By Pat Fish
2021/7/25 Fog Blog of the Gaviota Coast
The plan for the day was to ride on the Gaviota mountain trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean, looking down across Hollister Ranch. But there was such thick maritime fog THIS was our ocean view.
We started out at Las Cruces, where Hwy 1 northbound splits off from Hwy 101.
As the story goes, Las Cruces (“The Crosses”) got its name in the early 1790s when a group of Franciscans from Mission Santa Inés placed crosses on a cluster of Chumash graves there.
I had originally wanted to try the trails by starting at the ocean and tracking up, but was told by the head of the Trails Council that they were impassible to equines.
Rather than challenge Mr Mule to prove a point we parked at the Vista del Mar Union School lot and accessed the Las Cruces Fire Road Trail. This led us to the Hollister Ridge Fire Road Trail, in a big loop and then back to the Ortega Trail.
We did not explore the actual Adobe. In 1833, Miguel Cordero, a retired soldier from the Presidio of Santa Barbara, built an adobe home at Las Cruces. In 1835 he applied for a land grant, and in 1837 Governor Juan B. Alvarado granted him over 8,000 acres: Rancho Las Cruces. What is now part of the Gaviota State Park.
No Spanish ghosts met us, but a flock of meleagris gallopavo were gleaning the parking lot as I pulled in.
Wild Turkeys may not be native here but they are quite at home, and here a pair and their poults were utterly unperturbed by the arrival of horses and mule.
The old Hwy 1 bridge was at the end of the parking lot, dating from 1909.
But that was not our goal. We wanted to climb up into the mountains, rise above the everyday.
So through the fire road gate we went, directly adjacent the 101.
To be so close to all the rushing cars as we set off was a perfect counterpoint to the quiet and stillness we were seeking in the forest.
With only the sound of hooves on dirt we began to climb.
The White lads led the way, and Tobe Mule and I followed, only too happy to amble along and stop for photo ops.
The informative kiosk seemed to be at a crossroads, and I suggested we take the higher option on the right.
Later as we looped around to return we would emerge from the trail that here leads off to the left.
There were a lot of monitoring devices, electronics, anonymous signs of human manipulation.
We needed to get higher.
In our entire 3 hours we saw only 3 other parties of humans, all on foot. What a resource, but what a lot of effort to reach it by shank’s mare.
After some climbing we could look down on the 101 below the fog.
Marcos and Noe struck a pose. When is Marcos NOT posing?
Then suddenly the trail turned from scrubby grassland to old growth oak woodland. The twisted branches testimony to onshore winds.
Many of the oaks had huge gashes bright red where branches had been torn off.
Many piles of branches on the sides of the fire roads were evidence of the effort expended to maintain access to this area.
Because we really didn’t know where we were going, it was a delightful surprise every time the terrain changed and we could once again see across the landscape to the play of maritime fog.
Jamie and Woodie struck a pose looking like an apparition of the Ghost Rider in the Sky.
Or the Pale Rider of the Apocalypse.
I’ll stick with my chocolate brown Rocky Mountain Mule.
Never shows the dirt, never loses his cool, always up for an adventure, brave willing and ready.
I do get the sense that he humors me.
He is my best legs.
Tobe Mule is not at all the same sort of personality as Marcos the Andalusian Azteca.
But out on the trail they are compadres.
Spanish moss hanging from the oaks has such a timeless beauty, still moment.
And moving through the landscape at the sensible mule speed of 2.2 mph allows for the slow appreciation of the details of the terrain and flora.
Signs warned that it was bear and mountain lion territory, but we encountered only birds.
Every so often I’d have to ask Tobe to pause for a photo and he could take the opportunity to snag some mouth fulls of wild oats, We were doing our part for weed abatement to limit fire risk.
I do not know what these markers designated, one guess was that they might be meant to be observed from the air.
These bilingual signs were everywhere, evidence that the land has some sort of petroleum activity underground.
Woody is a pretty old guy, but he’s game for the trail, and Jamie makes sure he gets out often enough to keep in shape.
Nevertheless, like Tobe he enjoys a chance to catch his breath when we take a break.
Sometimes the composition of natural details is just so pleasing, the mixture of textures and colors so sublime.
And on trails like this you just never know what may be around the next bend, and won’t ever be exactly this way again should you return.
The play of life and death, an old oak stump delicately festooned with poison oak, the textures and colors such a gift for the senses.
Of course to Tobe Mule, a more earthy sort of fellow, he evaluates the culinary possibilities more than the aesthetic.
