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HIGH STEEP BROKEN MOUNTAINS:  Riding Through Threatened Central Coast Public Land

The loss of protection against drilling and fracking leases across eight central California counties inspired us to visit the precious and threatened landscapes. The inspiration for this three-day bike packing trip through the Sierra Madre Mountains almost prophesized our return to a precipitous moment that is still unfolding. Well, it was prophetic. It was in the sense that what we returned to had been there when we departed. It was just less obvious.

We left a world tumescent with the effects of insatiable consumerism and oppressive complacency, and rode a trail through canyons whose textures became (and still are!) vulnerable to those claws, and returned to the cataclysmic puncture, releasing truths we no longer can ignore. During this time, the incumbent republican administration continues to push and finalize similar legislation across the nation at alarming rates.

Visiting the area uncovered wonders beyond our wildest imagination across the ecology, geology, cultural history, and spirit. There is still time to voice calls for protection.

In October 2019, the republican administration decided to open certain public lands in Central California to oil and gas leases after a six-year moratorium that had previously protected this land [link 1, link 2]. Then, in December 2019, the administration finalized the legislation, deprotecting over a million acres of Central California public land, across eight counties. This legislation means that only parties with intentions to extract resources can lease the land. Simultaneously, the government has not proffered this opportunity to anyone interested in preserving or sustainably developing these areas. That sounds pretty fucked up to me.

HIGH STEEP BROKEN MOUNTAINS

The mortality of these sacred hills decried as the HIGH STEEP BROKEN MOUNTAINS in an initial US geological survey in 1858 flashed.The survey was taken not too long after the United States had taken acquired California from Spain, who had already taken the area from the Chumash. The new owners began labeling the land searching for gold or something to exploit before the demand for and discovery of oil and gas. The surveyors seemed to neglect to revere the area's beauty and spirit with official statements like, high steep broken mountains to denote a mountain range created by unique geological movements and expansive chaparral that nourishes the local animals within these hills who gracefully fold to the water and winds.

A LPFW map of the Public Land that lost protection towards gas and oil leases (red).

Day 1: Cuyama Valley to Painted Rock Campground on Sierra Madre Ridge

We met at Condor's Hope, an organic, dry-farm method vineyard tucked into where the Cuyama Valley folds into the Sierra Madres at Bates Canyon. It was at the end of a dry February, and the heat filled into a cold desert morning, unsettling and leaving us to wonder if the long drought merely feigned its end with last year's rains. Yet, the plants with little pollen barely hinted at new growth, seemed to understand that winter had not already presented its last gift this year.

We rolled up the road lined with butterfly sage, a protagonist of the chaparral to those who tease apart the whole ecological system to label and rank, and wound our way up to the Sierra Madre Ridge overlooking the San Rafael Wilderness and Cuyama valley. The chaotic rock fragments pouring down onto the road immediately echoed high steep broken mountains. We continued to wrap between sun-exposed sections carved against broken slopes braided with manzanita and knotting oak roots.

The foothills of Bates Canyon is an area that has lost protection against drilling and fracking leases. It's hard to know if someone will lease this part of the public land. We can guess all day if this area is accessible enough for the tempting sandstone shale combination. Shale crumbles into fragments and tends to house organic matter in the space between these fragments, while sandstone creates these inviting cavities to hold the greasy stuff—oil. It's no surprise that nearby areas have already been irreversibly altered through Maricopa, Taft, among other Ventura and Ojai regions.

From the ridge, the San Rafael wilderness faded into the Pacific as the evening settled in. Yucca spires began to punctuate the scape. They had a fuller bloom compared to those along the coast, indicating something unique about this specific environment allowed them to thrive. My god, the yucca! These benevolent torches catch the light and illuminate mountains. The dead and dying stalks all remain standing amongst the rest. If we looked deep enough, perhaps we could see the reflection trying to remind us that the past is still with us, and their wisdom should not be shrugged. These stories from the patterns of land and plants are too often lost in translation.

"We still have a little more climbing. I routed us up to McPherson Peak to get a high point," Matt explained to the group when we stopped against the amber sky of the late-winter mid-afternoon.

