Just last summer, young Anthony Pisano lived in a city of gritty skies and threatening streets. But now when the fifth-grader paints his world at school, the colors are bright and friendly.
A refugee from Los Angeles, the 9-year-old has slipped off the beaten path and down a steep hill into a forest of ancient oak trees along a stream that never stops.
His family has become the latest to embrace the charms of Camp Bartlett, a historic hideaway between Ojai and Santa Paula--a place of "creek children," artesian wells and peacocks that hop from oak to giant oak.
"It's really neat here," Anthony said Sunday after jumping onto a granite boulder in Sisar Creek. "They say that down the river there's a cave where a bobcat was. . . . The Cleveland girls say they saw two rattlesnakes in one day."
Next to Anthony's room, he noted, there's a big rock with holes the Chumash used to grind acorns "and berries and stuff."
Anthony's stepfather, free-lance writer Mike Kerr, said: "For those of us with kids, there's safety and security here. My parents used to say, 'Go on out and come back at dinner time.' Now we can say that too."
Anthony's family is one of six that live full-time at 67-year-old Camp Bartlett, a tiny community founded by the wealthy of the Oxnard Plain as a haven from their day-to-day toils.
Midway between Ojai and Santa Paula, the camp's 12 cabins are clustered at the heart of 69 commonly owned acres around a 1928 clubhouse, sprawling picnic area and children's playground.
It is a property remarkable in several ways.
Its drinking water oozes from natural springs into eight concrete cisterns before being pumped up a hill to a holding tank. From there, it flows to the cabins by force of gravity.
But first you notice the trees. They are so tall, their trunks so thick and their canopies so dense that they rank as monarchs among the county's coast live oaks.
Greg Thayer, a Ventura nurse and president of the camp owners' board, said he estimated the age of one fallen giant at 650 by counting its rings. Many remaining trees are perhaps 100 feet tall.
"We're still in a forest here," said Theresa Bulla-Richards, an Ojai math and science teacher who's lived at the camp for 21 years.
Peacocks love Bulla-Richards' porch and her herbal garden. She's seen a black bear and mountain lions in her time.
And for years, when she'd feed her four cats, two raccoons would line up on the same wall with their paws out. The striped critters still reach through Bulla-Richards' doggie door to snatch food from the cabin floor, she said.
Life at Camp Bartlett, in fact, is defined by the creatures and cycles of nature, not by the people who live there or drop by for weekends and holidays.
"I see a lot of deer," said Scott Brown, a trained chef who works as a soil tester in Ventura. "They come down the creek and wander through--a female, two yearlings and a buck with three points.
"You hear a lot of coyotes all around," Brown said. "During the night, Greg's old tomcat got eaten up. It was kind of noisy."
Thayer, who's known his neighbor Brown since they were Ventura Boy Scouts together 25 years ago, said nature always has its way.
There have been three large floods on Sisar Creek since Thayer's parents inherited a cabin there in 1964. The 1969 flood destroyed eight of the 20 original cabins. The final two floods claimed no property but trapped some residents for a few days.
"People came by and threw food across the creek," said Brown, a six-year owner who gladly missed three days of work.
"I was sleeping here and having dreams about pounding drums," said Thayer, who bought a cabin near his parents' hideaway in 1981. "It turned out to be boulders rolling down the creek."
The mammoth 1985 Wheeler Gorge fire also bore down on the camp, as did the Steckel fire last month.
"We almost burned down in 1985," Thayer said. "You could see the fire up through the trees. They were exploding like matches. A 50-foot wall of flames was coming down. So we pulled off the road to watch our cabin burn. Suddenly the wind died. It was like a miracle."
The six-year drought that ended in 1992 was particularly severe at the camp, where the natural springs produced far too little water to go around and forced out four owners and renters who didn't really love the place.
"It takes a unique kind of person to want to live here," said Bulla-Richards, who shares her cabin with her husband, Gary, a Santa Paula cabinetmaker, and 15-year-old daughter, Aja, a high school sophomore in Ojai.
Bulla-Richards said her family has never considered leaving.
Aja, who's spent her whole life at the camp, said there was a short period when she wanted to move closer to her friends. "But all of them ended up wanting to come up here."
"It's great. It's wonderful," the teen-ager said. "Having space and just being surrounded by nature. We don't feel like we have to go to the beach or on a picnic. We can just be out here on the creek."
Crystal-clear Sisar Creek has always been the community's center--a place of play and discovery for the children, Bulla-Richard said. Aja had her birthday parties there. And last New Year's Eve the teen-agers took a midnight dip in the creek's four-foot-deep swimming hole.
"When I was a kid I'd just disappear down there," Aja said, "and I still do."