“I’ve lived in California only seven years,” said I, “and I’m still a bit tender in places; so tell me what is a skinner?”
“Why, a skinner,” replied the Californian in the red bandanna neckerchiefhe had but one eye and it was full of surprise at my ignorance–“a skinner is a man that skins a team. Gosh, I supposed anybody knowed that.”
“You mean,” I ventured, “a teamster, as some people say?”
“Sure,” he nodded; “and they’ll always give a foot man a lift; so I guess you’ll have no trouble hoofing it in the country back there. But if it was me that was going, I’d hire me a pony and be independent.”
That anybody should undertake a jaunt of a hundred and fifty miles or so on foot for the pleasure of walking was unthinkable by the conventional West-ern mind; but I was already familiar with the strong points of tripping afoot, and the lure of that splendid chain of mountains back of Santa Barbara, with their fame of sparkling trout-streams and deer-haunted trails through fragrant chaparral and primeval woodlands, their patriarchal ranchos with Spanish names and their sequestered valleys where living rivers run, was strong within me. To motor there seemed out of key with such a land, though thousands do it; and, besides, motoring is expensive. To take a team meant responsibility and risk; for, with the possibility of meeting a flying automobile at any time on the narrow ledges that do service as roads in our Western mountains, the joy of driving in such regions is nowadays far from an unmixed one. No, for me “the footpath way,” with kodak over my shoulder, a pocketful of dried figs, and freedom from care. Yet that hint about the pony stuck pleasantly in my thought. Why not try both ways? I would.
If you look at a map, you will notice that the north-ern boundary of what is called Southern California is a three-hundred-mile line of lofty mountains stretching west from the Mojave desert to the Pacific Ocean at Point Conception. This long-drawn huddle of mountains is bisected some forty miles northwest of Los Angeles by the San Francisquito Canon, and from this point a hundred miles westward is a maze of mountain country which forms to Santa Barbara a hinterland of great beauty and interest. Thanks to the State’s lively interest in good roads, supplemented by the United States Forestry Service, which is interlacing the forest reserves with a system of splendid trails, the region is exceptionally accessible to travelers, and the automobile horn is now a commonplace in mountain solitudes that, less than a decade ago, knew no more civilized sound than the whistle of quail or the bark of the coyote. Publie camps and good roadside hostelries provide abundantly for the entertainment of visitors, and while the distance between is sometimes a matter of a day’s jaunt for the pedestrian, one can always count upon a roof and a hot meal each night.
The prevailing style of inn is on the cottage plan; that is, close to a main building a number of small cottages are clustered. In some cases there is one room only, though oftener these cottages contain several. Here guests are lodged, meals being served in a general dining-room in the central building. The automobile patronage has become so sure a factor in the business of the roadside boniface that good service can now be maintained where formerly, in as wild a country as this, only the simplest provision could be risked for the chance traveler’s comfort.
As a matter of fact, no better accommodation is given, even in well-groomed England with its famous rural inns, than I have enjoyed in this Santa Barbara back-country.
It was a May afternoon when I made acquaintance with my first among these pleasant hostelries, which was set in a snug little spot at a cañon’s mouth. The air, as I walked up the roadway to the house, was sweet with the perfume of lemon blossoms from an adjacent grove where mocking-birds were singing. The main building was shaded by enormous live-oaks, and its outlying cottages were embowered in roses, red and white and golden. A motor-car stood under a wide-spreading oak before the steps; two ladies in riding-habits were preparing to mount their horses for an hour’s canter before dinner; an old gentleman in an easy chair was dozing over his paper. Off in a garden nearby I could see a maid gathering lettuce. Everything about the place be-spoke “homeyness” and comfort. The room to which I was shown was a fair counterpart of many that I have occupied in England, with prettily curtained windows, snowy sheets and pillows, and a fire all laid for the lighting, should I need it. And a few steps off in a room at the end of the veranda was a porcelain-lined bathtub. The charge for lodging and for two delicious meals, deftly served by a dark-haired, ruddy-cheeked granddaughter of Spain, was two dollars. Ever after as I walked, the memory of that pleasant cottage-inn served to preserve a Christian spirit within me when some bouncing, speeding car honk-honked me into the ditch and smothered me in dust, as not infrequently happened. “Were it not for this motoring gentry,” I would say to my-self, such inns could not afford to be, and some millennial day, mayhap, our lords of the road will learn consideration for the farer afootwho knows?”