This was new! But, despite having spent our energy on the ten-mile climb, we all agreed with a spirit that didn't quite match our fatigue. So, we rolled up the long driveway to McPherson Peak at 5,749 feet and named for the H.M. McPherson family, who developed a homestead 1880's. Artifacts and rebuilds of the fences and fields remained around the area.

And the view! To the southwest, ocean reflected gold, and to the northeast, the Sierra stood above the smog behind the Caliente Range. Ocean to Sierra. We all grabbed water and snacks then crawled over the fence and sat on some cement blocks with rebar coming through, giving the impression that a structure used to be there—must have been the old fire lookout—and then just stared into the earth that splayed along with the alluvial fans like ribbon tails, taking it all in.

"The hills just ripple." Ian points out.

Ripple. He nailed it. The hills just rippled down, folding into the valley. We sat, silently watching the mountains fall into the depressed valley floor of the Ozena fault line, a rare transverse fault created by two ranges coming together.

Well, we couldn't just turn back to the ridge. We had to keep the integrity of a loop and take a singletrack we’d seen on a ten-year-old map.

Where the trail had been on the old map now grew the billowing hair of buckwheat. We shrugged it off, spotting some sort of singletrack that we followed while slaloming around the brush. And then the chaparral became thicker and manzanita filled in, whose rigid, wrangling limbs are not forgiving. We dismounted to crawl through tunnels of scratching sticks. As the pokey brush completely occluded any sort of path, Ian veered to the right to a loose wash shoot, and he just sent it, carried by a waterfall of rocks.

Soon the chaparral thickened into a wall. Chaparral is not an ideal flora to bushwack through. Perhaps that is why the original US surveyors decried it with the label useless shrub, the useless shrubs who grace these high steep broken mountains. While chaparral was demonized in the nineteenth century, this false reputation prevails and remains extant today and continues to negatively impact the native ecology. The McPherson's may have been the ones who supplanted the native shrubs with grasses in this area, I’m not sure. Yet, planting grasslands as ironical fire prevention plans remains a practice that is still promoted today, yet not without opposition. While chaparral burns hot, it does not ignite quickly and naturally burns on a thirty to 150-year burn cycle, and many plants require the intense heat to spread their seeds. Whereas grasses and grasslands ignite quickly, spread quickly, and burn at temperatures too low to complete the circle of life for the native flora.

"Hey, Ian," Matt yelled, also stymied by the manzanita, "How was that rampage line? Should we take it?"

"Ohhhhh, no. I don't recommend this to anyone. It was really stupid," he said as he examined some raw scrapes down his legs.

Matt went to the east end of the slope and turned away when the manzanita snarled into a wall and headed back as Campbell and I watched, calculated. He found a shorter cliff and decided to slide down with his bike drive-side up next to him.

Campbell and I watched a cloud of dust rise from the cliff, then heard Matt hit about fifteen feet below with an echo, "I don't recommend this way either."

So, Campbell and I moseyed around like pebbles tumbling along the path of least resistance until we found a way that wrapped to a gentle slope down to the road. The Manzanita wall thinned and let us down to the dirt road. We collected ourselves then continued to our campsite at Painted Rock Campground.

The road made a sharp right turn exposing a grassy field studded with these globular rocks and boulders that looked like they had just dripped down from the sky and could have inspired the Houses of the Holy album cover had they been more iridescent.

Painted Rock Campground is named after painted rocks that lie within a sacred canyon to the north of our campsite. After a dinner of mostly freeze-dried meals and a gourmet addition of salami and cheddar, we head-lamped up and walked towards these sacred rocks. A guest book sat at the entrance, and it was practically empty. The last people to sign in had visited over a month before.

The rock face towered higher than we imagined from camp, and it curled over, burying us beneath this wing, ushering us towards a secret not many people get to see. The air offered us this special privilege laced with eeriness as we proceeded along in the dark, eyes boring into the rocks looking for the paintings. Then it opened up to a windblown cavity full of images scrawled in berries, blood, and minerals. No one spoke for a good minute, maybe more; time has its way during times like this.

