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by Yvonne Tryce and early resident

FINDing a home in the hills

We started our search by looking on a contour map. My husband, Richard Tryce, is a ham radio operator and wanted a home with a good radio location. The spot we found was a fourteen hundred foot knoll labeled Rattlesnake Hill. I had a college friend, Peggy Dickinson, and had visited her home on Lake Road. I knew they were planning to build a home toward the hill, and so I called her. She said their place would be down on Old Spanish Trail, but that she knew who owned the hill.

She gave us Jack Simonic’s phone number, and we called him to see if the lot was available. He said he was planning to subdivide, and so could not sell off a lot at that time. However, he said he would keep in touch with us. As it turned out, we became good friends with Jack and his wife, and Rich even did a research project on Portola Valley for him in 1961. Jack’s wife, Pearl, was the one who coined the name “Vista Verde” because the view would always be green with Foothills Park next door.

During the years before we bought the lot, Jack drove us around the area in his little red jeep and told us some of the history of the area. He explained that there had once been a coalmine in the area (opened in 1850), but that the entry had collapsed in an earthquake and landslide in 1890. The sunken area filled in with water and became the lake at the end of Ciervos. However, the coalmine is still commemorated in the name “Coal Mine Ridge”, and small pieces of the low-grade coal can be found in outcroppings along Alpine Road above Joaquin Road.

Jack also told us stories about James Rolph, the flamboyant San Francisco mayor and later governor of California who once owned what is now called Pony Tracks Ranch. The stone entry posts on Ciervos were gates that entered the ranch in the early days, and we rode in the jeep up that early road. Jack pointed out exotic plants that Rolph had imported and especially he showed where heavy planting had been done to cover slides that occurred in the 1906 earthquake. One notable area was the grove of redwoods above the intersection of what is now Old Spanish Trail and Vista Verde Way.

One of the most thrilling jeep trails we took was the “Old Spanish Trail”. It was exciting to actually be riding along the same path taken by Indians as they crossed from bay to ocean before white men arrived and in the same deep ruts worn by the heavy wooden wheels of ox drawn carts that were used by the Spanish to carry hides over the hills to the ocean. Our area was awarded to Maximo Martinez as a land grant by Mexico in 1832. It was known as the Rancho del Corte de Madera. It was the wood cutting place for the Mission Santa Clara. When Maximo died, the land was divided among his descendents, and the Vista Verde area was received by Jose Antonio Martinez and then passed to his heirs who later sold the land.

Some of Jack’s stories were more of legend, but he had some basis for them, too. One was that the Spanish bandit, Joaquin Murieta, hid in caves in the hills on upper Alpine Road, and another was that there was once a cannonball “factory” in the hills. To prove the story, Jack had some amazing round rocks that he said had been made by Indians at that site.

VISTA Verde I

Jack’s home was on a large section on the west side of Alpine Road, but he had an easterly view across Alpine Road of Coal Mine Ridge. When Roger Page began to clear the area in contemplation of subdividing, Jack was upset at the way it was being done.

He wanted to preserve the beauty of his view and save as many trees as possible. Therefore, he approached Page with a deal to buy the land and coordinate on a development plan. Page accepted and the partnership was formed. Together with another partner, Dr. Charles Barnett of Stanford University Medical Center, the partners laid out plans for a subdivision in 1959. The engineering was done by Charles Randlett, and in September 1960, we all went down to the title company in Redwood City where the checks were pushed around from buyer to seller to escrow, etc. Ground had not been broken, and there were no stakes to show the locations of property lines, only the general idea of the parcel locations.

In addition to the three partners (Simonic, Barnett, and Page), the purchasers were ourselves (the Tryces), the Trouts, and Jack’s friend, Dewey Stoops. Trout was an airline pilot who frequently flew over this area. He selected the lot just south of the Tryce’s because that ridge always seemed to be free of fog.

There were twenty-three lots in Vista Verde I, and they ranged in price from about $9,000 to $12,000 each. All were more than an acre and five of the steepest lots had about three acres. The first six lots sold were 90 Joaquin (#18) to Tryce, 80 Joaquin (#19) to Barnett, 230 Old Spanish Trail (#21) to Stoops, 220 Old Spanish Trail (#17) to Trout, 50 Joaquin (#11) to Dando, and 255 Old Spanish Trail (#16) to Tendick. But ironically, the first three homes built included none of these properties and Trout, Barnett, and Stoops never built homes. Soon afterwards, the following sales were made: 5 Joaquin (#4) to Gamber, 10 Joaquin (#23) to Stoner, 65 Joaquin (#7) to ——-, 95 Joaquin (#9) to Smith, a contractor who had plans to build a spec house, and (#10) to Norman Oaks, who already owned the lower part of the parcel at 205 Old Spanish Trail.

