The Casitas Pass Stagecoach Road

The Casitas Pass Stagecoach Road by Richard Hoye

A stagecoach road was constructed over Casitas Pass in 1878.  Prior to the construction of the road, the pathway across the pass between the Ojai Valley and Carpinteria consisted of little more than a trail. It was an historic trail, being part of El Camino Real; but it needed to be widened to accommodate stage coaches.  It was in use as a stagecoach road for only a short while, until the arrival of rail service between Ventura and Santa Barbara in 1887.

Interest in a stagecoach road over Casitas Pass was prompted by the difficult passage between Ventura and Carpinteria along the coast.  Steep cliffs reached right to the breakers, and passage was commonly possible only at low tide. One of the major concerns of the Santa Barbara County board of supervisors when it met for its very first session in 1856 was how to get a road built between Ventura and Santa Barbara.  The Casitas Pass stagecoach road was the first practical solution.

In the middle of the 1870s, land in the Ojai and Santa Ana Valleys was subdivided.  Real estate sales were promoted, and travelers’ accommodations improved.  Persons interested in getting a stagecoach road constructed met in June 1875 to discuss ways and means, and representatives at the meeting were from both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Funding, of course, is the usual first consideration for such projects; and apparently, at the time, it was necessary for counties to obtain state approval to float bonds.  That approval came with An Act to Provide for the Construction of the Casitas Pass Road, in County of Ventura, passed by the state legislature on January 12, 1878.  No money was provided by the state.  The county was authorized to go into debt.

A contract for construction of the road was awarded to William S. McKee early in May 1874.  William McKee was the owner of Oak Glen Cottages in the Ojai Valley.  He had opened his cottages for travelers and health-seekers only the year before.  His interest in stimulating travel between the Ojai Valley and Santa Barbara is evident, and he apparently had the skills and resources to manage construction of the road.

The road itself was only the width of a stagecoach, quite narrow by current standards; but it did require real construction effort.  The grade needed to be gradual enough so that horses could manage to pull heavy stagecoaches up and over both the east and west passes.  McKee met the target for completion of the road, and it was accepted by the Ventura County board of supervisors in August 1878.

The opening of the new road, of course, deserved a celebration.  A picnic was staged on September 10, 1878, on the banks of the Rincon Creek, which runs along the Ventura County and Santa Barbara County line. Celebrants enjoyed the pleasant canyon setting, within view of what they called the “Twin Elephant Rocks.”

The stagecoach road did not follow the current route of the grade which rises today from Lake Casitas to the east Casitas Pass.  The current route is on the north side of the canyon. The stagecoach road climbed the grade on the south side of the canyon, and a dirt road is still visible on that side of the canyon.

Fresh teams of horses were placed on the stagecoaches at both ends of the pass.  In the Santa Ana Valley, at the base of the east-end grade, there was a large barn. It was sufficiently large to permit a stagecoach and team to drive into the barn, and the changing of the team was done inside the barn. That barn was located near the current Casitas Dam and stood there until 1923.

At the western end of the pass, at Rincon Creek and the Santa Barbara County line, James and Belle Shepard opened Mountain View Inn in 1876 (a couple of years before construction of the stagecoach road). They were very successful in welcoming persons who were traveling to and from the Ojai Valley and Santa Barbara, and their Inn became a half-way house, enjoyed by all.

The name of Mountain View Inn was changed to Shepard’s Inn in 1896, and it seemed to gain ever-greater renown (even though by that time the stagecoaches no longer ran over the pass). The quality of the food, the excellence of the service, and the scenic setting were great; and the Inn hosted famous persons, such as Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Enrico Caruso and even President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.

The need for the stagecoach road suddenly ended when rail service was established between Ventura and Santa Barbara in 1887. Stagecoaches were still in use for a while, but only to destinations not directly served by the railroad.

In later days, the Ventura Bicycle Club staged an Independence Day ride between Ventura and Santa Barbara in 1891. Their route passed over the old stagecoach road across Casitas Pass.  Automobiles were not to appear for another decade. A mission bell was placed at the summit of the west Casitas Pass in 1907 to mark the way as El Camino Real. A report that year appearing in The Ojai newspaper stated that the pass was “perfectly safe for motors, always provided the chauffeur knows how to handle his machine.”