The trails are nicely signposted, not that we knew where any of the trails went….
but when we got to this point I recognized the Ortega Trail as the one that led off from the kiosk, so that seemed to say that it was our route back out to where we had entered at the Las Cruces Trailhead.
So off we went, starting to descend again.
And then suddenly I saw a stretch of trail and a pipeline that I remembered from riding out here ten+ years ago.
And if I remember it I know Tobe does. Mules forget nothing.
I do like that even though the trails are well maintained there are signs of life and death everywhere. Real life. This skeletal bush with the bright red poison oak on it was a festive tableau.
But NOT so grand as this buffet lunch for Tobe Mule.
His favorite snack of all, Arundo donax, a bamboo-like grass he finds irresistible.
With a sprinkling of Toxicodendron diversilobum, poison oak, for garnish.
But then it was time to move on,
across this deadfall,
no hindrance for a sure-footed mule.
And there was the pipeline I remembered, no doubt connected to many more underground where all the warning signs are posted.
Tobe giving a signal to proceed straight ahead.
And signaling in semaphore to the commuters whizzing by on Hwy 101 below, keep steady on.
At this point we can see the starting point, at the Hwy intersection, but we are still quite a ways away from it.
two birds observing us pass by.
Cathartes aura, turkey vultures, waiting for roadkill or slow rodents or hikers who do not pack enough water!
This old tree has lost a massive section and is quite hollowed out, but looked in otherwise vibrant life.
Oaks are able to “sacrifice” limbs to support the life of the whole.
And in this case possibly also can provide a cosy home for someone.
On we went and the sun started to break through and dissipate the fog.
Life is better with friends.
And I bless my self-employed life, and my 12 block commute to work. This stretch of the 101 is the commute of so many who work in Santa Barbara but can afford to buy homes in Lompoc. For me these roads lead to equine adventures, not obligations.
And here is a symbol of rebirth and perseverance. This blasted oak, perhaps struck by lightning, is completely regenerating itself from a remnant of trunk.
But….uh oh. We took a trail that led us to the shoulder of the highway. Woody is stamping his foot, refusing to go play chicken in traffic. Marcos might be ready to rodeo if asked. Tobe says oh Hell no.
This highway turnout is another entrance to the Park, but now we need to backtrack and find out way to our starting point.
Rather quickly we got back onto the Ortega Trail, and I started seeing things I remembered from a decade ago when I was last here, like this ravine-spanning pipeline.
See that bush ahead? On 16.2hh Tobe Mule my head is 10 feet in the air. The next portion of the trail has been trimmed for walkers, 6 feet clearance. Onward we go and I am glad of my helmet as I go bashing through the undergrowth.
The funny thing about rough trails is that in photos they never look so bad. But that jumble of stones and what looks like a stream bed is actually the trail.
Tobe is ready and takes it slow and steady and I appreciate his efforts.
Then next thing you know we are on smooth trails again, and that ever-present 101 & 1 junction sign is like the lighthouse beacon for our homeward bound party.
And there is the happy sight, our rigs unmolested and awaiting our arrival. With hay and carrots for the equines and lunches and treats for the humans. A day well spent in nature exploring new territory.
As a final coda, I thought to take photos of the equines to compare their tack.
Marcos is modeling a classic Mexican saddle, with red accents setting off his fleabit white coloring. The signature detail of this kind of saddle is the very large “horn” and the way the leather loops around it to support the cincha. He has a rope halter beneath his bridle, and a breast collar and cinch of classic Mexican patterns. Note how much back support the high cantle gives the rider.
Woody is sporting a classic California cowboy Wade slick fork saddle. It has a small horn on the pommel, an almost flat cantle that gives minimal support, fits snug to the horse, and he requires no breast collar.
And then there’s Tobe Mule, in this complicated Australian saddle custom made for me by by Colin Dangaard. For starters mules have flat backs, so it is required to have both the breast collar and the butt straps known as britchen, lest the saddle slip fore or aft on hills. We also use two cinches, to span his prodigious girth. There is no horn, instead the area has a loop of leather called a monkey grip. The stirrups have tapaderos on the front, and the whole getup is tastefully embellished with crocodile hide. But the best part, I think, are the poleys that look rather like dinner plates affixed in front of and behind my thighs. They give me great security because your legs are quite locked in and any unannounced spin will not cause an unplanned dismount.
Thanks to anyone who came along for the ride in the medium of the virtual universe. I’m happy to give a record of my adventuring and hopefully inspire others to go wandering off the asphalt streets and into the dirt.