The original sales brochure showed a hillside with several tall evergreens and was the inspiration for the original tall tree stationery Rich selected for the association correspondence.

Eventually, property lines were surveyed and road construction began. This was an interesting time. Vista Verde I included Joaquin Road and Old Spanish Trail (which was then named Murieta Way) up past the water tank hill including 255 and 266 and down to 205, where Los Trancos Woods begins. Access was up Alpine Road or through Los Trancos Woods via Lake Road. Survey stakes and line markers were found pulled up which slowed progress on the project. However, in spite of obstacles, the roads and property lines slowly took form. According to Jack, there were some surveying miscalculations. One was the cut at the steep curve on Joaquin. Fortunately, the base rock was substantial, so the cliff held in spite of being a much deeper cut than originally intended. Another problem was the resulting shift in property lines along the Joaquin Road ridge that resulted from the deeper cut. It turned out that our property line now ran right through a large bay tree we had planned would be centered on our property. The first step was to obtain 70 feet from the property to our north, which had been purchased by Dr. Barnett’s son. Fortunately, the Barnetts agreed to this arrangement in 1960, and we thought we were set. However, a last minute utility easement had been granted to Pacific Gas and Electric along all property lines, and we now had the potential for a utility easement running through our living room. It took over a year for the county to remove the easement so that we could begin building.

Utilities were a consuming concern in the early days of Vista Verde. Jack, Rich, and I convinced P. G. and E. to set the poles behind the hill rather than on the crest of Joaquin Road. The natural view of the Bay would have been ruined with poles and wires.

However, when the crews arrived, they dug holes for posts along Joaquin! Mrs. Trout was alert and thwarted the project by sitting on a board across the top of the hole at the corner of Joaquin and Old Spanish Trail, thus preventing them from proceeding until they had checked their records to show the correct location. The poles were eventually placed correctly, largely thanks to Mrs. Trout’s firm and timely action. Unfortunately, the cost of under-grounding utilities was totally unrealistic in those days.

As it turned out, even though we were number one at the title company, the utility easement problem delayed our building, so we watched other homes go up in Vista Verde. The first house was built by Lt. Col. Gamber and his wife at 5 Joaquin. They used house plans they had already prepared for a California Ranch style home that they had planned to build down in the valley. Since there was no electricity in the area at the time they built, they brought in a gasoline powered lumber saw. The next house was at 95 Joaquin and was built by Smith as a spec. house. The land was graded and sat through a wet year before construction began. Jerry and Hazel Haegele moved in with their two daughters the next year. Meanwhile, Mr. Stoner had begun construction on his home at 10 Joaquin. He made the adobe for the house on the site, and brought timbers from mines in the Sierra Mountains for the beams. He worked through all kinds of weather, including snow, and finally completed the California original and moved in with his large family. Meanwhile, Ray and Millie Leadabrand began construction on their home at 80 Joaquin. They had purchased the parcel from Barnett who had decided the site would not be suited to his plans for an eight-car garage. While Leadabrands were building a small earthquake hit the area and the builder said he shot straight up in the air.

VISTA VERDE EXPANDS

n a July 1963 Vista Verde price list, lots in Vista Verde I were still going for $11,250 to $12, 500, but lots in Vista Verde II were selling for up to $18,500 with most in the $15,000 to $16,000 range. Owen Dando was now helping Jack Simonic, as a sales agent for Portola Properties, and about a dozen lots had sold in Vista Verde II by this time.

Before we even built our house, there was a great snowstorm. It was the winter of 1963 and snow piled up even down in the flatlands. However, here in Vista Verde, it was a winter wonderland. We came up from the valley to see what our place would look like in the snow. We hiked up the hill to our lot, plowing through thick drifts of snow that came well above our knees. The roads were just being cut for Vista Verde II, and so we also took an extended walk down Old Spanish Trail. Then we had a fabulous spaghetti dinner with friends at the Dickinson’s home at 75 Old Spanish Trail, sitting by the fire and watching the snow come down. The snow was lighter in Los Trancos Woods, but we left before dark to be sure we could still make it down the road.

On November 16, 1962, Vista Verde II began. It included Ciervos plus Old Spanish Trail to Vista Verde, and up Vista Verde to #4. Not too much later, houses began cropping up along Old Spanish Trail and then up Vista Verde Way to the top of the hill. Later the road was extended down through Ramona Road to Los Trancos Road and Vista Verde III was started.


