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The rattling back door of Paul’s black Ford Explorer is driving me insane as we turn onto the dusty fork off Sisar Canyon Rd. My head is feeling as empty as the beer bottles back home in my recycling bin and I can’t remember the directions I had read the previous day. Paul stops the truck next to a pair of old metal water tanks. An oddly tall elderly man in a baseball cap is sauntering down the dirt road. We wait as he slowly gets within a few feet of the truck.
“Excuse me, is this the way to Topa Topa?” Paul asks
“Yeah, it’s up that way. Roads kinda rough― but you can make it.” the old man responds in a southern drawl.
We wave and head up the road, Paul switches to 4×4 mode and we romp over deep, sandy ruts and dips for about a quarter mile, pain twisting my stomach the whole way. Whoopi, my 15 pound dog digs into my lap with her claws to keep balanced. We come to a small parking area and see Erik’s black Toyota truck among other trucks and jeeps.
The plan was to leave Ventura at 6:30 am and be hiking around 7:00. The plan didn’t factor eight high alcohol beers the night before into the equation. We were to meet Erik at the summit; he had spent the night at the top with a group of friends and would be expecting us in the late morning. I hadn’t planned on drinking eight beers, but it was Saturday night and I was bottling home brew with my neighbor― and my wife was out. A perfect scenario for some beer drinking.
By the time we hit the trail it’s 8:30 am and the sun blasts bright light through the clear February air. Whoopi trots ahead, appearing to float as she moves, her black fur shimmering. The hike is not an easy one―15.6 miles round trip with 4,487 feet of elevation gain. In other words…it’s steep.
The Topa Topa Bluffs completely dominate the skyline looking north- east from Ventura and Oxnard. Bands of brown and white sandstone streak across its face and glow pink-orange in the sacred moments of late afternoon sun. After a winter storm, Topa Topa can often be seen blanketed in snow, producing one of the most dramatic views in the county. The sight from Ventura Harbor is especially magical. Located in the Los Padres National Forest, the bluffs rise to an elevation of 6,300 ft above sea level. The Topa Topa range lies in an east-west direction, making Ojai one of the few places in the world where “the pink moment” (the sunset turns the mountains pink) occurs. Apparently, in 1872 an early settler of present day Ojai named Abram Wheeler Blumberg wanted to name the town “Topa Topa”, which he thought meant “gopher” in the local Chumash language. I once heard that Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Inc., had climbed the steep cliffs back in his heyday. I can’t verify this but I really want to believe he did.
Paul, Whoopi and I quickly hike through two creek crossings and a couple of oak groves. I hear the creek bubbling lazily and breathe in the cool, damp air. In what seems like no time we’re out onto a shade-less stretch of uphill. I’m still feeling queasy― but my belief in sweating out a hangover keeps me going. For mid-February it’s unseasonably warm, the sky hazy and the air dry. We round a corner and catch our first glimpse of the shadowy bluffs peeking out over the chaparral covered foothills in the foreground.
“It looks really far,” Paul says. “Are you sure it’s only seven and a half miles round trip?”
“No,” I respond smiling. “It’s about seven and a half miles each way!”
“I guess I totally underestimated this hike.”
We continue up the road to where a single-track trail forks right. A sign, on the ground, made of stones reads “Topa” and points towards the trail. Following this we pass tall, gangly pine trees on our right, which poke up into the faded blue denim sky. The bluffs now stretch before us in their full glory and I stop to stare at them every few minutes. We stop at White Ledge camp and share an orange next to a blackened fire pit. The fruit is intensely sweet and acidic and immediately stabs into my tortured guts.
Soon we move on and the trail gets steep and our pace slows. Whoopi’s pink tongue hangs from the side of her mouth and the heat begins to make its presence known. We plod uphill, exposed on dusty golden dirt, fractured pieces of red and beige sandstone line the path on either side. Sweat stings my eyes and earthy scents fill my nostrils. Waist high Manzanita bushes with blood red branches blanket the sweeping hillsides all around us.
“Maybe that’s why they call this Red Reef Trail. The Manzanita bushes almost look like a reef.” I say back to Paul.
“Aren’t you hot in that thing?” I ask him. I’m sweating profusely in light shorts and a yellow wicking t-shirt, while he wears a blue Patagonia windbreaker over a button up plaid shirt and tan pants.
“No, actually this keeps me cool.”
The trail narrows between bushes and a rocky hillside and we pass a woman with a golden retriever and then a man with his young son. Next we pass another group of three and one of them turns to us and says “Erik is up at the top waiting for you, I was gonna stay up with him but I decided to leave with these guys. I’m Tom by the way.”
We introduce ourselves, thank Tom, and then continue up.
