Verdugo Hills Stories
by Wes Clark
My first sojourn into the Verdugo Hills was in 1972, when I was sixteen. I could see a trail from my front porch that intrigued me, and discovered that the trail head was just behind the Brand Library in Glendale, a place I knew well. As I was mad about English history at the time, I decided to mount a commemorative hike up the hill after school on October 14th, 1972 - the 906th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The ascent up the hill was difficult, and for some reason I was gasping badly. I didn't figure this out until the next day when I stood on my front porch, looking at where I had climbed. A thick bank of brown photochemical smog was exactly at the elevation where I hiked. No wonder! When I got to the top I looked around at Burbank and what I supposed was Glendale and LaCanada, and found a slab of concrete where I scrawled with a Marks-A-Lot I had brought with me, "In Memory of the Saxons Who Died on Senlac Hill on October 14th 1066." Yes, I was an odd kid. The climb down at dusk was uneventful and faster but very hard on the ankles; I made the observation that going down was worse than climbing up in some ways. My ankles throbbed the entire next day.
I repeated the climb the next year for the 907th anniversary, with the difference that I brought along a couple of small bottles of whisky from my family's pool room collection; these were the kind you buy during airline flights. I had moved on from English history and was now obsessed with the American Civil War, and it seemed that bringing along some whisky was something a soldier in the Army of the Potomac would have done. Or something like that... my memory is hazy on that point. Anyway, I quickly realized that trying to gulp down alcohol when you're hot, dehydrated and in a smog bank is not something the body wants to do, and so I ditched most of the contents of the bottles alongside the trail. "Some Yankee soldier I am," I thought. At the top I looked at the scrawled dedication from the prior year, and completed the hike with a "checked that box" attitude. In the next year, 1974, the brave Hastings Saxons would have to go without commemorative recognition.
In the summer of that year, after we had graduated from Burbank High, my friend Mike and I decided to take a hike up into another part of the Verdugo hills. I'm not sure why; it's just something eighteen year-old males did. As we sweated and panted up the trails, I reflected that in another month or so I would be entering Marine Corps boot camp, where this sort of exertion would be commonplace. That was the only time I had doubts about my career decision to enlist.
Fast forward about two years. I was a corporal in the Marines and was sure I could do anything. One Saturday night while on liberty from Camp Pendleton I took my 1974 VW Super Beetle up Stough Canyon Avenue past the DeBell Country Club, through an open gate (who left it open that night?) and onto the narrow, rutted Verdugo trail called Stough Canyon Mountain Way. At first the going wasn't difficult. Bumpy, but not difficult. Further up it appeared that the road had become badly damaged by rains - I was getting into serious four wheel drive country. The Bug was getting jolted around alarmingly, and my friend who was in the passenger seat suggested that we turn back. "Nonsense!" I cried, thinking of Chesty Puller and other legendary Marines as I popped another cassette into the player. A mile or two up the road at one especially large rut I heard a loud, metal-on-metal clunk that I had never before heard my car make. Translated from the German, it meant that it was time to turn around. Problem was, however, that the road was very narrow, and doing a 180 meant a series of partial turns, made all the more frightening by the fact that it was a dark and moonless night and we couldn't see what the drop-off looked like on the sides of the road. I eventually got the car headed downward, and made my way back down to pavement to discover that, 1.) The speedometer had ceased to function, 2.) I lost a rubber part on the front end that ensured that any front wheel bumps would be accompanied by an alarming metal-on-metal slamming sound, and 3.) Several scratches from rocks had appeared on the lower part of my car. The rubber part was easily replaced by a mechanic, and I tore the speedometer apart myself to super glue a cracked nylon gear more firmly onto a steel bushing. I was quite proud of that fix because it remained working until I sold the car. The scratches broke my heart because I babied that paint finish. It was my first and last four wheel drive excursion up the Verdugos in my Bug.
A year or so later on a Sunday jaunt I took my Dad up some twisty roads in the Verdugos in our 1975 Cadillac Eldorado; this was a worse mountaineering vehicle than was the Bug, even staying on pavement. The brakes faded alarmingly, the engine began to overheat and power steering fluid boiled out of the reservoir; a loud whining sound accompanied every turn of the steering wheel. This Cadillac may have been the Standard of the World on level roads and freeways, but in upper Burbank it was a complete disaster. Fortunately, no repairs were needed once we got back down to the flatlands where we lived off Victory Boulevard - just some additional power steering fluid.
The only other thing I can say about the Verdugos was that at our family business - a cafe near Lockheed - there was a married couple who were frequent customers; they were surnamed Verdugo. The husband claimed to be descended from the Jose Maria Verdugo who held the 18th C. Spanish land grant which included much of Burbank. I once asked him if he ever did any hiking in the hills named for his family, and he looked at me like I just stepped out of a spaceship. "Why would I want to do that?" he asked.