Monday, February 25, 2013

Caliente Mountain Lookout (HPS). A(nother) death in the family. 02/24/13

I'm not sure if it's just me or what? I'm 0-2 now, when it comes to these old lookout sites. A couple months back I arrived atop Cuyama Peak only to find that the ancient structure had collapsed last June. The structure on top of Caliente had been predicted to fall any day for years. I was hoping to get up there in time to still see it, but time waits for no man and I arrived to find the old WWII lookout cabin 100% collapsed straight into itself. The best I could determine from summit entries is that this structure likely collapsed sometime prior to early May of last year.

I spent a great weekend up on the Carrizo with Jack Elliott. We saw a bunch of things over two very active days, one of which we used to ascend ole Caliente. There is an old route which ascends the south side of the peak from the Cuyama side, however my efforts to gain access have been repelled by both ranchers and oil company security. I'd say that climbing the peak from that direction is off-limits. Leaving us with two options from Selby Camp on the Carrizo. An old horse trail single track route ascends from Selby Campsite and gains a ridge road and from there the route continues southeast to the summit. We opted for the other option which is to drive three miles up from Selby Ranch and start at the gate. 

Looking back north along our route. 
The route itself is really quite nice, a soft old road that follows the crest of this ridge for around 8.5 miles to the summit. As with most ridge walks, this day includes a fair bit of up and down both coming and going. The walking is what I'd call "moderate" overall, with a few short steeps. 

Cuyama Valley from the summit.
 The views provided while walking the ridge, and especially at the summit, are truly unique. The summit itself is a stand alone peak, with no nearby neighbors of similar elevation. The views are way worth the walk. All the way out we had views of the Cuyama Valley and down into the vast Carrizo. We had clear views all the way to the Tehachapi Range and out to Santa Maria. 

Soda Lake, from somewhere along the route.
 The walk out has enough uphill grinds to remind you that you just did a bunch of that already today. It's a long and pretty roll out to the trailhead. Unlike being at a similar elevation in the nearby SLP, on this ridge the flora consists primarily of scrub oak, grasses and spotty forests of pretty juniper. The road bed was cushy and soft thanks to the freeze-thaw effect on local soils, which is a good thing because I'm still trying to recondition myself for those long groud-pounding days.
Jack, relaxing at an old corral, the line shack is below.
 Both Jack and I really liked this walk. We had ideal conditions with temps in the 40's with a persistent 5-10mph breeze all day and robin's egg blue skies. I'd advise those aiming for this summit to make sure to get out there before the weather warms up. I don't imagine it's named "Caliente" for a reason.

The entire 17 mile day with time on summit came to just under 6 hours. Not bad, Stillman.

Jack shooting Soda Lake.

Tule Elk, Carrizo Plain National Monument

During one of my recent weekends spent trawling the Carrizo for fascinating stuff I happened to encounter a small herd of nine tule elk. This was an awesome moment, seeing elk in the wild just 40 miles in a straight line from the Southern California coast. In my four recent trips I've seen quite a bit of wildlife, coyotes and weasels and raptors and such, but this was really neat. I'd still like to catch a glimpse of the pronghorn antelope that are slowly repopulating the plain. Maybe I'll get lucky. This herd spotted me with ease and quickly bolted away.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ranching and Agriculture on the Carrizo Plain

I've been spending an inordinate amount of time on the Carrizo lately. It's a fascinating place full of fascinating things. Chumash pictographs and bedrock mortars. Bird hunting or watching (depending on persuasion). Endless photographic opportunities. Geological oddities such as the San Andres Fault and Soda Lake. And a rich agricultural and cattle ranching history. 

Some people look up to astronauts or scientists or athletes. With me its cowboys. I've got a garage full of cowboy history and westerns in paperback to prove it. I've read every Luke Short and Elmer Kelton book ever printed. I own paperback versions of every Louis L'Amour ever published by Bantam. I admire the toughness, courage and fortitude in the face of a million dangers that cowboys represent. Those guys were real men, some good, some not, but they lived and worked in the most adverse conditions imaginable with just a horse, a saddle, a gun and knife, a good rope, a coffee pot and a skillet. We just have no concept what it must have been like to night ride a herd through a Wyoming snowstorm, keeping cattle moving lest they freeze. Just an unbelievably tough class of individual.