Completion of construction of the Rincon highway in 1912 directed most through traffic along the coastal route, and the route of the old stagecoach road retired to the status of one of California’s favorite backcountry roads.

Shangri-La: A Matter of Preservation and Progress

Long before James Hilton published Lost Horizon (1933) and Frank Capra produced his film on the same subject (1937), The Ojai, that mystical harmonious valley enclosed by majestic mountains and fed by tumbling streams, was regarded as Shangri-la by those in search of wealth, health, spirituality or any mixture of the three. And therein lies the problem: what constitutes an earthly paradise for some demands stasis; for others, “forward movement” which always involves friction.

Consider the earliest days of The Ojai and its Garden of Eden reputation. Why wouldn’t residents and health seekers alike wish to preserve an atmosphere that guaranteed relative immortality in a world being decimated by phthisis, wasting disease, graveyard cough, acute, galloping, or military consumption? In the 1800s and early 1900s, fully one-fifth of the world’s population was dying of what we today identify as tuberculosis. Theories for medical cures abounded. All were unpalatable; none were effective, and some were deadly: arsenic, atropine, strychnine, calcium, gold, mercury, colloidal preparations of silver, copper, aluminum and silver, boa constrictor excreta, blistering, fresh blood (hopefully but not always from animals), pig-spleen extracts as well as an inhalation of the breath of healthy animals or the effluvium of maggoty meat.

By the early 1900s, antiseptic or hot air inhalations emptied as many hospital wards as death itself as patients fled from the painful treatment. The in-hospital cure rate: a meager and likely inflated three to five per cent.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought brilliantly colored posters trumpeting “Go West and Breath Again.” New York Evening Post editor Charles Nordhoff’s California for Health Pleasure and Residence (1873) not only brought throngs seeking all three to the country’s 31st and most romanticized state, but also gave the name of its author to the village on the valley floor in 1874. By the 1890s, The Ojai set its claim into print with its masthead: “For the Good of Mankind, by Telling of the Greatest Sanitarium for Throat and Lung Troubles in the Known World” “The Famous Ojai Valley.”

Bob Clark driving the tally-ho from Santa Barbara to The Ojai over the Casitas Pass Road, 1904.

Alice B. Chase, of Lynn, Massachusetts, was afflicted with a lung weakness that brought her and her unmarried daughter, Alice P. Chase, to The Ojai for the first time in January of 1904. The winters of Lynn, located 10 miles northeast of Boston, were dreary snowfall was excessive; the cold, piercing. In 1912, Mrs. Chase was to recall that first trip, when writing to Alice Barnett Clark, married to Ojai stagecoach driver Bob Clark, in 1905:

I well remember when we first saw Nordhoff and Bob gave us our first drive and picked so many flowers and gave Miss Chase her first riding lesson (Cal. style). By the time this reaches you, you ought to have some flowers for we came to Nordhoff on January 6th  I think and the next day we found over 40 varieties of flowers and Bob was able to name them all. Oh, it was so beautiful, and what is best the beauty comes back again every year. (1/01/1912)

At the other end of the spectrum, the Clark family had emigrated from famine-stricken Ireland in 1855. Tom Clark, Bob’s uncle, was drawn to the gold fields of California  “Oh, Mary, there’s gold there, now never you mind” finally settling down to farming in Sonoma County. In 1868, however, Clark read of The Ojai in one of the 5,000 handbills distributed by T. R. Bard in the San Francisco Bay area, advertising land at $3 to $5 an acre in the Upper Ojai; $9 an acre in the Lower. (Bard kept the mineral rights for his employer, T.A. Scott, railroad magnate and Lincoln’s former Assistant Secretary of War.) Bard’s crew first cut a rough road from the Lower to the Upper Ojai, hand-drilled wells into the side of the magnificent Sulphur Mountain in search of the crude so valued then and ever since.

