Chorro Grande: 8-18-2011

It does not require a suspension of rationality to go for a hike to talk to a pair of trees; the understanding that the trees did not reply thirty years ago and likely will not reply now is beside the point. Often, the appropriate counterpart for my conversation is no one at all except trees and the air above the upper Sespe.

Chorro Grande Trail Sentinel Trees, 1981 and 1984

Starting sometime before 1980 I frequently climbed from Highway 33 to Chorro Grande and stopped to visit the Sentinel Tree pair along the way. I did it based on an irrational and persistently indistinct gestalt possibly involving time, place and connection. Maybe free will and predestination were in there somewhere as well having a tussle of the antithetical. Ultimately, when asked to explain the reason for my affinity for the trees (and I was asked) I deferred to the words of Mark Twain: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”

The hike to Chorro Grande integrates a fine mix of attributes. The trail head is far enough along Highway 33 to feel remote, but the drive does not require the level of commitment demanded by continuing to Pine Mountain summit and the Reyes Peak trail. In the summer it is not as hot as, for instance, the Piedra Blanca area. The trail is sufficiently long and steep to give one a sense of back country accomplishment. And the view along the way over the upper Sespe country is worth experiencing as often as possible.

Chorro Grande trail head parking, August 18, 2011

Chorro Grande trail head parking, August 18, 2011; the streamers used as a target by the hang gliders who launched from Pine Mountain in 1984 are still there.

Chorro Grande trail head

Chorro Grande trail head, August 18, 2011; the stake, not there when I frequented the place is inscribed "trail" and I had no reason to disbelieve it.

Thus, the parameters for August 18, 2011 where well defined: drive Highway 33 to the Chorro Grande trail head, hike up the trail, visit the trees, engage in some photography, linger a while at Chorro Grande camp, visit Oak camp on the way back and return to the car. An old, simple yet elegant formula honed in the 1970s and 1980s, now ready for redeployment in 2011.  Although the sign in the parking area was gone, the old streamers mounted on a post that the Pine Mountain hang gliders used to target were still there. Of course I have no way of knowing if in the past 25 years the streamers have been refreshed, but the look and feel was the same The two posts with nothing attached were still present at the beginning of the trail. A stake had been added with the single word “trail” on it; obvious but accurate Forest Service prosaic parsimony. As I stood looking across Highway 33 to the trail, the scene fell perfectly into place with memories dating back a quarter century and more. Ultimately, the paradoxical feeling of remoteness while parked twenty feet off a highway completed an ambiance that caused the small changes to be nothing more than almost imperceptible background noise.

Boots, 1984

Boots, 1984

I passed Oak camp in relatively short order but  ignored the site, as I was focused on reaching the trees and Chorro Grande camp beyond. The familiar climb began and brought back memories of Boots, my frequent canine hiking companion in the mid 1980s, and how she liked to run off this section of the trail and down slope either to investigate items of dog importance or to taunt me or both. She only exhibited this behavior on this section of the Chorro Grande trail, nowhere else we hiked. After one incident where I climbed a considerable way back up the trail to look for her, only to find her jogging in a very unconcerned fashion down the trail toward me, she hiked the Chorro climb and descent on the leash.

Chorro Sentinel Trees, August 18, 2011

In the midst of these cogitations of things past, I looked up and saw the Sentinel Trees just above me. In a hazy picture I hold in memory I first encountered these trees that flank the trail about two thirds of the way to Chorro Grande camp (34°37’26.58″N 119°19’22.50″W) at a stage when they were not as tall as I am. That is probably inaccurate, but I like the concept, so I will keep the image. Once I reached the trees, the hiker in me wanted to push on to Chorro Grande camp and stop at the trees on the way down. The photographer in me realized that on the way back I would have high angle back light and the morning front light I had at the moment was the best I would have the remainder of the day for this subject. The irrational sentimentalist in me said “Dude, these are the trees you watched for years. It’s been a long time. Stop right now and reintroduce yourself.” I stopped. And wondered briefly why my inner voice always addresses me as “dude.” While I deployed my tripod and set up the shot I had one of those moments where the realization hits that I was exactly where I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. I was high up on the Chorro Grande trail taking pictures while telling a pair of trees why I had been away for so long and what I had been doing. The trees did not respond. It all made sense.

