If you think Black Star Canyon is haunted, then you may be spending too much time on the internet. Countless websites are designed to convince you that tribal ghosts, satanic cults, neo-Nazis, UFOs, and crazy homesteaders are preying upon innocent victims every night. I have explored Black Star Canyon during the day and night for over a decade. Over the years, I have seen many beautiful and wondrous things, but never an evil spirit lurking in the woodland. I have heard all sorts of noises, most of which are easily identified as owls, bats, poorwills, woodrats, raccoons, foxes, deer, coyotes, and other nocturnal wildlife. I even saw my first wild bobcat in Black Star many years ago. But unless mischievous spirits decide to mimic wildlife calls at night to trick unsuspecting naturalists, the chance of an unexplained phenomenon is highly unlikely. I admit that Art Tuttle, a disgruntled canyon resident, has been put in jail multiple times for harassing visitors, but he's just a solitary bummer. Most strange or negative encounters involve paranoid people interacting with other paranoid people.
After sunset, you can hear the obnoxious bass rumble from expensive audio systems heading up Black Star Canyon Road. Groups of young suburbanites speed to the dead end, park on the dirt shoulder, and hide in their vehicles until they can muster enough courage to step out. When the car doors open, you can hear nervous whispers, giggles, and screams. After shushing each other repeatedly, they step cautiously towards the gate. Their fear materializes in an acrid haze of cigarette smoke and beer breath. One by one, they walk through the gate and vanish into the night. Flashlight beams fumble erratically in all directions. Manic reactions ensue. “What the fuck was that?!! Oh my god, is somebody following us?!” Sometimes they carry bats or other weapons of defense. The whole affair is ridiculous and comical to say the least. I should know. I see the parade of wasted hooligans arrive during many of our Naturalist For You events, including our Mountain Music Jams on the 4th Friday night of every month.
At 6 p.m., I gather with random folks at the end of Black Star Canyon Road to play some mountain music. The road dead-ends at a large metal pipe gate. To the right of the gate stands a monolithic slab of sandstone with an oak tree growing out of the top. The yellowish orange rock face is weathered with many intriguing holes, rust stains, and boney protrusions. Millions of years of erosion and deposition have created a stunning backdrop for our monthly musical tradition. A rusty barbed wire fence runs to the right of the rock and divides the dirt shoulder of the road from an old cattle ranch. It is an ideal setting for a rustic romp. I arrive in my usual mountain man garb with a mandolin, fiddle, and communal shakers and drums.
I lay out a tarp in front of the sandstone, so folks can sit comfortably without getting broken beer bottles in their backsides. I never know whom to expect. As I wait patiently for music jam participants, waves of citified youth float by. They give me odd looks as I tune my fiddle. Some of them blurt out questions. “Are we in the right place? Is this where the ghosts are? Is Black Star really haunted? Where is the old school bus? How dangerous is it here?” I try to answer their questions with sincerity, but it is difficult to take the whole situation seriously. Before I can elaborate on the rich natural and cultural history of the canyon, my musical guests arrive.
Every month, a growing cast of characters performs in front of the ancient rock stage. “Medieval” Kirk with his bushy beard sings and plays guitar, drums, and a hand-made hurdy gurdy. “Cowboy” Tom with his saloon vest and hat sings and plays guitar, mandolin, and djembe. “Plumber” Dave with his white goatee sings and plays guitar. “Fairy Garden” Anne with her goldilocks sings and dances. “French” Helene, with her leftist vibe, sings and plays various flutes and guitar. “Acorn” Annie with her lovely smile sings and plays ukulele. “Gothic” Sam with his long hair and pale skin sings and plays guitar and accordion. “Angel” Angie, “Generous” John, and family sing and play tribal rhythms with communal percussion instruments. “Jukebox” Phil with his hobo gloves sings and plays guitar. “Flashlight” Bob with his long gray gnome beard plays harmonica.
The list goes on. We may have 30-40 people playing music to their hearts content. The canyon grooves with an eclectic mix of original songs, folk tunes, and complete improvisations. We play for a few hours while disoriented city folks continue to look for spooks beyond the gate.
Sometimes when we finish, a group returns from their exploration at the same time. I stop them and ask, “How far did you get?” They respond, “There were so many noises and shadows that we gave up before the road turned to the right.” I explain about the abundance of animal sounds, but they argue that ghosts are the real culprits. They nervously laugh their way back to their vehicles, rev their engines, and skid away leaving a cloud of dust.
I don't have the heart to tell them that they did not even make it into Black Star Canyon. The road actually follows Santiago Canyon for almost a mile beyond the gate before it turns right and enters Black Star Canyon. I look to the other musicians and laugh. The truth is that we all haunt Black Star Canyon Road in a desperate attempt to reclaim our lost heritage. We are victims of a city where “progress” has erased most of the past. That is why our wandering spirits gather at the edge of civilization to celebrate our existence within the Santa Ana Mountain ecosystem.
I hope you will join me at our next Mountain Music Jam on the 4th Friday of every month at 6 p.m. at the end of Black Star Canyon Road. Bring a banjo!
Listen to one of our recorded songs inspired by the event at this link, while event details can be found on our website calendar.
ATTENTION ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDS: Black Star Canyon is one of the many gems of the Santa Ana Mountains. Due to increased media attention, Black Star Canyon is receiving more visitors than ever before. Unfortunately, some of the visitors degrade the area with graffiti, trash, illegal shooting, illegal fires, and illegal trailblazing. The next time you visit Black Star, please bring reusable trash bags, gardening gloves, and graffiti removal equipment, so you can preserve the beauty and integrity of our fragile canyon for future generations. Thank you!