Hahamongna’s Compass

You can touch a devil in Hahamongna Park. Most people don’t know. They don’t even realize that they should be looking for him. The suburban moms, jogging through each morning’s mist, take a different trail. The disc golf pros––bald, half-drunk, dexterous old men––stay on their circuit. Teenagers at the high school across the road head the right way, around the base of the dam, to play hooky, but they say the name wrong. He left the weed in a McDonalds bag in Hahamonga, they say, and forget the final “n.”

I don’t think this devil would reveal himself to them. He has too much respect for the Tongva tribe after which the park was named. After all, the Hahamog-na Native Americans were the first who noticed his sharp chin, scowl, and ragged horn cut into a rock face near the bottom of the watershed. The rocks are grey, probably limestone, but when the sun sets, you might see his eyes glow red. As you reach out your hand to make contact, he doesn’t move. You can’t change him or hurt him, so you turn and leave him be.

Lay of the Land

 Hahamongna Park is three hundred acres of green and tan space, that, from a small plane taking off of the makeshift runway half a mile away, might look like the head of a guitar or a crocodile, jaw ajar. Its elevation varies in layers, though you can’t really appreciate this until you’re walking through it. There’s the parking lot off the park’s main entrance on Oak Grove Drive, bushy and seedy. Walk 50 feet down into the park and you’re surrounded by Quercus agrifolia, oak trees native to this area of Southern California that look stately but only spread so far down. Walk farther into the park, maybe 15 feet closer to sea level, and you see fewer big trees and more small bushes and wild grasses. Somehow you feel more secluded here. It’s easy to notice a cranny of fallen foliage, free of branches––maybe a path, maybe not––and slip through it. In five seconds, you’re alone in the tall undergrowth, and you feel like you’re within something close to the wild. Of course, you can usually hear cars speeding around the nearby bend on the 210 Freeway, and the San Gabriel mountains stand permanently in the distance, filling your field of vision behind wispy stalks. You have to ignore this if you want to forget where you are.

You could also walk even deeper into the park, and descend into one of the gullies that give the disc golfers so many problems. This is part of Hahamongna’s lowest layer, and the one in which you’ll finally feel like you’re surrounded on all sides. Of course, the entirety of the park is a watershed, a drainage basin built by the Arroyo Seco river as it careened from mountain to sea. But decades of drought mean that most of Hahamongna’s dusty chaparral looks weeks away from becoming desert. In this way, the park feels distant from the lush lawns and clean sidewalks of the suburbia that surrounds it. After you walk out from a gully, though, the park’s geography loses definition, especially if you’re looking for a way out. Where are Hahamongna’s edges? You pick a direction and walk and pass through layer after layer and wonder if you’re close to where the park ends, or when it began.

West Edge: La Cañada 

The average price of a house in the city of La Cañada is 1.66 million. The median household income is more than $155,000, three times Los Angeles’ county’s average, mostly because La Cañada Unified School District students score the highest or the second-highest on standardized state testing year after year. Or vice-versa.

In Spanish, la cañada means “the canyon” or “the glen.” Only 6.3 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic. The La Cañada Valley Sun, the local newspaper, often forgets to print the enye when referring to the town in their articles. Athletes at La Cañada High School like to cover up the enye on their jersey at away games and pretend that they’re from Canada.

The glen that the city’s name refers to is Hahamongna’s. The park borders the city, and is also accessible through a few horse trails that weave their way between rancho-style houses. People frequent the park’s outer paths, but rarely explore the inner layers. 

“If I’m with my family,” Mr. Golding, a La Cañada parent, explained, “I won’t stay in Hahamonga past five or six because it feels sort of sketchy.” He, like many locals, prefers the other major green space in the city: Descanso Gardens, a botanical expanse of land with “spectacularly seasonal horticultural displays” (according to their website), a miniature train for toddlers that circuits the Camellia Gardens and passes next to the Japanese Garden, and a nine dollar entrance fee. The internet seems to agree. Descanso has garnered 4.6 out of five stars from 237 Google Reviews, while the 22 reviews of Hahamongna on AllTrails.com give it just over three-and-a-half.