MOVING IN

We began grading for construction on our house on the Fourth of July, 1964. We did our own surveying through the brush and poison oak. We came up to the lot one day and encountered most of our neighbors. Rich already knew Jerry Haegele from work, and we had met the Leadabrands. The Dandos had visited our lot when we first purchased it, because Jan Dando and I were friends from work at the Menlo Clinic. They fell in love with the area and actually built their home at 50 Joaquin before we built. It rained so hard while they were building that I recall seeing a wheelbarrow full of water to the top at their house site. Owen Dando was from Wales, and the Dandos eventually emigrated to Australia. The summer we built, Ray Isaccson and his wife started their house just behind us at 60 Joaquin. Ray was an elderly gentleman from Norway and planted hundreds of seedling trees to bring to Vista Verde the forests of his homeland. Also that summer, the Tendicks started their home on Old Spanish Trail at the intersection of Joaquin. He and his wife Ginny were both teachers. So Vista Verde gained several new homes within a very short time. We moved in on Halloween of 1964, and it was one of the windiest nights we have ever seen up here. The huge branches of our bay tree were visibly moving with the force of the wind.

It was fun living in an area where everyone knew everyone. We were so isolated that we really needed each other up here. There had been a small convenience market in the little house at corner of Ramona and Los Trancos Road, but it closed about the time we moved in. We learned that a well-filled pantry and a full woodpile were a good idea. The electricity went out frequently and would be out for days. Rich became good friends with the folks at P.G. and E. However, neighbors were a blessing whether it was a medical emergency, a cup of sugar, or just someone to visit with on a warm summer afternoon.

ROAD ISSUES

In 1966 one or more of the property owners along Old Spanish Trail through Los Trancos Woods shut down the road at Vista Verde, maintaining that they owned it and that it was not a public right-of-way. The apparent objective was to have Vista Verde residents pay for improvements on the road. Our access was reduced to one road, Alpine, until the issue was resolved involving San Mateo County officials. When Vista Verde III was completed, we finally had a two-lane road down to the valley.

Originally, Jack Simonic had wanted to name the road through the sub-division “Old Spanish Trail”, but the residents along that road in the Woods resisted, saying that name was theirs, so Jack named the road Murieta, and it intersected with Joaquin, commemorating the Mexican “Robin Hood”, Joaquin Murieta. Original maps of Vista Verde show the name Murieta Way. However, the county eventually decided that names could not change mid-street and proposed that the entire length be named Murieta. At that a campaign was launched to have the whole road named Old Spanish Trail, and Vista Verde residents along Murieta readily agreed, since the original trace of the old trail followed the east rim of their street. In July of 1999, Rich invited the San Mateo County Historical Society to visit the trail. Pictures were taken of the group on the trace of the old trail where it crossed Conway’s property on Las Piedras. We hope that one day a permanent marker will be placed on the Las Piedras site to commemorate those early travelers of the trail.

In the 1960’s, we caught word of a county plan to connect Portola Valley to Skyline Blvd. via Joaquin Road and Old Spanish Trail, with plans to widen the roads to accommodate thousands of cars a day. Fortunately, we were able to convince the authorities of how unsuitable such a passage would be.

NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION

The articles of incorporation provided for the formation of a neighborhood association, but it was not until 1966 that the association actually formed. Until then, there were so few families that problems were generally solved on a very informal basis as neighbors chatted with each other.

The first tasks included writing by-laws, assigning committees, and planning a neighborhood picnic. Some notable association presidents that I can think of from the earlier days include former residents Frank Seeley, Walt Cheney, and Roz Largman.

The first picnics were held at the Shook’s home at 271 Old Spanish Trail, since they had one of the few swimming pools in the area. Later picnics were held at the Carpenter’s home at 4 Vista Verde Way, Cheneys at 401 Old Spanish Trail, Conways at 5 Las Piedras, Lees at 40 Ciervos, and more recently at Pony Tracks Ranch.

The number of resident families in 1970 was 33, in 1975 was 51, in 1990 was 90 + 10 in Pony Tracks, and in 2001 was 136 including Pony Tracks. The issues the association dealt with were generally utilities, roads, and emergency preparedness, the same as now. Eventually Vista Verde grew large enough to need its own directory, and, since we had a computer, we began the publication. Gary and Ruth Nelson kindly allowed the association to place its mailbox, which was custom designed and constructed by Al Inhelder, in front of their house. The official Vista Verde Association address is 360 Ramona Road.