Most who purchased his parcels of surface land sought to improve it to accommodate their more basic needs. It was those who “improved” the land, however, who provided the amenities allowing the wealthy of fragile health to come to the valley. The Chases, for example, spent their winters at the luxurious steam-heated three-story Foothills Hotel, completed in 1903, “a station of the world’s great highway,” where “men and women talk of Nice, and Paris, and Vienna, and Hongkong [sic] and Honolulu as mere stopping places on the road, the while they drink in the view and are glad that the Ojai was made for the delectation of the happy.” (Sheridan, Sol N., “Ventura County, California.” Sunset Magazine Homeseekers’ Bureau: San Francisco, California, 1908.)

The Foothills Hotel, completed 1903, burned in fire of 1917.

By the time Tom Clark was interviewed by historian Yda Addis Storke in the 1880s, he had acquired 180 acres of land in the Upper Ojai, “making the wilderness to bloom like the rose. … He has erected a comfortable home and has one of the finest ranches in the valley, raising Morgan horses, Poland China and Berkshire hogs and Jersey cattle. Mr. Clark also has a splendid vineyard and makes his own wine, a superb article.” Ms. Storke further admired the fruit orchard, rose garden and Clark’s extensive wheat fields.

The article closes with an anecdote told by Clark of a visiting minister, “Mr. Clark, I must congratulate you,” stated the reverend gentleman. “The Lord has placed you in a fine vineyard.” “Yes,” said Clark, “but the Lord had nothing but brush and stones here when I first came.” For Clark, Shangri-la was opportunity, his dreams realized after years of hard labor: taming the land and dealing with the grizzlies that passed with ease through his fences.

Blacksmith Lorenzo Dow Roberts, an old-time Democrat, was forced to leave North Carolina because of his outspoken abolitionist beliefs. He then emigrated from his new home in Bloomington, Illinois in search of a cure for his chronic “bronchitis.” When he first arrived in The Ojai, he could speak only in a hoarse whisper, wrote Signal editor W.E. Shepherd, in 1873. “Now, he can yell so as to be heard a mile.” With his newfound energy (he had gained 44 pounds in his 11 months in the valley), Roberts attempted the first subdivision of the lower valley, which he named “Ojai.”

Although his proposed subdivision for the village failed while that of the more aggressive valley booster, Royce Surdam, materialized, Roberts, the invalid, continued his smithing and carriage making. Roberts thrived in his Grand Avenue “hospitable cottage with white picket fence, almost hidden from view by huge pepper trees and other ornamental shrubs,” enjoying his Shangri-la to the age of 73, while Royce Surdam, who had won the contest of the founding of the village, passed away at age 56 from an overdose of morphine.

One man’s bad luck became another’s opportunity in our Shangri-la. Around 1870, William and Mary McKee, having recovered their health in the Upper Ojai, decided to build Oak Glen Cottages on the corner of Ojai Avenue and Gridley Road as a sanitarium for invalids. J. N. Jones took in up to ten boarders at his ranch house in the East end; neighbor John Carne converted part of his 27-room room Victorian house into the Bonito House Hotel.

By 1887, miracles were happening in the 104-degree waters of the Ojai Hot Springs, located about eight miles above the village: Abram Blumberg claimed his “village for the sick” could cure not only lung ailments, but rheumatism, catarrh, erysipelas, dyspepsia, chronic diarrhea, sore eyes, liver and kidney complaints, cancer, syphilis as well as other blood and skin disorders. The waters of sodium, potassium and magnesium carbonates and sulphates, silicates, carbonic anhydride and sulphureted hydrogen also had a reputation for whitening and softening the skin.

“Nordhoff,” stated Mrs. Storke, “contains some 300 inhabitants, many of whom are recuperated invalids from nearly every State in the Union.” Ten years later, the local newspaper would complain “The Ojai is becoming too well known as a health resort for the general good of the valley. There are times when consumptives are quite numerous on the streets, some of them barely able to walk two or three blocks at a time.”

For Mrs. Chase and daughter, Shangri-la would ever remain The Ojai as they found it in 1904: Creek Road with its meandering crossings of San Antonio Creek, lined by massive live oaks dripping wild grapes, the majestic Valley oaks lining or intercepting the dirt roadways of the valley; the soft balmy air; the myriad flowers on the trail up to the Spring on Sulphur Mountain; the Pink Moment on the face of the Topa Topas. The valley’s isolation was a large part of its attraction, “off the beaten path, the path littered with the perpetually anxious in the crowded cities of the Eastern seaboard” but that same isolation proved a problem for its year-round residents.