One man spent more time in Hahamongna than anywhere else in the city, though. The Valley Sun referred to him as a “local transient,” but everyone knew him as Wild Bill. He slept on a bench under the oaks in the park. During the day, he hung out around the bus stop on Oak Grove. Kids getting out of school either stayed away from him or dared each other to talk to him. He was known to rant about how corrupt the Los Angeles mayor’s office was and recommend cheap alcohol to middle schoolers. They could usually smell Sam Adams through his beard. Wild Bill was La Cañada’s only homeless person, and he became so ingrained in the city’s mythos that someone wrote an Urban Dictionary definition for him.

“A crazy, funny old man who lived in La Canada Flintridge, California. He was always drunk and hung out at the bus stop. People loved when he rode the bus after school. […] He loved Star Wars and always pretended he was Darth Vader. He sadly passed in October 2011 across the street from La Canada High School in Hahamonga Park. We will all miss him, and he was the greatest thing in La Canada… Rip Bill.”

William Pluma Barrios’ funeral ceremony was held in Hahamongna. “It was a lovely mixture of family, friends from the park, frisbee golfers, townspeople, high school kids, people from JPL, and [two police officers] who knew Bill well,” said Claudia Zentmyer, a hospital chaplain who attended. For sheltered La Cañada residents, Wild Bill represented the odd combination of feral and familiar that comes from being half-apart from civilization. Someone to tell out-of-towners about. Something to look at but never to touch.

Barrios’ cause of death was never released. Most people assumed alcohol poisoning, but a rumor that he was a secret agent who had been assassinated by the government circulated for a week at the high school until it was forgotten.

Magnetic North Edge: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is considered by many to be NASA’s most essential research center. The best astrophysicists and brightest engineers take up office in JPL’s cluster of white offices, fenced off from the rest of Hahamongna but always almost accessible. In some ways, the proximity is oxymoronic—admiring the fruits of American society’s stratospheric achievements while standing somewhere that feels intimately and irreducibly primitive. If the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind, good. JPL, and Hahamongna beneath it, have occupied a strange limbo between science and science fiction since JPL was first co-founded by Jack Parsons in the mid-1930s.

Parsons was a pioneering jet fuel expert second and an occultist first. He fraternized with the likes of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Aleister Crowley, a rogue’s gallery of occultists and mystery men. Crowley became his mentor and appointed him as local head of the Ordo Templi Orientis. Parsons, who grew up just south of the park, always thought that Hahamongna had ritualistic properties, as did the Hahamog-na tribe. As years passed, he came to believe it contained one of the seven portals to Hell. Some speculate that’s why he chose to found JPL so close to the park—after all, his obsession-turned-mission was to engineer a “moonchild,” an antichrist figure prophesized to begin a new world order.

Parsons died in a laboratory explosion in 1952, but his paranormal theories live on. Hahamongna is a hotspot for amateur ghost hunters and wannabe mystics, who seek out the creepiest sections of the park and night, unbeknownst to most locals, and post videos and blogs documenting their excursions for hopeful fans. Many of their supposed discoveries are easy to debunk if you know the park well. Hanging ropes that looked like “old lynching trees” with “satanic symbols of some sort” to blogger Kelly Brinker are part of a ropes course used by a local summer camp. The three “demonic scratches” that “manofmystery24” found on his thigh after exploring the area were probably put there by ripgut grass, not hellish claws. 

These rumors are unfounded but compelling. Hahamongna can contain fantasy in a way that suburbia cannot. Even if you’re not sympathetic to the supernatural, stumbling upon just a couple inexplicable objects––three abandoned lean-tos of decreasing size or a locked, empty, half-buried chest––can convince you how oddly comforting it is to save a space for stories that live between reality and imagination. But stay too long, and, as an anonymous commenter on LA Ghost Patrol’s website suspects, the stories may suck you up:

“If you like to know why and what it’s happening in devils gate canyon, put satellite in orbit and watch 24 hours a day or seven days a week, watch and record all that’s happening, you’d be probably find the gate way to the third dimension.”

