By Pat Fish
The jewel of local riding opportunities was the chosen location, Live Oak Camp that never disappoints.
Outward onto the usual trails we will go, winding our way out onto the plateau and back.
The members of the SYVR ride an interesting assortment of horse breeds and even mules, a good example of to each their own.
Immediately after leaving the parking area we see a new sign on the trail, admonishing us to stay mounted and not swim in the Santa Ynez River.
Since we are upstream of Lake Cachuma, a reservoir and water source for Santa Barbara, in which swimming is forbidden, this might seem logical.
However the 3″ deep puddle spanning the trail held no temptation to even wade. The animals could catch a drink as we headed out.
As soon as we get onto the trail system the reviving effects of recent rains are immediately visible.
This area has suffered greatly in the recent drought years, so seeing everything greening up for Spring is a real pleasure.
We know it will be brief, this verdant display of 40 shades of green.
But it puts an extra spring in the step of the beasts of burden, since they can anticipate rest stops along the way and a chance to snack on tender grass.
Tobe Mule and I take up a position in the tail of the group. It gives us the best of both: the safety of riding in a group, and the pleasure of being out by ourselves in nature.
Now, alas, the group effort did not last. One pal of mine rides a horse who was, er, gelded a bit late. So he wants to be the Stallion in Charge, and dislikes seeing other horses in front of him. No worries, these two folks and I let the rest of the group head off ahead and we lagged behind quite companionably.
Here they are posing at the first lake overlook as we began our long sashay down to the level of the water.
It never ceases to amaze me how all this horizon and emptiness is just half an hour above our busy little jewel of a city. If you look carefully on the 8 o’clock point you will see a vulture, silhouetted against a wisp of cloud; the only inhabitant of the area who seemed to be paying any attention to us.
They are so graceful, and so still as they glide above.
But this one decided to dive bomb over us as we proceeded down the trail, so close I could see the flash of his red head as he checked to see if I was dead ! We moved on !
They are only really disturbing when you see a large group of them circling. It is all too easy to imagine them with their opportunistic centrifugal attention focused on some tragedy below.
One great virtue of passing slowly across the landscape is the ability to see plant life in detail. This Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja, was the first of the Spring flowers we saw, harbingers of the changing seasons.
The tree that stood at this lake overlook was healthy until 3 years ago when it began to lose limbs.
We joked that it is tempting to call this the Dead Oak Trail, since it seems every time we come we see yet more of the hundred-year-old majestic oaks declining or completely dead.
But no point in being sad, it was a bright sunny day with balmy winds, on a day when people in the East Coast are still struggling with snow.
We did meet just one group of hikers as we traveled along, and they were pleasant and receptive to my little pep talk about how to share the trail with equines in such a way as to keep everyone safe.
We did worry that hikers could pose a problem, but thankfully so far they all seem like very nice people.
One of the easiest ways to stay safe on the trail is to sing ! No varmints will become aggressive towards a human they can hear coming toward them, they will hide and be wary. So even though we see bear tracks on the dirt, we can sing
” ‘Cause nobody’s there
Just me and my shadow
All alone and feeling… “
But when we come to a shady place like this, the humans stop for a drink of water and the creatures get a well-earned snack of grass.
Some trees we used to shade beneath are now just skeletons.
The crocodile trunk on the dead live oaks is so beautiful, the texture honed by decades of slow growth.
All in a cycle of birth and renewal, as are we all.
The tree has formed its own tombstone.
This tree, that marks the diversion of trails at the Bee Hole Corral, was a huge monolith when I began riding here 17 years ago.
Riddled with woodpecker holes, hollowed out perhaps by a lightning strike fire, it stood sentinel at the crossroads.
Now it is just a shell, a husk, awaiting the day when it will become a fallen hollow log.
Just past the bee hole we come up onto the wide plateau at lake level.
And here we saw something we’ve never seen before out here: runners! Tobe alerted on this unknown animal oncoming with speed, so we left the trail to give them wide passage.
Turned they were two charming fellows who were well versed in equine etiquette, so they stopped to chat and charmed the animals and humans.
They were preparing for a 50 mile marathon run, so they were doing the entire 17 mile trail system at Live Oak TWICE in one day to get in shape.
Then we saw some pals heading up the trail to join us on the plateau. This dead tree with the nest on top has the look of the lone trees out in the Serengeti, so elephants would not have been out of place. But no, it was our friends who frequently ride here and had split off from the larger group.
So that was an excuse for a palaver, and we got into many of the topics of the day. Something about fresh air and open spaces makes it easier to discuss politics without acrimony.
Like everyone used to be able to.
Of course, Tobe doesn’t care about human concerns, he is watching to bucking horses who are grazing under trees on the other side of the plateau.
As always I am amazed at his eyesight, when he alerts me to things just barely visible on the horizon.
Like the family of deer moving about under these trees close to the lake edge, which we only noticed when they began to scamper away.
Like the squirrels who pivot and dash through the grasslands, popping in and out of their underground warrens. The holes are treacherous for equine passage, undermining the trails.
But no worries, the lake is placid and adds so much to the rides we do here. Whether seen from the close-up trails
or as seen from above from the hilltops, it is always an attractive addition to this cherished landscape.
I rode back with the couple we met up with on the grassland, and took their souvenir photo at the overlook
which reminded me of an illustration I recently found in my archival research in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts.
Except of course the Lady is not holding a tiny jealous dog!
No dogs allowed at Live Oak!
We proceeded to double back on our trail, and once again crossed the mighty Santa Ynez River
all 3″ deep of it, and another successful foray into the outdoors was accomplished.