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The Road Less Traveled : You won't find much along Maricopa Highway, but what you do find can get pretty interesting.

February 28, 1991|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Maricopa Highway heads for the hills just outside Ojai. Very soon after that, the strangeness begins.

The high-performance pilgrims who roll their motorcycles up from Los Angeles on weekends, and frequently leave by ambulance.

The Pine Mountain Inn, which lacks electricity but not artillery.

The bodies that turn up on the roadside now and again, some suicides, some not.

And the old plane wreck, somewhere in those hills, that a Los Angeles bartender believes will make him rich in diamonds.

"It gets very interesting when you get out to the far edge of the county," says Caltrans resident engineer Gary Etheridge.

This road, also known as California 33, is the least-traveled state highway in the county. It covers 46 miles between Ojai and the Santa Barbara County line, slipping past Matilija Canyon, burrowing through three tunnels, scrambling across pine-stubbled mountainsides and stretching its two lanes across the lunar floor of the Cuyama Valley.

Sixty years ago, the Maricopa Highway was to be the great connection for commerce and tourism between the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Instead, while suburbs burgeon east and south and travelers tread on other paths, this road traffics principally in character.

"You name it," says Sheriff's Deputy Michael Kennedy. "It happens out here."

Mile 12: The Homesteader Remembered

Early morning at Friend's Ranch. The honey and orange juice bottles gleam. Jackie Fontana moves briskly among them.

"We are California," she says, stuffing tangerines into a plastic bag. "A lot of people don't realize that."

Fontana is talking about pioneer families. She says she's 55 and has lived here all her life. Before long, she's talking about "the cattle and sheep wars," and the suspicious death of a cattleman named Jeff Howard sometime last century. Her only story about the road out front--and it isn't quite a story really--comes from her dad and his dad.

"My grandfather homesteaded on the other side of Pine Mountain," she says. "They used to take their horses over the hill, along the river. My father too."

Fontana's father, Charlie Ruiz, is 90 now. This remains his favorite road, and though he can no longer ride it or drive it himself, he can travel along it as a passenger.

"He loves to come up here and remember," says Fontana. "He's living in the past."

She lives in the present. While she's talking, she's working. Fontana packs 3.75 pounds of fruit into every plastic bag, and stuffs seven bags in every box. It's 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. In a little while, the boxes will be bound for a farmer's market in Santa Monica, and in a matter of hours, another tiny bit of California will be lodged in the jaws of some big city fruit consumer.

Looking through the rearview mirror: First there were rocks, pines and grizzly bears. Then there were American Indians. And by the 1880s, settlers were claiming land for mines and cattle ranches, and doing what they could to tame Ventura County's backcountry.

The ranchers wanted a good trail to connect Ventura to the Cuyama Valley. In 1890, county surveyor John A. Barry was dispatched to find the best horseman's route. That same year, the Ventura Free Press reported that "practical contractors say the work can be done for $15,000, of which about $4,000 (in work) has been subscribed as a donation." By 1891, a wagon road was handling horse-drawn traffic.

Mile 15: The Lady of the Canyon

About three miles past Friend's Ranch, drivers can peel off to the left and climb Matilija Road.

The NOT A THROUGH ROAD sign, the hillside hairpins and the steep grade aren't encouraging. But some drivers don't have a choice. They make the turn, steer around the fallen rocks--there always seem to be a few--and roll past the view of ragged old Matilija Dam.

This is Matilija Canyon, home to about four dozen households, never to be mistaken for a planned community. Some homes down the road are ramshackle, some are neat as pins, and all are wedged between the Sespe River bed and the slide-prone canyon walls.

At one of those homes, beyond a sign that advertises "Tame hand-fed cockatiels and parrots," Karen Palmer labors in the yard.

Palmer, a 48-year-old grandmother, has lived here since 1969. Her birds are squawking in their cages. Her laundry is on the line. Her big black dog Sheba is at her side. Her husband, however, is at the other end of the Maricopa Highway.

"We just bought a house in Taft," explains Palmer. "We've been using that road more than ever. That's the best road in the world to build up your driving skill. But if you go fast, and you hit some of those corners . . . "

It wouldn't be pretty. Then again, sometimes it's not so pretty right here in the canyon.

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