South Edge: Devil’s Gate Dam

You wouldn’t know it from driving over it, but the dam was built 96 years ago. It was actually the first one ever built in Los Angeles County, intended to control the flooding that threatened La Cañada, Altadena, and the surrounding communities. These days, especially in the 95-degree summer heat, its concrete arches and steep drainpipes look laughable, like a mistake. The gushing torrents of yesteryear have become a stream that runs down the border of Hahamongna, whose flooding barely poses problems for the local squirrels. 

But several dry, uneventful decades coupled with bureaucratic mismanagement have left the dam crippled in a less obvious way. An unholy amount of sediment––2.4 million cubic yards of it, and that’s the low estimation—has piled up in the park against the dam’s surface. If a large rainstorm, lasting more than three days, comes to town sometime in the next five years, as climate scientists predict it will, the Flood Control District believes that the sediment may prevent the dam from holding back the water and hundreds of nearby homes could be swamped. 

In 2014, the L.A. County Department of Public Works proposed a solution. Over four years, the Devil’s Gate Dam Sediment Removal Project would truck out almost all of the sediment and return the dam’s capacity to adequate levels, saving downstream communities. They had implemented similarly structured projects at four other locations before. 

Within a month of the plan’s announcement, Hahamongna had become the site of an environmental turf-war. The county was on one side. On the other, the Save Hahamongna coalition, a strung-together group of activists, scientists, and concerned citizens who feared for the park. Their grievances? The Big Dig, as they called it, would strip Hahamongna of 71 acres of rare riparian habitat, destroying beautiful trails and leaving behind concrete roads. The dig called for 400 diesel trucks to enter and exit the park each day, which would undoubtedly clog city traffic and send inestimable particulates of dust into air that nearby schoolchildren would breathe. And to top it off, the Least Bell’s Vireo, a bird on the federal endangered species list, had been spotted in the park. The dig would destroy its nesting habitat.

The diversity of complaints and a singular common enemy brought together community members like nothing in recent memory. Local nonprofits drew up alternative, sustainable plans for Hahmongna sediment removal. A local firm filed a crowdfunded lawsuit against the county. Protestors, including past mayors and assemblymen, marched over the dam with signs and speakers.

I covered one of the protests as a writer for my school newspaper. It was the first real story I ever got to write, and I felt like a real reporter with my notepad and iPhone recorder. In my eagerness, I got facts wrong. A subject’s name. A quote. No one complained, so we never published corrections.

Now, four years later, the Big Dig has clogged. Its lawsuit has yet to be resolved and so no work has been done. The country promised to reduce the project’s footprint slightly, but for all the mobilizing, Hahamongna’s future is uncertain. What else besides my mistakes are buried in the mud?

East Edge: Altadena

The average price of a house in Altadena, the next town over, is a little less than half of La Canada’s average. The city’s median income is $83,000, but 11 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. 27 percent are Hispanic and know that the city’s name is a portmanteau, a combination of the word for above (“alta”) and Pasadena (itself derived from the Tongva language). Except that Altadena isn’t actually a city. According to Wikipedia, its official status is as “an unincorporated area.”  Also technically acceptable: “a census-designated place.” I call it home.  

I went to elementary, middle, and high school in La Cañada, though. My Dad worked at JPL, within city limits, so I was allowed to attend their high-achieving public schools. This meant that from seventh to eleventh grade, when all the other kids would walk or bike short distances back to their houses, I would have to wait for my Mom to come pick me up in her car. And because she wanted to avoid the school bus pileup that inevitably congested the front of campus, I would wait in the parking lot across the street, in Hahamongna. 

My ten minutes there every afternoon—fifteen when she was late—were angst-fueled. I was jealous of my friends and the extra fifteen minutes they had with their friends, minutes that I was robbed of. I kicked pinecones, I talked to myself. Sometimes other kids would have to wait in the park on a specific day—often kids I knew and liked—but when they did I avoided them. Mine was a pubescent, whiny, white angst that got off on itself, and I wasn’t going to let any opportunity spoil my sourness. I stuck to my quiet jealousy and waited for my Mom.

