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The Road Less Traveled : You won’t find much along Maricopa Highway, but what you do find can get pretty interesting.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Maricopa Highway heads for the hills just outside Ojai. Very soon after that, the strangeness begins.

The high-performance pilgrims who roll their motorcycles up from Los Angeles on weekends, and frequently leave by ambulance.

The Pine Mountain Inn, which lacks electricity but not artillery.

The bodies that turn up on the roadside now and again, some suicides, some not.

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And the old plane wreck, somewhere in those hills, that a Los Angeles bartender believes will make him rich in diamonds.

“It gets very interesting when you get out to the far edge of the county,” says Caltrans resident engineer Gary Etheridge.

This road, also known as California 33, is the least-traveled state highway in the county. It covers 46 miles between Ojai and the Santa Barbara County line, slipping past Matilija Canyon, burrowing through three tunnels, scrambling across pine-stubbled mountainsides and stretching its two lanes across the lunar floor of the Cuyama Valley.

Sixty years ago, the Maricopa Highway was to be the great connection for commerce and tourism between the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Instead, while suburbs burgeon east and south and travelers tread on other paths, this road traffics principally in character.

“You name it,” says Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Kennedy. “It happens out here.”

Mile 12: The Homesteader Remembered

Early morning at Friend’s Ranch. The honey and orange juice bottles gleam. Jackie Fontana moves briskly among them.

“We are California,” she says, stuffing tangerines into a plastic bag. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”

Fontana is talking about pioneer families. She says she’s 55 and has lived here all her life. Before long, she’s talking about “the cattle and sheep wars,” and the suspicious death of a cattleman named Jeff Howard sometime last century. Her only story about the road out front--and it isn’t quite a story really--comes from her dad and his dad.

“My grandfather homesteaded on the other side of Pine Mountain,” she says. “They used to take their horses over the hill, along the river. My father too.”

Fontana’s father, Charlie Ruiz, is 90 now. This remains his favorite road, and though he can no longer ride it or drive it himself, he can travel along it as a passenger.

“He loves to come up here and remember,” says Fontana. “He’s living in the past.”

She lives in the present. While she’s talking, she’s working. Fontana packs 3.75 pounds of fruit into every plastic bag, and stuffs seven bags in every box. It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. In a little while, the boxes will be bound for a farmer’s market in Santa Monica, and in a matter of hours, another tiny bit of California will be lodged in the jaws of some big city fruit consumer.

Looking through the rearview mirror: First there were rocks, pines and grizzly bears. Then there were American Indians. And by the 1880s, settlers were claiming land for mines and cattle ranches, and doing what they could to tame Ventura County’s backcountry.

The ranchers wanted a good trail to connect Ventura to the Cuyama Valley. In 1890, county surveyor John A. Barry was dispatched to find the best horseman’s route. That same year, the Ventura Free Press reported that “practical contractors say the work can be done for $15,000, of which about $4,000 (in work) has been subscribed as a donation.” By 1891, a wagon road was handling horse-drawn traffic.

Mile 15: The Lady of the Canyon

About three miles past Friend’s Ranch, drivers can peel off to the left and climb Matilija Road.

The NOT A THROUGH ROAD sign, the hillside hairpins and the steep grade aren’t encouraging. But some drivers don’t have a choice. They make the turn, steer around the fallen rocks--there always seem to be a few--and roll past the view of ragged old Matilija Dam.

This is Matilija Canyon, home to about four dozen households, never to be mistaken for a planned community. Some homes down the road are ramshackle, some are neat as pins, and all are wedged between the Sespe River bed and the slide-prone canyon walls.

At one of those homes, beyond a sign that advertises “Tame hand-fed cockatiels and parrots,” Karen Palmer labors in the yard.

Palmer, a 48-year-old grandmother, has lived here since 1969. Her birds are squawking in their cages. Her laundry is on the line. Her big black dog Sheba is at her side. Her husband, however, is at the other end of the Maricopa Highway.

“We just bought a house in Taft,” explains Palmer. “We’ve been using that road more than ever. That’s the best road in the world to build up your driving skill. But if you go fast, and you hit some of those corners . . . “

It wouldn’t be pretty. Then again, sometimes it’s not so pretty right here in the canyon.

When it rains, the river rises and eats away at your back yard, and the canyon walls come oozing down. There was the time, five years ago, that the ooze swallowed up a house across the street from Palmer’s. When it doesn’t rain there’s fire to worry about, and the wells drying up. And of course there’s just the one road out, and sometimes the weather closes it for a day or two or three.

“We think that everybody ought to come up here and live two years,” says Palmer. “They would appreciate what they have now, no matter what they have now. You just live with nature here.”

By 1911, the citizens of Kern County had had their fill of nature; they wanted progress. Oil had been discovered and commerce was booming. They formed a Good Roads Club to promote the idea of a trans-mountain highway to Ventura. They found the going slow.

