In November of 2018, the two little remote cabins on Trancas Creek in Malibu, where Janice and I lived from 1989 to 1997, were destroyed in the Woolsey Fire that swept from the Simi Valley to the coast.
Our neighbor whose home also burned—the old Rindge family ranch house--sent us this photo
I took this shot from the same vantage point in 2009:
The light gray spot in the center is the tin roof of one of the cabins.
Here is a gallery of photos from 2009, when we hiked down to the abandoned cabins.
In 1989, while living in Hollywood, Janice and I were fed up with hearing gunfire and police helicopters almost every night. We saw an ad for a rental in Malibu—“Stream! Trees! Boulders!" I decided to take a look. I picked up the landlady at her home in Santa Monica, and we drove up to the locked gate at the end of Trancas Canyon Road. There was no automatic opener. I had to get out and unlock the padlocked chain. My first ride down that long, bumpy, narrow dirt road at the edge of a cliff was a bit scary. When we arrived at the flat area by the creek, there were two 300-square-foot cabins about 25 feet apart, under a canopy of spreading oaks. (Now I am hoping those old trees are not fully dead, and can regenerate new foliage.) The cabins had been uninhabited for almost a year, and they were in pretty bad shape—you could see daylight through the walls. In one, the old asphalt floor tile was shattered, and there was the strong aroma of rat urine. I thought, “I can’t bring my future bride to live in a place like this.” But when I went home and told Janice about it, she was intrigued, so we went back, with my contractor brother-in-law Mike, and decided we could make it work, even though the landlady wasn’t willing to pay for any improvements.
The cabins were in a forty-acre plot owned by our landlady. Our closest neighbor was almost a mile up the dirt road..
The water well wasn’t working, but Mike trailered down a 150-horsepower air compressor, we ran the hose a hundred feet down the well pipe, and blew it out. All sorts of stuff came up in the geyser that erupted—wine bottles, dead rats, etc. The previous tenant had left on bad terms, and sabotaged the well. After that, the well worked great and was very productive. But we used that water only for showering and washing dishes.
I installed a solar panel array, charging a bank of a dozen marine batteries that powered our lights (12-volt automobile backup bulbs) and a DC-to-AC converter for our computer and TV (although we had no reception or cable or dish; we just watched rented VHS tapes).
There was no cell phone reception. I had to string telephone wire for a mile up the dirt road to the nearest telephone pole, where GTE provided us a terminal. I strung the wire atop the chaparral (avoiding the Poison Oak) along the road, but rats and deer would nibble on the insulation, so at the first drop of rain, the wires would short out. I had to go along the line and find the short. I used a little Princess phone with alligator clips on it. I had several checkpoints along the line, to help me tell if the the short was above or below. While I worked, I often sang the Glen Campbell song, “The Malibu (Wichita) Lineman.”
I also bought a propane-powered generator, that we used to pump well water into a holding tank, and to run the microwave oven. We didn’t bother with a clothes washer, because the iron content in the well water would have turned everything brown, so we made trips to a laundromat in Oxnard. I hauled in 5-gallon jugs of purified water for drinking and cooking; Arrowhead and Sparkletts refused to drive down the dirt road.
Our refrigerator was a Swedish-made Sibir that operated on propane and worked through an absorption process. I refilled 5-gal propane tanks that we used for the fridge, generator, bathroom heater, and a little wall-mounted, on-demand Paloma water heater. We could take hot showers as long as we wanted. We didn’t turn brown.
From our 2009 pilgrimage/picnic: The creek runs right behind the trampoline, that was left there by the two young guys who moved in to the cabins right after we left, only six weeks before the road washed out badly in the "March Miracle” rains of 1997, making it impossible to haul out anything that could not be carried by hand or on one’s back. The cabin on the left was our bathroom and bedroom, the other our kitchen, living room and office.
This photo was also taken in 2009, after the cabins had been deserted for twelve years. Neighbor Bill had made occasional hikes down to tidy up. Our refrigerator was where the chair sits. To the right of that was our gas range, to the left was our pantry. At far left was our dining table. That fireplace was our only source of heat in that cabin. I laid the Saltillo pavers.
Our wedding ceremony was held there under the oaks, in 1990, with 100 guests. Legendary Malibu Judge John Merrick officiated. He had married Sean Penn and Madonna four years earlier, and he told me that he liked our wedding better. We had a barbecue and served a few crawfish I had caught in the creek. A Cajun band, Lisa Haley and the Zydecats, performed. The accordion player, Joe Simien, showed us how to cook the crawfish.
