Our Rise To Gindling Hilltop Camp (Part I)

MCLA Executive Director Dr. Stephen Johnson (above left) showing his son Derek how to prepare willow branches for the sacred Inipi Sweat Lodge prayer ceremony on the mountain. Derek turns 38 in March. At far left is actor Barry Bostwick who graciously gifted MCLA a large teepee that was trucked in from Montana.

“Our Rise To Gindling Hilltop Camp”

History of MCLA’s
Sacred Path
Men’s Retreats
On The Mountain

(Part I) 

by Stephen J. Johnson
Executive Director

Following our sacred C’anunpa honoring and healing ceremony on the mountain last weekend, Bill Arena asked me to provide some background on how the Men’s Center Los Angeles eventually made its way up the mountain to Gindling Hilltop Camp.  There are so many stories and details, I couldn’t possibly cover all of them with brevity. So, the following is a brief history of how we made our way to Hilltop Camp, one of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps north of Malibu.

In 1987 I held the first Sacred Path Men’s one-day retreat in Topanga Canyon. A group of us convened at the residence of Jerry Weinerth, an aluminum covered geodesic dome home poised high above the Pacific Ocean, a magnificent structure sporting stunning views of the canyon and coastline far below.  The acoustics were remarkable which allowed for our drumming, facilitated by Paulo Mattioli, to resonate dramatically in the sound chamber. I contracted with Jerry to hold men’s gatherings approximately every other month.

Levar Burton (upper left) talking with MCLA men’s retreat property host Jerry Weinerth on the mountain


In the initial phase of our work we would have on average 35 men come together. In the second year I decided to hold an overnight event there that allowed us to put up a large teepee that had been gifted to us by actor Barry Bostwick. It was trucked in from Montana, its original home.  

We also built our first Inipi Sweat Lodge adjacent to the teepee. The teepee and frame of our Sweat Lodge later burned in a fire that swept through the canyon. All of our water pourers, C’anunpa Pipe Carrying Sun Dancers, conducted the Inipi prayer ceremonies in true Lakota fashion from that first ceremony forward. Dagara Shaman Malidoma Some’ joined us for the consecration of our first lodge.  He had recently arrived in the US from his home in Burkina Faso West Africa.


Malidoma, who had himself been initiated into manhood during a 6-week ceremonial ordeal when he was a teenager, facilitated the initiation ceremony for a handful of fathers and our 13-year-old sons.  This was conducted on Eric Wright’s land on Piuma Road, overlooking the ocean.  Eric, a long time men’s work devotee, and member of the Lost Dog Men’s Council formed out of the Mendocino Men’s Conference, is also the grandson of famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.


In 1988, The Men’s Center of Los Angeles was founded as a 501c3 Not-For-Profit Organization. Mitch Roth provided the legal work to make it official. Initially, men such as Sam Sloneker, Steve Branker, Zoran Windrich, Jay Berger, Al Ross, Robert Herstek, Ken Bellini, B. J. Jakala and Dan Franklin, to name a few, stepped forward to assist me.  

As the size of our retreats headed upwards toward 45, I considered that it might be time to expand the event to 3 days and 2 nights and to look for a larger venue. I surveyed a map of retreat sites and there was one that stood out, a camp perched on a hill high above the ocean situated at Ventura County line.  The requirement was a minimum of 50 or more participants.  I had a powerful feeling about that site on the map, and 10 years later that feeling came to fruition in real time and form.



We initially contracted with Camp Shalom in Malibu Canyon for a couple of retreats. Their minimum and fee structure was affordable.  Over the first 10 years of retreats we also used Camp Griffo in Griffith Park once (the food was sub par) before locking in on Camp Cottontail off of Las Virgenes Road for a number of retreats. Paulo, my drummer, and dancer Ricardo Morrison were at my side to get the men grounded in their bodies and moving.


In 1997, esteemed poet, author and elder, Robert Bly (author of the groundbreaking book about men, “Iron John”) said yes to my invitation to be our guest presenter for a retreat.  In turn, he invited Martin Prechtel (author of “Secrets of the Talking Jaguar”), a Guatemalan Shaman, to co-lead. I knew that our numbers would be higher than normal and looked for a camp that would accommodate our needs.  I found Camp Hess Kramer (a Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camp).  
We had 85 participants on board for what was a remarkable retreat that we commenced on Thursday through Sunday.  I wrote about it in my book that featured Dan Stanton’s extraordinary blessing into manhood from Robert Bly. At the conclusion of the retreat, Executive Chef John Bard approached me and said, “You might like our upper camp.” 



A few of us piled into his truck and drove the two-mile journey to the top of the hill to cast our eyes on the camp that I had initially seen on the map when I had that special feeling 10 years earlier.

For the next 22 years, our home became Camp Hilltop, aka “the mountain.”  Our adventure took off big time.  I’ll write about this in more detail in the next installment including when Ray Bunch and Timothy Whispering Eagle joined me to take the retreats to the next level.

“History of MCLA’s Sacred Path Men’s Retreats on the Mountain” Part I
(to be continued)

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 Dr. Stephen Johnson is founder and executive director of MCLA and leader/wayshower of the Sacred Path men's retreats for the past 32 years. He is a gifted therapist and master facilitator for the experiential journey that unfolds during his counseling sessions and workshops. Dr. J is a skilled and seasoned psychotherapist who has the sensibilities of a wisdom teacher. He provides a safe space for freedom of expression in accessing one’s pain while fostering transformation, personal expansion and spiritual growth. www.DrStephenJohnson.com 

Click video link at left to discover the meaning of these words and Dr. J’s incredibly rich 32-year tradition of bringing good men together on the mountain.

Dr. Johnson is author of "THE SACRED PATH: THE WAY OF THE SPIRITUAL WARRIOR," an amazing how-to book for men who want to become better men. The groundbreaking book’s forward written by
Dr. J’s friend, fellow USC football fan and longtime MCLA member Levar Burton.