Of the two old-fashioned ways to get a horse up a hill–the carrot and the stick–I prefer the carrot, especially when the carrot is a big sweet flaky pastry. For this week’s Solvang training, Rachel suggested riding over the hills to the beach town of Capitola. I jumped at the chance since Capitola is home to Gayle’s Bakery, the mother of all bakeries with an expansive case filled with every pastry imaginable, even King Cake for Mardi Gras.
But first we had to earn it. Katie and I started near her home in Los Gatos, climbing the hard-packed dirt on the Los Gatos Creek Trail (we cleaned the steep part!) to the Lexington Reservoir where we met the rest of the crew. From there it was a mild climb up Old Santa Cruz Highway, a roll along the ridge on Summit Road, and a fast descent down Soquel-San Jose Road to the bakery. Gayle’s Bakery delivered the sweet decadence as promised, then we took a slow cruise along the coast so our stomachs could recover before the long climb back.
What’s deceiving about a ride across the Santa Cruz Mountains is the expectation that you’ve done half the work when you reach the coast. In truth, the climb back is longer, often steeper and you’re doing it on tired legs. Our route back was Mountain Charlie Road, an old toll road built in the 1850s by Irish immigrant Charles McKiernan to connect San Jose to Santa Cruz. As a stage coach road, the grade is painfully steep in sections (13-18%), but flattens out between to let the horses rest. Or in our case, to let our legs rest.
Where some backroads are merely quiet and scenic, Mountain Charlie is a remote, well-shaded route that opens up to expansive views. If you look past the asphalt and mailboxes, it’s easy to imagine you’re back in the 1850s when Mountain Charlie built his redwood log cabin, cut the road to ship deer meat to the bustling port of Alviso, and was attacked by a grizzly protecting her cubs. He survived and lived to a ripe old age with a metal plate covering his damaged face. We don’t face such dangers today since the grizzly was killed off in this area. Now it’s just cars and I only remember passing one during the five mile climb.
Mountain Charlie wasn’t the only tough-guy Charlie in these mountains. One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst was a scrappy stage coach driver who traversed the San Jose-Santa Cruz route, plus many more in the California gold country. When shoeing a horse in Redwood City on his San Francisco-San Jose route, the horse kicked him in the face, costing him an eye. He eventually retired in Aptos and developed mouth cancer from a heavy chewing tobacco habit. It was only after he died that the truth was discovered–Charley was a woman.
What drives you to cross mountains? The reward at the end of the journey? Or the challenge of conquering the less-traveled path?