitor as he disappears down the hill.
“Don’t forget to drink water”. Danny says paternally as he hands me a bottle he’s kept for me in the side pocket of his rucksack. He’s got a good point. I’m starting to feel the effects of the hike: my breathing is heavy, there’s a mild burn in my legs, and sweat is beginning to run down the middle of my back. We continue up our secret trail for another 20 minutes or so until we reach the top and join the main Runyon Canyon trail. The view opens out across West Hollywood revealing the entire city. Midsummer in L.A. is known for its lack of visibility. But today, the weather gods have blessed us with a vista that stretches from the sea in the West all the way across Echo Park in the East. On nearby hills are the familiar sights of the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory. The cluster of skyscrapers of Downtown juts out across the famously low-rise cityscape. To the untrained eye, it’s a confusing sea of urbanity. But Danny takes a few minutes to orientate me; and for the first time, the city begins to make sense. It also becomes clear to me why West Hollywood is such a great location to be based in. It’s so well positioned between all the main parts of L.A.: Beverly Hills; Hollywood; Echo Park; Silver Lake; Koreatown; even the beach and LAX are all within easy reach.
We take our time descending, taking the obligatory selfies with the view, and make our way back to where we left Danny’s pick-up, just a few streets from his new, 3-bedroom apartment.
“I’d invite you in, but it’s a mess at the moment, I’m having the whole thing remodelled,” he says as we pass his building on the way back to the ‘Bikes and Hikes’ base on Santa Monica Boulevard. Instead, we stop on the way for an organic, protein-packed smoothie; of course. In the short time that we are in the juice bar, Danny is greeted three times by different men, one it transpires is a famous celebrity agent, another is a plastic surgeon, and the third, the proud ‘companion’ of a dog Danny fostered as part of his work with an animal rescue organisation.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Danny exclaims, reaching into his rucksack and pulling out a t-shirt. “A reward for completing the hike,” he says, handing me a t-shirt. I thank him and unfold it. Proudly emblazoned on the front is “W-E-H-O” spelled out in letters constructed from drawn outlines of naked, well endowed, aroused male figures in various sexual positions. “Welcome to West Hollywood!” he says with a knowing smile.
Photography by Martin Perry