Charles Fleming

Charles Fleming, atop one of the "secret stairs" he grew to love, and write about. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

I was having a period of bad health — quite a long period. I had a hip replacement, and another, and a hand surgery. Then a broken leg. Then a spinal surgery. Then another spinal surgery. I was falling apart faster than the doctors could put me back together.

When they told me I needed a third spinal surgery, I declined. I knew they were right. I'd seen the MRIs. I was in constant pain and unable to work, or drive or do anything that brought me pleasure.

But I just couldn't face the surgery, the hospital stay, the long recovery, the physical therapy. I told my doctor I was going to try something else.

I'd discovered that walking gave me a little relief. So I started walking.

The first day, my wife drove me off our steep Silver Lake hill to a flat street. She got me out of the car, and I walked about two blocks before asking to be taken home. Then next day, I walked about four blocks.

Slowly, feeling a little stronger every day, I began to walk a mile or more. I added some hills. I became intrigued by the network of public stairways around Silver Lake — concrete staircases originally built, I learned, to get people down to the street cars that ran along Sunset, Santa Monica and Silver Lake boulevards.

I made a quest of it and walked every public staircase in Silver Lake. (There were about 50.) That went pretty well, so I moved on to Echo Park. (There were about 30 more.) I was feeling better and better, so I kept going. Exploring neighborhood by neighborhood, I discovered dozens more of the hidden pathways in Hollywood, Mount Washington, Glassell Park and Highland Park. I found myself in neighborhoods I'd never heard of — Hermon, and Garvanza and Happy Valley.

The quest eventually turned into "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles," a book published in the spring of 2010.

By then, I was cured. I'd been walking at least an hour a day for three years. I'd discovered more than 400 hidden staircases. I'd walked hundreds of miles mapping them. I'd started playing tennis again. I'd started riding motorcycles again. I'd taken up snowboarding.

I'd also started leading a monthly stair walk. At first, it was me and my wife and two or three friends. Then it was me and my wife and 10 friends. When the book was published, I made the walks public. These days, the walks often attract 100 urban explorers.

In three years of walks, I've met dozens of people who'd had similar experiences of rebirth or recovery. One man told me he'd lost 80 pounds walking the secret stairs and was dating for the first time in a decade. One woman told me she'd avoided knee surgery. Another told me she'd been able to start ballroom dancing again. Several couples told me they were enjoying a renaissance in their relationships — because they were walking several times a week, moving slowly and actually talking to each other.

All I'd wanted from the experience was relief from pain. What I got was friendship, community and a whole new experience of my city. Out of the car, on my feet and moving at pedestrian pace, I fell in love with Los Angeles for the first time.