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LITTLE BAR in the BIG WOODS

September 21, 1989|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

In the market for a discreet rendezvous?

The Pine Mountain Inn might be the perfect spot.

It's out of the way. Coyotes far outnumber people around the ramshackle bar, which sits amid sage and juniper 28 miles north of Ojai off California 33. Best estimates peg the population of locals at about six, give or take two or three.

It's dark. The Pine Mountain Inn has no electricity, except for a diesel generator that's fired up for big parties and a solar-powered battery that can run a small radio and a few lights.

It's cozy. The Pine Mountain Inn has no heat, save that from a wood stove.

And it's definitely a spot where you can't be reached.

In that respect, according to owner Tom Wolf, Ventura County's most isolated watering spot may be just a little too isolated.

The Pine Mountain Inn has no telephone--and, despite a recent fund-raiser by its owners, it probably will remain without one. A donated cellular phone won't work in the remote spot without access to a U.S. Forest Service communications system, which authorities have denied.

"The need up here is urgent," says Wolf, a former Ventura College biology instructor who bought the bar, a couple of cabins, some outbuildings and 20 acres for $70,000 in 1977. "There's bears and rocks and ice and snow and summertime accidents."

About 22 miles beyond the nearest telephone wire, the bar is a haven for bikers, who race there along tortuous switchbacks for a day in the sun on summer weekends. Hunters and campers drop in occasionally, and folks bound for a day of outback cross-country skiing happen by in the winter.

When they get in trouble, Wolf said, emergency help does not arrive as fast as it could because of a delay of as long as 30 minutes in getting to the nearest available phone.

"Almost right away, we started to realize there are a lot of accidents out here. Up the road, a man flipped a Corvette. A couple of people rushed in to use the phone, but there was none. We went back there with our fire extinguishers, but by then the driver was burned to death."

One man died after his motorcycle slammed into a hillside just a quarter of a mile from the bar, Wolf said. "He just lay there crumpled up for close to an hour," he said.

Bikers have collided with each other, with rock outcroppings and even, once, with a bear, he said. Hang gliders swooping off Pine Mountain have been injured, hikers have been stranded and hunters have been lost.

"There are numerous accidents in that area," said Lt. Joe Funchess of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "The road is narrow and has quite a few switchbacks. Plus, we've had hikers trapped on cliffs."

Still, Forest Service equipment that picks up weak radio signals and transmits them over the mountains to Ojai, Ventura and Santa Barbara is off-limits to private businesses, Forest Service officials said this week.

"There's no way the private sector can get in," said Ron Bassett, the Forest Service's district ranger in Ojai. "The traffic on Highway 33 is not our primary responsibility."

Wolf investigated getting a CB radio for his mountain hideaway but found that they work only erratically. "We're 4,200 feet up, but we're surrounded by mountains," he said. "We can pick up Louisiana shrimp boats, we can get Mexico, but we can't get Ventura or Santa Barbara."

By January, Caltrans plans on installing emergency call boxes every half-mile on sections of state roads in Ventura County, but the closest one to the Pine Mountain Inn will be about 35 miles away. And even if they were right next door, Wolf isn't so sure they'd help much.

"Anything that's put up along that road has two or three bullet holes in it in a little while," he said.

The freewheeling good times don't end at the bar's doorstep.

Although the inn isn't pocked with bullet holes, it is festooned with dollar bills--about 500 of them, tacked to the rafters, taped to antlers, rolled up and inserted into a nostril of a mounted deer's head. Customers leave their signed bills as deposits for future beers, sometimes along with their business cards. One man left a check for $5 million, marked "For Beer Only."

Old whiskey bottles, a boar's head, a cow's skull, rusted ranch tools and a saddle also hang from ceiling and walls. A tattered map of the Los Padres National Forest overlooks the pool table.

Wolf lives in a cabin at the place a few days a week but spends the rest of his time at his home in Oxnard. His manager, Shirley Bookout, lives there year-round and flips the burgers, orders the food--the inn's refrigerator runs on propane--and generally holds down the fort when he's not around.

Wolf, however, plans the bar's events. His fund-raiser last month--complete with black-powder shooting contests, barbecue and bikini dancers--drew more than 600 people. His Harley-Davidson parties have lured bikers from across the state. And in October, he plans to invite all hundred-odd people listed as "Wolf" or "Wolfe" in Ventura County phone directories to a party celebrating their diverse roots.

Meanwhile, however, emergencies worry him. If nothing else works, he says, he will take a crash course in amateur radio and pick up a ham operator's license.

'We need dependable communications," he said. "That's all we ask."

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