The particular gem of the Santa Barbara back-country is the Ojai Valley. The road to it is of, famous beauty, following the sea to Carpinteria ; then crossing a mountain pass of exquisite charm to the Ventura River, and beyond threading a winding course for miles, dappled with shadows cast by over-arching boughs, through unbroken woodlands by the side of a musical mountain stream, which, if you are of a leisurely turn, you may whip for trout as you go, and catch some. The valley itself is a rare spot of quiet loveliness of small area, encompassed with protecting mountains whose chaparral-covered slopes are green winter and summer. The Ojaians tell you that the queer name of their home (you are to pronounce it 0-high) is Indian for nest, and a nest it looks, lapped in the great mountains. Magnificent oak trees everywhere dot the valley floor, and the one villageNordhoff, named in honor of California’s pioneer eulogistis hidden quite by these primeval trees, from many of which swing streamers of gray lichen, reminding one of the moss-draped live-oaks of the Southern Atlantic seaboard. Of all California villages, Nordhoff is the most sylvan and about the only one free from metropolitan aspirations. Its rusticity is its fortune and it knows it. What with its tree-embowered inns, its shady black-smith shop, its leafy lanes and here and there a stone fence and bowlder-strewn pasture, it has about it something of the atmosphere of a New England ham-let. It is a mecca for tennis players who for seven-teen years have flocked here from all quarters to at-tend the annual spring tournament of the Ojai Val-ley Tennis Club on its pretty oak-fringed courts.
Here and there among the oaks on the outskirts of the village and for a mile or two beyond, are many little cottages half-smothered in roses.
“No, they’re not farm houses,” said a “skinner,” hauling oranges, who picked me up on the road one day, “some of ’em are just sort of camps for tourists who like to spend the winter here in a bully climate; and some of ’em is where consumptive fellows live. The hotels won’t take them ; so they rent a place to themselves. I don’t know as it often cures ’em, but they live longer here. Living in the Ojai is pretty near the same as bein’ in heaven, anyhow, I say, and when you die it’s just a step across.”
In May, after the winter rains are over and the be-ginning of the six months’ dry season daily lowers the mountain streams to fordable proportions, sum-mer camps open up at many places along the upper waters of the Sespe or the Matilija or the Santa Ynez, for the accommodation of anglers and other vacationers. At such resorts, a couple of dollars a day or ten per week will pay for one’s keep if he has stomach for a plain, though in the main wholesome table, and likes his lodging beneath a roof. Of course, you lack here the genteel attentions of the automobile inns; the waitress startles you with such blunt queries as, “Are you going to have steak or chops?” and “What’ll you have to drink?” and on Sunday evenings quite naturally turns up in the parlor with the guests to listen to the graphophone, take a hand at cards, or join in the hymn singing, if there is any.
Sauntering over these open mountains through miles upon miles of chaparralthat sun-scorched tangle of sumac and manzanita, adenostoma, islay and wild lilac, rarely above a man’s head in height I wondered that it should be considered worth including in the Government’s forest reserves, as it is. A keen-eyed, rugged-faced man, whose bronze but-tons adorned with the image of a pine tree pro-claimed him a forest ranger, overtook me on the trail one day and explained. He rode one horse and led another bearing tight-packed cowhide alforjas and a bundle of bedding, and did not mind if he did not get home for a month.
“Of course, chaparral’s no account for timber,” he said, “but it grows so thick over the mountains, it performs, in considerable measure, what timber does for the water supplyit conserves the moisture in the ground. Then again, it needs to be watched against fires ; if they get started in it once, they spread like the dickens and run into the good timber in the cañons and on the higher mountains. You see, lots of this chaparral is just greasewood, and somebody going along throws away a live cigareet end, not thinking, in summer when every-thing’s as dry as preachin’, and. before you know it, the fat’s in the fire.”
