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Cuyama reveals its character

This valley with the unassuming exterior and lovely interior is peopled with surprises: a vintner cowboy, gourmets and more.

May 14, 2006|Ann Herold | Times Staff Writer

New Cuyama, Calif. — IN the Cuyama Valley, I keep running into people I would like to be. If I confess this to my friend Jeanine, I think she is going to recommend therapy. She warns me not to lionize my favorite local, Emery Johnston, but that's going to be hard. Johnston is a big reason we're here.

Jeanine has been trekking through the canyons ringing this flat valley for decades, but she's never gone horseback riding with Johnston. He's been leading pack rides into Los Padres National Forest since the age of 15: geologists and biologists and Forest Service rangers and all manner of recreational riders.

If there were a name I would give this region it would be the Quattro Valley, because it's made up of slices of four counties: San Luis Obispo, Kern, Santa Barbara and Ventura. We're here in temperate April, but it will get mighty hot in the summer, when the fields turn bronze and what coastal air comes through the mountains (Cuyama is a transverse valley, running east-west) can't beat the heat. The valley floor is ranch and oil land through which flows the Cuyama River, a lion in the rainy season and a lamb any other time.

Three state highways wind into the Cuyama Valley: California 166 through Santa Maria in the west, 119 out of Bakersfield from the east, or 33 leaving Ojai from the south. We are coming in on 33, which is the prettiest. As I hug its curves, Jeanine reads to me from "A Traveler's Guide to California's Scenic Highway 33," which she assembled from extensive interviews with backcountry legend Jim Blakley. It's filled with the history of the people, the geology, flora and fauna.

We stop 6.6 miles from Ojai at a padlocked gate outside Wheeler Hot Springs, a rustic, late-1800s spa that's been closed for the last few years. Ancient palm trees are reaching for the ridgeline. We were hoping that Wheeler might have reopened in the same grand manner as nearby Bodee's, a restaurant that was closed when Jeanine worked on the book. The new Bodee's has rib-eye with Gorgonzola cream and porterhouse with roasted garlic horseradish reduction. I suspect that's not what the old Bodee's served.

We stop again at mile 21.7 to hike up the Potrero John Trail. There are bobcat and deer and weasel tracks. It's gorgeous scenery marred only by the skeletons of the cottonwoods killed in the 2002 Wolf fire.

There are many more reasons to stop along 33: swooping vistas in between the blue mists of the ceanothus, red rivers of sandstone and pewter hunks of Cozy Dell shale. But we have a dinner reservation at Sagebrush Annie's in the teeny community of Ventucopa, near the junction of the 33 and 166.

Larry Hogan bought the red restaurant 17 years ago, installed his daughters as cooks and built a small arena to hold rodeo events. "I love the valley so much I wanted to get people up here to see it," he says. "It's one of the most incredible places in California." But the restaurant business was hard. One daughter moved away, and just as the second was becoming disenchanted, Karina Kansky came in for dinner six years ago and never left.

Karina is the Julia Child of the Cuyama Valley, a culinary savant and Francophile. She and Jeanine chat in French as they catch up. When they switch back to English, the talk is of food. Karina wants to do more food pairings with wine now that Larry is producing a prizewinning Cabernet Sauvignon out of grapes from the nearby Barnwood vineyards. I ponder what Larry McMurtry would make of a wine-loving cowboy.

The menu at Sagebrush Annie's consists primarily of steak, cooked over red oak on a barbecue out back. Karina makes the mushroom soup that opens the meal, her own salad dressings, salsa, steak sauce, appetizers and desserts. Everything we eat is memorable. When we walk outside into the vast expanse of the Cuyama Valley alfalfa fields, it feels like a fever dream.

We check in to the Cuyama Buckhorn motel by starlight. The bar is still open; it's the town of New Cuyama's primary watering hole. Outside most of the rooms are slumbering Harley-Davidsons. To reach New Cuyama, we have turned onto 166 where it meets 33, both popular routes with motorcyclists. The Buckhorn reminds me of every California byway cinder-block motel I stayed in as a kid in the '60s. It's a bed and a roof, says Jeanine, but the next night her roof leaks during a rainstorm.

We meet Johnston in the Buckhorn cafe for breakfast before our four-hour trail ride. There's chicken-fried steak on the menu. Johnston is greeted with respectful nods and waves. His father, Lamar -- who wanted to be a lawyer but stayed on the family ranch -- was a larger-than-life presence in the community.

As we drive out to Johnston's place we pass occasional pumps, pipes and tanks that indicate the presence of oil deposits in these green fields. If you were to judge New Cuyama by its cover, you might never get to its magnificent interior.

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