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Requiem for a mule packer

A FEW MONTHS AGO, A BACKCOUNTRY DAYDREAM took hold in my head. I wanted to go up Sespe Creek, the undammed artery that wriggles high and deep into the Ventura County backcountry between Ojai and the Grapevine. So I called around, and the consensus was clear: I should talk to Tony Alvis.

This guy Alvis, I soon learned, was the only pack outfitter operating steadily in the Los Padres National Forest, a bearded surfer and gifted ironworker who liked nothing better than creeping up the creek alongside a string of mules. If I could get away for three days, he and his beasts could get me to someplace wild and wonderful.

On the phone in November, he was sharp, funny, eager to feed my curiosity. We could go looking for bighorn sheep, he said. Or steelhead. Or condors. Or we could head for a hot spring. We didn’t make any concrete plans, but I was encouraged: In the 21st century, within 100 miles of Los Angeles City Hall, there was at least one guy still practicing an Old West profession. Two Old West professions, if you count the ironwork.

He told me he’d been hiking the Sespe for 35 years, since he was 18. He had 36 horses and mules, some of which he kept in a pasture just south of his house. His house in La Conchita.

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Now you know where this is going.

Alvis was tall and skinny with a long salt-and-pepper beard and cowboy hat. His friends needled him for looking like Osama bin Laden. On the trail, he liked to surprise customers with rubber snakes and centipedes. Back in town, he downed sushi in vast quantities.

“He knew every creek crossing, every canyon, every Indian artifact. He could tell stories about the Old West, and his house was full of old books from the late 1800s and early 1900s,” said his girlfriend in Ojai, Joann Webb. “He was happiest out there in the backcountry. That was his medicine, being out in the mountains.... He called it Tonyland.”

“His animals were sound, his packs were tight, and as far as I know, he never had any bad mishaps with clients. And in this business, that speaks for itself,” said Austin Curwen, a teacher and riding instructor at Ojai’s Thacher School who worked frequently with Alvis.

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“He knew the Sespe better than any of us,” said Diane Cross, who worked with Alvis as an assistant recreation officer for the Los Padres National Forest.

That’s not to say, however, that his schedule always ran smoothly.

“We’d tell clients to meet us at the trailhead at 9 a.m., and he’d routinely show up about noon,” said Mike Vaughan, a Ventura firefighter who moonlighted with Alvis on and off for the last 10 years.

“He’d usually had two or three adventures on the way up the hill. He didn’t have a clock, so he’d get up late; that’s the first thing. Then he might forget the bridles, or have a flat tire. But somehow, he’d show up, crack some jokes, make them happy and pull it off. It was incredible.... He was always on his own time clock. We called it Tony Time.”

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Chang Liampethcakul, owner of Tipp’s Thai restaurant in Ventura, hired Alvis in the 1980s to take his family on a pack trip. They got along so well that Alvis, who loved cooking, started inviting Liampethcakul along as camp cook. For the next 15 years, with customers and friends, the two made three to five trips yearly in the hills, lacing the western scenery with Thai spices. Alvis favored pepper garlic shrimp kebabs.

In late December, when the tsunami hit Asia, Liampethcakul was on a holiday in Thailand. Alvis “left a message for me on my cellphone, saying he hoped I was alive and coming back in one piece,” Liampethcakul remembers. “He said he’d pray for me.”

On the day of the mudslide, Liampethcakul said, he prayed for Alvis. And called his number, over and over. No answer.

Another of Alvis’ friends managed to get through. Around midday, Alvis traded phone calls with Alan Hagman, a Times photo editor and former housemate who knew Alvis for more than a decade.

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“He just said his Quonset hut had mud coming down around it,” recalled Hagman. Alvis told Hagman he planned to go out and redirect the flow, a familiar chore at La Conchita.

“I’m tired of this,” Hagman remembered Alvis saying. “I wanna just go live up in the mountains.”

About an hour later, the cliffs came down. Those horses and mules in the pasture were fine, but Alvis, caught digging a trench behind his Quonset hut, was among the first to die. Alvis -- the one who’d choose wilderness over civilization every time, the one you’d want by your side if something went wrong in the middle of nowhere -- was suddenly nowhere himself.

So now that Sespe daydream of mine has a ghost in it -- a friendly ghost with a cowboy hat and a rubber centipede in his pocket. Come spring, I’m going up the creek to spend a spend a few quiet hours thinking about him.

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To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.


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