Rich, who was president of the association more than once and kept his focus on communications, started the Vista Verde e-mail list when there were only about a half dozen families that had e-mail addresses. The big flood of 1998 prompted Rich to expand internet communication by creating the first Vista Verde web site. At that time it was important to be able to quickly reach neighbors, public officials and the news media with news bulletins and emergency notices about the situation regarding Alpine Road.

An especially memorable evening in 1990 was the one when our County Supervisor, Anna Eshoo, spoke to our association at a meeting at the Tanzi’s home at 85 Joaquin. In the middle of her presentation there was a sharp earthquake. The video camera flipped over, the cat napping in the center of the room shot straight up in the air and took off, and everyone gasped, looked about for a place to duck, and then realized that it was all over. It was named the Zott’s quake for Rosotti’s because it was located in the Portola Valley area, but I am convinced that the epicenter was in Vista Verde.

In 1971, an extensive inventory of emergency resources in Vista Verde was made showing that we had a large number of medically trained people and significant other resources. Through the years, the focus on planning for emergencies has continued with the current disaster preparedness plan that includes storage of emergency supplies and a well-equipped amateur radio station at Pony Tracks Ranch.


FIRE AND FLOOD

There have been some tense moments here in Vista Verde. One evening that stands out in my memory was the night in 1971 when Lauriston, the Neylan Estate house, burned. It was a hot summer evening with a light breeze, but from our hill, the fire looked terribly threatening. In fact, it destroyed the old mansion, but firefighters were able to contain it.

Another fire I recall was the car that caught fire when its engine overheated coming up Joaquin. It was a brand new BMW. I saw smoke at the bottom of our driveway and called the fire department. I then ran down our driveway and saw the car engulfed in flame and no person visible. It turned out that the driver was trying to find a house from which to phone, but meanwhile the Perlroth children at 95 Joaquin Road turned hoses on the bushes by the side of the road to keep the dry plants from catching fire as we waited for the fire trucks. By the time help arrived, the car’s tires had melted into the pavement. I worried that the gas tank would explode, but we were very lucky.

Unfortunately, the Southams were less lucky. In 1995, their home caught fire from rags left by house painters, and the house was totally destroyed. Police refused to let anyone by the Joaquin Road & Old Spanish Trail intersection, even to go to their own homes on foot, so there were a lot of frustrated neighbors fringing the area of the fire and watching the firefighters at work. Rich even took videos of the event, which the fire department later used to review their fire fighting techniques.

A lesser fire was the one started by children playing with magnifiers in a field below the water tank. Fortunately, the children ran to a nearby house to report the fire immediately, and it was quickly extinguished by the fire department.

Another warm night, neighbors gathered along Old Spanish Trail, watching flames and smoke rise from below on Ciervos, where fireplace ashes that had been discarded rekindled to start a fire while the owners were away.

Heavy rains have also taken their toll. The most momentous was the night that the Struthers’ house at the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Vista Verde Way slid. It had been raining steadily, and the ground was saturated. As we drove home with our new baby, we stopped on the road to talk with the Struthers. They said they might have to move out if it got any worse. Rich offered them our moving barrels if they needed them. A short time later they called to say they would need the barrels, so Rich took them down and then spent the rest of the evening helping them move, with the house creaking and moaning about them as it began to break up. As Rich and another neighbor moved the refrigerator up to the road, a huge crevasse appeared in the driveway. What apparently happened was that the rains made a great layer of clay slip carrying its load of rock and soil above downward. This broke the water main that edged the road further adding to the problem. When repair of that intersection was finally undertaken, it looked as though it was the construction site of a freeway overpass, because so much soil had to be removed in order to eliminate the clay layer. Sadly, Jack Simonic had not wanted to build on that lot. He originally envisioned it as a neighborhood playground, but had added the lot as the costs of developing the subdivision escalated.

We have had a number of rainy years up here. In about 1980, flooding closed both Alpine and Los Trancos Roads for a time, leaving us isolated. Our daughter hiked over the landslide on Alpine to get to school for a major examination that day.

Then in the El Nino year of 1998, Alpine Road was again closed with huge landslides at several locations. Los Trancos Road was badly flooded, and we were again isolated totally! Such flooding became less of a problem after the culvert under Los Trancos Road at the creek was enlarged. However, I recall since that time some flooding on the Palo Alto side of the creek.

One year, we had a terrible freeze that killed many of the eucalyptus that grew along Old Spanish Trail. As summer approached, residents were concerned about the potential fire hazard, so a neighborhood block party was organized and folks from all over Vista Verde pitched in to chop down dead wood, rake up fallen branches, and clear out the dangerous tinder dry vegetation along the road.

