Dan and Hannah Evening, Then Morning Hike in Seaside Summerland, California

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Summerland is five miles south of Santa Barbara

California!  The La La Land of opportunity.  The sixth largest economy in the world!   The number one state for tourism.  Home to Anaheim, where I began my teaching career in 1970.  To live our California Dream, we are renting a cottage through VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) four hundred yards up the hillside from the Pacific Ocean.

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Our reasons for coming West in February are many, but three dominate: (1) to be physically active in the outdoors during a traditional frigid month in New England; to walk each morning, to sit on the front deck with early coffee or later wine, to explore the area without being bundled up, (2) to find a community of pickleball players to sharpen our game and connect with the locals in more than a passing way, and (3) to hike its trails for both exercise and grist for my Saturday blogs, the writing that feeds my soul.

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Pickleball Hannah on the courts in Santa Barbara

On our first full day on the southern coast of California, we drive four miles to Santa Barbara to check out the pickleball courts at the Municipal Tennis Center.  Later, we get our walking jones a workout by strolling the seaside campus of Santa Barbara City College (tuition for California residents at $700/semester!)

PM walk

After chilling for the afternoon, we take to the foothills just behind our cottage.  With a hillside community of homes within literally an arm’s reach of each other, we pass the 69-student elementary school and the local petite Presbyterian Church on our way to the roadside trail.

Turning left on the frontage road (Lillie Road), heavy with late afternoon commuter traffic, we walk south on the sidewalk just above the clogged four-lane 101 highway.  Traffic is constant, but the white noise is a sonorous reminder of how lucky we are to be here in southern California’s warmth in February.

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Dan, the Afternoon Hiking Man

Just past the upscale Summerland Market, wooden stairs lead us to a wood chip trail.  With a grassy dog park to our left, we are twenty feet above the frontage road.  Soon, passing the upscale “don’t even think about coming in” gated communities, we are soothed by the hum of the homeward bound commuter traffic and the occasional coastal Amtrak train.

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Hannah, the Inland Trail Hiking Woman

After 15 minutes, the trail takes us inland; designed for horses, we step around the horseshoe imprints of the semi-muddy path.  Fact is, we can’t believe our good fortune in having stumbled on a trail minutes from our hillside cottage.

Heading inland along the low stone wall of the adjacent expansive polo field (the size of at least twenty football fields), we have the trail to ourselves heading into the Front Country (i.e. foothills).  Noticing that we have been out 40 minutes, we u-turn to explore this trail further on another day.

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Summerland Sunset

Warm enough for wine on the deck, we toast our good fortune on our first day in paradise.  Why two days ago, I was chipping ice off our front deck in York, Maine and resigned to having the four-inch layer of snowy ice on our driveway basketball court there until spring.)

AM Hike

Mornings come early these first few days of California-ing because the three-hour time change from East Coast to Left Coast messes with our sleep cycles.  A little after 5A, we stretch for thirty minutes, then meditate together.

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Before breakfast, we drive a mile down the same frontage road (Lillie) then veer left onto Greenwell Drive, which takes us towards the Summerland foothills; there we park at the Greenwell Preserve trailhead.   Our trail, maintained by the Montecito Trail Foundation, takes us into coastal horse country, far removed from the congestion on The 101.  Click here for the link to the MTF site and its magnificent work.

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Hiking the trails between horse farms just after dawn

As with the inland trails of last night, clearly these trails were created for horses of the well-to-do, the amazingly well-to-do, and the Bill Gates and Warren Buffet well-to-do.  The average home in Summerland is north of $1M.  Due to the recent rainy weather, the trail is pock mark by the horse’s shoes.  This, my friends, is a first world problem.

Before the rest of the county is up and about, that is other than the migrant Hispanic workers tending to the animals of the estate owners, we have a narrow trail away to ourselves.

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The MTF gets four stars for trail marking.  At each turn when we aren’t sure where to go, there is a trail sign saying, you guessed it, “trail.”  Soon we are climbing into the foothills with a lemon, then later mandarin orange orchard to our left.   The rutted trail has been grooved by the horses and often we must squeeze onto the ridges on either side.

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Not exactly lambs lying with lions, but this goat and horse seem like sisters in spirit

Passing potbelly pigs, the occasional barking dogs, and the most beautiful horses with goats sharing their fields, we hike in nature’s paradise on a mostly level morning trail through the foothills of Santa Barbara County.

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On the trail again

Thirty plus minutes in, the trail becomes swamped with long, wet grass from the previous week’s rain.   Though 50F, Hannah is chilled from her wet feet to her always cold hands.   So being a man of amazing insight, I connect the dots and agree to head back to the trailhead.

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After 75 minutes of hiking the trails of the Pacific coast, I sip my morning Peet’s coffee complemented by Hannah’s buttermilk biscuits.  Our California breakfast of champions.

Dan and Hannah are Snowbirds (Yikes)

When Hannah and I were twenty-somethings living in the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix metropolitan area), each December we braced for the snowbirds – those retirees, often from Minne-snow-ta, Io-where?, and Nebraska to descend like a plague of locusts, like the Black Death, like 35 pickleballers for three courts!  They would nest and swarm across the Valley.

