Passing patches of barren, newly tilled soil on West Ocean Avenue, my heart sank. My husband and I had come to see Lompoc’s flower fields, and there wasn’t a bloom in sight. It was early August – the end of the growing season – and there was a drought.
Lompoc has the most consistent temperate climate in the world, making the California town ideal for growing flowers. In fact, the industry dates back to the early 1900s, when mustard was harvested for seed. Even as today’s flower industry shifts to South America, seeds grown in the Lompoc Valley – including sweet peas, larkspurs, stocks, marigolds, sunflowers and delphiniums – continue to be exported all over the world. Travellers flock to the area each summer to see the fields in bloom.
We’d chosen Lompoc as a stopover on our journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Having experienced the epic Pacific Coast Highway years before, we wanted to explore California’s rugged interior instead. But our plan was starting to backfire.
“No hay flores ahora?” I asked a man passing on a tractor, inquiring if there were any flowers growing now. His kind brown eyes twinkled, a contrast to his leathery skin parched from years spent under the strong California sun. He spoke rapidly – too quickly for my poor Spanish comprehension – but I caught “la otra calle” (the other street). “A la derecha,” he continued, pointing to the right.
We drove on until we reached De Wolff Avenue, where a single flush field created a cascading rainbow: white, pale yellow, peach, light pink, fuchsia and magenta blooms were peppered with verdant leaves.
Set against the backdrop of the valley’s undulating hills, the vista was a profusion of colour. We were mesmerized by the bright clusters swaying gently in the wind like waves. Unlike the permanent deep blue hues of the Pacific Ocean, this sea of flowers is seasonal. They peak in colour mid- to late June, and at summer’s end, the kaleidoscope disappears.
High off our luck, we decided to search for wild horses at a sanctuary I’d heard about, Return to Freedom, approximately 10km south of Lompoc. According to their website, they only hold tours a couple times a month and all other visits are by appointment only. I hadn’t set up anything in advance. “Let’s drive there anyway,” my husband said.
With fewer than 50,000 wild horses and burros dispersed across the western United States on nearly 27 million acres of public land, we figured Lompoc was our best chance to see a sizable population of wild horses in one place. Currently, the sanctuary houses almost 400 equines in three locations, including their 300-acre property and main headquarters in Lompoc. One hundred years ago, an estimated two million mustangs roamed the western US.
Arriving at the sanctuary, the gates were closed. But a sign with a phone number prompted my husband – ever the adventurer – to call. Neda DeMayo, the owner, answered. “Give me 10 minutes,” she said. “Come all the way to the end of the road, to the visitor centre.”
The gates buzzed open and our black rental rumbled down a narrow, dusty road, kicking up tan clouds, past horses of many shades – white, sable, caramel, taupe – and a few curious burros.
“My mom said [horse] was my first word,” DeMayo recounted. “I saw something on television in the ‘60s…I was only probably five or six. I remember standing in my living room, just gripped with anguish. They were chasing wild horses. I remember yelling at my mom, and I said, ‘When I grow up I’m going to have a place for the horses and all animals, and they’ll be safe.’” DeMayo founded her non-profit, Return to Freedom, in 1998.
Parading in front of us were Sulphur Springs horses from Utah – gorgeous wild specimens that blended with the rich brown and golden hues of the land. They were perfect examples of the sanctuary’s aim: to allow the horses to live as they’re meant to live.
Most of the horses at the sanctuary have been rescued from public lands or abusive situations. The Bureau of Land Management conducts roundups to manage the population; those captured are moved to holding pens for the rest of their lives unless they are adopted. Return to Freedom currently has seven herds that showcase how horses naturally live in family groups. Additionally, there are "ambassador" horses – purebreds, rare breeds, and famous horses like Spirit, the inspiration behind the 2002 animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Hollywood stars have also joined the cause: Robert Redford, an environmental activist who believes in protecting America’s wild horses, is a Return to Freedom board member.
I could have hung out watching the horses all day, but soon, Santa Barbara wine country beckoned. Many different varietals can grow in the patchwork of inland microclimates, making the area one of the most diverse grape-growing climates in the world. Jim and Mary Dierberg recognized this potential when they came to Santa Barbara County in 1996 and fell in love with the stunning landscape. The former Midwesterners now have a trio of estate vineyards – Dierberg, Star Lane and Drum Canyon – over a total of 450 acres. The unique climate of each vineyard allows for the production of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, malbec, syrah and viognier.
Their teal, barn-like tasting room is surrounded by steep hills and razor-edged desert plants. It was there, while sampling Dierberg’s incredibly dense, dark pinot noir, that we met Dru, aka the “Window Dude” – a window cleaning business owner with a handlebar moustache – and his wife, Molly. They suggested we delve deeper into the heart of the region and tackle the switchbacks of Drum Canyon Road to visit the Old West town of Los Alamos, founded in 1876. Two ranchers with adjacent properties each donated one half square mile to create the town. The drive was unexpectedly beautiful: a lonely road meandered through the hills, the scenery a juxtaposition of wild growth and arid land.
I had no idea that visiting Los Alamos would entail simultaneously stepping back in time and into a modern Hollywood celebrity mecca. Adjacent to the 1880 Union Hotel, a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop, stood an authentic saloon-turned-wine salon owned by winemaker and actor Kurt Russell. Despite its laid-back atmosphere, the town is gaining a reputation as “Little LA” due to its plethora of celebrities, including Hollywood heavyweights who value that locals respect their privacy. We grabbed a stellar meatloaf sandwich and succulent California vegetable salads at Bell Street Farm, a farm-to-table market that Dru had recommended. Owner Jamie Gluck, an Angeleno who fell in love with Los Alamos, strives to use only California-grown and produced ingredients, a tribute to the town’s farm culture.
The most direct path to Los Angeles would have been the Pacific Coast Highway, but we had heard the route through the mountains offered some of the most spectacular views in California’s interior wilderness. We decided to extend our road trip along Highway 33, a two-lane scenic byway that snakes through Los Padres National Forest. In sharp contrast to the Pacific Coast Highway’s endless ocean views, 33 is known for its continuously morphing terrain; the relative dearth of visitors creates a tranquil silence and sense of isolation.
We stopped at the smallest post office in the US (essentially a shed) and continued upward towards the 5,160ft-high Pine Mountain Summit. The scenery became increasingly lush, with mountainsides covered in blankets of velvety green. Sea urchin grasses dotted rolling golden cliffs, and tree roots dangled off their sides like tangled tresses.
Around 3,000ft, we saw a turnout and pulled over. Bathed in sunlight, the plunging mountains appeared almost blue, their jagged outlines carved into a clear, perfect sky. “This gives you a sense of vastness, doesn’t it?” my husband said. “You feel like you’re on top of the world.” The ridge was like a sentinel in this otherworldly landscape. I felt a sense of limitlessness as I gazed down at the twisting road we’d taken up here, where the peaks seemed to meet the heavens.
We wove along the thin stretch of pavement – past chiselled ochre cliffs and Sisyphus-like boulders, past swathes of blackened land scarred from the forest fire that had closed Highway 33 until just a few days prior to our arrival. When we finally reached the summit, the landscape flattened out. We passed through a dramatic gorge, a gateway that opened to a panorama of bald mountains.
It was dusk, and we needed to hit the road before nightfall. On our way to Los Angeles, we watched high-crested waves crash into bluffs. As the last rays of sun sunk below the horizon, I thought back to our adventures in California’s interior, on the roads less travelled, and imagined all the vibrant scenery – flowers, wild horses, vineyards and rugged landscapes – blending into darkness.
With thanks to Infiniti