Chorro Grande Camp, 1984 and 2011

Chorro Grande south exit sign, 1979I packed up the camera, tripod and other photographic paraphernalia and hiked the remainder of the distance to Chorro Grande camp. For the purpose of this posting I shall define Chorro as “gush,” an appropriate metaphorical image of the spring that is the hallmark feature of the area. There are other more idiomatic definitions that can be safely ignored for now. I noticed immediately that the wooden sign at the south intersection of the trail with the camp was gone and, upon entering the camp proper, I saw that the old, classic “Big Chorro” camp sign near the spring had disappeared as well. The inscription on the “1901” rock had faded more than I might have expected which probably means that the “1901” inscription was not an accurate date, but I suppose there is no way to know. I think at one time I had worked out the inscription on the rock, but I did not keep a written record and can no longer decipher it either in old photos or by direct examination.

Chorro Spring and Sign, 1984, 2011

The sign in the right panel used to be located frame left and forward of the rocks in the left panel. The spring issues from beneath the rocks.

1901 rock in 1981 and 2011

It requires great effort not to relax at Chorro Grande camp. The deep shade that provides a cool respite on a hot day was as I remembered it. Were I given to simply repeating cliched phraseology I would describe the sound of the water flowing from the spring and the rustling caused by the movement of wind through the trees as soothing. The melodic synergy of the sound of the water flowing from the spring and the rustling caused by the movement of the wind through the trees was soothing. I was armed with a tripod and wide angle lenses, which was the solution to photography in the shadowed, close quarters. I took my time but inevitably the minutes piled up and I packed up the gear and headed downhill.

Sespe Gorge from Chorro Grande Trail, 1981

Sespe gorge from Chorro Grande Trail, 1981; intense back light and veiling glare.

Sespe Gorge from Chorro Grande Trail, August 15, 2011

Sespe gorge from Chorro Grande Trail, August 15, 2011

When I got back to the Sentinel Trees, I was overtaken by photographic deja vu as I looked out over the Sespe gorge. The sun was still high and somewhat lateral to the shot I wanted, so I figured with careful framing and other techniques I could get something other than silhouettes, washed out sky and lens flare. So, after a few hand-held shots I unpacked the tripod and did what I could to capture the view.

Oak camp and sign, 1984 and 2011

Boots butt 1983

Boots at Oak camp, 1983. Boots was not a model and I was not a fashion photographer, hence this non-standard portrait angle.

As I descended to Oak Camp I remembered that there was a wooden sign at the camp mounted on a tall post. The sign itself was small and inscribed simply “Oak Camp.” I had walked by the camp on the way up without taking note, but as I approached the entrance on the return trip, it was obvious this sign was also among the missing. There was another one of those metal stakes with the simple declaration “trail” which seems a poor but practical replacement to me. I used to stop and sit at Oak camp while Boots would engage in what my mammologist friend called thermoregulatory behavior by lying in the stream. I called the process “cooling off and getting wet and muddy.” Dennis R. Gagnon remarked in his guide books that he was fond of Oak camp; so was I. My first trip to Oak camp could have been as long ago as 1968, so perhaps I saw the place before Gagnon. For some reason, I’m not sure why, I’d like to think so. For the record, I admired the ambition, scope and result of Gagnon’s work. I sat on a log in Oak camp and turned the chaotic mix of the immediate experience and old memories over in my head for the better part of an hour. After coming to no conclusions, I stood up, framed and exposed a few shots with the camera mounted on the tripod, returned the gear to my pack and left.

Finally, I came around the bend and saw the end of the hike and my rental car at the trail head parking area. It was approaching 4:30 PM, rush hour on Highway 33. It was time to head back to Ojai.

Rush Hour, Highway 33, Thursday August 18, 2011




9 thoughts on “Chorro Grande: 8-18-2011

  1. Thank you for another fabulous post. Between you, Craig, VCC, Jack Elliot and the Condor Trail’s posts, I’ve been getting my fill of Los Padresology while I’m suffering through my dry spell of hiking.

    I’ve never made it out to Chorro Grande, but reading your post and your admiration for the Sentinel Trees (which are great specimens, btw), I was fearing that you would get out there and find them gone, another victim of our recent spate of wildfires. I was relieved to read on and find that they still stand, more or less the way you last left them.

