Sunrise flames rippled across a cloudy March sky above Highway 126. My brother Paul, with sleepy eyes, drove on through Ventura towards our objective: Santa Paula Peak. We exited the highway at Palm Ave in the town of Santa Paula to pick up our friend Paulo, who lives nearby in Fillmore. We met him in the Tres Sierras market parking lot and he hopped into the back of Paul’s Ford Exlplorer. My 15lb dog Whoopi greeted him with her customary happy dance. Back on the 126, we whizzed by citrus orchards spotlighted by a shaft of light that burned through a slit between land and clouds. We turned onto Timber Canyon Road and Paulo called out the numbers as Paul punched in the gate code. The black gate gave a jolt and rolled aside. We were in. Thanks to Paulo, the owner of the private property had agreed to let us through.
There are two routes one can take to the summit of Santa Paula Peak (4,957 ft): A ten mile slog through Santa Paula Canyon brings you up the North side―a route my friend Bret Godfrey and I took in 2004 with the Sierra Club. The second―shorter yet more intense ― is a five mile march up the steep South Face. I hadn’t been up the South Face but had descended the knee jarring switchbacks with Bret after taking the long way to the summit. Paul, Paulo and I had our sights set on the South Face of Santa Paula Peak
The triangular summit loomed ahead as we strolled up a dirt road over grassy rolling hillocks, past hardy oak trees with armor-like bark. Soon the road became a thin, steep trail that squeezed my legs like a python. Whoopi’s pink tongue hung from the side of her mouth and we stopped to give her water. “Check out this tick!” Paul said. The dark arachnid tip toed creepily across his pants. “Oh man, I’ve got some on my socks,” Paulo said and brushed them off with his hand. I checked my clothing, my armpits and my balls ―nothing. I would find eight of the little bloodsuckers on Whoopi later.
The trail meandered up onto the east side of the mountain and a desiccating wind suddenly blasted at our backs. A scree field of red sandstone blocks poured down from the summit and clanked as we scurried over them. Within minutes we stood atop Santa Paula Peak and had 360 degree views of Ventura County, the Sespe Wilderness and beyond.
In the sharp light, the Sespe Creek cut across Fillmore like a silver snake below. The town of 14,000 was dwarfed by the depth of the surrounding hills, valleys and sky. The landscape was a patchwork of parched brown except for the lush orchards which skirted every city within sight. Plastic covered fields shone like giant mirrors to the heavens. To the East beyond Fillmore and Santa Clarita, a brilliant snow capped Mt. San Antonio dominated the skyline and was juxtaposed by the jutting rectangles of 60 storey buildings in Los Angeles. Looking west along the sandy line of the Santa Clara River Valley, Santa Paula, Ventura and Oxnard were patches of tiny drab squares with no significant landmarks. Then there was the coast. A strip of ochre sand ran horizontally across our view and the deep blue Pacific Ocean lay flat and seemingly calm in its immensity. Through the smoky blue air, the Channel Islands, like small dark incisors, poked out from water. While we pointed out various sights, I thought back to my trip with Bret. On that day, our summit view was disappointing―shrouded in a thick haze―we barely saw the next valley.
At our feet lay broken glass, concrete foundations and rusty pieces of metal and nails. Paul, Paulo and I each found a seat amongst the rubble and dug into our lunches. Paul opened the summit register and we pored over poems, rants and jokes dating back to 1982. “I can’t remember if Bret and I signed in,” I said. “I guess not, we were so stoned we probably forgot to.” I laughed and shook my head at the carefree days of my early twenties. “I don’t think I’ve ever read so much weird stuff in a summit register though.”
“Well, this is right between Fillmore and Santa Paula,” Paulo grinned. The wind carried our laughter high into the infinite blue and crows cawed overhead. I looked up at the black birds floating effortlessly in the bright morning light and thought, “This one’s for you Bret.”
In memory of Bret J. Godfrey 1982-2007.
A friend, musician and true “Sespe Wildman” if ever there were one.