Finally, in 1926, a joint highway district was formed to pay for the 70-mile, three-tunnel project. Forty-six percent of the money came from Ventura County, 36% from Kern County and 18% from Santa Barbara County. The highway district board estimated the road’s cost at $1.2 million.

Mile 17: Betrothal and Budweiser

A few miles past Matilija Canyon, nature yields to The Wheel.

The Wheel--which sits across the highway from the steaming waters and recreating yuppies of Wheeler Hot Springs--is known far and wide as a biker bar.

“They’re crazy,” says Frank Landucci, owner of the hot springs and an uneasy neighbor. “I’ve never seen so many bikes in one place.”

But on this Tuesday morning, there’s nary a bike in sight, only a handful of customers, among them Hank and Suzy Bast, who were married last year. They live upstairs, and mostly conduct their lives along the lines of this highway. This morning, they’re reminiscing about their wedding day.

It was June 9. It was raining. They went ahead with an outdoor ceremony at the Pine Mountain Recreation Area, which would have had an ocean view, if it had been a clear day. The limousine broke down coming up the hill, but they were happy to hitch to the reception in a Volkswagen bus. On the way, they sipped from a six-pack of Budweisers and shook the rice off their outfits.

The reception was at the Pine Mountain Inn a few miles down the road, where there is no electricity and no phone but there is a mounted deer’s head with a dollar bill stuffed in one nostril. Since then Hank and Suzy, aged 40 and 35, respectively, have moved into a place just above The Wheel.

Since they have only a shared television hookup, they have to watch whatever their landlord is watching; but that’s a small thing. They say they love where they live. After eight months of wedlock, Suzy Bast offers this advice to newlyweds:

“Hang in there.”

The Wheel, meanwhile, awaits the tumult of the weekend. Saddam Hussein dangles silently behind the bar, his face drawn on a doll and riddled with toothpicks. “Ring of Fire” awaits, unpunched, on the jukebox in the corner. An old POST OFFICE sign hangs overhead, said to be a relic from the days when this was a full-service stagecoach stop. And Chris Nelson, another regular, talks about the perils of this place’s patrons.

“Back about four or five years ago, this road used to take a life a week,” Nelson says. “It was called the Corridor of Death. We’ve had bikers leave the road at 140 m.p.h. It’s a lot slower now. They got wise to the fact that people were dying.”

Mile 20: About Those Bodies

Once the road begins to pull away from civilization, it becomes clear why bikers like it. Pine trees. Monster-sized rocks. The trickling Sespe. Miles and miles of the Los Padres National Forest.

“It has maintained its rural quality, that’s for sure,” says Sgt. Jim Barrett of the Sheriff’s Department’s Ojai substation. Barrett, whose territory extends about 20 miles up the road, gets most of his calls over trespassers, lost campers, and illegal shooters--"people who get up there alongside the road and feel like they’re in the forest and they can do whatever they want to.”

And of course there are the bodies.

Maricopa Highway has long been a site of choice among suicides and those who dump corpses. When a hiker or a biker comes upon the remains, sheriff’s deputies get a call.

With non-suicides, says Barrett, “it happens maybe twice a year. There are lots of places. And they’re not always homicides. We had one that was basically an overdose of alcohol, and the people weren’t sure exactly what to do with him, so they just dumped him over the side.”

That was about a year and a half ago, Barrett said. The body was found near the Rose Valley exit.

Much more recently, on Feb. 18, some of Barrett’s colleagues got a call that led them out the Maricopa Highway and onto a fire road that stretches into remotest Kern County. At the end of the road was a suicide. An old suicide.

“The note was dated Dec. 12,” says Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Kennedy. “It was a handgun.”

Kennedy, 39 and a sheriff’s deputy for 11 years, was assigned to the deep backcountry six months ago. He is half of the two-man staff at the Sheriff’s Department’s Lockwood Valley substation, 20 miles east of the Maricopa Highway on Lockwood Valley Road.

The beat includes:

* Scheideck. The modest, often-silent community is tucked into the gray hills at the edge of the Lockwood Valley. The stagecoach used to run through there, and the Scheideck Lodge last year celebrated its centennial. Who lives there? “We’re not sure,” says Kennedy. “For two or three years it’ll be all old people. Then they’ll sell and move away. Then it’ll be all young bikers. Then they’ll all sell and move away. It’s kind of whoever happens to end up there.”

* Prospectors. In particular, Kennedy cites one 70-year-old bartender who lives in Los Angeles but regularly ventures into the hills above Lockwood Valley in search of an old DC-3 crash site. He believes that there was a fortune in diamonds aboard. The bartender has found no diamonds, Kennedy says, but over the last three years, deputies have had to rescue him at least five times. Next time, says Kennedy, the rescue party may arrive with a bill and a citation.

* Mutau Fred. Mutau Fred lives without electricity or much else in a cabin near Mutau Flat Road. He’s been snowed in several times, Kennedy says. Every once in a while, the deputies fire up the helicopter and buzz Mutau Fred’s cabin until he comes out and waves. Mutau Fred, Kennedy estimates, is 75 or 80 years old.

