Dan and Hannah Hike to Inspiration Point in the Front Country of Santa Barbara, California

IP map of SB

Located ninety miles north of Los Angeles on the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is often referred to as the “American Riviera” because of its geography and climate similar to that of the French Riviera.  The Santa Ynez Mountains are a backdrop to this city of 88,000 whose average high temperature ranges from 65F in January to 76F in August.  Is that about perfect or what!

With peaks over 4000’, the Santa Ynez Mountains provide us with trailheads within ten minutes of town.  The Great Day Hikes in Santa Barbara by Diane Soini whets our appetite with the seductive sounding – Three Pools Beyond Seven Falls!  It’s the first hike featured in our guidebook.  It’s got to be a winner, winner, chicken dinner.

IP parking

We are warned about parking.  Be careful to park with your tires completely within the line or you will be towed.  They are not kidding about that.  That puts enough fear into us so we obediently do as we are told.  At the end of the serpentine Tunnel Road from town there are maybe 15 to 20 parking spots.  Plenty more lie further down the road among the Mediterranean-style haciendas of the foothills.

IP D at first gate

The trail begins on a fractured eight to ten foot wide paved road.  It’s a fire road at best with no regular vehicular traffic.  With access to many of the Tunnel Trails, the weathered tar path climbs steadily into the nearby mountains of the Los Padres National Forest.  On this near 80 degree January Wednesday afternoon under an Arizona sky (not a cloud), we see many other hikers in conversation and loving life.

IP H on first part of trail

After three quarters of a mile we bear left, guessing that this is the trail.  On a trail that is not well-marked, we cross what appears to be a river bottom of Mission Creek.  The California drought of 2014 has taken its toll on this parched stream-bed.  It looks like a better home for Gila Monsters than polliwogs and minnows.  There is no water, no pools; soon we are bushwhacking and climbing boulders.

In the direct sun, we have chaparral and scrub brush scraping our legs.   With no other hikers in sight, we abandon ship and retrace our steps.  There will be no pools or falls for us today.

IP on 7 pools rocks

Then we hit the jackpot.  Inspiration Point seems to be the hike of choice for what I am guessing are gaggles of UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara) students on the trail during the first week of the spring semester.  Though the guidebook calls it a moderate hike, every hike in the Front Country of Santa Barbara is a steady climb.  Warned of kamikaze bike riders by our author, we find that a bit of hyperbole; the two mountain bikers that we see pause and slowly pedal by us.  On our first full day in California, we are falling for the warm weather and the active lifestyle in a big way.

IP dry river bed

Trail to Inspiration Point

Trail to Inspiration Point

The trail to Inspiration Point is obvious though not really well-marked either.  With other hikers coming down from the summit, we know we are on the right track of this 3.5 mile round-trip hike that takes us to the top in about an hour.

The drought is severe and widespread.  We are in the quote rainy season and the land is burnt and withered.  We could be in Maricopa County (the desert county where we lived in Tempe, AZ).   Trees and brush are gasping for water.  Is the Sonoran Desert of Arizona spreading to the coast?  Will water replace oil as the most precious and fought over natural resource?

IP map of drought

In a dry year, rainfall can be less than six inches here.  By comparison, Phoenix, AZ averages 7 to 10 inches per year.   By the way, snow has not fallen within the city, though there were a few flakes in 1939.  Santa Barbara must draw snowbirds from New England and the Midwest by the yard-full.

IP H with sunlight to IP

The switchbacks make for an easy climb on a day of full sun; by the way, it’s 20 degrees in York, Maine today.  The shade of the chaparrals is a welcome relief.

The Pacific Ocean in the distance

The Pacific Ocean in the distance

Catching glimpses of the Pacific Ocean at various points on the trail, Hannah and I know we are the fortunate ones who can travel mid-winter.  Just yesterday morning we left snowy New England where its residents are hunkering down under the threat of snow and for another cold winter’s day and night.

Inspiration Point

Inspiration Point

Atop the mountain at 1750’, we just smile at our good fortune as we look over the foothills and shoreline of Santa Barbara.

California has its hooks in me.  Our friend Tree’s statement (I want to be somewhere in the winter where I can be active outside.) resonates with me today as it did when she said it a month ago in Maine.