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Valley of the Sun with Phoenix at its center

And, was I ever self-righteous!  Silently mocking their clothes, their shapes, and their leisure while I was busting my butt teaching elementary school students.  I was Smug with a capital S.   I’m not proud of that now; in fact, embarrassed.  Can you tell that I’m trying to cleanse my soul with these admissions?

And then, what do you know?  Now that Hannah and I have retired, we are sheepishly thinking of joining the flock of our white-feathered brethren somewhere warm ourselves.   Order me a big slice of humble pie (with four and twenty black and snow white birds).

For the past three years to prepare to join the pasty flock from the North, we’ve traveled to California each January for a fortnight of hiking.   Last year we also spent some of February in southern Utah as well as a few days back in Arizona.

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Jasmine Cottage

Doing the VRBO (i.e., Vacation Rental by Owner) thing in California, we have rented the three-bedroom Jasmine Cottage in Summerland, 400 yards up the hillside above the Pacific Ocean; it’s just south of Santa Barbara and 85 miles north of Los Angeles.  California offers me an alternative to the indoor winter routine and its punishing cold and dark.

With pickleball in nearby Santa Barbara, we have the local coastal Santa Ynez Mountains for hiking.  San Luis Obispo is just a hundred miles to the north, with hiking at nearby Montana de Oro State Park.  With the state parks of Big Sur three to four hours away, we are living the snowbirds’ dream.

For me, this whole “California” thing had its roots during my high school years in the mid-60s in New Jersey.  Who was cooler than the Beach Boys for surfing wannabes like myself?

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In time, megabands like California’s Spanky and Our Gang and the Mamas and Papas rose to the top of my hit parade.  The Mamas and Papas classic California Dreamin’ worked its way into my heart, my soul, and my belief that there was something better than New Jersey.  No offense, Garden Staters.   When times were tough for me, I could always escape to California in my mind.  And once I conceive an idea, action soon follows full speed ahead.  After college, I took my first teaching job in Anaheim, California.

Three years ago, Summerland was where we first started hiking in California.    Thanks to Hannah’s friend Rose, we walked the beach at Summerland to warm up our hiking muscles.   Who knew three years later we’d been spending a month overlooking that very beach?  Click here for that Summerland Beach blog.

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Summerland is a hillside community of less than 1500 where there is no mail delivery (i.e., just general delivery at the local post office).   With no super markets, we can drive to Trader Joe’s five miles up The 101 highway to Santa Barbara. On coastal bluffs, Summerland has an average high temperature of 65F in January, the same for February, and 66F for March.   Is it any wonder that this temperate climate draws snowbirds aplenty to the “American Rivera?”

In the 1880s, Real estate speculator H.L. Williams founded the town of Summerland, divided the land into 25’ x 60’ plots (i.e., postage stamps) for his fellow Spiritualists. (Spiritualists believe that the spirits of the dead can communicate with living people.)  The spiritual center of the town was a Spiritualist Church, with a séance room, later demolished when The 101 was constructed in the 1950s; Summerland was once referred to as “Spookville.”

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Our first night, a Summerland sunset

In the 1890s, oil development began in Summerland with wooden oil derricks constructed on the beach and on piers stretching into the ocean.  In January 1969, a blowout at an offshore oil field platform caused the infamous Santa Barbara Oil Spill.  Unfortunately, a recent spill from an oil pipeline is currently fouling the local beach.  Fortunately, we have sandy alternatives nearby in Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.

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Along the one mile Ortega Hill Loop in Summerland

During our first week here, we walk each morning.  One morning we happen upon the Ortega Hill Loop overlooking the pacific not ten minutes walk from our cottage. Along the trail are workout stations.   Can you guess what this one to the right is for?  (Answer below.)

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And one more thing from the Handbook of Snowbirds – Never complain about the days when it rains or when there is a nip in the morning air.  The sympathy meter will point to zero by your family and friends up North who have two more months of roof raking, snowy roads, and cabin fever, while you are California Dreamin’.

Answer: Body stretcher for your back

Dan and Hannah Get a Workout Hiking to Gaviota Peak on the California Coast

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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.

Summerland, California

Summerland, California

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.

Gaviotta State Park

Gaviota State Park

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.

Three miles to the summit

Three miles to the summit

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.

Tree-lined Gaviota Peak Trail at the start

Tree-lined Gaviota Peak Trail at the start

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.

The fire road through the brown pasture

The fire road through the brown pasture

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.

Sun-drenched fire road

Sun-drenched fire road

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.

The still drought-stricken fields of the central California coast

The still drought-stricken fields of the central California coast

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?

In addition to the U of New Hampshire and the U of New England in Maine, I was prof at Eastern.

In addition to the U of New Hampshire and the U of New England in Maine, I was a prof at Eastern.

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?”

John's picture with the Pacific Coast Highway in the background

John’s picture with the Pacific Coast Highway in the background

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.

Five minutes away at the "saddle" of the Gaviota Peak Trail with the Pacific Ocean in the background

Five minutes away at the “saddle” of the Gaviota Peak Trail with the Pacific Ocean in the background

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.

Gav 3B trail to the top

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.

Side trail to the hot springs

Side trail to the hot springs

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.

Gav 5 H at hot springs

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.

Karma.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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