June 6, 2002
Losing the Trail
Throughout winter quarter, the desire to escape society grew in me. I wanted to replace the monotony of daily routines and meaningless interactions with people for meandering paths and nature’s music. Chris offered to be a guide to the vegetation as I took him on a tour of the Punch Bowls in Ojai. We left San Luis Obispo early, hoping to avoid traffic. He drove with his normal speed and control, winding over the San Marcos Pass on Highway 154, weaving in and out of Santa Barbra traffic on Highway 101, and finally turning east onto Highway 33. There are only two roads into the Ojai Valley, Highway 150 and Highway 33, which eventually intersect. They meander through the beautiful mountains that Ojai is renowned for, vegetated by chaparral communities and covered with interesting sandstone rock formations. Adding to their beauty and uniqueness, the mountains lie in an unusual East/West formation (Weinman). Many believe that the name Ojai comes from the Chumash Indian word for nest, as the valley is settled in a circle of mountains. Others claim the name is Chumash for moon.
By the time we reached the intersection with Highway 150, excitement mounted. We stopped at Lookout Point to view the valley in its entirety. The bright green foliage from orderly rows of citrus contrasted with the deep green oak tree tops. Across the valley, alternating patches of tawny rock and dusty green chaparral vegetation striped the Topa Topa Bluffs. Although only ten miles long and three miles wide, the valley was bursting with life that seeped from its pores. To me, it was marred only by the new barbwire fencing that surrounded the point. We drove on 150 over Sulphur Mountain, through the Upper Ojai Valley, and pulled into a dirt parking lot just before the entrance to Thomas Aquinas College.
The trail began inside of the college, where little red arrows and warning signs to “stay on the paved road” direct hikers. After twenty minutes, we were funneled onto a narrow strip of dirt restricted on one side by a steel cable barrier to keep us out of the creek and on the other by a chain link fence to separate us from stacks of oil field pipe, derricks, and a rusting CatD9 bulldozer. At the mouth of the canyon we were greeted by the thick pungent scent of black sage. Walking along a shelf, we looked down on Santa Paula Creek. Eriodictyon californicum or Yerba Santa covered the hillside. Its dark green, slender leaves seemed wet but were sticky to the touch. In this coarse, dry soil the drought-tolerant perennial plant’s ability to sucker along its roots allowed it to flourish.
Descending into moister soil, we entered a riparian community thriving alongside the creek. The vegetation was diverse: spade-shaped leaves of the Fremont cottonwood, twisted branches of the sycamore, smooth bark of the white alder, and spongy leaves of the blackberry. Everything was a light green because it was early in spring. Soon the assorted foliage will darken into varying shades of green. The wind gently blew past us and the Fremont cottonwood shimmered; the temperature felt ten degrees cooler.
We crossed the creek. On this bank wildflowers were blooming: crimson columbine or Aquilegia Formosa, the blood red flower with five spurs, which appears to bow down; western wallflower or Erysimum occidentale, the bright yellow clusters; Rosea californica, the antique-pink, tiny rose (Niehaus 280, 146, xxvi). There were streaks of purple, bursts of blue, and drops of orange. I wanted to know the name of each but Chris could not identify them. We realized that we missed the trail and had to retrace our steps, cross the creek, and try again.
We followed the trail out of the creek. The temperature began to increase; coming out of a turn we left the last of the riparian trees and entered into the sun’s glare. The mountains rose up on either side but offered no shade. We seemed to be between communities; the only vegetation was poison oak. I was elated when we reached the second creek crossing. I soaked my hands in the cool water and looked up at the switchbacks above. This steep and fully exposed section of trail is the most challenging part of the hike. As we climbed, I enjoyed naming the chaparral plants aloud: chamise, Artemisa californica, toyon, ceanothus, Ribes, white sage, Arctostaphylos, mountain mahogany, and coyote bush.
By the time we reached the peak and turned from the west-facing slope to the oak woodland on the north-facing slope, I was ready for shade. I leaned on the rough furrows of a large Coast Live Oak. Its crooked limbs reached out from above my head, creating a large crown that shielded the sun’s heat. Quercus agrifolia are stately trees that grow four to eight feet across, twenty to forty feet tall, and reach spreads of 100 feet. I was grateful for their ability to absorb the sun’s rays. I noticed the oak tree had two layers of leaves. The outermost layer, named sun leaves, are thick, small, convex and have two to three layers of photosynthetic cells that capture light particles. Inner canopy leaves, named shade leaves, are thin, wide, flat and have one layer of photosynthetic cells which are spread out (Pavlik 25). Little light or heat passes through the canopy. As Chris explained this process, I plucked off a leaf to feel its waxy, stiff surface and sharp bristles.
Well rested, I dropped the leaf and we returned to the trail. I saw many of the same plants from the chaparral community but they looked different beneath the Coast Live Oaks. The toyon’s leaves were broader and a deeper green. The ceanothus was thicker and had many more blooms. In this community, the plants seemed to be more alive. In the understory, the plant leaves have a larger surface area to collect more light particles but are thinner because it is cooler. I found a prickly-pear but could not touch it because poison oak had tendrils wrapped around it. We reached Big Cone Camp and the last peak.
At the top, we looked down to where the mountains have opened to expose an oasis. The water pours into pools and meanders around large sandstone rocks—The Punch Bowls. From here we could hear splashing. I desired to leap off the rocks into the surging water. In anticipation, I plunged down the side of the mountain entering into a shady canyon carpeted by ferns and mosses. I reached the first pile of smooth sandstone rocks and flitted down the final path.
I stopped. On the surface of the iridescent emerald pool, napkins and a black plastic trash bag were floating. I looked up in disbelief and noticed the rock walls were covered with spray painted names and other “artistic expressions.” Trash was littered along the rocks—a cigarette box, a candy wrapper, a crushed beer can. It was incomprehensible. Edging closer to the water, I could see the white sandy bottom, a large trout, glass bottles, and a tire. I did not want to swim anymore. My legs were shaking. I felt tired again.
Our desire was to escape our fellow man, to leave behind his inventions and distractions. We were hours from any roads. The trail had led us into the deep canyons of the Sespe Wilderness. It was not far enough, for he had been there too.
Pavlik, Bruce M., et al. Oaks of California. N.p.: Cachuma Press, Inc., 1991.
Niehaus, Theodore F. A Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflorwers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.
Weinman, Don. Ojai History. 15 May 2002. <http://www.weinman.com/don/html/ojai_histroy.html#>.