Some 43 years ago I began my teaching career at Patrick Henry Elementary School some 120 miles to the south in Anaheim, California.  As a 22 year old, the allure of freedom and possibilities of California drew me West.  Today the soothing, swaying rhythm of the Mamas and Papas California Dreamin’ plays over and over in my head and runs deep in my soul.

IP Mamas and Papas 2

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Dan and Hannah Get Away at the Beach at Summerland, California

summerland map

There’s home and then there’s away.  No doubt home is sweet; it certainly is for Hannah and me living on a country road on the coast Maine.  Okay, winter in Maine is real with cold and snowy written all over it.  Our kids have said, What were you thinking when you moved from Arizona!  We were thinking that a small town, less traffic and smog, and a sense of community might be just right for us.  For thirty-one years after moving from the Valley of the Sun, we country mice have found a home in York, Maine.

Sum temp in Summerland

But home includes routines, deadlines, and “to dos.”  So we like to step away.  This week California is our away of choice; from the commonplace to the uncommonplace.  Far from home, there are few expectations, no predetermined rhythm to follow.  For us, each day in a new place is a time to explore, get some exercise, and let carefree be the word of the day.

Away, Hannah and I think of a good day on vacation as one where we hike or bike for three to four hours, then chill.  Away at a distant motel, we have a comfy king-size bed, usually a pool to sit by, an ample breakfast, and no responsibility if anything goes wrong.  Our rental car has many fewer miles than our cars at home; they are well-serviced and ready to go.  And what says away more than a beach!

Sum Dan at Loon Park

Today we head north from Los Angeles for our vacation day in Carefree, California (nee Summerland) at Loon Point Beach.  Hiking the Summerland beach makes the transition effortless from the snow and ice of our driveway to the sand and surf of the Pacific coast.  This sandy away melts the freezer frost in our lives; our routines of home fade.  It’s nice to step away from being responsible adults; going someplace where nobody knows our name.

As we walk on the beach we see a mother of school age children who finds a sunning spot nestled beneath the bluff.  A coed runs barefoot preparing for Saturday’s 10K race.  A shepherd/golden mix playfully leads her white-haired owners along the shore.

Sum Han at beach 1

On this California weekday in mid-January, Hannah and I begin to take a nine day bite out of winter.  Ninety days of winter become 81.  We like that math.

Sum formidable boulders on beach

It turns out this is more than a beach walk and our choice of hiking boots is fortunate.  High tide forces us to climb the large boulder barricade which blocks access to the north end of the beach.  It’s just the random challenge and experience that further distances us from grocery shopping, washing dishes, shoveling snow, and cutting hair.  Scrambling over the boulders and grasping round stony edges, we are away in body and now mind.

Hannah at the north end of the beach

Hannah at the north end of the beach

After twenty minutes of beach hiking, we come to the high tide lapping against the sea wall.  About facing it, we feel our transformation from home to away nearly done.  Warm beaches in winter can do that.  Today we have no responsibilities but to climb the barricade of stones once more, find our motel in Santa Barbara, and chill before our afternoon hike in the Santa Ynez Mountains ten miles away.

Sum Dan in VCU shirt

Doing my part to help Shaka Smart (basketball coach) and our son Will build the Virginia Commonwealth University brand across the country, I use my VCU tee-shirt to start up conversations with the locals, leaving Maine 3000 miles behind.

As we finish our 90 minutes on the Summerland beach, the transition to “away-from-home” is complete.  In the parking lot, we find this license plate with a karmatic welcome to a carefree California state of mind.

Sum Peace and Joy license plate

Dan and Hannah Fly West to do some California Dreamin’

ah california dreamin mamas and papas

The winter of 2013-2014 in New England has been a nasty cold one, specifically on the coast of Maine.  We’ve shoveled more snow and endured more days with wind chills below zero than we would choose.  You got to be thinking, For crying out loud, you live in Maine, Mr. and Mrs. Wimp!  True, but…

Our backyard in York, Maine

Our backyard in York, Maine

One cold December morning while I am having coffee and a bran muffin at the Crumb, our local cafe, with our friends Scott and Tree, they mention that they are leaving town for three months.  Wanting to be outside more than they can be in the frozen tundra of York, Maine, they are renting a VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) house on the northern coast of California; they ask Hannah and me to be their guests.