The solution: bridges across the roaring torrents of the Ventura River, San Antonio Creek and Coyote Creek, which had claimed the lives of more than one valley resident during the wintertime deluges. “No, No, No,” said Mrs. Chase the time the first bridge was proposed, remembering at a later date: “Bob will remember how we protested against BRIDGES!!” (10/25/16)

Edward Drummond Libbey’s enlightened proposal for the ramshackle village, the one-block-long hodge-podge of haphazard buildings with false fronts of uneven heights, was also met with dismay from the ladies of Lynn:

Your description of Nordhoff is very interesting & welcome. We had heard something of the changes through the Ojai but like to hear first-hand. So you and Bob really like the transformation? We are so conservative we hate to have the charming simplicity of the place changed. (10/25/1916)

As conservative as the ladies Chase, Margaret Clark Hunt, too, found many of the changes in The Ojai difficult to countenance “particularly the highway from Ojai into Matilija over Pine Mountain through the Cuyama and the Maricopa into the great San Joaquin Valley” as proposed by her brother, Supervisor Tom Clark. The route through her beloved back country, her haven from the congestion that infiltrated The Ojai with each increase in population, was also the favored destination of her winter clients and her pupils at The Thacher School.

The highway did indeed bring about change, beneficial for the inland farmers, but detrimental to the peace of the valley and disastrous for backcountry’s once-supreme isolation. (These days, locals mourn the passage of the increasing numbers of gravel trucks rumbling down that same highway).

Ironically, Tom’s 30-year-old son, Jack, was killed on Feb. 2, 1936 by a dynamite explosion while working on the highway his father was so instrumental in building. “He was blown to bits,” reported cousin Alfred Reimer. “All that was left of him were his testicles, hanging from the branch of an oak tree.”

In a desert, water is king and The Ojai was first classified as a highland desert, with humidity ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent. With the increase in population, water provided by an average of 15 to 17 inches of rain per year, snowfall in the surrounding mountains and artesian wells proved inadequate to the demand. Typhoid fever from contaminated water was killing 50 area residents a year, two victims being Alice and Bob Clark’s 4-year-old daughter, Alice, or “Sweetsie,” her mother’s shadow, and 18-month-old George Patrick. Shotgun-toting farmers stayed up all night guarding their personal reservoirs from water rustlers.

Something needed to be done. And the Bureau of Reclamation came up with a plan: to build two dams, one in the Matilija Canyon, the second across Coyote Creek.

The Matilija Dam, completed in 1948, buried some of Ojai’s most magnificent sites: Twin Falls and the stately Hanging Rock, favored Kodak moment spot for tourists where Bob Clark proposed to the frail Alice Barnett in 1905. By 1952, just four short years after completion, Matilija Dam, now filled with silt and sediment, became obsolete.

Hanging Rock, favored Kodak spot for visitors to Matilija Hot Springs.

Ventura County had begun to buy land for the second dam as early as 1947; construction was begun in 1957; the dam was completed in 1959 “a triumph for water supply in The Ojai” as well as the City of Ventura and the Rincon beaches westward to the Santa Barbara county line.

For Katherine Hoffman Haley, great-granddaughter of W. D. Hobson, considered by many to be the father of Ventura County, Shangri-la began with her family’s move to the 8,000-acre Rancho Casitas. Casitas grew to be one of the largest thoroughbred breeding ranches west of the Mississippi “almost by accident”.

Kay Hoffman Haley, relegating Santa to the sidecar, while she drives the cycle–efficiently–but, as ever, her way.

Her father, brought from New Orleans by the Oxnard Sugar Beet Company, first raised Percheron horses on the ranch, then rescued a thoroughbred suffering from toothache. Hoffman cured the toothache and Crystal Pennant, in gratitude, won the $110,000 purse at Tijuana, the richest race in the world at that time. The sport of kings became the sport of Rancho Casitas, with every member of the family thriving in the exciting atmosphere and their nine-room, nine-bath Spanish-style home complete with barroom, music room and ballroom.