Chumash paintings are often abstract symbols, so although it is tough to state precisely what we saw. The power that emanated from the images through the cold, dry air hit us deeply, leaving us perplexed, asking, "Should we know this? Should we be in awe? Terrified? Honored? Should we venerate this area or feel as one? Can you do both?" silently echoed through the cavern, and we all heard it. Out of respect, we agreed to not photograph these rocks or this sacred space. It would have felt wrong, arrogant to think it possible to capture what we felt at that moment.

After sleuthing the perimeter, over rocks covered in some of the fattest and fuzziest lichens I had ever seen—we took care not to step on the organisms—then retired to our tents.

"Is that a cat!?" I woke up screaming at the wind rustling the rainfly on my tent, a moment before it had been a mountain lion brooding back there. Having to pee after dreaming about mountain lions is the worst. But, I got up anyway and found just the wind. And oh, those starlit squats are worth it.

We all had nightmares that night, which is not uncommon at that campground, we found out later. It could have just been the wind stirring up anxieties deep in the hills that large cats and bears call home. I like to think something deeper stirred, and that the profound history of the area folded into those dreams, bringing up what has slipped through the cracks carved by the insolence that grated the century.

Day 2: Sierra Madre Ridge, down Santa Barbara Canyon and to Ventucopa.

Not too far out of camp, the road suddenly turned towards this behemoth sandstone ravine. No one had to look at the other to know to stop pedaling, apply brakes and gaze. It had our command with the kind of power that chills your core and numbs your cheekbones and pulls your soul out, grasping at it, trying to hold what cannot be expressed but only felt. In a crisp gift of shade, we stood in silence.

At that moment, it was the most impressive natural phenomenon any of us had ever seen. And, each digging to the pit of our memories, felt it will remain an awe-inspiring pinnacle for some time to come. The white rocks gaped with holes, caves and columns. Yucca studded wind-carved openings, while manzanita lined this massive canyon that unrolled down to the valley. The persevering power of wind and rain has painted these stony facades. These temporary and permeable elements persist and prevail, no matter how stubborn the rock may appear.

None of us even knew this existed. It was a treat in this world where society has gone too far by sharing and commercializing the remarkable places, stripping away the texture of magic that hits with the unexpected. I don't even know why I'm writing about this. Please, only visit with the highest respect and without expectations. So few people have seen this. We all wondered what else lay along the San Rafael Wilderness, tucked away from the road, taking us along the ridge to the top of Santa Barbara Canyon.

Santa Barbara Canyon Road connects the valley to the coast. It marks the route Barbareño Chumash took to return to Mission Santa Barbara with the reconciliation of the Chumash Revolt of 1824. At the turn of the century, the Chumash across central California had their freedom stripped, lands taken, and held captive within mission walls. A revolt started after a child at Mission Santa Ines was brutally beaten. Groups fled the missions and hid out around this valley, on Pelican Island—the landmass on Buena Vista Lake—and in the San Emigdio Mountains, now known as the Chumash Wilderness. We sat poised for a moment, realizing the history descending this road would take us down.

From the shrublands, through areas hinting pine, we now wound down a flowy gravel road down the canyon and into badlands. The oaks and toyon faded away as the rock faces across the river deep below grew and, along with the red tinge of iron-oxide, took on personalities of their own, showing faces and holding yucca on lithic pedestals.

Near the bottom, we crossed an aspen-lined creek and high-tailed it to the shade and cool water.

"There's a flattened frog!" someone bemoaned. "Was it us?!"

"And to think, our goal is always to do no harm, tread lightly, and to celebrate the environment, and we may have killed a frog!" We lamented the facts. We bid the frog adieu and faced our disgustingly human images in this stream flowing slowly enough to call up reflections in the pond that rippled away.

We kept rolling. The rock canyon that towered above us to the left deepened in red and softly layered in folds. Cave pockets gaped with wide-eyed shadows, and the faces persisted, silently asleep, noses hanging and chins down. And then we reached the paved road. The dirt to pavement threshold, right within all of this incredible scape, reminded us that this was the entrance to Santa Barbara Canyon. This entrance, and spanning into the bottom portion, has now lost protection from drilling and fracking leases. The unappreciated exotic beauty of the textured red cliffs that line a route with history too many try to forget is now at risk to be ripped into.

