|From a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia|
Rode a boy with a six-gun in his hand
And his daring life of crime
Made him a legend in his time
East and west of the Rio Grande
~Billy Joel, The Ballad of Billy the Kid
But the San Gabriels didn't need Billy the Kid. It had a robust assemblage of banditos and gun-slingers and desperados all its own. One of the more notorious was the gentleman and chivalrous outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez who claimed that his crime spree was to avenge the numerous injustices committed by invading Anglos against native Californios. Vasquez and his gang were all over the San Gabriel range and several places memorialize or bear witness to that fact (e.g., Bandido and Horse Flat Campgrounds, Vasquez Creek, Vasquez Rocks).
One of Vasquez's more infamous exploits was the raid on the Repetto ranch which was located in southeast Los Angeles in what is now Monterey Park. Alexander Repetto was an Italian sheepherder who Vasquez was informed was flush with cash after having recently sold one of his flocks. So Vasquez and his boys hatched a plan to relieve Mr. Repetto of his burden. Claiming to be sheep-shearers, they came to the Repetto ranch looking for work. But Repetto was a sharp cookie with a keen eye who saw through the ruse and called Vasquez out. Admitting that he was in fact not a sheep-shearer, but a gangster, Vasquez tied Repetto to at tree, demanded $10,000 of him, and threatened to hang him if he did not comply. But Repetto didn't have the money. He had spent most of it. And what remained was on deposit at the Temple and Workman Bank in downtown Los Angeles. So an alternate plan was conceived. Vasquez would force Repetto to write a check that his nephew would carry to the bank, negotiate, and then return with the proceeds. In a piece titled "The Hunt for Tiburcio Vasquez: A Chase Through a Californio's L.A., " Robert Peterson describes what happened next:
"When Repetto's nephew arrived at the bank, he was so nervous that the banker, Francis Temple, became suspicious and contacted the Sheriff. Upon further questioning the nephew broke down and tearfully revealed the whole story. The Sheriff immediately started assembling a posse to capture Vasquez. At this point, the nephew became worried that the Sheriff's involvement might result in his uncle's death. He managed to convince the banker to give him 500 dollars in gold and returned to Repetto's house, before the posse, to give the money to Vasquez. When the Sheriff's posse approached Repetto's house, Vasquez and his men mounted up and started racing north towards present day Pasadena."
Vasquez's escape route took him up the Arroyo Seco, into Dark Canyon, up to the old Soledad Road grade at the crest (present day Grizzly Flat Road), and then down into Big Tujunga Canyon via Grizzly Flat and Vasquez Creek (roughly, the present-day Grizzly Flat Trail). The ride down to Big Tujunga was rough, steep, and overgrown with Buckthorn, and Vasquez lost a horse and his revolver on the way down. Years later, a 16-year old kid named Phil Begue from the City of Tujunga, found Vasquez's saddle and his revolver still bearing the initial "T V" cut into the barrel.
For a nice write-up of the raid by Vasquez on the Repetto ranch by legendary Southern California historian John Robinson, go here: http://www.lawesterners.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/149-DECEMBER-1982.pdf
Given its historical significance, I've wanted to see Grizzly Flat and the trail leading to it up Dark Canyon from Big Tujunga for awhile, but all the reports I had seen were that is was impassable and/or choked with poison oak. Me and poison oak ain't friendly. So I never went. Then one day, I read a report that the Grizzly Flat trail had been worked and was clear all the way to the divide. That was all the motivation I needed.
I started from Stoneyvale at Vogel Flats. The parking lot was empty save for one van near the trailhead. Two ladies in hiking gear had just come down trail and were loading their gear into the van. A good omen. As I passed them, they asked me where the trail went. They had followed it a short distance until it petered out in a tangle of growth at the stream and then turned back not seeing a way forward. A bad omen. I pushed on having to see for myself.
A short distance later I saw for myself. The path seemingly ended abruptly in a boggy, overgrown mess along Big Tujunga creek. This wasn't right. The reports I had read indicated the trail was passable. So I rock and log-hopped across the creek to left-hand side, bashed through a stand of Arundo donax, and the trail magically reappeared. From this point until the path tacks south at Silver Canyon and begins the climb to Grizzly Flat it was easy and open walking.
Then things began to get more interesting. As the trail starts to climb what I suppose is technically Dark Canyon, it gets steep, rocky, and narrow. Not impossibly steep, but steep enough to make you work. As the climb began, I looked for the Windsor benchmark (2094) without luck. It must be buried in the very thick brush that blankets the hillsides here.
Further up, stiff brush began to encroach on the trail poking and grabbing me as I passed. Then there were a number of fallen trees that had to be negotiated. Again, nothing too difficult, but enough to add some spice to the outing. But the higher I climbed, the more ducking and bending and crawling on, over, and around vegetation I had to do. Fortunately, none of it was of the poisonous oak variety. Just below and west of Grizzly Flat, in the dark and cool drainage that must be Dark Canyon (none of the maps that I've looked at are labeled), I heard rustling in the underbrush ahead. Since I was just shy of Grizzly Flat and in the deep recesses of the San Gabriels, I immediately assumed Ursus americanus californiensis. So I started hooting, hollering, and clapping my hands in a pathetic attempt to scare off the unseen beast. Then two guys came around the bend on the descent making me the fool. They didn't say anything but they knew. And I knew they knew. I asked them if they had gone all the way to the ridge, but they demurred. They said they got tired of bush-whacking so were beating a retreat back to the trailhead. Another bad omen.
Then I popped out into the clear and the sunshine at Grizzly Flat, named after the Grizzly Bears that once called the Angeles National Forest home and reputedly favored the Big Tujunga region. I've heard that before the Station Fire, Grizzly Flat was nice. Now, it is not much more than wide-spot on the trail. I stopped for a spell, investigated the water tank, hydrated, then pushed on.
Here, the trail morphs into Grizzly Flat Road so I was optimistic that the traveling would become easier. But while the way did in fact open up, and the path did become wider, forward progress definitely did not become more effortless or simple. It seems Spanish Broom, a beautiful, non-native invasive, has a particular affinity for the area and it has aggressively colonized the place. It crowded the road to the point of being almost impassable at times, and I spent the next half-hour or so ducking under, around, and through massive clumps of the offending stuff.
Finally, I reached the divide separating Big Tujunga Canyon from the Arroyo Seco. This was the exact spot where 100+ years earlier, Tiburcio Vasquez finally shook Sheriff Rowland from his tail after the Repetto Ranch raid. The spot offers expansive views down Dark Canyon and into the Big Tujunga Creek drainage. Here, I found a spot to admire the fine scenery, shed my sweat-soaked top, dry out, and contemplate the historical significance the piece of ground on which I was sitting. After I had my fill, I hoisted myself up and then retreated back into the wilds of Dark Canyon that was once the haunt of both bandits and grizzlies.