With the Casitas Dam project, the government claimed half of the estate, including the palatial Wallace Neff-designed home, which was razed to the ground. Kay’s new home, built on land she was able to retain, she named Rancho Mi Solar, home of my ancestors. Significantly, she made her statement with that home, built on a high point of land, of necessity adjacent to the lake, but positioned so that she need never again cast eyes on “that despised body of water.”

The Wallace Neff designed home at Rancho Casitas, home to the Walter and Edith Hobson Hoffman family.

Kay made the most of her life thereafter, tending her shorthorn cattle and quarter horses, amassing an amazing collection of Western art and an equally impressive collection of awards recognizing her involvement in and generosity to the community.

Lester Peirano’s 240-acre Rancho Valenada, (Spanish for worth nothing), just up the road from Casitas Ranch, had been entrusted to him by his father when his two brothers, Nick and Vic, were given provenance over the grocery story across from the Mission in downtown Ventura. Lester failed at raising cattle as he couldn’t bring himself to castrate young bulls, dehorning was a problem as well.

He did beautifully, however, at raising peaches, melons, apples, pears, and, best of all, 55 acres of old country grapes, all sold at Peirano’s Grocery. Lester constructed his own Shangri-la from his father’s legacy. During the week, he held court under the “Whispering Tree,” at the corner of the vineyard, supplied with folding chairs and Teagarden jelly glasses regularly filled from the dripping water faucet nearby. Dust was no problem as the dirt was hard as concrete from the near-constant streams of tobacco juice supplied by Lester and his guests. The high point of the week for the shy farmer was Sunday, when his ranch became the gathering place for the entire family and legions of friends. (His mother and sisters organized the day.) When the county claimed his ranch, it broke his heart.

“And then one day an agent of the county did appear
It was the middle of harvest time and ’48 the year
And the solemn words he spoke then struck that farmer dumb with fear
So he spoke again for he was sure that Lester did not hear.

“You see this country is a growin’ one and the county getting’ dry;
We must look toward the future now and that’s the reason why
A dam must be constructed where your fruit trees grow so high
We’ll see you get a fair price for the land that we must buy. “

The 11-stanza poem, unsigned, but recovered from the Peirano papers in 1994 when the last of the family died in Darby, Montana, continues:

“When they took his home Lester built a shack in the hills above the lake
On the land the county’d set aside to give him a new stake;
But the dream was gone and the days were long and at night he’d lie awake,
Thinking about his cherished land that he just could not forsake.”

The 40-acre piece of “land they’d set aside” was then claimed by the government for the Teague Memorial Watershed. Lester and Nick fought the government on this one and, after a two-year battle, did win a heftier sum of money — but only lifetime interest in the piece of land. It could no longer be considered a “family” ranch. The poem concludes with a flourish more heartfelt than accurate:

“It was on a cold and rainy day in the Fall of ’84,
That they found old Lester’s weathered coat and hat upon the shore,
And a simple note pinned to the brim shook the county to the core:
‘Forgive me, I just had to see and walk my land once more.'”

Rancho Chismahoo was another claimed by the lake, another gathering place for extended family and friends. The Bill Clark family departed for Northern California when a large portion of “the most beautiful ranch in the county” disappeared under the waters of Casitas.

Clark’s mother, Alice, one more pilgrim in search of health, came first to Los Angeles, then to The Ojai, where she met and married the previously mentioned stage driver Bob Clark in 1905, bore 10 children, and lived to the age of 73. She stipulated in her will that her two children, lost to typhoid fever in 1915, be re-interred with her.

From approximately 50 residents in 1873, the population of the village grew to 300 in 1891; to 8,046 in the village and a valley-wide population of 34,000 by 2005, the population inflated each year by entrepreneurs, health seekers, artisans and artists, followers of the great Krishnamurti, Meher Baba and other vendors of enlightenment. More pilgrims considered the East-West configuration of the valley conducive to occult and psychic forces and, eventually, as reported by Jack Brown in 1985, our population included “food faddists, occultists, the beard and sandal set writers, actors, yoga enthusiasts, radicals, conservatives, mystics, musicians, dancers, eccentrics, etc., etc.” “A mixture that at times strains the limits of civilized discourse” and Jack Brown never even heard of nude roller-skater/bicyclist Earth-Friend Gen, our most recent source of controversy in the Ojai.