Chapter 2. The Place.

We leaned our bikes against the fence between the driveway and outside patio next to a lawnmower. It had keys in the ignition and was sitting in an ironically disheveled and overgrown lawn. The special that day was an elk burger with sweet potato fries. Fresh cherry pie, apple pie, banana cream pie, and olive pie were on display next to the coffee. We grabbed four seats at the counter and gazed at the wheel of five beers on tap. We started with a local IPA served in those rippled plastic pop cups and took our food and drinks to the patio.

We were all pretty happy at The Place, well, except Matt, who wanted to keep going and head up Quatal Canyon to camp among the pines at 4,000 ft. It was already 4:00 PM, and the shadow caged us in the far Southwest corner of the patio. We were gazing out across highway 33 when a man walked out of The Place and up to the lawnmower next to our bikes, started it up.

Back inside, we noticed a guitar hanging next to a sign on the wall that read, "Play us a tune, and we'll turn off the radio." Ian grabbed for the guitar, then him, Matt, and Campbell trade. I had no musical talent to offer, so I just kicked back and enjoyed being lost in time, feeling that nostalgia for the romanticized good times of an unknown past.

We used twilight to set up camp, and when heading back into the bar for dinner, the lawnmower rumbled back on over.

The front door opened, and in walks he who we came to find out was Glenn, with his long white hair, handlebar mustache, and a smile that expresses nothing but cheer. He sat down at the corner of the bar nearest to us and pulled out a twenty. "Sara, I owe ya for the other ones."

"Welcome back, Glenn. That's too much."

"Give me another drink, and you know I'll be back tomorrow. And you deserve a good tip anyways, it's Saturday, and here you are hanging out with me."

Sara grabbed another tallboy Michelada and handed it to Glenn.

The conversation started casually. Glenn had lived in Ventucopa since the '70s. It seemed from the way he talked he was a community staple and seeded the spirit.

"The neighbors gathered for weekly barbecues that used the excuse as a big roast to gather and regale each other with the stories of the week." The way his lips curled as he recounted these barbeques hinted that these cherished moments are now just memories suspended in a sweet sadness of past times.

His face turned sour, "Now people from the big cities moved out here for cheaper land, so the old-timers can't afford to stay. These new folks just pig parcel the land but do nothing with it but own it." And he acridly slapped the 'own it' on the table. "Out here in this beautiful valley surrounded by these hills, all they do is sit on their computers all day! They just escape their reality and offer no social investment, don't set up businesses. But why! Just takes away our homes and community. The disconnect is ending us."

He finished his Michelada, but instead of taking it from our outstretched pitcher, he nodded to Sara, "I'll take that other one, think I already paid right."

"Yes, Glenn, you did. Thank you." Sara smiles while shaking her head, using a concerned daughterly tone.

Although we could have gone outside and made some more backpacking food, sitting in a warm building, enthralled by Glenn's accounts of the past and next to menus full of hot square meals, we threw in a second order. It was already pushing 7, and the sun had been down for some time.

"Glenn, what is going on with the drilling around here?" We went straight for it.

"Well, it isn't happening much here compared to Maricopa and Taft. Back when I first moved here, Maricopa was the place. People sent the Chinese folks to the fields to do the dangerous work, and they'd be walking back with buckets of oil hanging on their shoulders. That all moved to Taft now. Maricopa is kinda more a 'has been' place." Taft's oil fields drew the people and money to start a township around oil, and its economy is still based on drilling and fracking.

"So, what are you guys up to out here?"

"Bike packing, just camped along the ridge last night!"

He used to wander in the hills, "I stayed a few nights out in those caves here and there over the years, back when I could move and dance!"

Our dinners came, Glenn drifted back to his can and left when it was empty. Sara came over with our tabs, so we just asked, "Hey, how do you feel about the political stuff in your area?"

