Camp Nowhere : A tight-knit community of nine makes its home above Ojai and miles from any phone lines. A rustic bar is the center of their world.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The young woman opens the door of the bar, sending a blaze of afternoon light across dusty wood floors, and peers in, wide-eyed.

She's not exactly dressed for town--polka-dotted swimsuit top, bare belly, cutoff jeans, rumpled and well-worn cowgirl hat and boots--but then this bar is nowhere, deep in the woods, so far from civilization that the nearest telephone is 18 miles away down a road that twice disappears beneath a river.

"Almighty," she announces in disbelief, the door swinging shut behind her. "I been hearing about this place for 24 years." She is, perhaps, 30.

Then she barks:

"Hey, is this place fit for kids?"

Chuck Graden, the bartender, moves forward, exposing the sign mounted near the register:

We don't serve women. You have to bring your own

"Sure," he says softly, smiling.

In minutes she's back, with the two children she had left outside.

Few people know what to make of Scheideck's Lodge. That's for those who actually do make it in.

The place is so remote: 37 miles due north of Ojai, up the tortuous California 33 beyond Matilija Canyon's cutoff and over much of the 6,500-foot Pine Mountain before descending to 4,000 feet. Then two right turns take the car onto dirt and, in two crossings, through the winding Cuyama River before climbing again, this time over a mesa into a mile-long gash in the Earth called Ozena Valley. A long way for a beer.

But people find it. Some, from seeing a small, ridiculous sign on the paved Lockwood Valley Road: "Scheideck's Lodge. Cocktails and dining. Turn here, go in 1.5 miles." But most simply hear about it from the people who call Scheideck's home, the people who live here in cabins only steps from the bar.

The intrepid woman is Darlene Pike, from Frazier Park, about 30 miles away. She takes a long draw on a beer and puts her bottle down atop one of the dozens of cattle brands carved into the thick wood bar, this one the shape of an ax head, and signed:

Hachet brand, 1939

"This place is great," she says. "Look at it. Nothing like it. And the creek right here is beautiful. We just hiked up it. I'd of gotten here sooner but I was raising my kids."

*

Scheideck's Lodge, while a curiosity to the day-tripper and oasis for hikers at nearby Reyes Creek Campground, performs many functions beyond pulling tap beer and keeping a jukebox current with Hank Williams Jr. and Bonnie Raitt. The bar is a window into a self-contained mountain colony, a tavern-as-nexus where information is traded in a phoneless society.

The society here numbers nine.

Bugs and Frances Lackey. Uncle Vane Fort. J.R. and Rose Putzier.

Betsy Paine. John (The Painter) Hilton and Frances Hawkins. Stephanie Rogers.

These people choose, in 1992, to live a world away. Cut off from the larger society. In a place with no stores, no sidewalks, no schools, no noise.

Scheideck's Lodge does sell, among other things, marshmallows ($2.50 a bag), Valvoline 10/40-weight motor oil ($2), Almond Joy bars ($1) and Alka-Seltzer (25 cents, sometimes free). But real groceries--a place where you can find, say, a well-stocked produce aisle--can only be found 43 miles to the north, in Taft.

The cabins that surround the lodge form the colony, which is called Camp Scheideck. Camp Scheideck has been here, in myriad forms, for 102 years, if Ozena Valley record-keeping can be trusted (history's repository is the bar).

It was staked out first by Eugene Scheideck, a German immigrant, at a time when homesteaders cleared and dry-farmed the land. A two-story wooden building was erected here at the turn of the century to serve a dual purpose: to establish the Ozena station of the U.S. Postal Service (upstairs and referred to as The Post Office) and to offer drinks, the hard-cider variety that would snub Prohibition (sensibly situated downstairs and called The Most Office).

Although the area was anything but populous, Scheideck saw possibility where cracked desert mesa offered little: to build a lodge and tiny cabins along the clear creek in his verdant valley, draw more people in on horseback and wagon, and show them a good time. He called it Camp Ozena, and, judging from the woolly subjects in a photo dated 1925, found success in his bannered offerings:

Dancing Reserve Horses Cabins Rooms Here

Today there are a few dozen cabins tightly packed on parallel dirt roads divided by the pristine, delicate trickle of water called Reyes Creek.

Most of the cabins--all newer and more modern structures than from Scheideck's day--are held by flatlanders: people from Los Angeles or other parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara and Kern counties, some of whom come up as seldom as once a year. These people own the cabins but not the land, which is leased.

In all, Camp Scheideck claims a mere 11 acres of a 160-acre tract that is engulfed by Los Padres National Forest and currently owned by a Santa Paula rancher. The last of a line of Scheidecks shed ownership interest in the property more than a decade ago.

