Just a few minutes before 5:30 a.m. Friday, in 42-degree weather, five residents pull into Estancia High School.
One by one, they park their cars in the lot next to the campus tennis courts. It's still dark outside. Quiet. Most of the people who use nearby Placentia Avenue are still asleep.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger gets there first. He's the organizer and creator of the relatively new activity, which they're calling the Costa Mayberry Walking Club.
They like to substitute the "Mesa" with "Mayberry," the fictional 1960s town of "Andy Griffith Show" lore. Mike Bargas, a fellow walker Friday and Estancia's football coach, coined the name during the last election season. It seems to have stuck.
It's permanently imprinted on the club's T-shirts, which Mensinger bought. Andy Griffith is on the back. "Our own little Mayberry" lines the bottom.
They've got punch cards too — a tracker of sorts of those early-morning miles. Walkers can get holes punched in their cards each time they participate.
"Walk your city. Know your city. Walk for health," the card reads.
Mensinger has talked about the club publicly during council meetings. Members regularly meet at 5:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and sometimes on the weekends. Councilwoman Sandy Genis and city CEO Tom Hatch have also participated.
It's about seeing the streets of Costa Mesa — all of them, Mensinger says. Exercise is an added bonus for the mayor pro tem, who says he wants to lose a little weight.
"Let's just say we're making good progress," Mensinger says of himself. The longtime youth sports enthusiast wears an Estancia football booster jacket and hat.
Mayor Jim Righeimer pulls into the lot last, wearing a hat and sweater with "Costa Mesa 1953" — the year the city incorporated. It's his third time walking with the club.
But why so early? Why walk before the sun rises?
For one thing, the early time is good for Bargas, who usually gets the walking in before opening his classroom doors at Estancia at about 7:30 a.m.
And Mensinger? "It's good to see the sun go up."
Keeping a steady pace
The five walkers — Mensinger, Righeimer, Bargas, and residents Tim Sweet and Kristen Kirk — head down Placentia toward Joann Street in the Westside.
Mensinger starts his own personal clock on his iPhone. Using the "Walkmeter" app, he'll track the traveling distance, time walked, average speed and calories burned. Afterward, he'll post the results on his Facebook page.
Friday is Kirk's first jaunt with the Mayberry club. The 27-year resident is a fan of the council.
"I've been here a long time and haven't been all that active, City Council-wise," she says while walking down Placentia in a USC sweatshirt. She and Mensinger met when they were both students at Southern Cal.
"And with Steve running, I got more involved and started going to council meetings," she adds. "I'm proud of our city, and these guys are doing a great job."
Mensinger maintains a steady pace. Bargas and Sweet usually stay in the back.
Bargas, who's been feeling sick, is taking his time. Mensinger checks up on him periodically.
"No man left behind," he quips.
The group makes a left onto the Joann Street Bicycle Trail, a paved pathway between the Costa Mesa Golf Course and Joann Street.
The group finds some graffiti, which, according to Mensinger, wasn't there a few days ago. He immediately calls it in to the city.
These walks are chances to spot those kinds of things, Mensinger says.
Sweet, a former city maintenance department employee, shines a flashlight ahead of the group. It's still dark, but the bicycle trail is partially lit. Sweet is a Costa Mesa native through and through. And proud of it.
"I'm one of the sons of the city, so to speak," he says.
He stays warm in a black beanie and black gloves, but he jokes that he doesn't want to give off the wrong impression to passersby.
"I could use a different color, probably, walking along the street," Sweet says with a laugh.
The group hits a one-mile mark when the bike trail reaches Harbor Boulevard, making a right toward the Costa Mesa Motor Inn.
'Beginning to transform itself'
The 236-room motel requires a disproportionate amount of the Police Department's attention, Mensinger says. It gets hundreds of police calls.
Harbor is noticeably nosier, thanks to passing cars. The sun is starting to rise.
A man walks out of the Motor Inn and toward the Wilson Street crossing.
"Good morning," Mensinger says, one of the group's many greetings to passersby during the walk.
"I hope it's gonna be a good one," the man replies.
His group heads down Harbor and makes a right onto Victoria Street until it hits Placentia. Mensinger sees trees missing along the Victoria thoroughfare — a "market window" street that thousands see when they enter the city, he says — and mentions a goal to plant a thousand trees for Arbor Day.
He says he sees people usually out by 6:30. During his campaign, he says, most people were friendly. He only got one door shut on him. Others stood there, listened, but didn't always agree.
