Ripening Avocados on Gridley Trail, Ojai

Gridley trail is close to home yet provides me with a perfect sense of seclusion and serenity.  It’s amazing how close the perfect getaway can be.  The desire to find a peaceful haven begins at such an early age; I can’t imagine a child anywhere in the world who hasn’t tried to construct a fort with whatever resources available to try to get away from it all.

I still try to escape the world of grownups.  My years of work as a preschool teacher allowed me to go back in time by listening carefully to the thought processes of developing minds, softening the mistaken constructs I have formed as an adult and helping me return to a more open, imaginative state.  I take this mindset with me into the mountains where I look, listen and feel with my heart.

Here’s what I found today:


Thank you, Uncle John, for the new camera.  Your gentle heart and generous spirit never cease to amaze me.

Lake Casitas and Meditation Mount, Ojai

For years, I yearned to go kayaking on a lake.  Nothing looked more peaceful than a kayaker gliding across still waters with his rhythmic paddle grazing the water.  My wish was fulfilled yesterday at Lake Casitas when Matthew and I rented kayaks from a nice older man who jokingly told us that the paddles he had given us were the fastest he had and not to exceed 5 MPH.  I took to the water in mine and waited while Matthew hopped into his.  Within moments, he was off and I was trailing behind, eyeing my paddle accusingly.

The considerate man that he is, Matthew paused often while I caught up.  It seemed effortless for him; he would barely swish his paddle in the water and be off in a hurry, then rest it on his lap and gaze at his beautiful surroundings as he waited for me.  Swish, swish, swish… pause and reflect.  Swish, swish, swish… pause and reflect.  I even asked if I could trade paddles with him and he obliged.

We headed for an island in the middle of the lake.  Since Lake Casitas is a drinking reservoir for the city of Ojai and the land is sensitive habitat, we were not allowed to land on the shores or have bodily contact with the water but there were many beautiful birds for us to see.

“The Audubon Society recognizes Lake Casitas as part of a global network of places recognized for their outstanding value to bird conservation. Bird counts in the past have identified over 160 different species. The Recreation Area and surrounding watershed is also habitat for a vast array of wildlife including deer, foxes, squirrels and the like.” (1)

The pirate in his element

On the way back I abandoned all grace, leaning forward and digging the paddle into the water, trying to make each stroke count to its fullest potential.  The main focus of the excursion became improving my upper body strength; if that happens, then grace will come later.  I figured I could enjoy the serenity of the lake another day from the shore.

We brought our life jackets and paddles back to the man in the rental shop and he laughingly told us that we had gone 6 mph, breaking the rules.  Matthew insisted it must have been me.

Since we still had plenty of time in the afternoon, we ventured to another beautiful spot in Ojai: Meditation Mount, a non-profit organization open to the public for rest and relaxation. (2)  At the mount, we slipped off our shoes and relaxed in the small quiet room, lighting a candle to gaze upon and focus our minds.

Matthew’s “spirit hands”

Kneeling on a cushion is nice, but I find my greatest sense of peace while lying on the floor.

Many people have said to me that there is an “energy vortex” located at meditation mount, specifically in this small meditation room.

“I consider Ojai to be California’s very own “Spiritual Mecca”. Nestled amongst breathtaking scenery, it lies on a female energy vortex, making this little country town a truly magical place. When I want to connect with nature and find peace, tranquility & Spirituality, I go to Ojai.” (3)

–Connie Costa, life coach and motivational speaker

I grew up with many strange, esoteric things said to me as if they were perfectly normal.  If you’re having a bad day, of course you should know how to “ground and center” your energy.  If people are fighting at home, have you cleansed it with sage recently, preferably on the new moon?  The full moon would work, too, but the new moon is better, especially if it’s in a water sign like Cancer or Pisces.  The movie “Easy A” which heavily commercializes the beauty of Ojai pokes a little fun at this in one of the intro scenes.  My mother used to entertain superstitious beliefs such as these but later rejected them, saying she needed to “simplify her beliefs.”  I simplified too by becoming atheistic.  Meditation and relaxation techniques will always have their place, though, in helping to effectively manage stress.

We ventured on, exploring the new “tea room” which sells a variety of beautiful gifts such as crystals and silk shawls.  I thought it was strange at first to see items for sale there.  It had been over a year since my last visit and I had never seen that before.  However, I knew that they have been doing a tremendous amount of work cultivating the garden and all the money raised would go into the facility.

One of the recent developments of Meditation Mount’s garden is the lily pond which is operated by a solar powered pump.

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Matthew enjoyed the peaceful view from one of the stone benches.  I found some shade on lush green grass (something rare in Southern California!) and lay on my back again, gazing at the fern-like branches swaying above me in the breeze.  Much of the garden is composed of native plants that do not need much irrigation; the grassy area is a special indulgence.

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

A few feet away, someone was sitting on a stone bench with her eyes closed and a cockatiel in a cage beside her.  I thought it was terribly sweet that she wanted to bring her bird out to get some fresh air, but the poor little thing was making distressed sounds while its owner seemed to be nodding off.  I wondered if it was concerned about the many raptors circling overhead.  Its little squeaks sounded like, “Shit!  Oh shit, mom!  Why’d you bring me here?!”  Maybe she thought it could use the “energy”.

Have you ever had people close to you try to sell you on ideas that you found a bit odd?