The core nine, however, spiritually own the place. They live here year-round. They know what it is to identify with a place just as they know what it is to be stuck together when deepening snows or rising rivers make passage out impossible.

"Oh, we'll just have a potluck dinner and play cards," says J.R. Putzier, who has lived in here full time since 1982 and runs the lodge. "Hell, it's kind of neat when it does happen.

"Of course, we'll supply milk and bread to anyone, perhaps a camper or someone, who does want to get out and can't."

*

At 5 on a weekday afternoon, Bugs Lackey is at the bar and midway through a big-beamed rendition of "It's Cryin' Time Again," when his wife, Frances, leans forward, smiles faintly, grabs his upper arm, and says in a soft but firm voice:

"Keep it up, Bugs, and I'll knock out your other front tooth."

If anything, he turns up the volume. He finishes the tune, smiles broadly and adjusts the brim of his APC Plumbing baseball cap before settling into a can of beer.

Lackey, the son of a blacksmith from Colgate, Okla., was a member of the crew that built the 69-mile-long natural gas pipeline connecting Cuyama with the Southern California Edison Co. generating plant in Oxnard. It took only 88 days. While on that job, in 1959, he says, "There was nothing where that pipe ran through, and so after work we'd beat the bushes to see what's going on, and . . . we just ultimately got to Scheideck's.

"I automatically wanted a lot in this place. I knew it. To get the hell out of L.A.

"So, we started coming up here at 9 p.m. on Fridays and have a ball all weekend and go home Sundays, every damn weekend."

Frances chimes in: "Was that around the time of the first wife, Bugs?"

Again, Bugs adjusts his hat.

"Took us five years to get a lot," he says. "Then, it wasn't till 1978 that we moved up here for good." The Lackey place, at the very end of one of the two dirt roads, has a sign out front declaring it "Weedpatch 2."

Frances considers herself an L.A. woman, by way of El Cerrito. She and Bugs met at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Norwalk. Bugs brought her to Camp Scheideck in 1972 and was stunned by her response.

"Nobody here seemed like a stranger," Frances says.

Soon, Frances and Bugs would find themselves watching the weekenders departing on Sunday and say, at once ruefully and gleefully, "Oh, look at that--they're gonna hit all that traffic."

Betsy Paine, a Minnesota native, spent 30 years in Inglewood, south of L.A., and had discovered Scheideck's with her late husband while "driving through in our camper" years ago. They were weekenders. As a widow, she moved up full time in 1980.

"I would have been afraid alone in Inglewood," she says, "but not here."

Marauding raccoons, "the occasional bear," the profusion of mice and snakes--it's all fine by Betsy Paine. Even the threat of flood. In 1978, Reyes Creek, which gurgles peacefully at the base of her side yard, roared seven feet above its normal level and neatly removed her house from its foundation.

"It's true, that was a real mess," she says. "But what do you do? You just rebuild."

This country brand of self-sufficiency runs wide among those at Scheideck. In the same flood, the building that now houses the bar lost its supports, leaving a substantial portion of the structure "hanging out over the creek," recalls Bugs Lackey. "Hell, I had a couple eight-ton jacks down the house, and we just jacked that sucker back up."

Paine's only security concern involves Tammy, her "wiener" dog, whose left eye is opaque white and not working. As Paine talks, Tammy sits by her side, nipping randomly into the air at a cloud of gnats.

"I can't let her out at night, is all," Paine says. "There's a rancher nearby with about 45 wild dogs--they interbreed and breed with coyotes--and they're just very dangerous."

The Scheideck addiction hit J.R. and Rose Putzier in much the way it did the others, though the Putziers--despite enjoying center stage as the proprietors of Scheideck's Lodge--are relative newcomers. J.R. was a plumbing contractor in Oak View--his company is the one named on Bugs' cap--and was invited to visit 12 years ago.

"It felt just right," he says, "so much so that we started camping up here every weekend until we just bought a lot. Then we bought our house, and since I was in the plumbing business and winters are slow, I'd come up and fix the place up. It was finished in 1982, and we held a friend's wedding reception right here."

They purchased the bar business seven years ago and decided to make Camp Scheideck their year-round residence. Since they operate a business, they must return faithfully to the Oak View-Ojai area on Mondays and Tuesdays to resupply--and also to check phone messages on an answering machine they have placed in a rented room there.

Rose, who grew up in Bakersfield and who used to work in banking, cooks at the bar. Her menu is finite but she has her acolytes, such at the people who take a Sunday drive up from Long Beach for the tamale and eggs breakfast ($6).

