CALIFORNIA COAST TRAILS
CHAPTER VI

An inland trail — Strange country: downs and combes — Boney Mountain — Friendly Mexicans again — Sycamore Cañon — Sunday in camp — A night disturbance — Oak-glades — The Santa Barbara Channel Islands in view — The resting-place of Cabrillo — Hueneme: a moribund town — Oxnard, "the hated rival" — An embarrassing companion — Ventura: its Mission — San Buenaventura: nasturtiums and simplicity.

THE broken country which had lain to the north of the road began now to come down to the shore, and the road soon struck inland up Little Sycamore Cañon. I studied the coast beyond with a view to travelling by the beach if possible. A high bluff coast, much broken, ran for a few miles to the northwest, culminating in the fine headland of Laguna Peak, which rises in striking profile to a height of fourteen hundred feet. The cliffs rose high and steep from water's edge, and I knew, moreover, that just beyond lay the Mugu Lagoon and a long stretch of sea-level sand and marshland where it would be difficult, if not impossible, to travel on horseback. So I turned into the cañon to find a trail by which I might cross the mountains and come down into the valley of the Santa Clara.

The cañon was pleasant with shade of oak and sycamore, and vocal with murmur of stream and sprightly voices of many birds. It soon narrowed to a defile, and the road came to an abrupt end, but no sign of trail appeared. I felt sure there must be a route across this narrow belt of mountains, and I knew also that it could be but little travelled. After half an hour of search I found faint indications of a trail leading off to the west. With some misgivings I turned into it, hauling my reluctant companion up a steep mountain-side, slippery with short dry grass. The track was hardly discernible, and was so confused with cattle paths that I was often in doubt whether I was on it or off. The hillside was hot and shadeless, and as we panted and perspired up the ascent we both, I think, wished ourselves trespassers again on the Malibu, with its fresh shore breezes and plentiful cool streams.

For two hours we toiled on and up, with frequent stops for breath and, on my part, admiration. The country was strange and un-Californian. In all my wanderings through this varied State I had seen no other region of this kind. It reminded me constantly of the downs of southern England, only that the hills were higher and steeper. The short sodded grass might well have been the "wise turf" of Kipling's "Sussex," but for the castilleias, azuleas, and yellow poppies which thinly sprinkled it, and occasional yuccas shooting up from the small islands of brush. Now and then a distant glimpse of ocean far below confirmed the resemblance, or some deeply cut cañon carried the mind a little farther afield to the combes of Dorset or Devon.

When the trail had climbed to a height of fifteen hundred feet, there opened a still more striking landscape. Near by to the north rose the fine shape of Boney Mountain, its highest crags hidden in dragging mists; and far in the distance a high blue range marked the Topatopa and Pine Mountain country beyond the Santa Clara River. More to the west, blue with summer haze, the wide valley stretched away to the Pacific, and between lay the expanse of rough, brushy hills through which I had to find a way.

It was getting toward evening when, still following as best I could the elusive trail, I noticed on the hillside a little fenced pasture in which three horses were grazing. Evidently there was a farm near by; and going over to investigate I saw some cultivated land lying in a narrow valley not far from a thousand feet almost perpendicularly below. As the trail seemed to bear away from the place, I abandoned it, and, leading Chino, made the best of my way down to the valley. At the bottom I found a small stream, and, both of us being pretty well tired out, I deferred visiting the ranch until the morning and made camp for the night.

Half an hour next morning brought us to the ranch. From the chorus of dogs which hailed our approach I guessed the owners to be Mexicans, though the land showed more careful farming than those people of the non-strenuous life usually attempt. I was right. Under a shady live-oak I found a handsome old Mexican who was smearing with butter a number of little Spanish cheeses, more of which were drying on a platform built among the branches of the oak tree overhead. The old man was very deaf, and it required all my Spanish and my breath to introduce myself and explain my presence, which plainly surprised him. In reply, I learned that he was the owner of the place, Jesus Serrano by name, and I was invited to tie up my horse and rest; the old gentleman insisting that I take his chair, while he made shift with a saw-buck.

A young man leading a saddled horse now appeared, introduced himself as Francisco Serrano, and subsided on the ground for a chat. When they heard that I had camped so near them, they asked why I had not come to the ranch and stayed with them for the night, saying that they had plenty of room and hay. I found later that the plentiful houseroom consisted of two small cabins, each containing a single bed; and I have little doubt that either of them would as a matter of course have slept on the bare floor in order to accommodate an entire stranger. Such is the instinctive kindness of these people, whom it is the fashion to condemn for the lack of some far less excellent virtues. I passed a very pleasant hour with them, and when I rose to go the son offered to put me on a cut-off trail that would save me some miles. The old gentleman presented me with one of his cheeses, explaining that I must eat it with chili, and should find it good for the health. Francisco slung a rifle to his saddle, and, escorted by half a dozen eager dogs, we rode away.