With the seed planted, I start exploring the solar system of cost.  I find that Jet Blue has little penalty for flying from Boston to Los Angeles and then home from San Francisco to Boston.  In fact, we two can go non-stop cross country for around $630.  You must notice that the planets are beginning to align.

planets 2

Then Venus steps into view when I learn that Fox Rent-A-Car charges one third what every other national chain charges.  Can you believe we can rent a compact car for $136 with unlimited miles for nine days to drive the coast of California!

Finally Mars appears as we can park Hannah’s Honda Civic at the Park, Ride, and Fly lot in Revere, MA, just three miles from Logan Airport for just $100 for nine days.    The round trip from Portsmouth to Boston and back on a C and J Trailways bus costs $46 for each of us!

Awake at 4A on Tuesday, off to the airport by 5A, we are ready for our six hour flight to Los Angeles that, with the time change, will make ours a 27 hour day.

plane at logan

Jet Blue is my airline of choice because of the mini-TVs that face each seat.  As an insufferable channel surfer, I get six hours of The Dan Patrick Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, How I Met Your Mother, and MSNBC’s Morning Joe.  TV Dan is flying high!

The Dan Patrick Show

The Dan Patrick Show

Do you know what the modern airline gives you to eat for a six hour flight in 2014?  Not much.  Some Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and about eight mini-chocolate chip cookies.  C’est toute.  Knowing this we bring half of last night’s Subway subs for our lunch.  I eat mine at 830A!

dunkin coffee and cookies

It’s cramped; it’s long; but for $315 Hannah and I will be in Los Angeles before noon.  Our friends Scott and Tree rocked a road trip for six days to cross the country.

Noontime temperature in the City of Angels

Noontime temperature in the City of Angels

We are Saturning it (stick with me with the planets are aligned metaphor) at LAX.  The shuttle for the Fox Rent A Car arrives as we approach.  At Fox, there are six attendants and we get a Toyota Corolla in ten minutes!  Heading 30 miles north on I-405 to The 101 for Agoura Hills, we are two hours before the 3P rush hour begins.  If the planets are not aligned and this isn’t the Age of Aquarius, I don’t know what is!

LA traffic

With, for California, manageable traffic, we arrive at Rose and Mike’s by 115P.  You do the math.  We leave York in the predawn on the East coast and in the early afternoon we are ready to hike in the hills near Los Angeles.

Not ten miles from their place, off The 101  Rose and Mike take us on an hour hike in the drought ravaged hills in the LA basin.  This winter the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada is just 12% of normal.  Trouble with a capital T lies ahead.

D and H at Cheeseboro trail sign

Pairing off in twos, we hike on the Cheeseboro Palo Canyon Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area that we share with mountain bikers.

cheese trail 1

Rose goes back 20 years with Hannah when they worked together for the Visiting Nurses Association in Portsmouth, NH.  For two years, they laughed together, cried together, and had the best time any employees could have.  They pick up like old friends, like sisters would.

Hannah and Rose leading the way

Hannah and Rose leading the way

The steady climb of the Cheeseboro Trail

The steady climb of the Cheeseboro Palo Canyon Trail

The face of drought in California

The face of drought in California

Back at their place at the end of the day, we look over the canyon from their deck with a glass of wine.  I swear I see Jupiter rising above the horizon!

canyon view

I have known Rose as Hannah’s friend, but until hiking today I never had really spent any time just talking to Mike.  Married later in life, Rose and Mike have to come to California and made a fine life for themselves.  But today I get the underlying reason why Rose digs Mike.

Mike and Rose

Mike and Rose

Though Mike is energetic and passionate in everything that he does…  Though he has a childlike joy of life and an adventurous spirit…  Today I see that it is his kindness and his genuine caring of her that carries the day.

The planets truly are aligning.

Dan and Hannah Say Good-bye to Dan’s Mom

Santa Barbara palms

Santa Barbara palms

It’s a sunny January day in the 80s in Santa Barbara, California.  Though it is the rainy season in the Golden State, there has been little rain for months, really years.  The hills and fields are parched and baked a dusty brown.  The drought is epic and serious; the very modest silver lining is that conditions are ideal for hikers like Hannah and me.