Sundays turn a brisk breakfast crowd--some from the campground--for, among other offerings, biscuits and gravy ($3.50) and pancake sandwich ($4.50).

But the bar kitchen goes till 6 p.m. daily, or a few hours beyond if the Friday or Saturday night crowd surges. As a result, Rose says, "We feel we get a lot of compliments on our hamburgers."

Although Scheideck's Lodge posts Happy Hour from 6 to 8 p.m., the bar is desolate much of the day. Still, it has known some famous patrons who make their own crowd, none so honored as Uncle Vane Fort.

Fort, one of the core nine at Camp Scheideck, has been known to hold forth at Scheideck's Lodge when no one else was around. Specifically, on May 14, 1982, it is written in Magic Marker above the bar, Fort commenced his hold at the bar at 9 a.m. and repaired to his cabin at 2 a.m. the next day. He was 81.

In many parts of the country, Texas included, this would be called epic drinking. In others, suicide. Fort himself would protest to J.R. Putzier, who poured his pre-breakfast double brandy, and then V.O.-and-7Up through the day, "J.R., this drinking's gonna kill me."

Fort, now 91, cheerfully receives an unannounced guest's nighttime knock at his cabin door by yelling: "Kick the door in!" He's up, albeit with a cane, stirring yellow rice in a non-stick pan at his propane-fired stove. His body is slightly bent but his eyes, sky-blue puddles, are as clear as Reyes Creek.

"Hello! Just having dinner," he says, smiling. "Who are you?"

Fort came to the nearby Cuyama River Valley in 1916 at age 15, homesteading with his father. He would ranch, work for the California Department of Fish and Game, and, in "retirement," drive school buses in Cuyama.

"All that time," he says, "I knew I wanted someday to live on Reyes Creek. Here I am. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Throughout the interview, Fort's dog, Tippy, barks aimlessly into darkness. It was this form of exuberance that not long ago became the neighbors' nightmare, spurring the reluctant circulation of a petition that garnered five signatures. Fort told those who challenged Tippy to take a hike. It went to court. The suffering five, including the Putziers, who live next door, were humbled to find that a counter-petition of 17 signatures surfaced in support of Tippy. Tippy has stayed. And Tippy keeps on barking, not unlike his master.

Partly in reverence, and no doubt in astonishment of his constitution, Scheideck residents have mounted an oil portrait of Vane Fort, seated at the bar with a drink before him, in the dining room next to the bar. It is an icon, an emblem of the rugged individual of Camp Scheideck.

Fort was suitably honored when it went up but did have one complaint.

"Can you believe it?" J.R. Putzier asks. "Vane looked at this and said: 'J.R., my glass is empty. When did you ever see me with an empty glass?' "

*

As Uncle Vane Fort represents Camp Scheideck's rustic values, so, too, does his age beg the question: Who will follow in this place?

Will there even be a Next 100 Years?

It's doubtful. Right now things are in flux as never before.

The 160-acre tract that comprises the 11-acre camp was purchased two years ago by Ozzie Osborn, who owns and runs a ranch between Ojai and Santa Paula. Until recently he also ran a plumbing business. Osborn paid $500,000 for the property. He's installed two 10,000-gallon water tanks for fire protection and otherwise boosted his capital investment to $600,000.

Cabin owners pay just $200 annually on 20-year leases--with some having rents well below that amount.

Osborn says he cannot begin to have a safe investment until rents are increased. Lease renewals--a number of leases come due in the next year--are being set at $1,500 annually on five-year terms. This, Osborn says, will climb further with subsequent renewals, until annual rents of $2,400 are reached.

Camp Scheideck's residents have fought the increases, and a nervous peace permeates the place as it relates to landlord and tenant.

"I'm putting gravel on these streets, I've put in a putting green and I'm improving this property," Osborn says. "When I got here it was a mess--old cars laying around, trailers, it looked like hell. And I've told them I want names and numbers on their cabins, for reasons of fire protection and other things. If they don't like it, they can sell."

That, of course, is easier said than done. Many of the cabins exist by grandfather clause and are situated on nonconforming lots in an environmentally sensitive region. Obtaining permits to rebuild, say, from fire, or for replacement of worn-out septic fields would be difficult to obtain. Numerous cabins are for sale, most in the $30,000 range, one with a transferable lease that has 14 inexpensive years remaining on it. But Camp Scheideck has never been a place designed for long-term investment. It's just a camp in the woods.