    The changes to the signs don’t bother me as much as the changes to the land, although I have to agree, the wood camp signs, metal self-rusting trail signs and of course the old porcelain signs sure beat those awful fiberglass trail “posts.”

    The process of re-visiting and re-creating the shots from your past wanderings of the LPNF must be rewarding. I’m certainly enjoying your reacquaintance with your old stomping grounds.

    • Nico – glad you are checking into the site. Going back to these places and getting these pictures has been a bigger jolt to the psyche than I expected. I knew it would be rewarding but I had no idea how greatly rewarding it would be. So, of course, I am anxious to head back that way and continue the project. For a place so rugged, the Los Padres is also paradoxically delicate in many ways, so it is great that there is a core group of skilled, low impact, responsible users such as you and a group of chroniclers such as Craig, VCC and Jack Elliot, all of whom inspired what I am doing. Also, I think the Condor Trail project is a great central organizing principle. I am lucky to be able to participate in all of this to some small degree.

  2. I will admit to a certain affection for those wooden signs like Big Chorro (elsewhere, Bluff) … I love the geometry, the “branding” (Los Padres in that unmistakable script), etc. I attribute some of this to the fact these signs seemed to be the vogue when I was cutting my LP teeth, about the same time I was learning to tie my shoes and print my name. They were found at trail camps, but their larger brethren stood as the stoic campground signs all around the Ojai and Mt Pinos RDs, and can still be seen at Ozena, Hardluck, and other forgotten spots that haven’t received (nor will receive) the anono-signs of the present.

    While I bear no ill will to those Carsonite trail markers nor the more generic wooden signs that occasionally pop up (and often are the work of volunteers), they’re rather soulless indicators of direction.

    When living in NYC I learned the two marble lions outside the main branch of the NYPL — sentinels too — each had a name. Have these trees names?

    Last, I feel obligated to provide a quote, lest the tradition go the way of those lovely signs I so adore. And thus I give you Dr. Seuss (paraphrased, and badly):

    “Please, I speak [to] the trees.
    For they have no tongues.
    Their tufts can’t talk.”

    • After recovering and reviewing the old negatives from the Ventura County Bluff camp hike in 1985, it came back to me why I did not have a shot of the sign. I shot pictures around the camp and ran out of film (a classic “I thought I had 36 shots when I only had 24”). I don’t think it bothered me much at the time, but it does now. It is a shame to lose the old Los Padres trail sign variety and personality. They were great subjects for documentary or artistic photography. You caught me on the tree name question and I think you probably suspect the answer. The more grizzled tree picture right is Treebeard and the younger looking one picture left is Quickbeam. I still hold out hope some day they will answer when I talk to them.

  3. I took my parents up Chorro Grande on Sept 4th, we went up to Reyes Peak, brutal climb with the heat that day. We did not see a single person on Chorro Grande, was awesome, the bugs were a bit annoying but otherwise a great trip. Interesting to see your old pictures and comparing to the state of the trails today.


    • I had forgotten how steep some of the sections of the Chorro Grande trail are even though I did remember a fairly relentless climb. It came back to me quickly as I ascended those sections. I didn’t have much bug action that day, but at the spring there were a large number of bees or very docile wasps of some kind that buzzed around while I was shooting some pictures. I did not attempt a closer look to get a specific ID.

  4. this is one of my favorite hikes – traveling this way to reyes peak while avoiding the drive out pine mountain road. the signs at the trailhead have disappeared due to target practice and possibly outright thievery. sad. but the trees endure.

    the last day i was out there was after two previous wind / rain / sleet / fog / snow events. it was warm and sunny enough to melt the rime ice. there was now sound to accompany the beauty of the white and green.

    thank you for sharing this.

    • Bardley – thanks for taking a look. I follow your Picasaweb albums and have for some time. I enjoyed the recent Chief Peak evening set and, of course, very much appreciated the shots of the Chorro Sentinel trees from your set in May.

  5. I just discovered this website, and love it!!! I am a native of Ojai but have lived in France the past 30 years…I hiked most of these places in high school, had a gap, and for the last 10-12 years get back to Ojai almost every year and hike my heart out….last winter hiked to Topa Topa Bluffs for the first time in 35 years….Chorro Grande, Nordhoff Peak, Horn Canyon…all are in my DNA…

    Keep up the good work,

    Richard Laubly

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