The sun is strong, the trail faint, and we are up to our hats in chaparral. "I think," Bob McDermott says hesitantly, swinging his machete at the six-foot-high ceanothus growing in the middle of our path, "we're still on the trail."
We are bushwhacking north up Horse Canyon in what seems at the moment to be a futile attempt to locate a 40-mile-long missing link in the California Coastal Trail. The link we're seeking is not a new trail but a very old one, now desperately overgrown with chamise, ceanothus, Fremontia, manzanita, scrub oak and yucca--the shirt-sleeve-shredding community of life called chaparral. Beneath our boots, faint traces of Horse Gulch Trail can be discerned, but chaparral has grown over it in a three-foot-high canopy, compelling us alternately to crash through the brush or crawl on all fours through it--in either case taking an awful beating from the horns, thorns and leathery leaves.
Actually, my friend McDermott, trail coordinator of the California Coastal Trails Foundation, and I came to this remote section of the Santa Barbara back-country for flagging, not flogging. Equipped with lengths of blue ribbon, we are supposed to be flagging the trail--that is, tying the plastic strips onto bushes to enable hikers with less pathfinding skill than we to stay on the trail. As the brush gets thicker, however, our flagging becomes motivated not so much by the noblesse oblige de hiker as by another reason: The flags will prove invaluable if we're forced to abandon this expedition and make our way out of this Godforsaken place.
Jim Blakeley is the party responsible for our immersion in Horse Canyon. A contentious, square-jawed scoutmaster of a man, he has spent many of his 60 years gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of Los Padres National Forest trails. Blakeley is chairman of a Santa Barbara organization called CRAHTAC (County Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Council) and obsessed with walking and talking trail. In the "war room" of his home, an 8x10-foot den chock-full of trail dispatches, maps and aerial reconnaissance photos, he outlines our expedition: McDermott and I are to depart the Sisquoc River at the mouth of Horse Gulch at 0600 hours, proceed upgulch, ascend the south fork of La Brea Canyon, climb up and over into the drainage of Roque Canyon, bushwhack up this canyon to its junction with Kerry Canyon, follow the Indian Trail and then the Willow Spring Trail to California 166, where, we hope, three days later, a cold beer and a car will be waiting for us.
Blakeley stresses the importance of our mission: "This is a vital link in the Trans-Santa Barbara County Trail."
"And a crucial link in the California Coastal Trail," McDermott adds.
My job is to describe this stretch of trail and the harsh land through which it passes. Judging from the grim expression on Blakeley's face, it is harsh country indeed.
"We're not the first ones to realize the importance of this trail," he lectures. "From the turn of the century foresters were aware of the need for this route, and in 1909 construction began. The trails were maintained and used until the war."
"Vietnam?" I ask.
Blakeley grimaces. "World War II."
"Has anyone used the trails in the last 40 years?"
"Bears," he says. "They're the only ones who can stand pushing through the brush. I've done about 80% of the route. The chaparral is brutal. Impassable."
"I like chaparral."
Blakeley's big square jaw drops and he stares at me as if I were poison oak.
"The yucca blossoms . . .," I fumble. "The clouds of blue and white ceanothus . . ."
I'm given a map and a handshake and shown the door. "Good luck, brush lover," Blakeley says, shaking his head in warning. "People go crazy out there."
People do go crazy out here. As we beat through the brush we spy Wheat Peak, named for Hiram Prservid Wheat, an 1890s homesteader from Wisconsin who, it was said, had the power to heal with his hands. Hostile Indians were so impressed by the spiritual theatrics of this white man that they inscribed his wagon with a sign indicating that he was to be granted protection. Modern back-country homesteaders with a theatrical bent include Jane Fonda, John Travolta and Ronald Reagan, all of whom, it's safe to say, are a little unusual.
We too are feeling like a couple of wild and crazy guys as we buck the brush in Horse Canyon. Black sage is the most powerful of antihistamines, and after sneezing our brains out we have become thoroughly intoxicated with the smells of chaparral and spring. (Crush a sprig of sage between thumb and forefinger and you release that characteristic odor meaning chaparral country: tortured sandstone formations, warm dry winds tickling the skin, a coyote in the bush, a condor in the heavens.) Here we come, Supermen of the chaparral. Faster than a speeding brush rabbit, able to leap bladderpod in a single bound!