* Speeding bikers. “They do more harm to themselves than they do to anybody else,” says Kennedy. “Nine times out of 10, they go down alone or go over the side, taking a turn too fast. Too much bike, not enough brains.”

Once the trans-mountain highway construction began in 1929, federal officials insisted on a better road than state and local leaders planned. Republican state Sen. J. I. Wagy, who represented Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, was a major supporter. (He was also owner of a ranch property on the Maricopa Highway, 41 miles west of Taft.) Ultimately, federal agencies paid more than $330,000 of the $1.82 million construction bill for the road.

“Along its scenic reaches,” Ventura County historian Sol N. Sheridan predicted of the road, “will be many beautiful resting places where will pause for rest thousands of cars carrying millions going from the south to see the wonders of mountain and stream and forest, and going from the hot interior valley to seek the cool breezes of the Southern California beaches.”

Mile 38: Just Another Sunday at the Pine Mountain Inn

An unremarkable Sunday afternoon at the Pine Mountain Inn. A decorative dollar bill dangles from the nose of a mounted elk. Tom Wolf, owner of the place for 14 years, listens to the war reports on the radio.

Boom!

Gunplay outside. Probably a rifle. Patrons have set up a makeshift target range behind the inn, and Wolf lets them use it free.

Booooooom!

“You just heard a muzzle-loading cannon go off,” says Wolf. This guy made it out of Harley Davidson motorcycle parts . . . It’s been kind of an in thing among these guys for the last six months to make your own cannon.”

Henry Holderman is one of them, compactly built, draped in black leather, with trousers fastened by a Harley Davidson belt buckle, his 1340-cc Harley Davidson Heritage Softail parked out front. He is a doctor with a family practice in Santa Barbara, 57 years old and helmetless.

“It’s not rational behavior,” he says, “but then it wasn’t rational behavior to buy the bike.”

Holderman’s wife, Joanne, wears more black leather, a silver-studded jacket, and a T-shirt with a stylized American flag. She is the former chairwoman of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, the current president of the Santa Barbara County Arts Fund, and she sits behind him on the bike.

“This is the farthest I’ve been,” she concedes. “I’m still getting used to it.”

Boooooom!

Out on the range, transmission repairman Ken “Racer” Brown loads another marble-sized lead ball into his cannon, along with 200 grains of black powder. Brown has a long, wispy beard and a bit of a belly. The cannon has a barrel that was once part of a Harley’s front fork. The stand is a sissy bar. To handle the recoil, there is a bungee cord and a shock absorber. Brown made it in a night, and its accuracy is not quite pinpoint. But every time he fires it and a big dirty divot rises from the nearby hillside, Brown’s grin gets wider.

Now the target range is busy with women and men, including a smallish, dark-haird fellow named Fito de la Parra. De la Parra is the leader of the rock band Canned Heat. He is also a newly converted cannon enthusiast.

While Brown looks on, de la Parra throws himself to the earth, testing the weapon’s aim. The others stand back and stick fingers in their ears, Brown hands over his disposable lighter, and de la Parra lights the short, red fuse. They’re aiming for a table about 30 yards away.

Booooooom!

De la Parra does a little dance.

“Almost got it!” he says.

Behind the bar of the Pine Mountain Inn, Tom Wolf pours. Another unremarkable Sunday afternoon.

Mile 51: The Rock Dog

Now the county line is a stone’s throw away--but don’t throw the stone.

If you do, Travis Taylor’s dog will take off across the flat dirt like a thoroughbred at Santa Anita. In a moment he’ll be back, forcing upon you that same stone, now bathed in dog spit.

“That’s what he does,” says Taylor on a hot, empty afternoon, after this feat has been repeated more times than was necessary. If the dog has a name, Taylor doesn’t remember it.

Taylor, a strapping 23-year-old, is from Port Hueneme. He works construction, and he moved out here for a steady $10-an-hour job. The job is in Taft, and for now, he’s staying with his aunt, Charlene Dunlap, and her companion.

“I’ve just been here for about a week,” says Taylor. “I’m probably going to move to Taft. It’s so cheap there.

This house is not fancy, and there is no phone. But it’s certainly highway-convenient.

Where the dirt in the front yard leaves off, California 33 picks up--a long, blue line that dwindles and twists back into the gray foothills of deepest Ventura County.

“It’s weird out here at night,” says Taylor. “Packs and packs of coyotes are out there. You can hearing them fighting for food.”

Finally, they finished the roadwork. And on Oct. 22, 1933, the backers of the highway gathered to celebrate its completion. More than 25,000 people turned out, danced and listened to a Spanish orchestra. To feed the masses, 67 steers were slaughtered and barbecued. The party was held on the Wagy Ranch, 41 miles south of Taft, and not far at all from the site where, 58 years later, an unnamed dog chased rocks on a traffic-free afternoon.


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