Photos by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
My co-workers are always going to exotic places, doing dangerous things. I, on the other hand, rarely leave my desk. I don’t like heights, going swimming makes me immediately imagine drowning, and having to drive a car down a windy road makes my crotch sweat. My three biggest fears are impotence, accidentally eating mold, and Nazis. So, when approached to scope out a purported Nazi hideout in Los Angeles’s Rustic Canyon, I jumped at the opportunity to do something crazy for once.
I absolutely wish I hadn't. Murphy Ranch, as it's called, was built in 1933 by wealthy American Third Reichers, Winona and Norman Stephens to house a totally self-sustaining Nazi community. Nazi sympathizers engaged in military exercises, under the expectation that the war in Europe would inevitably spill over into the American mainland. That didn’t happen, and the ranch was abandoned. There seemed to be nothing to worry about, but if there’s one thing I can count on, it’s that I will find something to worry about.
After driving to the end of a residential street, we reached the entrance to Camp Josepho, the current name for the recreational area where the ranch resides. A barrier stands guard to keep unauthorized vehicles off the camp’s trail. We ditched our car and began the hike into the canyon. We hit a fork in the road, and I left our bag of empty beer bottles on the ground as a marker in case we got completely lost, which I was sure we would.
If it wasn’t bad enough that we were walking in 90-degree heat through a goddamn forest, we found our path down into Murphy Ranch. A seemingly endless series of 500 poorly fashioned stairs appeared to be our only means of accessing the Nazi campground.
There were no guardrails, and each step was about as wide as half my foot. In my mind, an elaborate scenario played out in which I would slip, fall 50 feet, bump my head on every step on the way down, then be Medivac-ed out via helicopter, and having to live the rest of my life inside an iron lung.
Thankfully, I didn’t fall and get shoved inside a giant, metal burrito, but there was still plenty of treacherous terrain left to go. Once we got into Murphy Ranch, there were tick-warning signs everywhere. All I know about ticks is that they attach themselves to your body and suck your blood, plus they carry Lyme disease. Good thing for me I was wearing shorts so that the ticks had easy access to my fucking legs.
The first major landmark we came across was what I learned was a diesel power station. At the time, I assumed it was some sort of altar where they sacrificed Jewish virgins to the pagan Nazi god (admittedly, I don't really know very much about what Nazis do). I had already heard that the owners of the ranch had been convinced to build the compound by a German named Herr Schmidt, who claimed to have supernatural powers and regularly conducted séances in his ample spare time. So it seemed highly plausible that he was also big into human sacrifice.
The historical record is hazy on this, but my posthike research confirmed that no sacrifices took place there. There was clearly plenty of partying that went on recently, as the litany of empty beer and spray-paint cans strewn about illustrated. I’m pretty sure Der Fuhrer would not have approved of all those people drinking warm American beer in his compound.
Adjacent to the power station was a large water tank that looked like it had been shot at with a cannon. There was a massive depression in the center of the tank, which made me want to investigate further. By “investigate further,” I mean, run screaming in the other direction because something horrible must have happened there. We opened the hatch at the bottom of the tank, and much like the power station, it was filled with empty beer cans. The only horrible thing that went down must have been a guy throwing up.
The last major structure we came upon was the living quarters. I gathered that this was meant to be a place of habitation from all the broken sinks and stoves lying around the site. In its heyday, it must have been quite a sight to behold, but in its current condition, not so much. Unless you enjoy spending your nights next to a rusted out VW hippie bus.
Instead of turning around and going back the way we came, it was decided (against my will) that we would trek farther through the camp in the opposite direction. I was positive we’d seen everything, and taking a new route would get me eaten by bears. Also, we left the empty bag of beers at the fork in the road, and I hate to litter. As you can see in the above photo, I even went so far as to remove a used pair of undies that some sneaky bastard had left behind. A dirty Nazi campground is something I cannot accept.
My entire body itched. I felt bugs on every inch of me, even if there weren’t actual bugs anywhere to be seen. The bugs were in my mind. I actually jumped a quarter of an inch in the air (my vertical leap is atrocious) when a lizard popped out from underneath a severed car door. The lizard was no bigger than my pinky, but it was definitely full of poison. I could see it in its eyes. It was a killer lizard.
After another 20 minutes of my stopping every few feet to catch my breath, we ran into a giant iron gate. This was the actual entrance to the ranch. There were no dangerous staircases, just a gentle road that led back onto the trail we had arrived from. If we had just kept walking a few more feet past the stairs at the beginning of the day, I never would have had the series of minor panic attacks and hot flashes. Still, I suppose the experience of taking those stairs and roaming through the canyon helped me overcome my fears of falling, bears, and most importantly, American Nazi sympathizers. For this, I am eternally grateful.
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