Hopeful is too big a word. I have cut it down to little hopes, one peaceful day with a breeze. My hopes are not like big stones, but little stones rounded out and made of cement that will support a whole house.
It was the season of yellow hills and relentless wind. The bike ride I planned to take had turned into a stroll, but I was rewarded by glimpses of secret lives: a family of wild pigs by the creek, a cocky young coyote loitering at the cattle guard, and a plumply handsome quail perched on a fence post. The ranch is a place where wild meets settled, and wild still prevails.
Later, as I sat at my desk scratching poison oak rash-the remnant of a recent brush against the brush-the phone rang. It happened to be someone who knows Hollister Ranch well: Tony Ochoa, who lived here as a boy in the 1930s. Tony hasn’t been able to get out here for a while, but the ranch is a part of his soul, and he can see it in his mind as clearly as I can through my window.
“It’s all yellow and blue now,” I told him.
“Yes, it was always in mustard at this time of year,” he recalled. “Sometimes the mustard grew so high you actually had trouble seeing the cattle. Once in a while, even a rider on horseback would disappear.”
Tony is a combat veteran of World War II, but he’s a warrior now, too, as he deals in his brave and dignified way with the challenges and infirmities of age. Growing up in the outdoors made him strong and resilient.
“Maybe that’s why I’m still around,” he mused. “I spent my young life out there with my dad, and it was a healthy way to live. Everywhere we went, we walked. We climbed hills, the steeper the better, and exploring was fascinating-we called those our outings. We ate right and went to bed early after our chores were done. No one ever said, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that.’ It was always do this, do that. And if I didn’t know how, I learned.”
I told Tony I think of him every time I drive up the road near the state park, where a palm tree he planted more than 70 years ago still stands tall. (It was singed by fire in 2004, but survived; I sent him a photo as proof.)
“You know, I was only nine years old when I planted that tree,” he said, “and I can’t imagine why it was so important to me. I had tried others before it, and I learned a lot each time. I found that one when it was a little four-inch seedling at Bulito Canyon. I soaked it real good, and then I took a coffee can with the bottom removed, put it around the seedling, and pressed hard to drive the can down through the mud. I was able to lift the seedling out, roots intact within the can, and I carried it over and planted it where it is now.
“Doesn’t that seem funny for a nine-year-old boy?” he continued. “I look at my nine-year-old grandson today, and it’s hard to imagine him taking all that trouble to plant a tree, being so serious about it, so determined. But that was my world, I guess, and that was how I learned.”
“Outdoor education,” I suggested.
“I suppose. And they used to have round-ups over there at Gaviota,” he said. “The horses were stomping around, and my little tree was taking a beating. I asked the railroad foreman to drop off some railroad ties. I dragged them over with my horse, and then I put them in the ground around the tree to form a barrier to protect it. Nine years old. I wonder why I cared so much about that tree.”
“Well, Tony,” I said, “I guess it was your project. And the tree is still there. You may have been a little boy, but there’s something very hopeful about planting a tree. You sent a gift into the future.”
“Istafiate,” said Tony, in an abrupt change of topic. “Mugwort.”
I was bewildered.
“It’s what you need for that poison oak. You’ll find mugwort growing near wherever you got into it. It always worked for us :”
Then we talked some more about old times in this part of the world, and as I always do when I hear the stories or read about the past, I felt a deeper connection to this place, and a deeper appreciation. Truth is, I feel a bond with all who have lived here before me, understanding that we are only guests passing through, with all the humility and respect that this implies.
And I like to check in with Tony to see if he’s okay, but suddenly I realized that it’s he who helps me be okay. Tree-planting tales are especially welcome. Stories of things that survive. Constructive efforts and small hopeful gestures. It’s mugwort for the soul, and I need it.