Inspired by our California snowbird friends, Tree and Scott, next winter Hannah and I will become winter Californians. Ever since public school teaching in Anaheim, CA in 1970, I have had California Dreamin’ cursing my veins. It began with the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and believing that California is Fun, Fun, Fun until Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away. And… California was also the perfect escape, emotionally and literally, for an 18 year old from Jersey.
Looking for a place to share with our kids and grandsons, we have joined the VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) generation. Just yesterday, we signed the paperwork to spend a month next winter in a vacation cottage for six in Summerland, CA. Just four miles south of Santa Barbara, Summerland basks in sunshine between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean on a hillside, something out of the French Riviera.
With the contract in hand on, we drive north on The 101 heading to Gaviota State Park to hike to its signature mountaintop, 2459’ Gaviota Peak. The drive north of Santa Barbara is through farmland and pasture still brown from five years of drought. El Nino rains have tinted the landscape a faint green, but the drought is far from over.
The Day Hikes on the California Central Coast guide has us turn off The 101 at exit 132 at the point the Pacific Coast Highway (Route One) breaks off for the coast while The 101 heads inland to San Luis Obispo (Saint Luis, the Bishop). Turning right off the exit ramp, we see nothing that suggests there is a park anywhere nearby. Nothing. One sign does say that the road dead ends to the right. Though I immediately jump to the conclusion that we have made the wrong turn, Hannah drives on looking to see what is down that road.
Lo and behold, there is a parking area with two other cars. Seeing an elderly couple, I ask if this is the trailhead for Gaviota Peak. With all the snark he can muster, the husband says, We are not from around here, but I can read the sign over there. Ouch. Good for him. Duly admonished, I smile over to the sign and see that we are indeed at the Gaviota Peak trailhead.
With trailhead parking a mere $2, we fill out an envelope, place it in the three foot high metal cylinder, and have a hiking bargain this Tuesday in January.
Robert Stone, the author of the trail guide, warns us that we will be hiking a fire road with 1900’ of elevation gain for three miles to the top. It is never steep, but it is relentlessly up and up without much of a levelness to be had.
Hannah and I are not fans of fire road hiking. Though we can walk side by side, we have little of the excitement that we get hiking though the forest with bends here, there, and everywhere – to quote John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
On the plus side, there is little likelihood we will get lost, we think. The Gaviota Peak trail starts out promisingly through oaks and sycamores. Within three tenths of a mile we come to the side trail to the Hot Springs. Wanting to maintain our hiking momentum, we choose to take this side trail to the warming waters upon our return down the mountain.
Soon we are hiking the sloping, ascending switchbacks through a field of brown grass. As promised, the trail steadily climbs briefly back into the forest. At this point, we talk about our future VRBO in Summerland. Our rental manager is friendly but maintains a professional distance. From that thought, I leap to wonder about my decision to be called “Dan” by my university students rather than “Dr. Rothermel.” Was I muddling things by not maintaining an expected professional distance in the minds of my students?
As a professor of preservice teachers, I wanted to live what I believed: that the foundation for successful teaching is building individual relationships with students. “Dr. Rothermel” can be distancing. Did the casual use of “Dan” build a connection with my students or did it open the door to be taken advantage of as a “friend?” We were not peers, but we were partners in their education as future teachers. I don’t regret being “Dan,” I just wonder what’s the up and downside of being “Dr. Rothermel?”
The fire road is relentless heading us north up Gaviota Peak here in the San Ynez Mountains. Traveling along the side of the mountain with views to the farmland and pasture to the east, we meet John, a trail maintainer, who takes our picture with the Pacific Coast Highway in the distance.
As we approach the “saddle” between two mountains, we have a choice. Though John told us that we were just five minutes from the top, we notice that our fire road continues on into what seems like a higher mountain off to the left. An eroded gully goes up to the right. That can’t be the route to the summit, we think, so we continue to follow the fire road. Fortunately ten minutes later, our nagging doubts have us check the map to learn that the sharp right was our turn to Gaviota Peak. We reframe the extra mile on the trail as “bonus” hiking.
The hour and 40 minute climb has been a workout without much of the adventure of hiking through the forest. With nearly an hour of braking ahead on the steep downhill, our toes yowl “No mas.” But “mas” is what we have to have if we want to get to the trailhead.
Fortunately after an hour we make the turn to the Hot Springs, which is just what are barking puppies need as we dip our feet into the luke warm spring.
If you are looking for a California workout something akin to being at a gym, then this is the trail for you. If you want trails in the forest with undulations and variety, find another hike.
Oh, by the way. Once back at the trailhead, changing from hiking shoes to sandals, we notice a California State Parks officer checking cars to see if the $2 fee was paid. A recent couple has not and the officer is writing them a ticket for what we later learn is $71! Ouch.