The dry and invigorating breezes which drew early immigrants to The Ojai are no longer, with relative humidity now averaging a high of 95 percent thanks to the dams, irrigated orchards, vineyards, golf courses, lawns and other accoutrements of civilization. However, the citizens of our valley have successfully fought to keep the air clean through the years, blocking a university on Taylor Ranch at the mouth of the Ventura River corridor in the 1980s; and a dump proposed for the La Cañada side of Sulphur Mountain during the same period.

The grizzlies are long gone and the gentle black bear risks his life if he ventures close to town. We mourn our losses, large or small: the once-vigorous and highly prized population of ocean-going steelhead trout knocked in half first by the Matilija Dam and finished off by the Casitas Dam; the Evergreen Cattages, replaced by 2-story condominiums; and, most recently, The Ojai Frosty, a dilapidated but beloved gathering place.

Lerie Bjornstedt remembers with fondness buying decorations from Village Florist David Mason’s 50 Christmas trees; Maxine Tempske would like to see the return of Roth’s Sweet Shop and Soda Fountain, with its homemade candies of all kinds, and great ice cream sodas; Lavonne Theriault remembers when the “Y” was a cow pasture, just as I remember driving our cattle down the side of Sulphur Mountain, through Hall’s domain, across Creek Road to pasture on the McCormick place, now Saddle Mountain.

The most substantial change on the horizon today: the end of agriculture in The Ojai Valley, flourishing here since the 1870s, this change precipitated by Casitas Water District rate increases of 53 percent in 2007 and 19 percent in 2008. Pixie farmer Jim Churchill says his bill “to water 17 acres has soared 187 percent in two years.”

Farmers will have no option, says old-timer Tony Thacher, but to sink wells to replace Casitas Water. “This is the real danger to the Ojai Valley and our livelihood” a contentious and perhaps litigious situation that pits neighbor against neighbor as the water table sinks beneath our feet.”

Some would like to see a return to the Ojai of the highland desert, dryland farming, cattle raising and 20 percent to 40 percent humidity. Not likely. “If those trees die, and the land is left vacant, the days will come when the politics of development will overcome this valley, despite local laws to preserve farmland and open space. What we would have then,” continues actor/farmer Peter Strauss, “is not Shangri-la, but Sherman Oaks.”

Those who are best positioned to profit from this eventuality: the speculator, despised from earliest days of The Ojai. As stated in the Signal, January 1874, “We do not desire to see a wild spirit of speculation developed here,” [Speculation] is simply an underhand way of getting something for nothing.” And that something is what/where/why and how we live.

But, as philosophers and poets, scientists and sociologists from the time of Heraclitus tell us: “Change alone is unchanging.” The answer, says Mexican poet Octavio Paz, is simple, but not easy: “Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two.” Even though we have no lamasery to guide us, if there is anyplace in the world where dialectic, or its near cousin, debate, flourishes, it is right here in The Ojai Valley, our own Shangri-la.

Yes, we are a contentious lot, each taken with his own vision of what The Ojai is or should be, and so it shall remain. Our debates are neither pointless nor are they inconsequential. To borrow from Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh:

Homer’s ghost comes whispering to my mind
He says: I made the Iliad from such local rows.

