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California and the West

Road to Nowhere

Nature: Huge slide blocking road from Ojai has mountain merchants in a chokehold, cut off from most of their usual customers.

April 12, 1998|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OZENA VALLEY — If faith can move mountains, you can't prove it by the crew at the Half-Way Station, a rough-hewn bar 20 miles up the road from a slab of mountain that thudded across California 33 in February.

Puffing his cigar, bartender Rob Wheeler pours a cup of coffee--it's free, by Half-Way tradition--and brings up an old joke making a lively comeback in these parts.

"Did you hear they declared us the No. 2 priority area in California for getting the roads cleared?" Wheeler asks. "You wanna know the first? It's the whole damn rest of the state!"

Wheeler sings the same sad song as others in the mountainous terrain between Ventura and Bakersfield: Business--a frail reed at best in this back country--is dying, and nobody in the outside world seems to care.

Yes, bulldozers are gnawing away at the colossal gray-brown mass that squats across the highway 18 miles north of Ojai. Yes, Caltrans set aside $2.5 million and went to work right away.

Even so, The Thing That Devoured the 33--a dirt monster 200 yards across that slid from 40 stories high and is 30 feet deep on the highway--might choke off the area's main lifeline well into the summer.

"It'll probably be until at least July or after," said Caltrans regional manager Dave Servaes. Hopes of carving a temporary route through the mess have faded, he added.

That means weekenders from the coast can't come up to fish, camp, ride motorcycles, throw snowballs or just hang loose without driving nearly three hours east on California 126, up Interstate 5 and down lonely Lockwood Valley Road. Before the landslide in the first week of February, the drive to Lockwood Valley from Ojai took 40 minutes.

It is also bad news for the few hundred hardy souls who live here. Many wend their way to Bakersfield for major shopping trips, but those who want to see a doctor in Ventura or test-drive a truck in Oxnard must make a tortuous detour of 120 miles or longer.

*

On a gray afternoon at the Half-Way Station, a handful of locals and a Caltrans road crew belly up for the usual fare.

A genial host, Wheeler shows off a photo of the brown bear that 78-year-old Bud Dalton, beaming at the bar, took down with a single arrow. To make a point about the recent floods, Wheeler pops in a video of a tractor nudging out a propane truck stuck hub-deep in the mud of a nearby ranch. Someone jokes about the "Ozena Valley Yacht Club," a flotilla led by a rancher whose Cadillac was swept down the Cuyama River in February's storms.

The spirits are convivial but the bar's ledger is funereal. In a region so isolated that it doesn't even have phone lines, there aren't enough locals to sustain the place, and weekend trade has all but ceased. Wheeler said business has dropped 60% to 70%: "To be honest, it's killing us."

A mile off Lockwood Valley Road, Rose Putzier and her husband, J.R., are saying much the same thing. They own a bar and grill at the heart of Camp Scheideck, a string of 37 cabins along Reyes Creek.

"It's been awful," Rose says. "I've made only one deposit to my business account since December, and that was a small one. Business is down something like 100%."

On a normal spring Sunday, the Putziers fix 30 or 40 meals for people who come up to fish or simply relax in their weekend cabins. At this point, the couple haven't had to bring home a big load of groceries in months, and their beer is so old the distributors are replacing it. To pay the rent and keep themselves going, the Putziers are digging into their retirement nest egg.

"It's devastating," said Rose Putzier. "And it seems you have to use up practically everything you have just to qualify for a [Federal Emergency Management Agency] loan."

*

There have been bad times before, but this is different. Only three roads--the 33, Lockwood Valley Road and California 166--lead into the back country, and at times this winter all have been closed. El Nino has scared away all but the most intrepid day-trippers, and there's no guarantee that the 33 will be cleared for the summer's vacation traffic.

For businesses that rely on tourists, the results are catastrophic.

Stymied by the slide, Pink Moment Jeep Tours will close May 1.

"We may or may not reopen," said Jim Nichols, one of the business' four owners.

For four years, Pink Moment has picked up vacationers at Ojai hotels and chugged up the 33. Under a special permit from the U.S. Forest Service, drivers unlock a gate at Rose Valley and bounce along a dirt road on spectacular Nordhoff Ridge.

But no longer. Work around the slide has kept Pink Moment off the ridge, scuttling its centerpiece tour.

"It's cut our business by three-quarters at least, but all our costs are still there," Nichols said.

The business is now up for sale.

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