Then senior year arrived, with good vehicular news in tow. My late grandfather’s car, passing from cousin to cousin, had finally made it to me. I would get to drive it to and from school and friends’ houses and could finally leave the lonely park in its dust. When I finally scored my driver’s license a month into the school year (failing the permit test slowed me down), I walked into the administrative office the next day and asked to get a pass to park in the on-campus lot. Oh, but those sold out weeks ago, honey, you should know that, Office Secretary Doris explained. You’ll get a ticket if you park on the road. Try the Church of Christ, Scientist half a mile that way, or park in Hahamonga’s lower level. I scowled, thanked Doris, and came to terms with the fact that Fate (read: not Christ, Scientist) clearly wanted me to contend with Altadena’s Curse for one more year.

As life’s melodramas so often unfold, soon Altadena’s Curse became a blessing. I met a girl. Payton also parked in Hahamongna. We had taken some classes together and gotten lunch once or twice, but now we were talking everyday. It had all of the makings of a high school movie. Boy and girl walk to park after school. Boy and girl whisper jokes in each other’s ears in girl’s car. Boy and girl agree that even though he’s a total douche, Jackson Donnell has great abs and you can totally see his package when he stands up to go use the bathroom in English.

On the surface, our friendship formed because we both loved to gossip and never stopped talking. But talking in Hahamongna, after my afternoons spent waiting and her picnics there as a child, opened us up, I think, made us vulnerable. Here are the first secrets we shared: 

My parents divorced. 

My brother committed suicide. 

These were bad first secrets—they were unbalanced, and we had known each other’s already. But we left them that way. When my Dad called to ask when I’d be coming home, I’d tell her that I had to work late on the school newspaper. Instead, we would spend two whole hours under an oak tree, next to disc golf hole number four, weaving between the sharing latest dating rumors and crying because we were finally allowed to, Hahamongna as both middle school locker room and confessional stall. Here are our last secrets:

My Mom tried so hard not to pass her eating disorder onto me, and I’m not sure if she did.

I think I might be only attracted to men when they’re sleeping. What does that make me?

These were bad last secrets—unsure, scary, fresh. We comforted each other in what insufficient ways we could, put on our graduation caps and gowns, and drove out from under the oaks.

True North Edge: The San Gabriels

Behind JPL stretches our mountain range. The range doesn’t touch the park, but no matter where you are in Hahamongna, the San Gabriels feel close. Payton saw them through her windshield; protesters yelled to make the words touch their peaks; ghost hunters watched the moon light up their sides; and Wild Bill woke up to them every morning. 

When I look at the San Gabriels, I am often reminded of first way I came to know the park: my three elementary-school summers at Tom Sawyer Camp. The camp tried to capture Tom and Huck’s youthful, reckless, sheltered Americana—we built forts, rode horses, and went on adventures throughout Hahamongna. My favorite activity, by far, was Desert Commandos, a glorified game of hide-and-seek. Two sycamore stumps on the other side of that hill defined one edge of the game’s territory, while the signpost past the bend of this trail guarded another. The hiders would scatter, crouching behind brambles. Then after a 15-second grace period, the seekers would shimmy over boulders, stretching to tag whomever they could, who would then become seekers themselves. 

I always chose to be chased. I toppled through allergenic grass that left welts on my calves, threw rocks in one direction and dashed down the other, shadowed a rattlesnake’s hiding spots––all for the rush of evading touch. 

As I remember, I succeeded until one of the last days of summer, when our counselors led us until the very end of a trail and told us to crawl into the drain tunnel that loomed to the side of it. In the tunnel, our counselor told us the story of the echo princess and the one-eyed monster. The one-eyed monster keeps the echo princess hostage. If you scream into the tunnel, the echo princess will yell back, scared for her life. It’s so dark in the tunnel that no one has ever seen the one-eyed monster, but we all knew he was in there. I ran out after I brushed against something foreign, the echo princess’s voices sounding off behind me.  

People find different devils in Hahamongna. The park has a way of creating them; but for the privileged, it also has a way of vanishing them. Sometimes I feel like I left my devils in the watershed. Sometimes I hear them following me, wild and just out of reach. 

Jordan was born in Berlin, where he lived for 7 years before moving to the city that Phil Lewis (The Suite Life of Zack & Cody’s transcendent Mr. Moseby) calls home. Email jordan.cutler-tietjen@yale.edu to reminisce about sauerkraut and/or reserve two queens at the Tipton Hotel.  

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