Outer space visited Vista Verde around 1994. A meteor thundered overhead to land nearby creating a strong earthquake-like shock. The impact point was westerly across Alpine Road on the hillside. Bill and Melba Rogoway said that it sounded like a freight train as it roared over their house at 266 Old Spanish Trail.


COMMUNITY SERVICES

By the time our children started to school, the school bus was coming up to Vista Verde and had a bus stop at Joaquin and Old Spanish Trail, where it picked up children and then headed down through Los Trancos Woods around the circle, a heart-stopping event for the children as well as for any car coming the opposite direction. By then, we also had mail delivery to the subdivision. Prior to that we had a choice of getting mail from boxes on Alpine Road near town center or on Los Trancos Circle at the junction of Lake Road. The first Vista Verde mailboxes were clustered below the water tank on Old Spanish Trail, and the original framework still stands.

As travel on Alpine Road increased, so did the number of cars stuck in the mud or abandoned along the edges of the road. Tow trucks were refusing to attempt to pull them out and the debris was piling up. Eventually, the county decided to use helicopters to pull out the abandoned vehicles. It was quite a sight to see cars flying through the air with rusted parts falling back to earth, but it was nice to have the creek area once more clear of such clutter. Shortly afterwards, the upper part of Alpine was completely closed to through traffic.

WILDLIFE

When we first moved to Vista Verde, our biggest concern was the rattlesnakes. Our hill was called “Rattlesnake Hill” on the maps for a good reason! Our first year in the house, we killed seven rattlesnakes in very close proximity to the house, and I recall a neighbor finding a whole nest of rattlers in their woodpile.

However, most of the local wildlife was much less threatening. I counted 24 quail on the wall outside our breakfast room window one Thanksgiving day. Other birds, such as brown towhees and rufous-sided towhees were common. Varied thrush appeared now and then, and robins and cedar waxwings arrived in great flocks when the toyon berries ripened. The pigeons came in time to harvest the coffee berries from the Cascara Sagrada. Always present were the Stellar’s jays and the scrub jays, with they noisy calls, and the small Oregon juncos darting from bush to bush. Huge flocks of bushtits cleaned out any bugs in our bushes on a daily basis. When the acorns ripened, not only the jays but also the gray squirrels and the deer arrived. Deer trails crisscrossed the whole area.

Some animal sightings were more unique. We took videos of a family of gray foxes that had their den on the steep bank behind our driveway. The little foxes rolled and frolicked on our driveway with total abandon. Unfortunately, they moved out when a fierce storm hit their home. A bobcat stared at me as I watched from the kitchen window and then hopped over a brick wall and out of sight. A lynx lazed on the patio, grooming itself in the warm sun. A raccoon took to watching TV with us in the evenings through our patio window. Then, one night, he brought a girlfriend to the show. She obviously did not approve of this type of activity, and he never came back. We saw mountain lion tracks in the dust by the road one time, but we never actually saw one. However, George Smith of 2 Vista Verde Way was out jogging one morning and saw a mountain lion coming toward him. He made a u-turn to go the opposite direction and the lion did likewise. Obviously, the lion was no more interested in an encounter with a man than the man was with a lion. The family dogs, meanwhile, hid under the porch taking no chances.

California newts were prevalent up here in the rainy season. In fact, at one time I contemplated putting up a sign saying “Newt Crossing” along Old Spanish Trail. Unfortunately, most of these slow-moving creatures were killed by cars as they attempted to cross the street. The leaves of the eucalyptus that covered the street in wet and stormy weather made it hard to see the newts as they made their annual migration during the rainy season from one creek to another.

Louisiana bullfrogs inhabited the local ponds, and their huge tadpoles were fascinating to our children. These were introduced into the area by flamboyant Gov. Rolph, who enjoyed dining on frog’s legs. The frogs disappeared about the time that mosquito fish were introduced into the ponds to keep the mosquito population in check.

Some of the causes for the change in the wildlife observed recently are the changing vegetation and the increase in the number of fences. Because deer do not eat the poisonous oleander bushes, these have been planted in great numbers in our area. They have replaced plants that birds, deer, and other animals depended on for food, such as toyon, coffee berry, and wild blackberry bushes. In addition, fire prevention measures and poison oak removal have reduced the undergrowth that provided shelter to many small animals and birds. With more and more area enclosed with fences, the grazing area for deer has been restricted to a much smaller area, thus stressing out the vegetation in the remaining open areas.