Burb's Eye View: Community hike imparts chills and thrills

Burbank has no shortage of ghost stories.

The library at Woodbury University boasts the ghost of Mother Cabrini, the first American to be canonized a saint. Last year I met a woman who may have been haunted by the spirit of her husband. If you look up Burbank Boulevard's Coral Café on YouTube you can watch grainy, choppy footage of a blob follow around an employee as he sweeps.

And who wouldn't want to see the specter for themselves?

“Customers come all the time because of the ghost,” said Peter Vournas, owner and manager of the Coral Café.

They're just curious, he says, especially late at night.

There's an old saying, something about curiosity bringing about the demise of felines. Well, then, call me Garfield, and let me tell you a spooky story about the Curse of the Burbank Canyon Trail.

It was a dark and stormy night. Except replace “dark” with “sunny,” and “stormy” with “clear.”

Also, it was morning.

I arrived at the foot of the hill like the protagonist so often does at the beginning of old monster flicks — wide-eyed and full of wonder at the scene before him. The trail up the hill stretched beyond vision, leading higher and steeper toward the creepy mansion (I mean radio tower) at the top of the Verdugo hill.

Days earlier I received a mysterious invitation to this spot in the mail. Someone I never met invited me to a “community hike” along Wildwood Canyon, although for the purposes of this story, let's call it Death Valley. Later, I would learn that no deaths ever occurred on the community hike and actually it was rather family-friendly.

As I faced that crevasse and its impossible climb I began to doubt my training, those long hours on the treadmill and the dreaded stretching of hamstrings. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled. A bat flew by the…sun. Maybe it was a bird. Maybe it was a bird and a Yorkie I saw a woman jogging with. One can never be too careful when wolves are about.

After signing in with one of about 30 volunteers I received some water and a whistle, in case I got lost.

The path up the Death Valley ridge becomes very narrow in spots — this was a journey not meant for those prone to vertigo, or those with a healthy fear of heights. Families and groups of teens and tweens passed by me rather easily and I remember wondering whether the heat was getting to me — or perhaps it was the spirit of Skull Rock coming to claim a fresh (but slightly used) body.

Carol Mercado from the nature center tells me skull rock “legend” was the theme of Stough Canyon Nature Center's first haunted hike in 2001. It was based on a rock on the trail that looked like a human skull. It has since disappeared — park officials say it was dislodged in a wind storm but a more probable explanation is this: The skull is wandering the canyons looking for a new body.

While the nature center's haunted hikes may produce some scares, it was this community hike that really got to me. After stuffing myself with a lunch provided at the top of the trail by the Boy Scouts, I descended toward my waiting stagecoach (I mean car), quadriceps flaming with each step. My knees wobbled a bit on a steep step and I thought I would careen off the side. I discovered many things that day: a new love of hiking, Scouts make good caterers, and I may have a slight case of vertigo.

This Saturday, from 8 to 9:30 a.m., the city once again hosts the annual community hike. For $10 (if you haven't registered already) you can participate in one of two hikes.

The first is an easier stroll through the Old Campground at Stough Canyon Nature Center, where junior docents will share a bit of the history and natural features of the area.

If you're looking for something more challenging, show up at 1701 Wildwood Canyon Drive. It's a fun test of wills and fears — and if you're like me, you might overcome some.

Keep a weather eye on the horizon for Skull Rock, then you can get back to hunting ghosts in bookshelves and café kitchens.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he isn't scaring up ghost tales, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.

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