'Mountain Lady' Goes It Alone in Ventura Hills

Times Staff Writer

Mountain Lady lives alone on a wind-swept peak above Chatsworth with her dog, Thor.

Without neighbors, electricity or running water, her life is solitary and hard, but there are benefits, she says.

She can perch on a rock and watch the Simi Valley Freeway snake through the Santa Susana Mountains pass. She can climb the craggy hills and look for ancient Indian paintings. She can sing at the top of her lungs and no one will laugh at her.

"I could have a room in an apartment down below if I wanted," Mountain Lady says with disdain, pointing to a cluster of homes far below in the Simi Valley. "But I'm going a different route."

Unorthodox Views

Her real name is Terry Weiss. She's a 23-year-old woman with unorthodox views of life, leisure and living conditions. Tall, rangy, with honey-blond hair and a husky voice, Weiss got her nickname from equally unorthodox biker friends.

Home for Weiss is a 400-square-foot trailer on top of a hill overlooking the San Fernando and Simi valleys that she rents for $100 a month. She takes odd jobs in construction to support herself. And although some would find fault with her life style, Weiss seems to thrive on it.

"I sit on my rocks and I have my privacy. It gives me a lot of time to think," she says.

Invisible from the road, and almost a mile's hike from the nearest paved street, Weiss' homestead is scattered with brush and large rocks. Because the land is not zoned for a dwelling, she doesn't want to disclose the exact location.

The land is zoned as open space, not for temporary or permanent residence, Ventura County planning officials say. County Planner Chet Bauman says Weiss also needs to build a septic tank to dispose of her sewage.

No one knows how many people like Weiss live in the Ventura hills. Simi Valley and Ventura County officials say they aren't aware of any. Weiss says she knows of one--a young man who lives in his car with two dogs. Contrasted with him, she enjoys at least a few of the traditional comforts of home.

Reminiscent of 1960s

Weiss apparently has survived the yuppie revolution unscathed. The decor of her weather-beaten trailer is 1960s kitsch. She has candleholders made of old Jack Daniel's bottles. Thor sleeps on an oriental-style rug in the living room and a bean-bag chair slumps in the corner. J. R. R. Tolkien's "Ring Trilogy," "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran and the Don Juan series by Carlos Castaneda line a shelf above her bed.

In the living room, an old manual typewriter gathers dust. It was purchased for $3 and will come in handy when Weiss goes back to school, she says.

Weiss cooks on a wood-burning stove. Candles provide her evening light, and her small television runs on a car battery.

For water, she has rigged up a gravity-powered system, storing the water in a metal container on a rock pile above her home and running a long rubber hose between the container and her trailer. The water flows downhill through the hose into her kitchen window.

She says she wants to sink a 55-gallon drum in the ground to use as a toilet, plant shrubbery outside her trailer window and build a makeshift shower.

Not All Idyllic

Life isn't all nature hikes and Zen sunsets. Weiss' trailer leaks when it rains. Her toilet is a hole in the ground, and she has no hot water. Her aging car recently stopped running, and when she borrowed a friend's, she was pulled over because the registration had expired.

Weiss was arrested when police found a loaded gun--something she argues is necessary protection for a woman living alone in her circumstances--concealed in the car. A friend loaned her $5,000 to post bail, she says, but she isn't sure how she'll be able to repay the loan.

Weiss says she has a lot of friends, including bikers who live in the Box Canyon and Santa Susana areas. Her former boyfriend was a biker, and left her with an unorthodox version of the American Dream: not in a house in the suburbs, but a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

"I want to fix up my bike and go on the road for a couple years," she muses, "I want to travel." But the bike needs a lot of work, and she doesn't have the money to fix it.

Conventional Dream

Weiss also has a more conventional dream--to buy land in the mountains and settle legally in her trailer.

Despite her living arrangement, Weiss' clothes are clean, her hair shiny. She bathes regularly and says she has little respect for those who don't.

Weiss showers at a nearby gym, where she also studies karate and lifts weights. Sporadically, she visits her mother and younger sister in Ventura County. Weiss' sister, who didn't want her name used, says the two siblings have "very different life styles."

Terry Weiss says her sister inspired her love of the mountains years ago by taking her backpacking. Their parents were divorced in the '70s, and Terry shuttled back and forth between her mother in the San Fernando Valley and her father in suburban Philadelphia, where she attended high school. She wrote for the school paper and studied photography.

Worked as Firefighter

After dropping out in her senior year, she passed the high school equivalency test and went to work as a volunteer firefighter on the emergency rescue squad in Jenkintown, Pa.

Weiss headed West again in 1982. She lived with her sister for a while, then moved around the Valley. She was homeless for several months in 1984, staying with friends, sleeping on the beach or in her car.

She decided to save money. She wanted to buy a trailer and live independently. "I wanted to find somewhere stable. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted control of my own home, and I wanted privacy."

In the spring of 1984, she bought her trailer for several hundred dollars and moved it to a walnut grove near Simi Valley. Several months ago, Weiss scouted the mountains looking for a more secluded location. The new spot "seemed like the perfect setup," she recalls. A friend hauled the trailer up the hill for her.

At first, it was hard to get used to being so isolated. She feared the dark, and strange night noises scared her. But Weiss conquered her fears by facing them head-on, she says. Now, if she hears a noise at night, she calls Thor and goes to investigate. But likely as not, it will be a coyote or bobcat.

"Sometimes, I wish I had a boyfriend to share it with," she says. But she has friends and relishes her privacy.

Besides, she says, the longer she lives outside the mainstream, the less she likes the conventional world.

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