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I left the mid-March ice and snow of the northeast and landed late Friday, March 15 at LAX with little expectation that I would have time for day-long travels in the Los Padres. As the events of the week evolved, I found that Thursday, March 22, was an open day. I considered several alternatives but my trip Sunday, March 17 to Matilija after 28 years away ultimately compelled me to head back to the Matilija trail head with the Santa Ynez ridge and Divide Peak as my destination. Putting my head out of gear and pounding along the Murietta fire road to Murietta Divide while meditating on my 50 year history in the area would be, I reasoned, my equivalent of sitting in double lotus position (which I most certainly cannot do) chanting a mantra. Thence, as though jumping into icy water after a sauna, I planned to follow the steep Monte Arido trail up to the Santa Ynez ridge, if I may be permitted to mix my cultural relaxation regimen metaphors.
I parked my rented Jeep Liberty at the Matilija trail head after the short drive from Ojai and shouldered my well-loaded backpack. Although I would not be on the Santa Ynez ridge at the photographically cliche golden hours of sunrise or sunset, I anticipated expansive views, so I was loaded with a bit more than ten pounds of picture-making paraphernalia. Along with the four liters of water I was carrying, this made for a somewhat weighty pack for a day hike, but I felt the need to accept the challenge of capturing a worthwhile image or two from the ridge under less than classic lighting. Of course, it is not particularly heroic to accept a challenge when the price of failure is essentially zero: format the memory card and move on.
And thus I started the walk up the fire road to Murietta Divide. No Los Padres route finding problems to solve; just walk. I found myself in a process of free association as I passed one familiar landmark after another. Until the excursion five days previously with the Murietta Five I had not been this way for 28 years which, given that opportunities existed over the years to visit, is ample evidence of my remarkable ability to exercise poor judgement. I tried not to engage in pathos-laden reminiscence of times long past and people now missing but completely failed. To my credit, my mood did not darken; I was where I wanted to be and I was enjoying it immensely, pathos included. I rose periodically to a more immediate consciousness, mostly along the lines of “the fire road is very steep here; I remember this.” And then I was on the Murietta Divide for the first time since 1985.
Intent on pushing on to Santa Ynez ridge, I did not pause for long on the Murietta Divide. There would be time on the way back. I had a picture in my head of the Monte Arido trail heading immediately and steeply uphill to emerge on the ridge near Divide Peak. I had quite forgotten that a bit of winding around through the chaparral was required at the outset of the route but it all came back to me very quickly.
The trail remains an unofficial route but shows signs of consistent use and recent care. The folks trying to revive the historic El Camino Cielo and Ocean View trails are certainly primary movers in this regard. The efforts of this group are documented on their Facebook page. I remember veteran hikers in the 1970s describing frequent trips on the Ocean View trail, very often including the verbiage, delivered fondly and without irony, “long, hot, no water.” The Ocean View trail was a grand tradition and I would like to see it revived.
Absolutely consistent with the image I held vividly in memory, the trail became impressively steep through a serpentine climb and a short series of switchbacks as it approached the final gentle traverse along the north slope onto the ridge. I did not feel the effort of the climb at all. This was probably a synthesis of the salutary effects of being where I wanted to be doing what I wanted to do and finally acclimatizing the the warm, dry conditions in Ojai relative to the ice, snow and dampness of my point of origin in the northeast US.
Once on the ridge, I was faced with both the familiar and unfamiliar. I do not remember the wide OHV route winding around the north shoulder of Divide Peak and proceeding east to intersect with the Monte Arido trail. I see no evidence of it in my old pictures and it does not appear on my 1969, 1974 and 1984 Forest Service visitor’s maps. What is on the 1969 and 1974 maps (but not 1984) and what I do remember, is a motorcycle trail. I vividly remember the distinctive rock and bolder garden and the conifers on the ridge east of Divide Peak. And, of course, the expansive views to the north, south and west were the reason I lugged more than ten pounds of photographic equipment up to the ridge.
I hiked the OHV route as it wound around the north shoulder of Divide Peak and walked up to the summit along a very obvious route on the west slope. I felt the angle of view was a bit higher than I wanted for photographs but noted several vantage points on the ridge west of the peak that appeared to suit my purposes.