This little discussion leads me to the old ranch sites on the Carrizo and the history that still stands out there on the plain. I'm not going to write a book here so I'll just dictate from the BLM's blurb on local agriculture and ranching. And enjoy the pictures.

Selby Ranch

After California earned statehood in 1850, land speculators and pioneers began acquiring parcels and settling on this arid plain. Sheep and cattle were the mainstays of these early settlers.

The turn of the 20th century marked the rise of dryland farming (no irrigation) on the Carrizo Plain. In years when rainfall was sufficient, crops such as barley, wheat, and oats grew well in the fertile soil of this arid climate. However, transportation to markets in the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast was a challenge. A road to McKittrick, built in the 1890s by local laborers solved this problem, and the intoduction of mechanized farm machinery in 1912 further boosted the region's grain industry.

In the 1930s, large-scale farm mechanization, combined with Great Depression troubles, ushered in a new era. As smaller farms failed, they were consolidated into larger operations owned by absentee landlords. 

Water tanks on the Plain.
Selby Ranch

Painted rock has numerous old monograms chiseled in among the pictographs.

Entry to KCL campsite. An old workshop is all that remains of the ranch.

One of the KCL Ranch brands.

Traver Ranch.

Grain Harvester.
Ranch buildings. A generator building and behind it a bunkhouse.

Traver Ranch.
Traver Ranch.

Old barn on the plain.

In 1987, many of the big farms and ranches began to be transfered to the Bureau of Land Management, The Nature Conservancy, and the California Department of Fish & Game. This was part of an effort to preserve some of California's ranching history and provide habitat for rare and endangered San Joaquin Valley wildlife.

Old farm equipment is scattered all over the Plain.

An old bunkhouse kitchen.

The interior of an old barn. 

An old ranch house on the Carrizo.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fox Mountain (HPS), 02/13/13

Fox Mountain from Santa Barbara Canyon Rd.
So I'm getting better day by day which means two things. One, I need to start hiking again, gradually building up to where I'm supposed to be. And two, I have to go back to work, which is ok, I guess. This last month just needs to go away. I've gotten kind of deconditioned and it was time to get out and push my heart rate up. With that in mind I opted for something short and steep, preferably something I hadn't done. Fox Mountain fit the bill nicely.

Fox Mountain is the highest point to the south as one drives through the ranch land heading into Santa Barbara Canyon, way up there by Cuyama. For directions I'll just refer you to the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter HPS page for Fox. Those directions (and some orange tape I marked the parking site with) should get you there. A small drainage comes down the right hand (North) side of the Y-shaped parking area. Just cross this drainage and start climbing. Just so you know, there is no easing into this climb. It takes off hard and steep from the word "go". 

Like I say, this hike climbs right out of the gate. The mileage to the summit is a paltry 2.5 miles, but the route tries to make up for that with angle. This little summit hop gains 2,300ft in those brief miles, so come expecting a grade. Actually, this route reminded me a lot of nearby Samon Peak, which climbs an ascending ridge of "steps". In the case of Fox, there are two of these steep grades followed by a bit of moderately level terrain ending in a final step to a large and rounded summit crowned with scrub pine and juniper. As for the trail, I liked it. This route was pretty well defined, well established with many old trail ducks. The few brief sections of route vaguery are easily resolved and the brush is pretty minimal.

I made the most of the grades, pushing my tachometer up to red just to see what I'd do. I half expected to gas out midway up this thing but no, that's not at all what happened. I trucked up this thing like it was any other hill. And that was a pretty good feeling. Next I'll be upping the mileage and before long I'll be back to my usual tricks. It took me 1:10 from the truck to the summit.

A rare perspective into the Santa Barbara Canyon Ranch.

On the summit I found an old benchmark dating from 1942, some ancient boards, and a very rusted coffee can register. I wandered around the top of Fox, taking in some unique views I hadn't seen before. I could see Mt McPherson and Salisbury Potrero to the west, Samon and Madulce to the south, Cuyama and Reyes to the east and sitting to the north above the Cuyama Valley stood the Caliente Range. The views here are worth the walk, especially if you wanted a decent look westward along the north side of our coastal range. I liked this peak. 
The standard HPS coffe can register.
The spiral pad in the register dates to 1995 and hosts long lists of Sierra Club group hikers. And nobody else. No solo trips, no random visitors that didn't leave an HPS hash next to their name. I'd like that to change, so somebody out there go do this thing and you'll see the list of the 12 or so Sierra Clubers who I ran into on my way down. You want to know where the licence plate frames said their two SUV's were from? North Hollywood! That's where! We've got more people from LA climbing our little peak than the locals ever do! There is something intrinsically wrong with that. Support your local mountains! Climb 'em!