We stop to rest and give the dog a drink. I eat a Clif Bar and some chocolate while Paul wolfs down the sandwich my wife made for him. Sitting there in the dirt, with our backs to the sun I begin to feel increasingly nauseous.
Back on the trail we keep moving up until arrive at a ridge and the path widens once again. Another “Topa” sign on the ground, this one made of sticks points to the right. We trudge up the chalky road, dust puffing out from under our feet as we step, views of Rose Valley, Piedra Blanca and Reyes Peak emerge on our left. Ahead and right, a faded vista of Ventura County and the Pacific Ocean spreads before us. The Santa Monica Mountains and The Channel Islands poke out like rows of teeth from a smoky blue haze.
Soon the path becomes much steeper and we stop to catch our breath every few steps. We zig-zag up short switch backs past rocks, some with neon green lichen on them. I look up and spot Erik waving down to us. Within minutes we’re on the treeless, rocky summit smiling and greeting each other.
“So, you guys ready to head back down?” Erik chuckles. He wears a sage colored shirt and board shorts. He smiles through his brown beard while patting me on the back.
At this point I’m dizzy and on the verge of throwing up. The full panorama is now before us, Ojai below, Ventura and Oxnard stretching to the ocean where the islands― including Catalina―peek out from the water. The fields on the Oxnard plain sparkle like square, silver lakes in the mid-day sun.
“You guys should come to the backside over here.” Erik says. “From this side on a clear day you can see Mount Baldy and even downtown L.A.”
It is not a clear day. We walk past fire pits and a bench, all created with sandstone slabs and blocks stacked and wedged. From the other side of the summit, we only see a silhouette of distant peaks in the distance to the east. I stumble around and sit down in the dirt. I’m now feeling decidedly terrible.
“Are you alright?” Paul asks. “You look kinda pale man.”
“Yeah I’m alright. I gotta throw up.”
Paul and Erik sit down on a stone bench while I purge my troubles behind a thin prickly bush. I feel considerably better and begin to enjoy my good company and other worldly surroundings.
We walk back to the western summit and I snap some photos. I give Erik one of the sandwiches― my wife Anita made me― which he digs into with abandon.
“Damn, this sandwich is good. Gourmet.” He says.
“Anita doesn’t mess around.” Paul remarks.
My belly is still too weak for any substantial food. Erik gives me some blue Powerade powder from the bottom of his pack and I dump it into my water bottle. I need to rehydrate for the hike back to the car. By throwing up I had instantly dehydrated myself even further. The water filter in my pack would come in handy back down at the creek.
Sitting on the bench, we joke and point out different peaks and islands far off in space. Whoopi pokes around for lizards in the rocks and the three of us sit, soaking in the vast expanse of seemingly never ending layers of shapes and shades of light. Hazy blue, grey, and earth tones flow and mix in a seamless scene of serenity. A couple of crows float past―intensely black―cawing into the silence.
We begin the steep descent with Paul and Whoopi running downhill in front. Erik, and I tromp behind, our knees and hips taking the brunt of our weight. Now I feel like my old self, and a pleasant breeze cuts the warm air as we move swiftly through the familiar terrain. We chat about modern life and its drawbacks as we move. Both of us agreeing that a simpler way of life is a better one.
“I can’t wait for one of those beers. I’ve got some Modelos in a cooler in my truck.” Erik says.
“Yeah, we brought Longboards.” I respond. A cold beer now sounding like the greatest thing on the planet. Yup, definitely back to my old self.
We catch up to Paul at the shady White Ledge camp and then continue the three of us and Whoopi, down ever closer to the trucks. Hiking at a mellow pace we joke and share stories, mostly about the comedies of growing up in Fillmore. On David Stillman’s excellent backcountry blog, he describes the Topa Topa hike in a day as “The Suffer Machine”. Now swilling beer on Erik’s carpeted tailgate back at the trailhead, I am inclined to agree.
Thinking about my own self induced suffering that day I am reminded of a customer of mine whom I met last week. We hadn’t seen each other in three years and in exchanging formalities I found out he was having a hard time.
“How are you guys doing?” he asked Anita and me.
“Good, good,” I said. “How about you?”
“Oh not too good. It’s been a rough year. I had a stroke and lost the ability to swallow and it’s real hard for me to walk.”
He points to a stack of cans behind me with his cane.
“My wife has to feed me that, through a hole in my stomach. Boy, do I miss the taste of food. Watching TV is like torture.”
Thinking about him and his suffering, I was put in my place. My gut churning hangover combined with a steep and long day hike was of my own choice. This poor man was facing everyday hardships that I can’t even wrap what’s left of my brain around. He will probably never hike through a captivating landscape again or may never taste food again. No matter how bad one feels, no matter how much pain you’re in, there’s always going to be person out there that’s got it worse.
Some of us have the luxury of choosing “The Suffer Machine”―while others are simply chosen by it.