3 min read

Voices in the Grass: Remembering Chaney Trail

Voices in the Grass:
Remembering Chaney Trail
Author Collage from Stock Images

I don’t recall the official history of the land, that portion of Angeles National Forest where I grew up and wandered as a teenager, exploring shadows and sliding down an access road neglected by the government. It was a strange place and beautiful in its way, greatly enriched by suburban legends.

Most of the stories were told by kids, interlopers who sought the area by night to gather and drink beer in the velvet intrigue, where the trail diverged from tall, native grasses. It was the thing to do. Many of the teens were mystified by the place and would swear they had experienced something, a moment of the unexplained, the touch of a presence no one could fully comprehend. It remained a persistent theme down through the years: the legends of Chaney Trail and its forbidding aura. We enjoyed the mystique.

Sitting here, sipping coffee a number of years hence, and many miles away, I’m trying to recall the substance of the time, as best I can.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, the forest was a quiet expanse, interrupting the suburbs as a stark reminder of nature — its claim on the old Marx Brothers’ estate being the stuff of legend. In my experience, it was more the haunted woods than the endearing forest, a place of vague discomfort rather than delight. Years ago, on mornings of uneasy silence, I would sometimes walk with my father up the trail and into the mountains, but often preferred to venture alone, passing the old, covered reservoir that always seemed so ominous, listening for wind in the leaves.

In those days, the people who mainly sought Chaney Trail were locals and traveling hippies, hikers from distant places being less common. For my parents, who purchased a home adjacent to the forest, nature was simply a place beyond freeway traffic, a convenient shelter from the pollution and annoyances of Los Angeles. As I recall, the notion of rural beauty rarely entered their conversations. This was the habit of adults, but we children of the neighborhood were much the same.

As the adventurous kids who whispered about Chaney Trail’s strange ambience, I don’t recall that we regarded its grandeur, or found its landscape compelling. The forest was simply there, no more, no less. It burned on occasion, and parted veils of splendid morning fog season after season, but we rarely noticed. Then came a different age.

A Place Now Cherished

I recall visiting the area during the late 90s, watching as dozens upon dozens of vehicles parked and disgorged weekend hikers. There they were, throngs of upper-middle class nature lovers, sipping bottled water and wearing enough Patagonia clothing to insure the company’s survival. It was surreal.

After the unappreciative years of my childhood, the forest had emerged as a revered destination, its shadows and hillsides becoming hallowed, its whispering breezes sought by multitudes. What the locals had taken for granted, newcomers embraced and cherished with passion. Over the years, ghostly voices of memory had given way, fading into the noise of a new era, that of nature tourism. It was interesting to behold.

On the Substance of Personal History

This hour of remembrance has given me much to consider. Namely, I wonder about the very substance of personal history, what we can reach back and recall after the passing of years. With that in mind, Chaney Trail becomes a symbolic path, as well as an actual one, inviting me to gather up my courage and wander through dark discoveries. I appreciate this opportunity. As for the past, and its many secret narratives, much remains to consider.

The landscape, ancient and haunting, can be filtered through the lens of memory as it brings to mind all the beauty I overlooked, so many years ago. But how did other people feel? Perhaps neighboring households were different from ours and routinely remarked about the magnificent forest that shadowed our lives. I wonder.

These ideas about Chaney Trail came to mind quite recently, as I watched a YouTube video about paranormal encounters in that region. A number of hikers had reported hearing disembodied laughter — voices in the grass — surrounding them in the hills, taunting relentlessly as they hurried away. Recalling the weird atmosphere of my hometown forest, and the San Gabriel mountains in general, I felt for them.

Growing up in the region, my experiences were somewhat different, however. The voices I heard in the grass were those of my own making, sorrows of daily teenage life, alienation, and the various issues that diminished my glorious mountain home, making it seem far less than it was. Happily, in the years that followed, I grew out of these selfish tendencies and came to cherish the land.

Still, there is something about the forest of the old neighborhood, an ominous feeling I’ve never really been able to explain. As teenagers, we called the dilapidated path that led into the mountains Haunted Trail, and whispered about its folk history, wondering if the tales were true. Even now, I enjoy the speculation, as strangers on YouTube confirm our childhood stories; voices do indeed linger on Chaney Trail and filter through the grass, on certain occasions.