According to Freeman Kincaid Jr., son of the original homesteader, the cabins were built in the early 1920s by Angus Campbell, a Scottish Canadian who was a highly decorated veteran of WWI. Campbell was so disgusted with the human race that he wanted to live far away from other people. The cabins still had their original tin roofs—the manufacturing stamp was visible. Later, the cabins were used for hunting expeditions organized by the owner of the Malibu Trading Post, which was located at the corner of PCH and Trancas Canyon Road, where now stands a Starbucks and other establishments. Hollywood celebrities used to go deer hunting in Malibu often. Freeman's sister Evelyn Kincaid, who lived up the road from us, and whose father in the 1880s homesteaded the 150 acres that included the cabins, told me that Clark Gable and Frank Capra had stayed in those cabins on guided hunting trips.
We felt as if we were living in our own national park. Every night we fell asleep to the sound of the rushing water (except in the height of summer, when the creek was a still pond), and the rhythmic, gentle cacophony of a hundred croaking bullfrogs. And sometimes the yipping of coyotes in the distance.
There were a few mountain lions around—after a rain we would see their huge tracks on the dirt road— but we always had at least five or six big dogs (a "six-pack of curs") loose on the property, so the cougars didn't come near the cabins. I did buy a .38-caliber pistol, and I used an air rifle to (illegally) kill rattlesnakes, which were plentiful. Our dogs were bitten a few times, never fatally, however, because we always rushed them to the vet for antivenom. It’s a wonder we didn’t all get Lyme Disease, from all the ticks.
Evelyn Kincaid used to regale us with stories of the old Malibu and her family’s interactions with the Rindges and the Deckers. The Kincaids had a sort of rivalry/feud with those other pioneer families. However, when the Kincaid home burned down in 1934, the Rindges were kind enough to let the Kincaid family stay in a line shack of theirs, near Trancas Cyn. Rd and PCH, where the Malibu Garden Center operated until recently. Now there are many shops in the location, behind Vintage Grocers.
David K. Randall’s The King and Queen of Malibu is an interesting and colorful chronicle of the pioneer era.
We found on the property about a dozen 15-gallon nursery pots with soil in them. Neighbor Freeman told me, “They weren’t growing Petunias in those!”
Apparently the property had a rep with local law enforcement. One time I watched a police helicopter hover about six feet over the tall tomato plants in my garden, the pilot checking them out, almost blowing them over with the rotor wash.
We learned that some fraternity boys had been previous renters there, and threw some epic parties, at least one of which brought out the cops, who almost drove off a cliff trying to get to the cabins. One bizarre, tragic story was that at one party, someone had a flak jacket, and a drunk kid put it on and had someone shoot him with a pistol. The jacket wasn’t bulletproof, and the wound proved fatal.
Janice and I also hosted a couple of big parties—“Moondances” coinciding with a full moon—where about 30 or 40 friends danced into the wee hours and camped out on the grounds.
I found all sorts of Chumash Indian artifacts and tools. An archaeologist who was exploring Trancas Creek told us that the place had indeed been a Chumash site.
During the eight years we lived in Malibu, we saw just about every celebrity there is. I had a casual chatting relationship with Martin Sheen when we would run into each other in the Pavilions parking lot. We mostly discussed politics. Janice often flirted with Emilio Estevez in Trancas Market. Bruce Springsteen almost ran over me—the bumper of his Ford Explorer scraped my leg—while awkwardly pulling a uey in the Trancas Market parking lot. I saw Robert Downey Jr. fall on his drunken ass getting a twelve-pack out of the cooler at Ralphs. You name him or her, and we had an encounter. Johnny Carson, Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Sam Elliott, Peter Falk, Neil Simon, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and on and on. But in Malibu, you don’t make a big deal out of star-watching. It’s not cool.
In January of 1997, when Janice was expecting with Casey, we moved out of the cabins, to Ventura. The cabins would have been no place for a newborn, with the road washing out regularly, and the abundance of scorpions, snakes, and mountain lions, and a rapidly-flowing creek to fall into. Two months after we moved out, a huge rainstorm totally washed out the dirt road. The landlady couldn’t afford to have it bulldozed, and Edison no longer maintained that road as it used to—they accessed their power line towers via another fire road. So the cabins sat uninhabited. Bill, whose trailer was just up the road, said that a couple of times, homeless people squatted there, but they didn’t last long. It's too far and treacherous a hike up and down the creekbed.
Janice and I don’t regret moving to Trancas Canyon; those eight years were so colorful and rich. It was sort of a magical place, a bit of paradise in a way. More than twenty years later, we both still have strange dreams about the cabins and environs.
It would take a book to chronicle all the adventures and strange and memorable happenings we experienced during the almost eight years we lived at the cabins. Maybe I’ll have to work on that.
Although it will be a sad pilgrimage, we will hike down to the cabins again, to survey the ruins. We need to go soon, before rains trigger mudslides on the now-bare slopes that will surely bury the entire site.
Here’s to a true Paradise Lost.
Copyright 2018 Ken Bash
Update: Here is a gallery of photos from my hike down to the cabins after the fire. https://kbash.smugmug.com/Family/Trancas-Canyon-cabins