Friday, January 27, 2012


I highly recommend Fort Tejon State Historic Park for anyone traveling over the Grapevine on Interstate 5 and in need of a driving break or a place for a picnic lunch. It's located right off the highway about three miles north of Gorman (or thirty minutes north of Magic Mountain in case that's more familiar.)

Fort Tejon was first garrisoned by the US Army on August 10, 1854 and was abandoned ten years later. The fort's purported mission was to "protect and control the Indians who were living on the Sebastian Indian Reservation, and to protect both the Indians and white settlers from raids by the Paiutes, Chemeheui, Mojave, and other Indian groups of the desert regions to the south east."

My friends Rosey and Ernie joined me on a sunny January day for a drive through orange groves and a visit to the fort.

There is no ranger on duty at Fort Tejon, and as with many of the closing state parks, paying the day use fee is on the honor system. We all paid, of course. The tour begins by crossing a wooden bridge over the creek, and entering a small museum displaying a cannon, photographs and the chronology of the fort.

The discovery of gold in the 1850s brought confrontations between Native Americans, miners and land-hungry settlers. The US Government tried to ease the conflicts. In 1851 US Indian commissioners negotiated 18 treaties with California Indians, providing reservation lands in exchange for the remainder of the state. White Californians objected so strongly that the Senate refused to ratify the agreements. As Indian leaders had signed away other land in return for protection on reservations, they felt betrayed.

So, the first US Dragoons arrived in the summer of 1854 and began the construc-tion of more than forty buildings for this military outpost. A half dozen of these buildings and replicas remain for the tourist to view. Markers are placed at the sites of structures that no longer exist.

After viewing the small museum, my friends and I began the self guided "Dragoon Walk."

Two small identical buildings sit side by side; one a guard shack, one a crude jail. Army discipline was frequent and harsh. Minor offenses brought solitary confinement or loss of pay.

More serious crimes meant imprisonment with ball and chain or spiked iron collars, and hanging by the wrists or thumbs. In spite of the guard shack being right next door, many prisoners escaped.

Being a guard was no skate through the park either. Shifts were 24 hours and they were required to remain in uniform, even when sleeping. A wooden shelf for a bed in a poorly insulated shack was all the luxury afforded the jail keeper.

The frontier army attracted many immi-grants trying to make a life in the new world. First generation immigrants out-numbered other soldiers by two to one.

The grand Valley Oaks populate much of this flat plateau, some of them as old as 300 years. The usual California critters inhabit the area including songbirds, small mammals, raptors, large predators and of course the ever present rattlesnake. The majestic California Condor sometimes finds shelter in the parks' Valley Oaks. I have seen these magnificent birds before and always have hopes of seeing one again, but today it was mainly jays and woodpeckers. They make me happy too.

The Oaks also shelter the grave of one Peter Lebeck. In 1837, seventeen years before the settlement of the fort, his epitaph was engraved on one of the oaks, Apparently killed by a bear, his companions buried him here and moved on. Not much is known about him. Most likely he was a fur trapper. A group called The Foxtail Rangers placed a proper headstone on his grave in 1938. He remains Kern County's most famous mountain man.

The infamous 8.0 earthquake of 1857 in southern California is often referred to as the Fort Tejon Earthquake. In addition to leaving a surface rupture scar over 220 miles long on the San Andreas Fault, it toppled a number of the buildings at Ft Tejon.

The path led us to orderlies' quarters, officers' quarters, the quartermaster shops and the barracks. Each building displayed furnishings, clothing, weaponry and miscellaneous daily items used by the soldiers and their families.

The barracks also held costumes and weaponry that is currently used in historical re-enactments by The Fort Tejon Historical Society and/or the Student Living History Program , an overnight program geared toward fourth and fifth grade students. As no one is currently stepping up to the plate to bail out Fort Tejon SHP by closure date, these events are only scheduled through June at this time.

Roxy and I explored the Officers' Quarters, entering through an open back door. Captain John Gardiner occupied this building with his wife Annie and their infant son. Examples of furninshings, including a wolf-skin rug, are on display. As we stood in the hallway of their home on this calm, wind-free day, the back door suddenly slammed shut. Well hello there! We love ghosts!

Family sounds mingled with army life at Fort Tejon, giving the fort a small town flavor. Dances, dramas and musical productions were a part of the community.

One of the more unique group of residents at the fort was a herd of camels. The Army had started experimenting with camels for supply transport in the southwest. The camels proved ill suited to the terrain. In 1859 a civilian contractor turned over 28 camels to Ft. Tejon. The post quartermaster cared for the herd until 1861 when they were transferred to the LA Depot. The Camel Corps are mentioned in many writings, but with the possible exception of being used for messenger service once in 1860, they in fact were never used in military operations.

