Ojai folks call it the Pink Moment, the instant at day’s end when the sun bathes the Topa Topa mountain-scape in a stunning pastel glow.
Those peaks, and that glow, are Kim Stewart’s business. As proprietor of Pink Moment Jeep Tours, the onetime Ventura cop who tired of chasing crooks now chases sunsets.
For a fee ranging up to $75 per person, Stewart takes 2,000 city slickers and tenderfoot outdoorsmen into Ventura County’s back country each year in pursuit of hidden waterfalls, undisturbed caves and Indian legends. To places where the only sound is the ringing in the ears that comes with absolute silence.
“I hope to introduce people to the back country who might not otherwise go there and make it real enough to them so they care about our environment,” Stewart said recently. “If you have a little more interaction with it, you care more about it.”
Stewart offers four different tours but sometimes designs trips to suit individual needs. On one recent trip, the pampered confines of the Ojai Valley Inn served as a base camp for 17 businesspeople and their spouses from the Midwest and East Coast. An electronics conference lured them to Southern California, but it was serendipity that led them to sign up for a Pink Moment tour. The prospect of rumbling along mountain trails in pursuit of the fleeting transcendent moment proved more attractive than tennis, golf or the spa.
As the journey begins, four white Jeep Wranglers are brought up and valet parked among the Mercedeses, Lincolns and BMWs. Sun chases away clouds but an autumn chill lingers as the Jeeps, with Pink Moment tour guide Jacob Emmons in the lead, roll from under Ojai’s oaks up winding Highway 33, for the 5,200-foot ascent to the base of Chief Peak. Breaking into the clear, the idyllic Ojai Valley unfolds below and Bob and Elaine Kusek from Lawrenceville, N.J., are appropriately wowed.
“I didn’t know this area was so rich in beauty,” said Kusek, the owner of an electronics sales company, who wears slacks, an Ojai Valley Inn cap and a pager. “I mean, I knew it was close to Santa Barbara and President Reagan lived there, but I didn’t know it was this beautiful.”
The open Jeeps snake alongside pools and riffles on the north fork of boulder-strewn Matilija Creek. Below is Wheeler Hot Springs, where in 1890 Wheeler Blumberg shot a deer and stumbled upon bubbling sulfur springs people still seek for therapeutic reasons. Above, layered sediments tell the tale of past seismic upheavals in the Topa Topa Mountains.
It’s so unlike Ohio that Linda Newman of Cleveland relaxes her grip on a saffron-colored blanket she has pulled up to her throat against a cold wind and marvels, “Look at that, I mean, look at that,” she says. “Can you imagine that? The ground is just so flat back home.”
The road narrows into a constricted canyon, and Emmons begins his narration. The 27-year-old goateed naturalist is on a first-name basis with native flora and is full of local lore. Ahead, a small waterfall weeps from a rock and cascades over moss like a bridal veil. Emmons parks just outside the splash zone. Clouds part, sunlight turns falling droplets into beads of light and Newman shakes off her chill.
“Oh look! This is like Disneyland, except it’s real. Isn’t it amazing?” she exclaims.
At 2,000 feet and climbing, the convoy rumbles toward Chief Peak. A red-tailed hawk circles overhead; blue jays flit in and out of brushy chamise, the dominant shrub at this elevation. In the distance, clouds cast deep shadows on chaparral-covered mountain ranges stacked one behind the other. There are no power lines, no traffic and no litter.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Emmons says.
“Certainly is,” says Kusek, gazing at distant ridge tops.
Suddenly, hairpin curves straighten and the landscape opens into Rose Valley. An old tractor rusts in a pasture. Sycamore trees are ablaze in yellow. A gawky great blue heron stalks the shallows of Upper Rose Lake, a picturesque trout pond surrounded by cottonwoods. The Jeeps squeak to a halt at a campground, where everyone gets out to rest before hiking up to a nearby waterfall. Newman sits on a boulder, breathing it all in.
“Listen to that,” she orders. Not a sound. “You hear that? The silence. I can hear it ringing inside my head.
“Now I know why people love to go off by themselves, just to explore the outdoors and commune with nature,” she says, slowly nodding her head. “I’ve always been from large cities, Detroit, Miami, Cleveland. Your life is truly uneventful if you don’t experience this. Now I understand it.”
Emmons leads the way to the falls. Tramping along a muddy creek, he points out clumps of California wild rose, which Indians once ground up to use as baby powder. Today, it appears as rose hips in shampoo.
A bracing slap of pungent bay laurel fills the air. This is the plant Indians wove into their huts to keep bugs away, Emmons explains. Jo Carr breaks off a sprig, holds it to her nose and sniffs deeply. Husband Ray lumbers up the trail dressed in the other half of his-and-her matching “Indy 500" sweatshirts and pauses to catch his breath.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Ray Carr puffs, squinting at the top of the steep canyon wall.
Rose Valley Falls is cool, moist and subdued. It slides silently down a cliff like a silver ribbon before splashing over maidenhair ferns and boulders and disappearing into a thicket of willow and alder.
“Oh jeez, look at that,” Jo Carr says. “You just feel so insignificant out here. It’s so gorgeous.”
Behind the waterfall is a narrow cave where Emmons says Chumash youths were taken as a rite of passage to adulthood. This group hopes the experience will work in reverse and transport them to childhood. It does. Crawling out of the dark hole, a soaked Kusek exults, “That was so neat. I feel like a kid again.”
Back in the Jeeps, the last leg of the journey ascends a dirt trail up Nordhoff Ridge to the base of Chief Peak. Towering above most of the surrounding peaks, this is the backbone of Ojai, a commanding and awesome vantage point few Southern Californians ever see. The road is steep, the ride bouncy and the sun low. Chaparral yields to big cone Douglas fir. The Jeeps spook two doe from a muddy watering hole. A mile above sea level, the trip feels more like flight than a drive.
Ocean winds catapult wispy clouds up the steep canyons and over the ridge until the Jeeps seem to be traveling inside the curl of a wave. The clouds open and close, enveloping the convoy and then parting to reveal a shimmery Lake Casitas below and Santa Cruz Island 40 miles out in the Pacific.
“We’re in the clouds, you guys,” Newman says. “This is as close as you get to God.”
This is the realm of sunsets. Like a movie screen, the mountains that ring Ojai capture the last rays the sun casts on California. For an instant, the Topa Topas are bathed in alpine glow--the Pink Moment. On the mountain ridge, the visitors talk in hushed voices. Most simply gaze into the horizon, silent.
“Life is full of little moments that are not planned but turn out later to be very significant,” Stewart said. “You get them [visitors] out there for that one moment of the waterfall or the sunset, and that could be the one moment that changes people.”