The Ojai Mountain Lion

The Ojai Storytelling Festival featured Bil Lepp in 2004. Bil Lepp started writing and telling tales in 1990 when he first took part in the West Virginia Liars Contest. Since that time he has won five “Biggest Liar” titles. A national authority on Appalachian humor, Bil, his wife Paula, son Jonah, and dog, Buck, reside in West Virginia.. “With Lepp, the sorry, low-down lie becomes a grand and glorious creation, a verbal sculpture in which a hundred small fibs, stretchers, falsehoods and prevarications are piled together, shaped and molded into one stunning, awe-inspiring cathedral of flapdoodle and bull.” -Duke Divinity Magazine- Bob Wells. At the 2004 festival, Bil Lepp premiered a story that was crafted in Ojai. Here’s how the story came to be:

“The ‘Ojai Lion’ comes directly from my experiences at the Ojai Storytelling Festival in 2004. I was staying with Trent & Olga Jones. They are lovely people and I enjoyed their hospitality greatly. Anyway, I really did go for a hike, and I really did see the warning signs for mountain lions. In order to be better prepared for an encounter I picked up a sharp rock, thinking, ‘I’ll just bash in the head of any cat that attacks.’ But then I got to thinking that that wasn’t very nice, so I started exploring non-violent ways to resolve any potential lion encounters. This story is the result and by the way, I still have not seen a lion in the wild.” – Bil Lep

The Ojai Mountain Lion

I was out in California for the Ojai Village of Tales Storytelling Festival a few years ago, and I was staying in a little cabin which was right down the road from a bunch of public land. The land had been turned into a park, complete with hiking trails. I got up one morning and decided to take a hike down to the Ventura river, which bordered the park.

In the parking area there was that ubiquitous park information board, replete with notices and warnings. In the middle of the of the board was an 8×10 printout with a color photo of a very ferocious mountain lion on it. Above the photo, in large letters, were the words, “WARNING: MOUNTAIN LIONS HAVE BEEN SPOTTED IN THIS AREA.” The notice went on to describe what you should do if you encountered a mountain lion. The sign said:

1) Try to look as big as possible.
2) Back away as quietly as possible
3) If the mountain lion attacks, (and I thought this part was particularly prudent) fight back.

We don’t have mountain lions in West Virginia. I had never seen a mountain lion in the wild. I thought the idea of encountering a mountain lion was more a precursor to an adventure, than a warning. So, I started hiking. Before long, I came around a curve in the path and there, standing in the middle of the path, its fangs glistening, its claws bared, was the biggest, meanest, ugliest chipmunk I had ever seen. But, standing in front of the chipmunk, its fangs glistening, its claws bared, was the biggest, meanest, ugliest mountain lion I had ever seen. They both shifted to get a better look at me, and, to be honest, I think they were both happy to see me. The chipmunk was happy because he was no longer on the breakfast menu, and the mountain lion was happy because he was about to get a lot more breakfast than he had anticipated. The chipmunk shot off into the underbrush, and suddenly there was nothing but sunlight and hunger between me and that mountain lion. He crouched down and got ready to spring at me.

I had read the sign the about what to do if you encounter a mountain lion not a quarter of an hour ago, but I could not, for the life of me, remember what I was supposed to do. And then it came to me, 1) Try to look as big as possible.

I stand about six-foot one, but I only weigh a little more than a Christmas goose. There is not that much “big” about me.

Furthermore, looking big seemed counterproductive in this situation. I wanted to look scrawny, gristly, and otherwise unhearty. To that end, I turned sideways and lifted my t-shirt. I sucked in my gut to show off my ribs. I wanted that lion to think of me as the breakfast equivalent of a Poptart. I was standing there in the desert sun, trying to look like a stale, pre-wrapped pastry. As it turns out, that lion was interested in just such a meal. He crouched lower and got ready to lunge.

It was too late to, 2) Back away as quietly as possible. It was too late to runaway as loudly as possible. I was going to have to 3) fight back. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to fight a mountain lion. I had never fought a mountain lion before. I had never even thought about fighting a mountain lion before. The only experience I had ever had fighting lions was reading about Tarzan in Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. Tarzan, when faced with a lion, crouches down, puts his arms out, and, when the lion springs, Tarzan gets under the lions front legs, turns the cat around, puts it in a full nelson, and renders the beast unconscious. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. I crouched down.

I know you are thinking, “Tarzan is a lot bigger than you!” but, I figured Africa lions are a lot bigger than California lions, so I was hoping the ratio would work out.