Fox, 1941.

I've had a hell of a month, and had just buried my cat the day before. It's been a ride, the kind that rattles on loose tracks nailed to a swaying roller coaster. I want off this ride. My time on summit was spent reflecting on things, trying to wrap my head around some of the things that I've undergone recently. I'm tired of "bummers". Blue sky, clean air and long views never hurt anyone.
One of these days I'll have to head up to Caliente Mountain. On a cool day.

A view east to Cuyama Peak with Pine Mtn and Reyes in the distance.

I'd recommend Fox Mountain if you're in the neighborhood and aren't doing anything else. It's a neat little climb with views to spare. I'm glad I saved it for a day just like today, and it's good to be back at it. Time to dial things up a tad.

Another view towards the Cuyama Badlands.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Samuel Stillman, thank you my boy. 2000-2013

Today I lost one of the best and truest friends I ever had. Tomorrow I will wake up and my world will no longer be the same. Sammy was much more than a cat to me and I am having a hard, hard time with his passing. See, he was my son.

Sammy, basking in his last sunrise.
 I sat cross-legged on the floor of the animal adoption center in Ojai. All around me a full dozen kittens were either sleeping or wrassling, being kittens. As I sat and watched, my eyes were naturally drawn to the kittens that were up and active, none of which were paying much attention to me. My gaze passed around the room once more and arrested, came back and focused on a runty little tabby parked by himself in the corner. This little kitten was staring right into my soul. I kept looking around the room but my eyes betrayed me. I glanced back at the little cat and he was still giving me this deeply intent stare. I smiled at him and before I could open my mouth to say "hi" he was trotting across the carpet toward me. He hopped into my lap without hesitation, kept looking into my eyes.

At the counter I asked if he had a name. They told me they named him "Sammy" when he was brought in ("But feel free to give him a new one."). I held him up to my eyes and thought that Sammy was a fine name for him. He was around twelve weeks old, but small and somewhat frail. I looked at him, cradled in my arms. He purred at me, a tiny engine of love. I said, "Sammy, I'm your dad.", but it was always he that found me.

This is a story that Ruth is better at telling, but the way it goes is that when I arrived home with little Sammy, all Ruth saw was this scrawny little kitten with a runny nose and one watery eye. She was not impressed. I defended my choice somewhat halfheartedly. I knew he wasn't the healthiest cat from the first glance. Nor was I able to adequately illustrate to Ruth whatever spell the kitten had cast upon me at the adoption center. I sat in a mild funk for a few moments before Sam cured me of that by simply being himself. He climbed onto my shoulder and perched there for a full hour while we watched TV.
From the other end of the couch Ruth said, "I guess he is pretty cute, but he's clearly your cat."

The first time Sammy went to the vet he was still under six months old. He was having difficulty eating and his gums were inflamed and producing the fetid odor of decay. He was feverish and lethargic, didn't look good. We were told that he had a congenital gingivitis and that if we wished him to live the vet would have to pull all his teeth (insert "kitty dentures" joke). Less than a week later the little cat was noticeably gaining weight, his hair was glossy and he had resumed killing bugs and getting into cabinets. He continued to grow, but never got any bigger than the smaller side of average. Sam also didn't develop a voice until after he was a year old, but after that he became the most vocal cat I ever met. He had a lot to say.

The next time Sammy saw a vet was over 12 years later.

"The scourge of neighborhood wildlife."

 You'd think that a cat without teeth isn't much of a cat. Countless small animals and insects would tell you different if they were alive today (and could talk). Sammy was always encouraged to be a cat, by which I mean he lived an indoor/outdoor life. He held and defended his own territory (every other cat on the street  knew that this was Sammy's corner), he hunted, hid in trees, napped in the sun, etc... Sammy was a very proficient hunter, and every bit as sadistic about the kill as any other cat. He got many, many birds. All kinds and sizes of birds. One evening I was pulling up to our house and witnessed Sammy attack an unwary crow. He sprung his trap and the crow had never seen it coming. After a brief tussle the fully grown crow got away, but not without leaving black feathers all over the drive-way. What does that say about whether a well nourished cat can function sans fangs? Sam would "play" with his prey for quite a while, would badger it to exhaustion before suffocating the hapless critter. The loss of his teeth never inhibited Sam though I expect he would have faired less well in the rare cat fights he got into.