The trail was down the cañon and mainly in the bed of the stream. My guide splashed and clattered ahead, pointing out here and there the scene of some episode of wild-cat, coyote, or mountain-lion. He had an eye for the flowers, too, and often drew my attention to some clump of fragrant ceanothus or wild rose, or bush of tollón (the Christmas holly of California), at that season in full summer glory of white. When he had put me well on my way my companion bade me good-bye and turned back.

I was soon in the main Sycamore Cañon. The road marked on my map was nothing more than a fair trail, and I doubt whether wagon had ever passed that way. A good stream ran among the boulders, and there was pasturage in plenty: so though it was still early I resolved to camp and devote the remainder of the day to the cooking of beans, that invaluable ration of the Western traveller.

The next day also, being Sunday, I passed in camp, with Chino's full concurrence. Now and again a few cattle strayed by, but otherwise the solitude was unbroken. At night an alarm was caused by some nocturnal visitor. Chino, who was staked near by where I slept, awoke me by snorting and rearing in great excitement. I got into my boots and made a circuit of the camp with my revolver, but was unable to find the cause of the disturbance — probably a roaming wild-cat or mountain-lion. Such incidents are annoying, and thereafter at night I kept my revolver handy in my boot-leg, close to my head.

Morning brought in one of those particularly perfect days that remain in one's memory like the special incidents of childhood, or one's best catch of trout. The sky was softly clouded, the air moist and gentle, and the trees wore that half-smiling, half-pensive look that makes one wonder if they have not some faculty of enjoyment, or even remembrance. We moved leisurely along under a leafy screen of oaks whose black stems leaned in pictorial attitudes across softly lighted vistas of open cañon. Birds flitted quietly about, unhurried, like us. Against the sky-line of the high, smooth hills tiny cattle were placidly grazing. Here and there a white sycamore showed conspicuously among the oaks, whose rounded tops, valanced with Spanish moss, cast a tragic darkness over the brook. The creek lay in pools, its quietude deepening the dreaminess of the scene and the morning. It was one of those days when one expects something fine and unusual to happen, — a storm, for instance, though at this season that would be almost out of the question. If it had been a few centuries earlier, and in Europe instead of America, Sir Tristram de Somethynge might have come riding along one of those green glades, bound on some errand of joyous peril. With this in mind, a glance at Chino, with his panoply of comfortable saddle-bags and blankets, was almost comic.

The trail, which had risen gradually, now crossed a divide between two high grassed hills, and I looked out upon the open valley, chequered in dark green of beets and pale gold of stubble, running level to the sea, six or eight miles away. Fifteen or twenty miles out to the west lay a group of rocky islands, the nearest one an odd conglomeration of spikes and splinters, the others more formal in outline. They were the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. Somewhere on the last-named (which is the most westerly) is the resting-place of the brave navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who, only fifty years after Columbus's epoch-making voyage, coasted far up "the Californias," to die, as he was returning, on this lonely outpost of the wonderful new world.

With a backward glance at the fine shape of Boney Mountain, his crags still attractively shrouded in a mystery of cloud, I started down the steep descent. The trail soon broadened to a wagon-road, and before long I rode out on the rich farming land of the Guadalasca Ranch. To this succeeded a long, straight county road, bordered by prosperous fields of beans and beets, the staples of the county; and in due time we entered the sleepy little coast village of Hueneme, where I put up my horse at the decaying livery-stable, and found clean and simple quarters for myself at the village inn.

Hueneme is the ghost of a once flourishing town. On its one business street the vacant stores, with their hopeless signs of To Rent, stand ranked in shabby idleness, like a row of blind beggars. Not very many years ago this was a lively little port; but a beet-sugar factory sprang into existence a few miles to the north, and that, with its joint advantage of a railway, was too much for Hueneme. The greater part of the population and not a few of the houses themselves made off bodily to the new centre, and left Hueneme nothing to boast of but its smooth, clean beach and its busy past, during which (as a gloomy citizen assured me) the place had been the scene of as much traffic as "any other two blamed towns of the county." Now, only one small coasting steamer calls at long intervals, and occasionally a lumber schooner puts in with its fragrant load from the northern forests, while a stage carries scanty mails and infrequent passengers over to the railway at Oxnard, "the hated rival."