The mountain lion sprang at me. I ducked his claws, got under his legs, turned him around, and put him in the full nelson. I think it is safe to say that that mountain lion was pretty angry, but he was a lot more embarrassed than he was angry. I mean, imagine walking into you kitchen one morning and a Poptart jumps up out of the toaster, puts you in a full nelson, and pile drives you into the linoleum. It did not help matters that there was a chipmunk standing beside the trail shaking his paw and saying, “Na, na, na, na, na, na.”

I was exerting as much force as I could muster, but I simply was not powerful enough to knock that cat out. The lion was growing steadily less and less embarrassed, and more and more angry. I had to think of something quick.

I was just about start praying when I remembered that I had served as a pastor for four years. I decided that the best thing to do in this situation was to preach to that mountain lion. I knew from roughly 200 Sundays in the pulpit that if I preached to that lion, one of two things was bound to happen. I would either save him, or put him to sleep. Both options appealed to me. I started with Goliath, moved to Daniel, and was just getting around to Nero when the lion nodded off. Even asleep, the lion still posed certain problems. I was afraid that if I simply put him down, he would wake up, still mad and still hungry. Furthermore, I was concerned for the lion’s soul. He had, after all, only had about five minutes of the Word. He was in a very fragile theological condition. I was worried that if I just lay him down, well, I was in California. Who knew who the next person down the path was going to be? It could have been a Unitarian or something. I just couldn’t have that on my conscience.

I decided that I was going to have to baptize that mountain lion.

Aside from the theological benefits of baptizing the lion, there were certain tactical advantages as well. I knew from my pastoral experiences that when you baptize someone, you almost never see them again, except maybe at Easter and Christmas, but I didn’t plan on being in California for Easter or Christmas.

The Ventura river was only about a hundred yards behind me so I started to cautiously back toward the river. I was happy to find that, though often dry, the Ventura river had just enough water for a baptizing. I stood on the bank and pondered for a moment. Just what is the best way to baptize a mountain lion? We hadn’t covered that in divinity school. I’m a Methodist, and thus our means of baptism is to sprinkle water on the supplicants head. But, I wasn’t sure the mountain lion was a Methodist. I figured that anybody who got converted as fast as that mountain lion did almost had to be a Baptist. I was going to have to go for the full-bull dunking. Of course, if he was a Baptist I was in trouble because that meant that after the service, he was going to be ready to eat.

I slipped into the water, said the words you say, and them, BAM, I dunked him. When we came up out of the water, that mountain lion was angrier than he had been all day. He didn’t seem at all like someone who had just experienced the Peace of Christ in his life. And then I remembered that the mountain lion was a cat. Cats have nine lives, which likely means they have nine souls, which meant I was going to have to baptize that cat eight more times!

We came out of the water after the seventh dunking and I noticed a figure standing on the shore. It was an angelic figure, with flowing hair, and sunlight dappling through the hair, creating sort of a halo above the figure’s head. And then, I heard a most evangelic voice which said, “Unhand that mountain lion!”

The figure turned and I could see that it was a woman. And I could see that she was wearing the uniform of a member of the California Department of Natural Wildlife Protection. The officer pulled a wallet from her pocket and flipped it open. The wallet contained a badge, and about sixteen little plastic card holders hung from the case. The holders contained various membership cards for organizations to which this officer belonged. The cards included her People for the Non-Proliferation of Human Religions Among Animals card, her Vegans Anonymous card, her Herbal Tea Drinkers of America card, her Down With Manifest Destiny card, her National Storytelling Network card and, way at the bottom, in the last slot, were some ashes which, I’m pretty sure, were from the bra she burned in 1968.

She said, “Don’t you know that it is illegal in California to push your religion on a wild animal?!” I said, “Officer, I don’t think you fully grasp the circumstances under which this cat and I became engaged.” “I want you,”she continued, “to release that mountain lion into my protective custody at this moment!” The lion stiffened. He slowly turned his head toward me and said, “Good Lord! Don’t let her protect me!” The lion and I worked a quick deal I let him go and he ran one way while I ran the other.

There really isn’t an end to this story, except to say that if you are out in California, and you do meet a mountain lion, if all else fails, you may just want to ask him if he is a Christian.


The “Ojai Lion” has been told at the National Storytelling Festival and at other festivals around the country.