She put down the bill and exhaled. "The water is a problem. My water bill at my modest home is over $200 a month. It's too expensive, and it's making it impossible to stay. And the oil, I stopped reading the news. I'm already being squeezed out from my hometown, and I'm watching it all go to shit." Tears welled in her eyes, I apologized, but she kept going with a nod, indicating that it was okay. "They don't even tell us when the public meetings are happening, it's so political. The big companies and wealthier people with agendas just do what they want. They pretend to give us a voice but make it impossible for us to know when and where to go. And I'm always working." Her arms gesticulate out to indicate the bar. "I am just watching my home go to hell, there's nothing I can do about it, and I don't know how much longer I can be here, home."

After a short exchange, she went back to tallying the bill, a smile replaced tears. Her ability to calmly move through the heavy stuff with seemed practiced to a Zen art.

Fold Back to the Chapterless Recount of the Mountains:

We stood around a campfire behind The Place and enjoyed the silences that fell in between the freezer thaw cycles. Well, while Campbell, Ian, and I stood, Matt slept by the fire and used logs as a pillow. I was pretty sure the chicken fried steak had him in a coma. Campbell urged Ian to grab one of the magazines they brought, "Go read the poem!"

Ian read a poem by the firelight. I don't remember the beat or the words, but we all felt a movement of time through each generations' eyes slipping through in sequence. A growing and letting go combined with acknowledging what is unchanged yet internalized with perception through the decade's lens.

Day 3: Quatal Canyon back to start

The next morning greeted us with a crisp and fresh, clear sky. Only a few nonthreatening clouds floated in the distance. Afternoon rain was in the forecast, but recently it felt like most rain in the forecast dissipated before hitting the county, so we were left highly uncertain how the day would unfold. The weather forecast showed rain hitting in the afternoon.

We packed our bikes while the sun deceptively buttered our backs, then went inside for coffee and a pile of pancakes to share. Alick, who own’s The Place with his wife, Vickey, poured the coffee with a tilted head and impressed, "You know, guys, the storm is bringing snow to as low as 2,500 ft."

"Can we camp here again?"

"Not inside, it's against restaurant regulations. And, we're high enough, that if it doesn't snow here, it'll still be cold enough to pull the heat out of a body."

We slammed the remainder of the syrupy short-stacks, refilled bottles, and took his advice. We finally left our barstools, a mere nineteen hours after we arrived at our pit stop the previous day, and headed towards Quatal Canyon. Glenn mowed on up to The Place for his morning coffee as we pedaled towards the canyon climb.

The entrance to Quatal Canyon welcomed us with a wide fire road lined with pinyon pines next to yucca whose bayonets caught the cones of their unexpected neighbors, in between patches of buckwheat, accented by purple asters. And, of course, junipers, the namesake of Quatal Canyon—katal is the Chumash word for the juniper tree. Striations of red and white folded into the mountains adding the dripping texture of a sandcastle. The gentle slope to canyon walls on either side looked accessible to machinery, which is alarming, knowing that the area was part of the public land that lost protection. A section tucked behind a slope to the left peered at us with its already excavated scars that stripped away the fluted grooves that had once textured those now greyed slopes.

The road turned up and finally got steep, and the feelings of high mountains enclosed beneath the canopy. A timeless hour, or maybe two, passed, and we reached the campsite on our route plan from the day before. Ian and Matt had a beer in their hands, imploring campers about the previous night's temperatures. They were still cold, never warmed up, and it was pushing noon. Tempted by a beer and the salty snacks they offered, we kept moving. The reality of the incoming storm began to make a real presence.

We moved through the sharp and punchy climbs throughout the rolling ridge, not the all-downhill we expected, facing intervals of sun and shadow. Dark clouds ominously lined the western sky, while sunlit green fields opened up to the right. Those clouds conjured memories of thunder from other times and places echoing "Only earth and sky matter," words so powerful as to make the dilemma at hand unimportant enough to forget my part and just enjoy only and everything about that moment—the physical pain, mental strain, and unknowns ahead. Nothing left but to witness the gorgeous strength of wind and rain, the forces that paint the personality into the hills who had just let us in.

The storm started enclosing in from every direction, making it impossible to know where it was coming from. The severe angle of the rain sheeting down across the way indicated the strong winds. We knew it would hit us, and that was fine.