Our Ft Tejon tour was complete and we all wanted lunch. We took a chance on a mom & pop Mexican restaurant - Grullense Mexi-can Restaurant - in the town of Gorman. I had the best nopales y huevos ever! Ernie and Rosey thought their meal was terrific too. Twas the end of a great day, and we were sated with good food and new knowledge as we drove back home through the orange groves of the Santa Clarita valley.

Hope to see you at the parks.


Monday, January 23, 2012


I knew in advance of my visit to Providence Mountains State Recreation Area that it was already closed, and that in fact the gates to lock up this park were up even before the 70 parks on the closure list were announced last May. Nonetheless, I really do want to get to all 70 parks, and my travels through the desert brought me close enough to the Eastern Mojave to check it out.

Besides, I got the impression from the park's website that while Mitchell Caverns and the campsites were closed, there were still a couple of accessible short hikes.

So, I exited off of Interstate 40 and drove the desolate sixteen mile road toward the park. I did not pass a single vehicle en route. I passed the sign that said "Fee Area Ahead; Self Registration," which is what a number of the closing parks are currently doing. I had hope of a hike.

It was not to be. Right at the sixteenth mile, a gate blocked any further travel down the road. Any temptation to drive around the gate (through the cactus!) was hindered by wire fencing on both sides of the gate as far as the eye could see.

I parked the car in a small dirt turnout. A white sedan was parked there as well, with a fishing rod in the rear back window and a large black trash bag sitting next to it. It was a clear day, and while I couldn't see forever, I could see a long way, and no human being was in sight.

I walked around the gate. Roxy walked under it, stumbling on the grates of the cattle guard. Since I had allowed an hour or two to see what I could see, we began our trek, walking up the middle of the paved road. Obviously we didn't need to worry about traffic. Mountains lions, maybe. I kept Roxy close. Dogs have been known to be attractive, easy prey for the big kitties. As with bears, I enjoying knowing the cats are out there, but prefer not to get any closer than a good zoom lens shot!

The primary attraction at this state park is Mitchell Caverns. In 1932 during the depression, Jack Mitchell, his wife Ida and their three daughters escaped to the East Mojave desert when the bottom fell out of their Los Angeles real estate business. Jack decided to try prospecting, and staked his claim when he found silver deposits in the Providence Mountains. He also found caves.

When the silver deposits proved insufficient to support his family, Jack and Ida created a tourist attraction and campsite around the caves. The venture was a success. He constructed several stone buildings for lodging, one of which served as the park's visitor center until the recent closure. They provided food and guided tours of the caverns until 1954. By all accounts, Jack Mitchell was quite a yarn-spinner. Old-timers still remember his tall tales of ghosts, lost treasure and bottomless pits.

Visitors walked through the two main caves, El Pakiva (The Devil’s House) and Tecopa (after a Shoshonean chieftain) where they had close-up views of stalactites and stalagmites, cave ribbon, cave spaghetti and flow stone. In the early days, tourists had to be nimble rock-climbers who waited for their tour leader to toss flares into the darkness. Later on the caverns became equipped with stairs and special lighting.

I wouldn't be seeing any of that today, though. After walking about a mile, I could see the road curved up into the mountains. There was no sign of any stone buildings.

Aside from a few cactus wrens flitting through the low growing plants, there was very little animal activity. Not as much as a buzzard or raven graced the desert skies. No chirps or caws. No growls or roars. No lizards darting out from under rocks. It was beautifully quiet. I love quiet!

Today I would be satisfied with seeing a goodly number of my cactus friends. Hah! Just I what I need, more photos of cactus. I already have hundreds.

In addition to the creosote - the staple of desert plant life - was plentiful white sage and tumbleweed. Red and golden barrel cactus and the leafy spanish dagger agave created dimension and gave color to the long dry valley. And finally, the jumping cholla cactus made its presence known as I walked further up the road. They had been absence from my desert travels of the past few weeks. They may be my favorite cactus. Often in the sunlight, and especially at dusk, they look as though they are outlined in electric lights. They are beautiful and over the years they've only bitten me once!

Off in the distance against the eastern mountains I spotted some evidence of life. What appeared to be a small clump of RVs rested at the end of a dusty road.

I couldn't decide if it the thought of living in an environment like that made me feel peacefully isolated, or if it just reminded me of an episode of Breaking Bad.

It was time to go. I had a 300 mile drive back to Ventura before days end. I would have surely loved to see those caverns. Who doesn't like to explore caves? If Providence Mountains State Recreation Area ever reopens I will most certainly return. The high desert is a favorite place of mine in the winter.

Over the past few months as I've talked with folks about my State Park travels, a number of people have commented how "they" can't really keep people out of the outdoor parks, even when gated. And while this is true, I would have had to walk at least a couple of more miles before getting to the official park entrance at Providence Mountains. The same applies to other parks I've visited, like Castle Crag and Palomar Mountain. You can park your car along the road and walk in, but it will generally add 4-6 miles of walking on pavement before getting to the hiking trails. I doubt the average day-tripper would be inclined to do so.