Furry Flowers on Cozy Dell Trail, Ojai

I had a little time before I needed to pick up Phoebe today so I headed out for a short hike on my own.  My huffing and puffing while keeping pace with Matthew has been shameful, so I had to “show my muscles who’s boss” as he suggested.  After charging up the hillside and collapsing on some perfectly curved rocks in the blessed shade, I paused at the summit to snap some photos and explore my environs more slowly on the way back…

Windswept Sandstone in the Sespe Wilderness, Ojai

The Los Padres Forest behind Ojai is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts.  Nestled like a jewel in the mountains is the Sespe Wilderness, about 20 minutes north of Ojai up Hwy 33 at the end of Rose Valley Road.

“Sespe Wilderness provides ample evidence of past violent geological upthrusts. The landscape is bleak and jagged, and if you climb high enough, you’ll find pine trees growing at odd angles on boulder-swept hillsides.” –

My car, “Sally”, in view of the Piedra Blanca formations

Joining me was Matthew, my agreeable new compañero for hiking, who warded off mountain lions with his stately presence, or so I imagined.  Matthew is new to this area of California; he grew up in various places in the Western United States and is eager to practice his photography skills at all the intriguing spots to be found.   While we were on this excursion, little Phoebe played at preschool for the day, giving me the unusual opportunity to hike a little farther and relax a little longer than I normally would.

Our destination was the Piedra Blanca formations.  To get to this spot, we followed Rose Valley Road to its end.  At the far point of the parking lot is the trailhead.  There are markers to point the way left at the first T-intersection of the path and right at the Y-intersection.  The path to the formations took us 30 minutes and was easy to moderately difficult.

When we arrived, we were treated to a cool, brisk wind that swept through the boulders and across the gritty sandstone.  The impressive formations of this sediment are approximately 20 million years old from the Miocene epoch.  You can see a neat graph from the U.S. Geological Survey of the types and ages of the sediment along the San Andreas fault here.

Photo credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo credit: Matthew Phelps

Shadows of Sage Brush in Jacinto Reyes, Ojai

Highway 33 facing West, at Northern border of the Los Padres National Forest.

The mountains of the Los Padres National Forest have a gentle, sloping allure.  The dry, crumbling edges and petite chaparral growth reveal their curvature like a human body at rest.  When I was a child, I imagined they were the backs of benign, sleeping monsters that watched over the valley.  This transverse range is on an East/West axis; the peaks offer the promise of adventure to the north and the delights of the ocean to the south.

On days when the air feels hot and still, I like to travel up the Maricopa Highway (Hwy 33) to higher elevations where the breeze travels through the canyons.  The Ojai Valley lies at an elevation of 746 feet and the highway reaches a pinnacle summit of 5,160 ft at Pine Mountain.  This 38 miles stretch of highway is called the Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway.  “The unique geology, geomorphology, plant and animal life of the area capture the interest of the casual recreationists and the scientist alike.” — the USDA Forest Service.

Phoebe and I paused at several vista points to take photos.  For the first time, she used my camera to practice her skills as well.  Where the cliffs were steep, Phoebe wore a harness backpack with a tether wrapped around my wrist.  If it helps keep the child safe, such as in crowded places or at the edge of a mountain, then I am entirely in support of the use of a “leash” by parents, as long as there is plenty of other opportunities for exploration.

This peaceful and secluded spot alongside the highway was great for exploration but we only stayed for about 15 minutes because there were no other people present except for the few drivers that whizzed by every 15 minutes or so.  For the sake of safety, I choose to hike in places where I will encounter another hiker every 5-10 minutes.  I told Phoebe, “Hold my hand so the mountain lion won’t get you,” since it is advised that small children stay within 5 feet of adults.

An Article from ABC News dated Jul 3, 2012 states that there have been only 15 mountain lion attacks in California since 1890, 6 of which were fatal.  The article quotes department of Fish and Game representative Patrick Foy as saying, “Clearly this is a very, very rare occurrence.  You’re more likely to be attacked by a domestic dog or to be struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a mountain lion.”  You can read the article here.

Another great website regarding mountain lion safety from the Mountain Lion Foundation can be found here.

After administering this warning to Phoebe, I was surprised by how calmly she responded, reflexively holding my hand with no change in expression.  In her mind, perhaps the world is full of lions and other dangers to which holding mom’s hand is the natural, fail-safe solution.  Phoebe didn’t hold my hand the entire time, however, but stayed in my “bubble” of safety.

Another reason to keep young children near is the danger of rattle snakes.  Adults can help check the path and behind rocks for these residents of the mountains before children forge ahead.  Rattlesnakes usually give warning to back away before striking, so it’s important to have an adult close by to ensure that the child understands and responds to these cues.

We ventured a little farther to the northern border of the Los Padres Forest where we gazed at the bed of the seasonally dry Cuyama River.  The patterns etched by wind and water and undisturbed by months of dry weather are immeasurably soothing.

Beyond the river are a few farms, and a few more miles down the road is the tiny community of Ventucopa.  The residents of Ventucopa must travel a little more than an hour to the nearest city (and nearest hospital for that matter!), so the agricultural developments seem particularly secluded and peaceful, if not downright miraculous in a land where water for irrigation is not cheap or easy to come by.

Phoebe loved using the camera, but she was more interested in taking photos of mommy than the scenery!