"No major issues. Knock on concrete," Mensinger says.
Righeimer, whose background is in real estate development, talks of projects in the area he saw as a planning commissioner, of "subprime borrowers buying subprime properties. You're gonna have a sewer leak. And they want to convert these things all to condos?"
Mensinger says before the walks, he never saw much of the Westside after living in College Park and Mesa Verde.
"All the rhetoric you hear about the Westside, it doesn't pan out with what you see," he says. "I mean, it's an older community, but you can see it's beginning to transform itself."
But it's not all swell in Costa Mayberry. Righeimer points to the 7-Eleven lot at Placentia and Victoria. All concrete.
"What happened here? Where's all the plants that used to be here?" he asks. "It's supposed to have, you know, decorative planting out in front here. It's all gone."
It could've been taken out for street widening, Righeimer says.
Mensinger and Righeimer call Placentia Avenue, a light industrial area, the city's "Velcro Valley" that's home of profitable clothing brands like Hurley. Paul Frank and Billabong used to call the street home. Volcom is on nearby Monrovia Avenue.
At one point, Mensinger, a sports coach, chides Righeimer: "At the halfway mark of the walk, we do push-ups."
"Yeah, yeah," replies Righeimer. Apparently the walks used to be more improvised; now they're planned, more regimented.
"Walkmeter" tells Mensinger that at West 19th Street and Placentia, it's been 2.8 miles. There's more to go.
Bargas is keeping up, still recovering from feeling under the weather.
"The timing's right," he says of the pre-dawn activity. "It's really busy during the day. When you get done with work or school during the day, you don't want to do exercise."
Some memorable aspects of the walks? "You appreciate the city a little more, its diversity … you're walking five or six miles an hour, you get to appreciate some things."
It's a mixed bag of housing types around here, he says. Next to a home that is not well-kept may be one looking like it belongs in Newport Beach's Dover Shores or Linda Isle, he says.
"We're not just hitting the nice parts of Costa Mesa," Bargas adds while heading down West 19th Street toward Monrovia. "We're sticking our elbows deep in this thing. We walk some of the surlier streets that people think are the worst in the city. It's not so bad, walking around here."
Bargas has been a Costa Mayberry Walking Club regular. He doesn't like missing a session.
"You make this part of your routine," Bargas says, "and you feel like you're cheating on your wife or something when you don't do it."
No more Newport Beach landfill
After taking Monrovia to Arbor Street, the group heads past a playground and into the hilliest part of an otherwise flat mesa: Canyon Park.
"It's a gorgeous park," Mensinger says, pointing to the grasses and sandstone cliffs. "It's got some beautiful little houses around it … if you were trying to build this, you couldn't replicate it."
It's quiet, with the sounds of ducks and other birds replacing the 19th Street traffic just up the hill.
Mensinger says his football teams have participated in the "Battle of the Brush" here, cutting branches and spreading mulch to help out.
It was Kirk's first time seeing Canyon Park.
"This is an educational walk for me," she says.
A small area nearby is within the Newport Beach city limits. That sliver, Mensinger notes, used to be a tucked-away landfill for Newport, but not anymore.
After stopping by a retention basin in the park that's more reminiscent of a Louisiana swamp than it is of Orange County, Mensinger talks to Jonathan Schiesel, a resident he often sees during these walks. Schiesel has a morning routine as well: picking up trash as he walks about the area.
"There's a lot of people out there, just doing the right thing. Nobody's looking," Mensinger says.
The group exits the park, heads down Victoria toward the Santa Ana River and passes through a fence near Victoria Pond — another one of Mayberry's hidden jewels, Mensinger says.
"They said walk, not hike!" exclaims Kirk, later saying with a smile, "It's all good."
They head north along the Talbert Nature Reserve, a county-run park that, while well-maintained, isn't easily accessible by car.
The 40-some benches there and relatively isolated grassy space would be perfect for Scouts, Righeimer says: "They could get their camping merit badges."
The snow-capped mountain ranges of the Southland can be seen in the distance along the riverside trail.
After snapping a photo of an empty horse corral on his phone, Mensinger and the group tread up the hill into Fairview Park and past its newly unveiled Wetlands & Riparian Habitat.
After walking through Estancia's fields and past Jim Scott Stadium, the group is back in the parking lot, 950 calories burned, 2 hours and 17 minutes later and 6.5 miles traveled, according to "Walkmeter."
"It doesn't seem like two-and-a-half hours," Kirk remarks, to which Mensinger replies, "Never does."