The valley of the Santa Ynez River, which lies behind the same Saint Agnes’s mountain range that backs Santa Barbara, is one of the sort of regions becoming fewer every year, where the picturesque California life of half a century ago still lingers. The ranches there are no forty-acre affairs, but mount into the thousandsfifteen, twenty, fifty and even sixty and seventy thousand. Through one of them, the San Marcos, the public highway runs for twelve miles with barred gates across it where it enters and leaves the ranch. The railway touches only the outer skirt of this great valley given over to hay camps, sheep walks and cattle ranges. Here you may witness sheep-shearing as described in “Ramona” and watch Spanish vaqueros throwing the lariat, as their powerful, sure-footed horsesno slabsided cayuses for this business carry them at a breakneck pace up and down rocky hillsides that you might suppose goats would think twice about. Or you may drop in at country barbecues under the patriarchal oaks and be heartily welcome to Gargantuan steaks broiled over the coals and unstinted draughts of coffee boiled in cauldrons.
Into this Santa Ynez country there are three entrances from the south, good roads, as mountain roads go, through passes of rare beauty. I elected to go by way of the San Marcos and return by the Gaviota, and, as the village of Santa Ynez is forty miles from Santa Barbara and no surety could be given me that any roadside house was open as early in the season as the time of my journeying, I unwisely hired a pony with saddle-bags to transport me and my handful of baggage. He was guaranteed gentle as a kitten; but he turned out to be a cantankerous, opinionated little beast, with a mincing amble of a gait, when he was not walking, and an unquenchable desire to turn around in the road every whipstitch and strike out for home. He was as much trouble to me as Stevenson’s Modestine or John Muir’s memorable mule, and I had better never have taken him; for, as there proved to be a good inn in commission half-way to Santa Ynez, the trip could have been quite comfortably managed afoot.
The San Marcos road, however, with its glorious outlook seaward to where the Channel Islands lie, and inland across green depths of cañons to the misty peaks of the Santa Ynez Sierra, and bordered, as the way was that pleasant May day, with wild blossoms of varied hues and fragrancepitcher sage and yucca and yellow mimulus, brodiaeas, styrax bells and lupines of many colors-the San Marcos road is of such rare beauty that even a nostalgic pony cannot quench its charm. To the literary stn-dent, moreover, it possesses a special interest in that it skirts the territory so Flaringly described in the opening chapter of that entertaining book “The Mountains,” by the Santa Barbara author, Stewart Edward White. Wild and sparsely inhabited as the country is through which the highroad winds its way to the pass, there to plunge down into the pastoral land by the river’s solitary reaches, it is a well-traveled thoroughfare by no means lacking in human interest. I do not know to what extent my experience with it may have been exceptional; but the Canterbury pilgrims could hardly have been more picturesque in their day than the intermittent tide of travel that passed within my ken. There was, for instance, the dust-covered automobile puffing under its load of hilarious week-enders, bound for the upper river ostensibly to fish; and there was the big four-horse ranch team, piled high with miscellaneous supplies, including a couple of Chinese kitchen “boys,” tempted for a season from the fan-tan and chop-suey of some city Chinatown, to cook beans for cowmen and lay by money. There was the itinerant prospector ensconced in an indescribable canvas-covered wreck of a cart, drawn by two scrawny burros with newspaper blinders, the sight of which frightened my bronco into standing on his hind legs and all but backing me into the cañon; and there was the deputy sheriff in chaps and sombrero, escorting back to their rightful owner a string of colts sold by some horse-thief to an “easy” rancher. There were families in camp wagons on journeys from one end of the State to the other, staking out their teams in fat, wild pastures every night and themselves sleeping under the shelter of hospitable oaks; there were rovers like myself, only independent of horseflesh, their beds rolled up in canvas a-swing at their backs ; there was the moving-picture man, traveling with horse and buggy, looking for taking backgrounds for picture-plays; and there was the girl from Wyoming, en route a-horseback to New York, with no other company than a revolver and a wolfish looking dog.