Sammy had a habit of sleeping on top of us.

The practice of zen buddhism aims to achieve an emptying of the mind, a complete connectedness to the immediate moment. A connectedness without the expectations of the future or the encumbrances of the past. Cats live in that most zen-like state, their moments are free of worry, stress, concerns, hurts, wants, etc... Sammy taught me that cats are intrinsically the zen masters of the animal world. Cat's do exactly what they want, when they want, and in a manner that is uniquely feline. They are the embodiment of zen, and Sam was a grand master. He reminded me to relax, to enjoy stillness, to fill my mind with an appreciation for what is right in front of me. He showed me a better way to look at the world.

It took over a year before Sammy could "meow". After that he was always talking to us.

You couldn't turn your back on fresh laundry with Sam in the house.
I buried Sam under this very tree.

Sammy had several habits that are particularly poignant today, behaviors that I will deeply miss.  Sammy would often spend most of the night out prowling but for years he always came into our room to get a morning belly rub before I left for work. He'd be sitting outside the bathroom when I got out of the shower and would follow me to the dresser where he'd flop on his side, stretching out for that sweet morning rubdown. I was a sucker for it, every time. Sammy would also be waiting out front in some flower bed until I got home from work. As I pulled in he'd walk out to the driveway, meowing a "hello" as I stepped out of my truck. He did this many hundreds of times over the years and it hurts to think of how much I am going to miss that. He had a habit of gently placing one paw on your hand or arm, just the sweetest cat. For a while Sam would sneak up on us at night, park himself on Ruth's or my pillow and where he promptly began to clean himself. He often found ways to sleep on top of one us, and I'm remember many naps with him knocked out on my chest. Sam enjoyed stepping on the buttons on Ruth's digital alarm clock, and Ruth was late to work more than a couple times because he had somehow messed up the settings. You should have seen him freak out the first time he turned on the clock's radio. I was dying it was so funny. He could hear a can opener from across the street, was fascinated with cabinets and closets (and got stuck or shut in a few times). He knocked over several Christmas trees and ate a few aquarium fish. 

What was very special about Sammy was that I never had to look for him. When Ruth or I were home he was always within our sphere. He really did want to be near us and we both know that he was really there for us during the ups and downs of life, a quiet friend offering only unconditional love. His nature often reminded me that the world needs more gentleness and grace. 

Sam's facial structure changed due to the loss of his teeth. Still, he was a handsom devil.

About six weeks ago I noticed Sammy limping badly, and overnight he looked somehow older. It turned out he had an infection, probably from a thorn puncture. More worrisome, and what I'd suspected for sometime, was the sad news that Sammy's kidneys were failing. I'd seen him struggling to take in enough water, but he couldn't absorb what he needed. He was losing muscle tone and at times he was unable to make easy jumps. We were given another few weeks time with our friend, and I tried to make the most of any opportunity spend with him. In a way, convalescing from my own health crisis at home afforded me nothing but time to spend in his company. Sammy's infection resolved quickly with treatment and for a few weeks he seemed to be his usual self, but he soon began a rapid decline and in the last couple days he became increasingly somnolent and lost interest in food or fluids. It was time.
Sammy wasn't a fan of the vet's office. He only had to go to such a place three times in his entire life. Like me, Samuel was born lucky.
Dave & Sammy, 02/11/13, the day before I took him in.

Yesterday I just sat with him cradled in my arms, just like the first time we met. I held him and rocked and mourned the loss of my friend. I am a solitary person, with very few close friends and I have been very broken up by his loss. Last night I held him close, an all-night vigil. I just couldn't bear leaving him to die alone in the dark. At one point in the night we had a moment, he looked at me with that deep gaze and I knew he was telling me that it okay and that he was ready. This morning I gathered the blanket with Sammy, the little bundle I'd held tightly all night, and sat him in the morning sunlight. I stroked him and told him everything he'd ever meant to me. I took him in to the vets office at nine and he passed very peacefully.  

Sammy's last morning. He wasn't taking fluids or eating. It was a tough morning for me. It's been a tough day. It's been tough writing this.
Goodbye my son, I love you and will always miss you.