SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Morning began early for the 200 riders of El Viaje de Portola, who gathered shortly after dawn Friday on the patio of the El Adobe cafe, where the brandy, Bloody Marys and cowboy hubris flowed like water from a broken spigot.
"Ah, there's such a feeling of history and tradition here," cooed Kim Oviatt, a Visalia rancher celebrating his 19th straight appearance on the legendary ride, which for 31 years has retraced the route traveled by the Spanish settlers who first came to the county in 1769.
"Too often, the press and the public have focused on \o7 this\f7 ," Oviatt said, eyeing his drink. "This is more than just a get-together of guys drinking and eating."
But if Gaspar de Portola himself had shown up on Camino Capistrano Friday morning, he would have seen 200 cowboy-hatted men riding in a parade of hoof-stomping horses and grinning from ear to ear--most with drinks still clutched in their fists.
"Let me bless this ride and may it be the best ride ever," pronounced Msgr. Paul Martin, as the men and their horses made their annual procession past Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The event raises several thousand dollars a year for the mission, as the riders solicit sponsors throughout the county. On Friday, the mission dedicated a new plaza funded by the Portola riders at a cost of about $20,000. The riders have raised about four times that amount during three decades spent commemorating the trail route, which winds east down the Ortega Highway and into the foothills of Rancho Mission Viejo.
The ride annually attracts some of the most influential businessmen, civic leaders and politicians in Orange County, including Sheriff Brad Gates and Anthony Moiso, the chief executive officer of the Santa Margarita Co., which owns the sprawling acreage through which the 30 miles of trails meander.
But this modern variation of the Portola expedition is by no means limited to Orange County. Riders from all over the state and from as far away as Texas, Maryland and Alaska take part in the male-only, invitation-only festivities, which many characterize as three days of good-old-boy bonding, horseback riding and spinning tales around a campfire.
For most of its three decades, stories of drinking, carousing and other twists on the "boys-will-be-boys" theme have dogged the reputation of the Portola riders like a snake hissing at the heels of their horses.
Witnesses who attended the start of the festivities Friday say it's not all mere legend.
They recalled with vivid detail the year that several nude women were seen running near the camp, apparently taking part in the festivities. Another year, a herd of elephants stormed into the camp, while still another time a naked woman crashed the party by parachute.
And perhaps most unforgettably, witnesses said a group of helicopters once buzzed the camp with Wagnerian music blaring, reminiscent of a scene from the movie "Apocalypse Now."
The whiskey does flow freely, but riders blame the press for what they say is a distortion of the ride's true meaning and spirit.
In an attempt to find out, a reporter chatting with several friendly riders at El Adobe on Friday morning was introduced to the event's "official spokesman," cattle rancher Gilbert Aguirre, who promptly ordered him and any other "media types" to leave.
"This is a private party," Gilbert snapped. "We don't allow anybody in here. It's like our house. So get out--now."
A few cowboys within earshot gave looks that seemed to say, "What's eating Gilbert Aguirre?" A few others attempted to explain how the ride has this image problem.
"It's all about horsemanship. That's all it is," Oviatt said.
But the revelry \o7 is \f7 often accompanied by tequila, Jack Daniels bourbon, vodka, gin and fraternity-style pranks, a few conceded privately. Most, though, say it's all good fun.
Bob McDonald, a real estate developer from Newport Beach on his 10th Portola, called it "nothing more than 200 guys whose common bond is horsemanship and horses. We enjoy camping and looking up at the stars. I've made lifelong friends on this ride."
As for its reputation and the aura of secrecy surrounding it, "there's not an excessive amount of drinking," McDonald said. "There just isn't. I'm not aware of that going on."
Rod Johnson, a horse-stable owner from Palm Springs, said he loves "the camaraderie, the fellowship, the games we play."
"Yeah, like steer-roping," he said. "But mostly, it's seein' old boys you just wouldn't see any other time of the year."
Johnson said the Portola is three days of hard riding for five to six hours each day on Friday, today and Sunday, when a tired group of cowboys calls it quits for one more year. They say it's listening to country music and cowboy poetry under a sky full of stars. Many of the 200 are important, powerful executives, but for three days, they say, they leave the work world behind.
The bad-boy reputation, Johnson said with a snarl, is "totally undeserved."