By this same pass, they will tell you, the trail of the old Padres ran when a century ago they walked between Santa Barbara and the Mission Santa Ynés, which still lifts its cross in the midst of the valley. But Padre Alejandro says no, not by San Marcos did they travel, but by another further west, the Refugio. El Paso de Nuestra Senora del Refugio was the stately Spanish namethe Pass of our Lady of Refuge.
Padre Alejandro is the present resident rector at the Mission Santa Ynés, an elderly man of comfort-able rotundity of figure and known the countryside over. If he seems a bit short with you at first greeting when you ring the visitor’s bell, do not think he means it. He has all kinds to deal with, and must needs defend his dear Mission from the vandals who, afoot and more especially in automobiles, are forever traveling the State highway that passes the gate, and who, if not watched, would steal the very vessels from the altar. After a little, when he has taken your measure and finds you not a bad sort, you will catch a twinkle in his eye and the flicker of a kindly smile about the corner of his mouth, for he loves his joke and his heart is as ten-der as a woman’s. Though not a Franciscan, Padre Alejandro keeps alive at Santa Ynés the best traditions of the Order for hospitality to the poor, and no hungry wayfarer is ever turned away unfed. In the corridor by the doorway, is a little deal stand with a kitchen chair by it–” the poor sinner’s table” the Padre calls itand here the hoboes who stop for a bite to eat, have it served them with a kind word or two for a relish. If sick, they are taken in and cared for, and if they want work for their board and lodging, there is no end of it about the Mission to employ them as long as they care to stay and behave themselves.
Ten years ago when the Padre came to Santa Ynés, he found it a ruin except the church part, which though sadly out of repair, he could make shift to hold services in. A slovenly American family occupied the few dilapidated living-rooms that were at all under roof, sharing them with chickens, pigs and a colony of snakes. With his, own hands and his pretty housekeeper niece’s, he set about the herculean task of restorationclearing away the rubbish, making adobes, mixing lime and mortar, sawing and hammering and painting and all the rest. Little by little, with outside contributions, now and then, that enabled him to pay for hired laborers, he patiently went on until to-day the church part is completely restored and is safe beneath a tight tile roof; and one wing of the convento, the part that includes the living and sleeping rooms of the old Padres and their guests, is also finished.
“Yes,” the Padre will tell you, tapping his snuff box, as you sit with him in the arched corridor with its outlook over the peaceful valley, “I came here with eight hundred dollars, and in the ten years I have spent more than twenty thousand dollars ; but see what I have nowa palace ! But the work is not done. Do you know what I would do if I were rich? Over there”he pointed to a long, low mound of crumbled adobe hardby, overgrown with wild grasses”is the foundation of the Indian quarters of the old Padres’ day. There were eighty rooms all told, and the foundation under that adobe is as solid as rock, being cement. I’d restore that building and put it to use again, make it a home for tramps and social derelicts, as well as for the waifs that public institutions of charity will not accept, and give ’em a chance to pull themselves together and try again. There’s some wheat in even that sort of chaff, and human souls are worth the endeavor.”
About this Mission of Santa Ynés there is a home-like atmosphere that cannot escape you, for the niece is a rare housekeeper, and the feminine touch is over all. The south corridor, which runs the length of the convento’s front, and which is bright with sunshine the greater part of the day, is less a cloistered walk than an outdoor living-room, cheerful with potted plants and fragrant with per-fumes from the strip of garden along the front where roses and wall-flowers, stocks and poppies, lift dear, old-fashioned faces to the sky. Through the great arches is an unobstructed view up the quiet, pastoral valley and across the river to the mountains that look down on Santa Barbara where Santa Barbara looks on the sea ; and in all Southern California I know no more charming spot for respite from the world’s cark and care than this lovely open corridor of Mission Santa Ynés.