Darkness… the backdrop for all manner of morally questionable enterprises. I had waited until the murky hours of moonlight to trudge down these ranch roads because the legality of my presence was murky as well. This quadrant of the Santa Ynez Valley contained a mountain I’ll refer to as Cerro Largo, and I had eyeballed its summit dome for ten years before temptation led me to stray from the National Forest boundary and attempt this midnight expedition. With luck, not a soul, not even the cows that roamed the ranchlands, would be the wiser.
Infringing on private property was an inglorious way to begin a summer of high adventure. But loftier goals lay ahead. Over the next three months I had plans to explore the remote beaches of California’s Lost Coast, the twisted redrock canyons of southeast Utah, and the fractured glaciers of Washington’s Mt. Rainier. Before any of this could happen, however, I needed to get my legs and lungs back into shape. Cerro Largo was the first big step in that direction.
As I emerged from a dry riverbed, the mournful cries of a great horned owl broke through the gentle whirring of the crickets. I would have felt less intrusive had I been able to restrict my travel to public watercourses, but to reach my destination quickly, I was forced to follow a long, dusty ranch road to the base of the mountain. The Strawberry Moon lit up the landscape like a Hollywood movie set, and by its light I could make out an escape route from the upper reaches of Cerro Largo – a path free of the impenetrable shrubs that dominated the steep southern slopes. The return journey would be swift and simple if I could locate this route during my descent, so I took care to memorize its location. Not wanting to hike the same path twice in one night, though, I continued down the road as it circled around to the mountain’s less rugged north side.
The configuration of public and private property in this area is a curious consequence of California politics and economics. The Chumash Native Americans lived along the central coast for over 12,000 years, but when Franciscan friars established the mission system in the late 18th Century with the help of Spanish soldiers, most of the Chumash were persuaded to leave their villages and go live at the missions. In many cases, they were forcibly coerced into staying, even when working conditions were brutal. This migration, along with the scourge of European diseases, led to a depopulation of the mountainous inland regions.
After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, it secularized the missions and granted citizenship to Native Americans, but much of the natives’ former lands were sold off in huge parcels to fund the Mexican government and to help pay for the war against the United States. The lands surrounding Cerro Largo were purchased by two immigrant brothers in 1846. When the United States won the war, it claimed Alta California as booty, but agreed to honor the Mexican land grants. The property upon which I walked this night had changed hands frequently since those times, though its primary use has continued to be ranching. The rugged terrain made it ill-suited for other economic purposes.
Considering that the ranch sprawled across thirty thousand acres, I felt that one wanderer from the National Forest would cause minimal disturbance to this tiny corner. My presence was dwarfed by Cerro Largo itself, which rose 2,000 feet above the valley floor. It had always appeared isolated and uninterested in joining any of the contiguous mountain ranges to the north or south. I appreciated its independence, and yet I was determined to establish a connection. Although thickening clouds had begun to muddle up the moonlight, I discovered a spur road that ascended the broad backside of the mountain, and I followed it until I gained the summit dome and could gaze upon the vast expanse of the moonlit Santa Ynez Valley...