Devil’s SlideEssays, Featured — By Susan Shields on July 16, 2010 at 7:00 am
The last remaining naturally beautiful places in my hometown of Los Angeles are tainted. The city echoes with the sound of a distant siren, a police helicopter, the many freeways, and the whiff of something unhealthy in the air. Some places, any Angeleno will tell you, just feel creepy. Another lifetime ago, when I was a transcendental meditator, the maharishi declared that L.A. had a layer of evil negativity floating two feet above the ground. (Seattle, in contrast, was quite pure and the maharishi exhorted his followers to move there.) I found myself recently wandering around one of L.A.’s portals, the Santa Susana pass. Like some of our starlets, these hills are physically stunning, but haunted with a weird past–an only in L.A. amalgamation of movie dreams, evil, greed and progress.
As you head northwest on the 118 freeway to leave the San Fernando Valley, you rise up out of the paved flatlands and cut through spectacularly sculptural rock and oak terrain of a natural pass before you drop back down to the Simi Valley. I started exploring and researching this area when my daughter’s horseback riding class relocated to a stable behind Indian Falls Estates, an exclusive gated community of uber mansions tucked into the hills just off the pass. The valley used to be quite horsey and charming before it became an emblem of suburbia. Back in the days of the Bing Crosby song, “The San Fernando Valley,” fruit orchards, pepper trees and stables were ubiquitous. Now the little horse rescue and riding business, run by two very tough gals, barely stays one step ahead of development that is renting the last fistfuls of remaining horse land. The lessons gain me admission with Mac, the gate guard, to the jaw-dropping enclave. While there, I take walks at dusk.
These 10,000 plus square foot mansions are strangely garish—each has loudly contrasting architectural boastings and they clash next to each other like a poorly planned dinner party. My daughter and I have nick-named one the Anton LeVey mansion, with its ominous dark stone turret and filigree rod iron entry arch illumined with red lights, and another the Montgomery Burns mansion, with its tower castle style and gate marked with a giant “B” (each mansion has its own gate within the gated community). Most of them appear to be empty and I rarely see another living soul while I walk. One night, a mansion was blazingly lit, and valets were parking modest compacts belonging to business-suited real estate types. Inside the foyer, two Las Vegas showgirls in bikinis and full regalia headgear, lingered at the foot of a grand staircase. The next night the mansion was dark again.
On my walks–L.A. evenings are always enchanting–the moon glows in a lavender sky just above the rugged hills and the pungent scent of chaparral drifts down. I pass over a creek that a few lucky homes have running through their backyards before it disappears into a pipe channeling it to the concrete and graffitied L.A. River. Threaded among the mansions are occasional ancient oaks (survival protected by law), and astonishing red sandstone boulders the size of dinosaurs (survival likely due to their inconvenient size). Turn a bend, though, and the full acoustics of the 118 at rush hour is prevalent enough to give a real estate agent heartburn. Turn another bend, and on the other side of the freeway you see a tall cross on a hill, lit up neon white against the evening sky.
The early history of the Santa Susana pass is typically Californian. Originally, this was Indian country. Chumash and Tongva lived on the precious creek next to the pass, painted complex pictures on these rocks, and listened for bear (long gone) and mountain lion (still raiding backyards for pets). With the coming of the Spanish many in the tribes were killed by European diseases and most survivors were absorbed into the culture of the San Fernando Mission. The Spanish named the mountains after Santa Susana who, according to Catholic Online, was a beautiful cousin of 3rd century AD Roman Emperor Diocletian. He wanted to use her in a political marriage to his pagan son-in-law, Maximilian. Susana refused, having made a vow to remain a virgin, and she furthermore converted the two uncles sent by Diocletian to persuade her. Diocletian was so furious, he had her beheaded,.thus beginning a long period of Christian persecution. Just when I was feeling puffed-up and proud of my namesake, the site finished with, “the details are fictitious, but there was a Susana in Rome.” The Spanish used the pass to travel between the San Fernando Mission, and the next one up the line—San Buenaventura Mission.
When Anglo-Americans took over, the pass became a main stagecoach route and a “bandit’s lair” for the notorious Juan Flores, Tiburcio Vazquez, and Joaquin Murrietta. The route picked up a nickname, the “Devil’s Slide,” due to a treacherously steep stretch. Attempts to leave or arrive were fraught with the danger of braked and locked wagons slipping and careening out of control, sparks flying off the skidding wheels. Now, over a hundred years later, many of us feel stuck here in a strange attraction/repulsion, and trying to leave is a slippery slope. One of our local bands, Ambrosia, penned the lyrics, “Sometimes I think about the only way/That I’ll ever see life beyond L.A. is dying.”