We hit the border of Bitter Creek Wildlife Refuge when the view opened up to fields. We spotted a huge bird gliding within the strong winds. "That's a condor," Campbell said, and Matt confirmed. We all had already unclipped, the stillness was the only natural thing to maintain. The condor sailed back and forth with ease, not perturbed by the harsh winds and adding a comforting levity to the brooding storm.

Condors are scavengers and feed as vultures do, by picking the dead, dying, and weak from the grounds. These ariel behemoths see the ground as a platter, and in a way, connect the heavens to the earth. We watched the bird, uncertain if they brought the spirit down on their wing, in a message that took genuine acknowledgment to comprehend. Or maybe it was the other way around, the condor brought an otherwise lost knowledge of the dead prey back above.

Either way, the creature in our gaze flew confidently through the storm, reminding us that harsh times can be weathered with grace, but they cannot be ignored or escaped. And, what storm this message guided us through felt more significant than the literal wintery mix recoiling down the road. Maybe it was the bigger anthropomorphic threat to everything, including itself, and we had no idea at that time. Whatever we wanted to stretch the storm to be, that bird reflected who we wanted to be.

Deep in trances, we continued along the ridge and floated down a paved low gradient descent that just flowed around wide corners to the valley, not unlike the condor. Near the end of the road, piles of tumbleweeds rolled along Hudson Ranch Road to our cache with water and snacks. We had soared from the top of a mountain to the ground to revel in what was left below.

The flags along the 166 blew to the West, implying a tailwind, but as we crossed the gap between the two mountain passes, the winds did a complete one-eighty flip, and we were hit by a headwind that soon turned blended with an icy rain. Yet, being the beginning of the last stretch, we hammered on, nearly singing. The next forty miles ahead felt so attainable, even while the day before an additional ten halted us in our place.

Without context, it would be hard to tell what caused the internal shift. The day before, we were at a place of positive energy full of human connection waiting to connect, and that rainy day, the virtue was in movement through the elements, whose power was not lost on any of us; these were the same forces that carved the folds and texture into the hills we had just met. To the right, the Caliente range sprang the tears that ran down the paths carved over time. As we proceeded, those striated ribbons alternated with areas of bland excavated hillsides, and fields of rigs cropped up. Barbed wire blocked entrances to roads whose interiors were hidden by the clouds.

Trucks whizzed by, and the rain kept coming down as the night slipped into the stormy sky. At that moment of riding, it'd be terrifying to imagine the order of magnitude of additional oil tankers barreling through if the proposed drilling projects in the county are approved, and not just for us cyclists. I'm going to get a little anachronistic here: a few weeks after we journeyed down that highway in mid-March, one of the tankers spilled nearly 4,000 gallons of oil into the Cuyama River.

We turned onto Cottonwood Canyon Road in the dark. By then, the rain had turned to drizzle. Cows stood and stared, then ran alongside us until we turned around the big blue oak and towards the vineyard gate.

We folded back into our daily life in early March and were welcomed back by the news of an imminent pandemic. Through the shockwave that hit society, the administration's fight to maintain the ability to lease this land did not waver. Often we find ourselves torn up and feeling powerless. Sometimes we're fooled, and it happens and lasts unnoticed, then one day we wake up shocked by a permanent change with deleterious effects.

The beauty, story, and nuances of this area supersede what we could ever imagine going into this trip, fortified with the urgency of this historical time. Groups that are fighting environmental threats to this area are listed below. Please add more in the comments!

Writing: Erin C Lamb

Photography: Campbell Steers (@supersteers) and Ian Stowe (@ianstowe)

Organizations that support preserving and protecting this area and that provide actionable steps for community support.

References not embedded in the text:

  • The eight counties in Central California: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties.
  • Cultural conversations with Mia Lopez with Wishtoyo Foundation @wishtoyochumashfoundation
  • Chapparal ecology conversations with Bryant Baker at LPFW @bryant.the.shrublander
  • Geological conversations with Dillon Osleger, MS with Sage Trail Alliance @dillon.osleger
  • Glenn sends cheer with his Michelada of the day! Sara is based on a person who I could not get a hold of, she no longer works at The Place
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