Friday, May 30, 2014

Manson Tour 2014: Stoner's Spahn Ranch Hike

Hi there, Manson Blog readers. My name is Rachel. That's me there in the Manson Cave, wearing the red shirt. (Notice that we're all wearing shoes, in direct contradiction of Manson Family protocol... but there are tarantulas and rattlesnakes out there, so don't judge.) I'm a writer whose subjects have included Manson, Columbiners, and various true crime stories. I've followed various Manson blogs for a while, though I've never posted anywhere. This year I asked the Manson Blog folks if I could tag along with them on their annual tour, and they agreed--which is how I found myself sharing a lovely West Hollywood house with four strangers, one dog, and a very creepy rabbit painting. 

I spent the night of my arrival having the twists and turns of various Manson-adjacent incidents explained to me. You all are true scholars and it makes my head spin a little bit -- when you get a few people with similar depths of knowledge in a room, suddenly everyone is speaking a shorthand I don't understand and getting very excited about it. It's pretty great.

On our first full day, we woke up early and drove out to Santa Susana Pass to visit the former site of the Spahn Ranch. I'd actually been here once before, except my friends and I just drove up to the church gate and peeked through the bars; this time, Mrs. Matt & I dashed across a four-lane road, hopped over a guardrail, and slid down a rocky slope, trying not to put our hands in any broken glass or tarantula holes. Piece of cake. 

We were met by the rest of the group plus Stoner, an affable guy with a lot of really excellent prison tattoos & a Free Leslie Van Houton t-shirt. Here are some pictures of us reenacting famous photos from 40+ years ago:

The famous Manson Cave

Hammock pose from life magazine

Identical spot

Stoner has a friend who spends a lot of time locating where old movies were filmed. He helped determine the site of the hammock photo, which is quite near the cave.

From what I can tell, some of you Manson people are amateur detectives (tracking down people, looking for clues, finding connections); others are amateur librarians (keeping the records, collecting and sorting the archival material). Stoner is an amateur archaeologist. He uses a pocketknife to scrape away the surface dirt at the site where he's determined George Spahn's house once stood. He's found all sorts of stuff -- belt buckles and nails and pennies and fragments of George Spahn's old toilet. That morning, he was thrilled to find his very first shell casing, from a Colt 45. 

We dug around in the dirt for a little while, too. Stoner has seen enough Spahn detritus that he doesn't get all that excited over a melted piece of glass or a coffee cup shard anymore, but this was new and exciting to all of us. We found a small lockbox key and an awl.

Excavating George Spahn's house

It was hot and getting hotter, but we bravely started to trek along the park's rocky path, aiming for the Zodiac car. We crossed an old stagecoach road that once ran from LA up to Santa Barbara (or maybe San Francisco? I forget), and admired views of the Santa Susana mountains. 


The back ranch panorama

It's exhausting enough to walk up the relatively narrow path, and the desert surrounding it is pretty thick with chapparal; who knows how they got the car up here, or why. In any case, we found it up there, right off the path, magnificently rusted and covered in graffiti:

Bruce's car

Then it was time for more rusted old cars a bit farther up the road at the Dune Buggy Graveyard. Matt tells me that Mary Brunner test drove a brand-new Volkswagen, somehow convinced the car lot guy to step out of the car, then hightailed it to Spahn Ranch where the crew stripped it of parts and then pushed it off the cliff. (Incidentally: I wish everyone wouldn't always feel the need to talk about how ugly Mary Brunner was. I think she is actually pretty cute in several of the photos I've seen. Who among us hasn't taken an unflattering photo or two? And anyway, who cares?)

You basically had to run down a cliff to get to the VW, which is perhaps why Matt, Stoner, & I were the ones foolhardy enough to do it. Ever true to form, Stoner dug around in the dirt around the car and found a couple bones. I said they looked like chicken wings and Matt looked at me like I was crazy - but what do I know, I'm a vegetarian. Stoner thinks they're finger bones. Who knows.

Dune Buggy Graveyard (Mary Brunner stolen VW)


Stoner in the VW


Bones Stoner dug-up


Okay, this part is creepy. We crossed Santa Susana Road again to get near Shorty Shea's grave. "That's the Manson tree," Matt told me. He was in the middle of recounting how Manson used to somehow shove a mattress up there so he could be comfy while he strummed the guitar when we all noticed that... something was dangling from one of the thick branches by a rope. "It looks like a cow's tongue," Stoner said.

That sounded ridiculous to me; I thought it was a sweet potato. (Again: vegetarian.) So I hopped over the guardrail and walked over to get a closer look. And holy shit it was indeed a cow's tongue, pink and glistening and meaty and covered in rainbow sprinkles, I kid you not, as if it were an ice cream sundae or some other birthday treat and not a severed cow's tongue hanging from a rope. A gross flaccid Satanic display of some kind? Or santeria? A joke? A spell?  Who knows. There was also an empty fish oil bottle with a battery in it & a plastic bag from H&M. All I know is, any spell involving those ingredients must be extremely sinister....

The Tongue at the entry to Shorty

Matt and Stoner scrambled down an even steeper cliff to get a view of Shorty's grave, by an old railroad line. The rest of us were feeling too hot/tired/grossed out, so we found a pleasant and shady patch of grass to sit on.

A few steps later, the trail leading down to Shorty


Shorty Burial Site

Stoner kindly invited us over to check out his full relic collection, which he keeps on the porch. Highlights include belt buckles, an old cattle prod (?), a medicine bottle, a military medal of some kind, and lots of bedsprings.

Stoner Van Houten was funny, engaging, well spoken and full of interesting stories. He also knows Spahn Ranch and surrounding areas like the back of his hand. If you are interested in learning about or taking a hike through the former haunts of the Manson Family, contact him directly. He just might be available! We recommend him highly.

Relics on Stoner's Porch

And then we all beautified ourselves in preparation for what turned out to be a ridiculously good dinner at Enzo & Angela, which is co-run by DiDi Lansbury (who apparently now goes by Angela). I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much -- it's a strip mall restaurant with a slightly awkward looking website, after all. But starting with the risotto primavera that Max Frost ordered for the table, everything was outstanding. A faithful blogger friend named Jiri came along for the meal, a guy who's spent quite a bit of time in Italy (so much so that he kept trying to chat with our garrulous waiter in Italian), kept raving about how authentic everything was. Highly recommended!

Enzo & Angela