Still, the place has an air of restfulness which is pleasant, even though it be involuntary; and, moreover, it has a lighthouse, — a modest wooden building, but, like all lighthouses, a fascinating object. As I stood on the shore in the dusk, and watched the steady beam of light streaming out over the gray wash of the ocean, there seemed something godlike in its kindly vigilance. All night it shone into the little room where I slept, throwing its moon-like gleam every few seconds upon the white wall beside my bed.

The next day was some holiday, — Decoration Day, I think, — and the Huenemans, throwing care away, were early astir and off on a picnic. When I went to the stable for Chino, I found him and the stable cat in solitary possession. I saddled up and rode on toward Oxnard, taking the main road due north instead of trying to keep the coast, having been warned of possible trouble with quicksand if I should try to ford the Santa Clara River. Oxnard also was on holiday, and all the stores were closed except those of the indefatigable Orientals and, fortunately, that of an Armenian shoemaker whose services I required. A Japanese girl in kimono and slippers was sitting on the sill of a doorway that opened on an upper veranda, daintily smoking a gilded porcelain pipe.

Riding on toward Ventura after a short stay, I was overtaken by a young Oxnardian in a buggy, whose curiosity over my outfit led him to check his speed and enter into conversation. I was glad of company, and we rode a few miles side by side. At the village of El Rio he begged me to look after his horse for a moment, and vanished round a corner. Twenty minutes passed without his returning, and I was just starting in search when I saw him approaching with a peculiar smile and gait and an armful of bottled beer. As his horse was a spirited one and the man was half intoxicated, it seemed necessary for some one to keep an eye on him in the interests of the public safety. I resisted his pressing invitation to get in and drive with him, but kept alongside and awaited developments.

They came quickly, as he emptied the bottles at a lively rate; but he obligingly took no offence at my refusing to share them with him. His driving soon became erratic, and when he had twice narrowly escaped driving into the ditch and once into an automobile, I proposed that he let me take the lines and drive him into Ventura, his destination. Rather to my surprise he agreed to this, but only, he was good enough to say, because he considered me in the light of a close friend, for no one but himself had ever driven Ginger. I tied Chino behind the buggy and got in, and before long he was sufficiently lost to his interests to allow of my dropping the remaining bottles overboard as we crossed the river, and I was at liberty to enjoy the evening beauty of shadow on the mountains near by to the north, while he slumbered peacefully at my side.

When we arrived at the outskirts of Ventura, I stopped, shook my companion with some violence, and asked him whether he thought he was capable of driving. He replied with indignation that he had been driving all the time, and that I must not think that I could "guy" him: but ended by declaring that I was "a good feller," and giving me the name of a hotel in town where the knowing ones among "the boys" put up, and to which the mention of his name would procure me admission. As he seemed really pretty sober, I thought he might be trusted to escape trouble; so, declining an urgent invitation to drink out of an empty bottle, I bade him good-bye and struck into town by a cross-road.

Ventura is a modest little city of some three thousand people. Though it is the county seat of a prosperous county it has never seriously attempted to compete with the other cities of the south for preeminence, nor any eminence at all except that of natural attractions and steady, well-ordered progress. The people who live in its pretty cottages enjoy, on the whole, as I judged, the continual feast of a contented mind, speaking well of their city, but without that undue fanfaronade which, like the voluble wiles of a street fakir, does but warn the judicious of danger. Its situation certainly is super-excellent, by the shore of a summery sea and yet at the very foot of picturesque mountains, which, at this season, were just dusted over with the gold of the wild mustard. A fine stream flows into the sea at the western edge of the city, and from May to October the breakfast tables of Ventura need never go troutless.

The place has some little historic attraction, too, for here in 1782 was founded the Mission of that comfortable-sounding saint, Buenaventura. It was not one of the handsomest of the Missions, but it was never allowed to fall into disrepair, and now provides a dignified and interesting place of worship for the Catholics of Ventura. In the neat garden of the priest's house, which adjoins the Mission, are a few ancient fruit trees, among them a solemn old fig which may well have witnessed the prosperity of ante-secularization days.

I took it as another token of the pleasant quality of the Venturans that the unpretending nasturtium seemed to be the popular flower. Banks and hedges of them greeted the eye everywhere, and banners of the gay blossoms hung over the low sea-cliff from the gardens that ran to its edge. I think that Flora was in one of her happiest moods when she invented this sprightly flower; and wherever I see nasturtiums in the garden I argue smiles and sweet symplicity in the house.