Once back on the OHV route on the ridge I removed my pack and unclipped the GPS from the pack belt. I leaned the pack against a large rock on the south side of the road and set the GPS on the flat surface of the rock near the embedded USGS monument. I set up the tripod and panorama head and began the photographic process.
The angle of the sun was high and the light harsh and unfiltered by clouds. The day, as predicted, was windy. These conditions are not considered conducive to classic landscape photography or panoramic photography but I did have dramatic views to the north, south and west working for me. I burned through most of 16 gigabytes of storage over somewhat more than two hours and hoped some good would come of it.
After two hours of working with camera and tripod and assorted photographic gizmos I decided it was time to pack up and head back down. I either had what I wanted or I wasn’t going to get it; time and processing would tell. I returned to the USGS monument rock where I had left my pack and GPS. The wind had been problematic for vibration-blur free photography even with a sturdy tripod and it was getting worse. As I packed up my gear I moved the GPS and left it sitting on the rock balanced on its side, which exposed the greatest possible surface area to the wind. Physics being what it is, a gust caught the GPS and it tumbled into a deep crack in the rock. I could not fish it out with my trekking pole and, in fact, almost lost the bottom section of the pole down the crack. So I gave up gracefully and with honor. And no one was there who can provide an alternative interpretation of my response when I realized the GPS was lost.
I descended the Monte Arido trail in no particular hurry as there was nowhere I needed to be this day and there were still many hours until twilight. I actually had a well-formed idea of what I wanted to do in terms of further photography but a bit of quiet introspection and some fruit and nut mix with water felt like a fine way to spend some time on Murietta Divide.
I note with bemusement the somewhat overwrought poses in the Santa Ynez ridge rock garden shot from 1985 and the picture on Murietta Divide from 1981. When I consider those times, I remember being given to such grandiose body language as well as the somewhat vigorous pursuit of “let the good times roll.” Now, as nicely portrayed in the March 22, 2013 Murietta Divide self portrait, I am content with sitting in quiet contemplation supplemented, perhaps, by a hot, high fiber cereal for breakfast. It is all about time, place and what makes one feel good at any point on the arc of existence.
My intention was to descend to the upper intersection of the Murietta trail with the Murietta fire road and follow the trail through Murietta camp to reconnect to the road. I had noted in my sojourn with the Murietta Five on March 17 that the healthy flow of water in the creek would make a nice subject for photography.
When the trail intersected the creek I headed upstream and did a bit of rock hopping to a rock platform with a view I though would be suitable. I wanted a long exposure photograph in order to achieve that silky moving water look. To that end, I had packed a one to six stop variable neutral density filter to cut the light reaching the sensor by as much as 64x. With neutral density filters in general and especially with variable neutral density filters, as the light-blocking approaches maximum, it is possible, with poor quality versions to introduce color shifts and other artifacts in the image. To avoid that, I acquired a very high quality piece of hardware from the German company Heliopan; call it an investment.
Once the tripod and camera were set up on a mid-stream boulder, I removed the filter case that I had stashed in my cargo pocket. The filter case was, to say the least, of robust construction and latched securely in order to protect the precious glass within. It took some effort to open, and, in this instance, I did not apply force in the most strategic way, as I had forgotten the complex maneuvers required to open the damn thing. The case suddenly popped open and the filter jumped out and glanced off the rock before landing in the water. I recovered it; ruined. Maintaining my composure (again, no one was around to contradict this assertion) I attached a polarizing filter and adjusted it for maximum effect to cut glare and did what I could to create a photograph.
From the creek it was a short distance through Murietta camp back to the road and, just beyond, the trail head. From Matilija Canyon to Ojai and a stop at the Ojai Brewing Company was a brief trip as well. I had much to reflect on for the day. With the loss of my GPS and the functional loss of my variable neutral density filter, this had been the single most expensive day hike in my long history of day hiking. But the story of March 22, 2013 is my return to the Santa Ynez ridge after 28 years and the time I spent in the moment of that day and in the memories of hikes long ago.