Its permanent residents, while not owning the ground upon which they've configured their lives, recoil in the face of threat. Some pooled their resources and hired an attorney to keep things as they've known them, but tensions have since eased and Betsy Paine and the Putziers say things are starting to go more smoothly in communicating with Osborn. Osborn, too, cites better communication now than when he first arrived.

The next few years will tell. Osborn is quick to argue that a "bundle" could be made in an improved community designed for "rentals by the week, with maid service." He is just as quick to note that community improvements requiring structural and septic permits could be a nightmare, if not impossible, to achieve.

For now the old-timers persist, protective and loving on the subject of their camp, if wistful for Scheideck's shinier days.

Bugs Lackey, despite moments of euphoria about today's Camp Scheideck, will openly wish for the weekends only a decade ago when "sometimes 200 people would come up" and fill the cabins and community barbecue pit and picnic areas; now, weekenders bolster the population to only 60 or 80. Lackey also longs for the time only a few years ago, when his neighbors would not only show up more often but climb to the mesa and set up a golf tournament on 40 sagebrushed acres using coffee cans for holes, tennis balls for balls, and broomsticks wearing sneakers for clubs.

"Redneck gold," Bugs Lackey declares. "That's what this place was, and that's what it is."

He flicks the visor of his cap again.

"You know, Camp Scheideck is only here in order to just plain have fun," he says. "Why they're not coming here as often anymore, I do not know."

*

If thinning crowds and lease renewal anxiety have forced Camp Scheideck to try and define itself, no subject produces more passion than the device that would bring the outside world into every cabin, no matter how rustic: the telephone.

Emergencies usually spur the debate. Such as the time the nearby camper, eight years ago, shot himself dead while, some say, playing Russian roulette. Or the time last summer when another camper, freshly and squarely bitten by a rattlesnake, made a rather hysterical entrance to the bar seeking help.

Or the time, only weeks ago, that a car missed the turn coming into Camp Scheideck, rolled down a steep embankment and "left blood all over the place, but nobody we could actually find," as Betsy Paine would recall it.

In such emergencies, not to mention those that might threaten Scheideck's aging population in years to come, the best that Scheideck Lodge can offer is a sort of Outback 911: Chuck Graden or J.R. Putzier goes to the CB radio at the rear of the bar and radios out, sort of.

Because Ozena Valley's walls hamper long-distance transmission from the bar, the first CB message will go only cabins down Reyes Creek, to Frances Lackey, equipped not only to receive CB calls but keeper of one of the two mobile phones in all of Camp Scheideck.

"But the portable phones work only about 70% of the time," because of mountains and distance, says Betsy Paine, who keeps the other mobile phone. "So in emergencies, we either dial out or just CB the sheriff's substation, out in Lockwood Valley." (The sheriff did, it was later learned, find the injured driver of the car and arrange for a tow out.)

So the residents of Scheideck, Betsy Paine and Bugs Lackey among them, submitted a petition some time back for installation of phone lines. The utility companies balked. Since the lines would traverse vast segments of cherished Los Padres National Forest, they would have to be buried, pushing the cost to individual cabin owners into the tens of thousands of dollars.

As testimony to the enormity of the task, Scheideck residents note that Los Padres National Forest rangers, keepers of the wilderness peace from their base at nearby Ozena substation on California 33, remain phoneless.

Bugs Lackey, who built a pipeline far more complicated than any phone line, finds the situation preposterous. And Betsy Paine's annoyance, her love of Scheideck's isolation notwithstanding, is plain. "It's ridiculous," she says.

But Stephanie Rogers, a young bartender on disability from Oxnard, finds the situation more than tolerable. As a relative newcomer to Camp Scheideck's year-round population, she quickly has found that phonelessness is part of the charm of the Scheideck world.

"You'll find that people from outside drop messages by," she says, "and it works well. But our communication here is really word-of-mouth, and you'd be surprised how effective that is.

"The grapevine here works wonderfully."

*

Frances Lackey would agree.

She is well aware that the story she will invoke is part of the shared history here, never recorded and best stated at the bar, Scheideck's nexus.

"Did Bugs tell you what he did some years ago after buying a nice new pair of cow pasture pumps?" she asks a visitor.

"He'd had so much fun that he walked out of the lodge and into the creek and then marched down the center of the creek, all the way home to the cabin, singing: 'It's Cryin' Time Again.' "

Bugs Lackey, for perhaps the 14th time in two hours, flicks the brim of his hat, and a broad smile sweeps across his face, erasing the frustration of the telephone dilemma and restoring that peculiar, make-do, get-by Scheideck spirit.

"Damn right," he says. "And the boots fit better for it."

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