My first reaction to this assignment was (to sanitize the expression) "Drat! What have I gotten myself into?" Biking is my main outdoors activity, but grinding 13 miles straight up a mountain?
I'm really just a mountain bike dabbler. I can't dazzle you with tales of handlebar flips or skin-shredding tumbles off rocky drop-offs. Yet I've long been drawn to the chaparral, mesmerized by its strange mix of rattlers and butterflies, scratchy branches and lacy wildflowers.
Nothing captures this better than the ride to Little Pine Mountain, which local trail expert Ray Ford describes as "the premier ride in the Santa Ynez Valley." LP, as nondabblers call it, offers a hypnotic blend of terrain and vistas, smells and sounds.
But there's also the physical challenge, thanks to a 3,300-foot elevation gain on dusty, gravelly switchbacks that seem never-ending.
I set out early hoping to beat the July heat. (One section of Buckhorn Road is nicknamed "The Oven.") But I was stoked when clear skies quickly gave way to a chilly fog at my starting point, Upper Oso Campground in the Los Padres National Forest.
The first three-fourths of a mile follows a scraggy but gradual ascent along Santa Cruz Creek through Oso Canyon, a sandstone formation with enough Valley oaks to keep things shaded and lush. I passed the Santa Cruz trailhead, an option for the return descent and a masochist's blood-boiling alternative to the top.
I stayed on the fire road, which offers challenge enough, thanks to an early 35% grade in what felt like quicksand. If you're in reasonable shape — OK, excellent shape — your heart will remain in your chest. Luckily, that steep initial ascent quickly yields some sweet views. The problem is seeing where you're headed — an impossibly far-off pine-covered ridge.
Best to concentrate on the last of the wet season's still colorful blossoms: golden buttons, mountain fuchsia and a profusion of robust white flowers. At that time of year, though, spring was long gone, evident from the red-tinged borders of the poison oak.
Forty minutes into the ride, I reached the Camuesa Connector Trail, an alluring single track that disappears into a picture-postcard meadow flanked by hills in various shades of dark gray-green. It was tempting, but I had a mountain to climb. Finally another human appeared, a dirt biker who waved to me rather than trying to run me off the road. Weekends typically bring lots of off-roaders, though I saw only four during my entire ride.
As the sun poked through, the route grew more slippery, forcing me to concentrate — until a sizable mammal flashed across the path ahead, followed by what sounded like a pile driver. Auditory hallucinations notwithstanding, my thoughts soon turned to a pair of extroverted deer that walked right up to me just as I reached the next major landmark — a sign for Buckhorn Road/Little Pine and a rusty closed gate with just enough space through which to maneuver my bike. This explained the looping tracks made by dirt bikers forced to turn back. From here, finely crumbled shale offered a break with a smoother, flatter incline.
The remoteness made the buzzing and chirping seem that much louder and brought to mind the "forbidden zone" in "Planet of the Apes." My only company: a pesky fly followed by its many cousins, all tracing countless circles around my nose and mouth. Irritating, but less so than the fact that I was soon flying downhill, knowing I'd soon have to regain those "lost" 500 feet.
Indeed, when the famed Chalk Bluffs wall emerged, I understood why I was the only cyclist here. The heat mounted as I endured the tortuous climb, as Ford called it, by meditating on the relentless crunch of rubber spinning on rock. Thirty minutes later, I rounded the corner to the backside of the bluffs, and an entirely new scene was revealed: the next and higher spine of mountains and the San Rafael Wilderness, all of which competed with the chiaroscuro of the white shale road set against the black clouds of a freakish lightning storm ahead.
Soon a well-worn but welcome sign appeared: "Little Pine: 2.5 Miles." Once again the terrain was transformed as I entered the Zaca fire zone with its blackened trees just starting to be hidden by new growth. After a bit of a climb I descended into a shady pine forest, an old camp known as Happy Hollow.
As I passed a sign that said "Upper Oso: 7 miles," my brain — in a fatigued stupor — did a back flip, telling me that I'd missed the turnoff to Little Pine. (I later learned that the Upper Oso sign, in fact, marked the correct turnoff to the mountain.) Luckily, I had brought the directions; unfortunately, they were sitting on the front seat of my pickup down below. Hoping to find my way, I returned to the main road, futilely searching for the route to the top. Dejected and depleted, I finally accepted that Little Pine had eluded me. I zoomed back to civilization wondering how I could fake it. Eventually, however, my high ethical standards (that is, my guilt) won.
It took me a few months, but I returned to Buckhorn Road, this time with two LP veterans, Alphonso, 53, who has done this route at least 50 times, and Tom, 62, who conquers back-country trails few 20-year-olds would dare attempt. Both are self-avowed, Lycra-free "old schoolers" with the low-tech nonsuspension bikes to prove it. No matter, on a cool, early November day I joined them for the climb-out, entertained by their 20-plus years of stories of bears and muddy descents.
The three hours passed quickly on our way to that final turnoff for Little Pine. We dismounted and walked our bikes up a short trail cluttered with fallen, blackened trees amid a blaze of autumn golds and reds. When we reached its 4,500-foot windswept summit, the amazing views out to the Channel Islands were hidden in thick, wet fog. Then Al turned to me. "Ninety-five percent of the people who live in Santa Barbara have never been back here. Nothing beats it. This is what it's all about, man." I'd have to agree.