Smokey, a bay roan quarter horse with a huge engine needed those kind of miles. As a barrel racing competitor, flying around three barrels in less than 20 seconds doesn't exactly teach a horse to be calm and quiet. His new owners wanted him for trail riding and packing. Yikes! One extreme to the other. Living on a ranch that has plenty of steep mountains and cow trails galore, I was the right person for the job. Smokey definitely needed an extended stay at "Horsey Boot Camp".
One day after I had legged him up enough, we challenged what I call the Goat Trail. Aptly named because it goes straight up the mountain for more than two miles. The trail was made back in the late 40's by using a cable dozer, clearing thick chaparral of red shank, yucca, and chemise. The soil consisted of 60 million year old limestone with clam shell fossils and bits of ocean mammal bones. This was one of the accesses to the back country where the Garcin clan would take hunters, as well as bring cattle down off the mountains. Our ranch is in the foothills of Cuyama Valley - named by the Chumash indians meaning "Valley of the Clams."
Rising from the valley floor, the sounds of 18 wheelers, Harley Davidsons and the occasional booming of woofers in the speeding cars on Highway 166 began to fade away. I stopped to give Snugs a chance to rest and let Smokey blow. I looked down, feeling like I was soaring above everyone and watched the vehicles racing back and forth looking like little ants in the distance.
Once to the top, the terrain becomes oak-studded grasslands with red shank and long expanses of meadow and grassy ridges along with cow trails and old roads. I call it the outback as it reminds me of the landscape in the movie, Man From Snowy River. All was quiet, no human inhabitants are within miles of this wild, remote place. Smokey picked up an eager trot - that climb didn't slow him down a bit and only got his engine running stronger. He has a huge heart and it was going to take many miles to get him to slow down. Snugs had no problem keeping up with Smokey - they were well matched. We continued on towards Willow Springs and then veered right to take us down to Bear Valley. As we headed down the old overgrown road Snugs ran on ahead where he knew there was a water trough. He couldn't wait to jump in for a cool swim and to lap up the fresh spring water. He disappeared around a bend as Smokey and I continued our steady trot down the old windy limestone road weaving through the chaparral.
Suddenly Snugs reappeared, racing towards me at full speed. Then I saw why. No more than twenty yards behind him was a large cinnamon colored furry bear! My first instinct was to not let Smokey see what was coming, as I didn't know him well enough to trust him with my life. I spun him around before he knew what was happening and kicked him into a full gallop back up the trail. Looking behind my shoulder I could see that Snugs was gaining on us and the bear was still behind him. I reached down and slapped Smokey on the side and released more rein. He stretched out and the sides of the road became a blur. Again I looked over my shoulder and could see that the bear had stopped 100 yards or so back. As I pulled up Smokey, Snugs was right there, tongue hanging out and sides heaving. "Thanks a lot", I told him, "you were bringing that bear right to us!" He just looked up at me with those big brown hush puppy eyes as if to say, "That was a close call!"
I looked back and saw the bear standing with her nose sniffing in the air, when suddenly there appeared a little bear cub. Then another, then a third - and then last but not least, a fourth red cub! Oh my gosh - what a sight to behold as the four very young cubs stood up imitating mom. They all looked our way as if to say, "Now don't you come back again!"
Needless to say, we didn't make it to the water trough that day for a drink and we headed back for the ranch, thankful for avoiding a close encounter with a protective mama bear.