My latest voyage into the unknown wastes of the Guadalupe pseudo-desert got off to a bit of a rocky start. Even when you’ve gone out of your way to prepare for everything that can possibly go wrong, it seems there’s always the possibility of something going wrong that you hadn’t prepared for. Having previously discovered and subsequently named the (alleged) Curse of Cecil B. DeMille, I probably should’ve taken this a some sort of bad omen, but in the great horror movie of life, I’m that arrogant intellectual guy who balks at the suggestion that vampires might be real even as the blood is being messily drained from his neck by some impossibly old European creep in a costume-shop opera cape, so I didn’t.
One of the things I’ve noticed on my various excursions is that Santa Maria, the closest real (but still rather small) city to my destination, has a ton of motels. I imagine serving as a stopover for people from Southern California taking road trips up north, or vice versa, must be one of the major industries here, because nearly every major motel chain seems to have a branch in town, and there are entire streets worth of little local places. There are even a few real hotels. There’s a FedEx airstrip just outside of town, of course, but there’s only really three planes there at a time, tops, and FedEx planes don’t exactly carry passengers so I don’t think that alone really justifies the disproportionate amount of accommodation available for out of towners. There’s really an awful lot of places to rent a room for the night, is what I’m saying.
Why do I bring this up? Because every single one of them was sold out. I went to the Best Western, and they sent me to the Travel Lodge. I couldn’t find the Travel Lodge, so I went to the Holiday Inn, and they sent me away as well, assuring me that there were no rooms available anywhere in town. Supposedly there was a wedding, a softball match, and a soccer match. There must’ve also been some sort of biker meetup rolling through town, because traffic both in town and on the journey back home was repeatedly held up by enormous hordes of bikers zipping past along the dividing line.
As it turns out, my stubbornness paid off, relatively speaking anyway. Despite the assurances of the guy at the front desk of the Holiday Inn, I was able to nab what was apparently the last room in town: a smoking room in the Motel 6 right next to the freeway (though to be fair, around 75% of the town is right next to the freeway), which from the way the lady at the desk described it, had apparently been rejected by other prospective guests earlier that day. But it didn’t appear to be haunted, the air freshener they used to drown out the tobacco stench of the previous tenants was subtle enough to not totally overwhelm my sensitive olfactory cells, and it was far too late in the day to turn back around and start the 3-hour trek back home, so I took what I could get.
Upon settling into my room, I decided to give myself a quick refresher on the use of my borrowed Garmin GPS, only to discover that the batteries had died and had to locate and download a copy of the user manual just to figure out where the battery compartment was even located, no less how to open it. This was, however, easily resolved the next morning (a curse cast in the age of silent film really can’t be expected to account for the ease with which a 21st century man can obtain AA batteries) and the GPS proved fairly intuitive to use, so I gassed up the car and set out.
A cool wind was blowing off the lake when I arrived at Oso Flaco, and with the Garmin telling me exactly where the fabled lost city I sought was located—less than a miles hike away from the trail—I was feeling quite optimistic about my chances of finding it.
That didn’t last.
It seems that with all the time and effort I’ve spent on the intellectual challenge of finding deMille’s Lost City, I’d neglected to put any thought into the physical challenge of actually reaching it. As a born city-dweller who has always seen nature as something to be admired from afar, I have almost no experience with wilderness hiking. Because of this, I made the rookie mistake of assuming that hiking is just like walking in that a short hike automatically means an easy hike. This is not the case. Between the steeply angled dunes, the treacherously shifting sand, the thick-growing desert scrubs and my own moderately sub-par physical condition, it rapidly dawned on me that this hike was one I simply wasn’t adequately equipped to make, and I was forced once again to turn back.
On the road out of Santa Maria, a large convoy of assorted fire department vehicles passed me going the other way. Their sirens were off, so I didn’t think much of it. But as I approached the twisting mountain road that joined the two highways along my route, that now all-too-familiar acrophobia was suddenly joined by a dread of something much more terrible as I past a sign warning me in big red letters that today’s forest fire risk level was “EXTREME” and I remembered the news reports on the spate of record-shattering wilderness fires that had been plaguing Southern California most of this season, and the small amount of gasoline that had spilled on the outside of my car when I removed the slightly defective gas pump filling up this morning.
When I stopped in Santa Barbara for a rest, a snack, and a chapter of Machen’s The Great God Pan, my fears seemed to be confirmed as I found the entire town cloaked in a cloud of what appeared to be smoke, so thick that it turned the ocean to the west all but invisible and called to mind my brief experience with the Silent Hill franchise. I didn’t smell smoke, but then again, my own home town of Pasadena has allegedly had a smoke problem for the past week, and I never smelled that, so I wasn’t sure.
As I continued south, my journey was punctuated by alternating bouts of apprehension and reassurance as I mentally debated whether the cloud that still covering me was really smoke, or just whatever the hell weird-ass low-hanging cloud phenomenon I’d encountered during my last excursion. Much of the vegetation to my left appeared to have been recently burned, and I thought I felt the air heat up and my eyes start to burn a few times, but that might’ve just been my imagination. The cloud kept up all the way past Ojai, and I told myself that it must be fog, because even the largest blaze wasn’t that big. Still, every time the traffic slowed to a crawl, I held my breath, nervous that it might be due to some sort of road closure caused by the fire.
It wasn’t. I never saw any fire, and none of the roads were closed. In fact, most of the times the traffic slowed, it was caused by the entire left lane having to move over to let all those bikers I mentioned earlier pass, or everyone rubbernecking at one of the minor accidents they’d left in their wake. Not that seeing a ten thousand maniacs on motor bikes zip past at the speed of sound, so close that they’d have hit me if one of them so much as sneezed wasn’t alarming in its own right. Still, by the time I reached Thousand Oaks and the cloud finally started to let up, I still hadn’t found out for sure whether it really was smoke or not.
As much as I hate to leave the story that has become the Cecil B. deMille Saga without a satisfying conclusion, I don’t think I’m going to be doing this again in the near future. I’m not exactly going up to Santa Maria just for the local color (you can get that anywhere), and my true destination is blocked by a hike that is, for me, currently impossible. I don’t see much point in traveling three hours, two days, and three tanks of gas just to stop within a mile of somewhere I can’t reach. For the time being, it seems best to demote visiting the Lost City from an active goal for the immediate future to the proverbial “one that got away”. Perhaps some day I’ll be ready to go back and try again, but I’m sad to say that it’s time for this particular chapter of the deMille Saga to come to an end.