My vote is for no gates!

I hope to see you at the parks.


Friday, January 20, 2012


My sister Doreen and I followed the Mapquest directions right to the plaza on School Road. There - as promised - was Mission Santa Cruz. We parked on the street directly in front of the church. "But where," I wondered, "is the usual California State Park Emblem with the Grizzly Bear?" Hm. Curious.

Inside the museum/gift shop I made my usual inquiries about park closures. The lady be-hind the desk was confused. She knew nothing about closing Mission Santa Cruz. It quickly became apparent that this particular building is not the state park Mission. Rather, it is a replica of the original mission church that was destroyed in the 1857 earthquake. Mission Santa Cruz is not a state park. It belongs to the Catholic church.

However, Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park was just a half block down the street. So, Mapquest had not steered us wrong after all. We decided to go ahead and tour the Mission Santa Cruz/Holy Cross Church since they had artifacts from the original mission.

This replica church was built in 1931 as a memorial to the original mission. It is half the size and is stucco rather than adobe. It sits about 200 feet southeast of the original site.

The funding for this project came from a wealthy Santa Cruz citizen named Gladys S. Doyle, While this memorial church resembles the original mission, it is understood that it is probably not a perfect replica, in that it had to be reconstructed from available pictures and stories.

An attached wing holds artifacts from the original Mission. Ornate, ceremonial vestments, crucifixes, chalices and decorations are displayed behind glass. A peaceful courtyard and garden inside the church walls has a fountain, a baptismal and of course, a statue of Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions System.

Now, on to Santa Cruz Mission SHP, a two minute walk down the street. Sitting atop Mission Hill, it offers a patio, gardens, and excellent views of the city of Santa Cruz. The park features the only building - out of the original 32 buildings - left of the 12th California Mission. Founded by the Franciscans in 1791, it is an adobe building that was used for native family housing, called "The Home for New Citizens." (!) It is the oldest building in Santa Cruz County, built in 1824 by the Yokut natives. Exhibits inside tell the story of the mission through the lens of the experience of the Ohlone and Yokut people. Needless to say, it is not always a flattering picture of the early California Church.

The Mission history is de-picted differently now than when I was a fourth grader studying California history. Today many of the Missions tell of injustices toward Cali-fornia Native Americans. While the tone of the two organizations is different, both the State Parks and the Cath-olic Church acknowledge cruelty, slavery and forced conversions to the Indians.

Earnestly believing in their religion, Franciscan missionaries underwent severe hardships to bring Christianity to California natives. Food, clothing, shelter and religious instruction were given in exchange for labor and obedience. But all too often, the people the Spanish came to save suffered and died from European diseases for which they had no immunities. Unsanitary conditions, confinement and physical punishment further reduced the indigenous population. And although professing conversion to Christianity, many of the Ohlones would continue to practice their own religion in secret.

In 1821, Mexico won its eleven-year war for independence against Spain, which included California. In 1834, Mexico passed new laws that ended the Franciscan priests' control over the California missions. The missions were secularized. All of the land and animals that the missions had owned was to be divided up between the natives who had lived there and the nearby Californios. Unfortunately, very few of the natives ever received any of the property.

A local family named Rodriguez bought part of this adobe building in 1838, and began covering the adobe walls with wood. Although is wasn't their intention, their work helped to preserve the original adobe structure. A descendant of the Rodriguez family lived there until 1983, when she died at the age of 104.

Doreen and I ducked in and out of the various rooms in the long residential adobe, through doorways that were built at a time when people were less tall. Each room displayed living situations from various times during the adobe's existence. I was particular fascinated with a long sturdy ladder, held together with leather ties, that led to a loft in one of the rooms.

In 1850, California became The United States thirty-first state. A devastating earthquake in 1857 finished off the Mission Church. Roof beams and tiles, as well as foundation stones, were carried away for other uses and no trace of the original mission remained. President Buchanan returned Mission Santa Cruz to the Catholic Church in 1859.

Two hundred years after the founding of Mission Santa Cruz, this 175-year-old building became the head-quarters of Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park. It took eight years to research, excavate, and restore the remaining seven rooms. The museum opened in 1991.

Outside in the garden, school children learn to make candles and cook handmade tortillas. I spotted a hummingbird on a vine that I thought looked a bit like one of the "El Camino Real" Missions bells along Highway 101. Flowers bloomed in the picnic area, and a Scrub Jay perched on a picnic table below an orange tree that overlooked the City of Santa Cruz.

Back at the car, the sun began to set behind the memorial church. For a fuller picture of this Mission, I recommend visiting both the State Park and the replica at Holy Cross Catholic Church. The prospects for this park remaining open are hopeful. Friends of Santa Cruz Parks are working to keep the four parks in their area open through a non-profit partnership.

Hope to see you at the parks.