By the 1920’s two movie ranches straddled old Santa Susana pass road, the Iverson on the north, and one owned by William S. Hart on the south. Over the next decades, thousands of movies and television shows were shot at the IversonRanch, including almost every B Western movie made: Ben Hur, Tarzan, Stagecoach, Shane, High Noon, Jezebel, The Robe, The Grapes of Wrath, The Fighting Seabees, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bonanza. The ranch was eventually divided into the upper and lower Iversons—owned by competing sons. The upper’s main value was a mile long pristine stretch used for running chases. The lower had the “Garden of the Gods,” a fabulous city of giant rock. You have seen these iconic boulders –these famous, ego-less movie stars–woven through celluloid. The Lone Ranger rears up on Trigger next to one.
In the mid 1940’s Atomics International started developing one of the first nuclear research facilities in the United States at the Santa Susana Fields Laboratory.
On July 12 1949, a plane heading for Burbank crashed into the side of the pass, killing 35 of 49 passengers. At the time it was one of the nation’s deadliest crashes. The wandering, bloodied survivors were aided by bare-foot and robed “angels:” these were the followers of Krishna Venta, who saw the crash fire from their nearby Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love Fountain of the World compound. Venta claimed to be Jesus born in Nepal, but in actuality he was an American former petty thief who convinced followers to sign over all their possessions and have sex with him. The followers liked to help fight fires, but this was officially disallowed because the bare feet and the robes were a safety hazard. Venta’s practice of having sex with his devotees’ wives had caused some to fall away, and in 1958, two enraged former followers lit up the Santa Susana night sky by strapping 20 sticks of dynamite to their bodies and blowing up Venta, themselves, and seven other followers.
A year later, on the night of July 13, 1959, one of the Atomics International reactors experienced a power surge and partial meltdown, and for two weeks, clouds of radioactive gas were secretly released over the valley. No one knew—not the families living nearby, not the film crews at the movie ranches, not the few remaining Venta followers, no one in the estimated sixty mile danger zone. To this day, most people have never heard of the incident. Clean-up of the site is stillongoing.
1969. The associations with this pass took a strong turn. Construction of the 118 Freeway gashed the Iverson Ranch in half and the traffic noise dealt a fatal blow to its filmmaking business. Just across old Santa Susana road from the Garden of the Gods, the former Hart ranch hung on, and a new cult moved in. In an arrangement with the elderly owner George Spahn, Lynette Fromme had sex with Spahn and took care of his house in exchange for her “Family” to live on the ranch. Spahn nicknamed her “Squeaky” from the noise she made when he ran his hand up her thigh. From this home base, Charles Manson, who claimed to be Jesus in cahoots with Satan, sent his needy, former cheerleaders and football players out into the city on random stabbing frenzies that stunned the world. Here they murdered stunt man and ranch worker Shorty Shea, and buried his body in a shallow grave. In 1970, the Manson family murderers were tried and convicted. In 1970, 60 foot flames whipped by 80 mph winds roared through the ranch burning it to the ground. While the ranch workers frantically tried to save the horses, the remaining Manson women clapped and danced, chanting, “Helter Skelter is coming down!”
In the 1980’s the beautiful Iverson land was up for grabs before anyone with power could scramble to preserve it. Val Kilmer’s dad got the upper Iverson and attempted to turn it into the “Bel-Air of the San Fernando Valley,” the ostentatious estates through which I walk. The development was hit hard by the recession of the early 90’s and Kilmer senior was forced to file for bankruptcy. In the lower Iverson, the western town set is now a trailer park, and a scant remaining patch of The Garden of the Gods is surrounded by cookie cutter condos.
The middle Iverson was purchased by evangelical Rocky Peak Church, who constructed a large, unadorned, fire resistant building that has become a no formalities refuge for those seeking the God revealed in the Bible. I literally followed a road with my name on it to a cross and found this church that my family and I now attend.
There is a section in “Lord of the Rings” where Gandalf thrusts down his staff in the face of fiery monster Balrog, and declares, “You shall not pass!” The neon cross high on the hill of rock in the nexus of such a place reminds me of Gandalf’s staff, standing in the face of greed, conspicuous consumption, the concocted alternative dream realities of Hollywood, the twisted evil of humans claiming to be god, and of travelers in and out of L.A., travelers perennially in search– of something.