After hiking the beach at high tide in Summerland ten miles to the south, Hannah and I are resting at our Quality Inn motel prior to an afternoon hike to Inspiration Point in the Front Range of the Santa Inez Mountains near Santa Barbara.

Hannah at Summerland beach near Santa Barbara

Hannah at Summerland beach near Santa Barbara on another cloudless day in California

Then my sister Patty calls with news that Mom’s doctor has given her permission to stop eating and drinking; in addition to lung cancer, Mom’s body is no longer absorbing nutrients anyway.  I learn that without food or water people can last one or two weeks, maybe more; especially someone as fit as Mom who was still going to the gym six days a week at the age of 92.

Now Mom is in northern New Jersey and I am some 3000 miles away on the coast of California.  What is a good son to do?

Mom at 92

Mom at 92

My impulse is to return immediately to New Jersey on the next flight out of LAX, the Los Angeles airport some 70 miles to the south.  The dramatic gesture!

USA map

Is it selfish for me to stay in California on a hiking vacation while her life is rapidly closing?  I am unsure and unsteady.  My core beliefs about meaningful relationships and friendships bang up against these first instincts.

Our local York coffee shoppe

Our local York coffee shoppe

For me, I believe that love is shown by a lifetime of moments together, breakfasts and dinners, road trips, and making soup and biscuits for another, not the showy once-a-year appearances, beautiful flowers, or expensive gifts.  It’s listening when another’s heart is heavy.  It’s going out for coffee to just talk.   It’s playing Words With Friends on the computer on a daily basis to stay connected.  It’s checking in regularly.  It’s celebrating a small victory or large, be it making the team or having the girl of your dreams say “yes” to a first date.  It’s the long line of moments that cement relationships and make them real.

For me, grand gestures of love are overrated.  It’s the day-to-day, consistent interest and care for another that builds strong relationships.  Mom and I have a 66 year backlog of such love, such regular times together.

Still, what does a good son do when his mother has chosen to take such a definitive final step on her life journey?

And then as the universe and God so often do, my sister’s husband Glenn provides the simple advice that parts the clouds and lets the sun stream through.

He says, Ask her what she wants you to do.   Brilliant.  Rather than tie myself in knots of duty, guilt, and misplaced obligation, I can ask her.

Still of very clear of mind, Mom responds to my question whether she would like Hannah and me to come back East to be with her now by emphatically saying, Absolutely not.  That would be nonsense.

The bluffs of Montana De Oro State Park, California

The view from the bluffs of Montana De Oro State Park, California

And that’s that.  Hannah and I will continue as planned up the Pacific coast to hike the ocean bluffs near Pismo Beach, Santa Cruz, and Gualala, California for the coming week.  I know there are no guarantees that Mom will be alive when we return.  Yet I know I have had 66 bountiful years as her son.

I am at peace, for our relationship is strong.  I respect her decision.  I trust her.  I don’t want to be so arrogant to think that I know better than she does whether I should return or not.

Each morning at 630A Pacific time I check in with her by phone, for she is up and about at 930A on the East coast.  We talk and she still wonders what we are doing and where we are.  I fill her on hikes at Montana De Oro State Park near of San Luis Obispo and the bluff trail at the Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz just south of San Francisco.

Bluff trail near Santa Cruz, California

Bluff trail near Santa Cruz, California

Each night I read to her over the phone from Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat, a book she loves as a lifelong Democrat herself.  Mom lives what Democrats believe: promoting the common good, serving others, being generous of heart, being optimistic, and living with hope.    We stay connected and she knows she is loved 3000 miles away.

Homegrown Democrat

As fate or the universe or God would have it, Mom is alive nine days later when I arrive in New Jersey at her senior living apartment.  That first night her three children (my brother Richard, sister Patty, and I) sit with Mom as she lies in bed.  We toast her life, tell her how beautiful she is and how much we love her, sing to her, and say good-bye to our mother.  She believed in us throughout our lives and took control of her last days.

She passed peacefully three days later.

Mom (eight days before she died)

Mom (eight days before she died)