Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Potrero John Trail

Img6.pngA gentle giant with hands the size of catchers’ mitts; that was my first impression of Dr. Caballero.  We met in Ojai and he drove us about 25 miles up the 33 from Ojai to the Potrero John trailhead.  The drive nearly did me in and as I fended off car sickness, Dr. Caballero told me how he ended up being the resident expert on 139 day hikes in our area.

For the past 30 years, Dr. Caballero has been a Doctor of Chiropractic with a practice in Camarillo.  A few years ago, his wife invited him to join her and her girlfriend on one of their usual neighborhood walks, and he hasn’t stopped walking since.  His walks, however, took him off the pavement of the neighborhood and into the backcountry, crossing streams instead of sidewalks.  His new hobby not only got him into shape, but with the help of a handheld GPS device and a simple pedometer, he recorded and documented every step to create a comprehensive book of 900 miles of day hikes.  The main reason he hikes, though?  “Beautiful scenery!”  I heard him say this several times.  This is a guy who truly loves the outdoors.

The hike he chose for us on this blistering hot summer day was the Potrero John trail in the Sespe Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.  It’s hike number 28 in his self-published book, “Mileage Hiking Maps.”  He said we would trek close to 4 miles with a few creek crossings and an elevation gain/loss of 470 feet.  The hike would take us less than 2 hours and was rated as “easy,” which was right up my alley.    

We parked at a small turnout across the street from where the Potrero John and Sespe Creeks meet.  Ours was the only car parked at the turnout, but I could see a few others just up the road on the other side.  I surmised that on a hot day like this, those folks were splashing in the creek and not about to trek a dusty trail for 2 hours. 

Now, I’m no expert when it comes to hiking, which is why I thought it wise to join Dr. Caballero on this hike.  Whereas Dr. Caballero recently hiked his 3000th mile, I on the other hand, someone who has just recently re-discovered the outdoors, have only logged about 30 this year.  So when he said to be prepared, I of course thought that meant packing Band-Aids for the blisters I would surely get and an allergy pill for the dust and pollen which would no doubt seep into my lungs.  But for good measure I also brought a bottle of water and a camera as proof to my naysayer friends that I did venture into the wilds.

Dr. Caballero popped open the trunk of his car and began loading his day pack with bottled water, paper towels, snacks, an air-horn, a small first-aid kit, a cell phone and a camera.  He also had a large knife clipped to his belt.  Then he doused the both of us with bug spray before clipping his pedometer on and grabbing his walking stick.  I was a bit uneasy now, wondering if we were going on a full marathon or something, so I asked again how far we were going.  Sure enough, it was just under 4 miles.  “Whether you’re going a mile or several, you have to be prepared.”  He couldn’t stress this enough, and his book points to 16 simple yet invaluable ways to be prepared.

The hike started off easy enough and after an awkward attempt by yours truly at scrambling across the creek, we were off.  The trail was narrow and the brush relatively dry, so we tackled it single file with Dr. Caballero in the lead.  We came to another creek crossing and the Doc must have now known he was dealing with a greenhorn, so he gave me few pointers.  “If you start to feel like you are losing your balance, just put your foot in the water!  It’s better to have a wet shoe than a twisted ankle!”  So with the grace of a ballerina on Quaaludes, I teetered my way over a couple of rocks and got half way across when my coordination inevitably failed me.  My arms started flapping about wildly as I tried to regain my composure, then I remembered Doc’s advice and immediately stuck one foot in the water.  It worked, I didn’t fall!  So with one wet shoe I slogged on.  Squish, step, squish, step.  Knowing we had about 20 more crossings ahead of us on the hike, Doc handed his walking stick off to me to ensure I stayed dry.

The trail took us through a narrow canyon, with sheer rock faces and tiny caves towering above us.  We were lucky to have so much shade along the creek on such a hot day.  We soon came to a meadow and Doc explained the importance of always scanning the trail in front of you, not just looking at your feet.  He emphasized this not only to take advantage of the scenic surroundings, but to be on guard for snakes.  And with the hot weather we were having, it was certainly snake season.

We crossed the creek a few more times.  I think I was getting the hang of it and the walking stick was a big help (this will be on my birthday wish-list).  My shoe was even starting to dry out.  I dunked my hat in the water to cool off – did I mention how hot it was?  I’m pretty sure the temperature was threatening to go into the triple digits.

After passing a hillside blanketed with pines, we started to come around a corner and down a hill when Doc stopped suddenly and motioned for me to do the same.  Sure enough, a snake had popped its head out of the brush on the side of the trail to get a good look at us, just out of striking distance.  “It’s just a garter snake.”  He seemed unfazed, but my heart had jumped out of my chest.  The snake was still doing its cobra dance imitation, so I snapped a couple of photos, which I later learned didn’t turn out because I was so nervous.  Doc took the stick back from me to get the snake out of our way so that we could venture on.

Just as I was beginning to think we would never get there, Doc pointed to the prize.  I could hear it before I saw it.  A fantastic waterfall plunging into a shallow pool was our turnaround spot.  Adjacent to the fall was a small campsite with log benches canopied by a couple of heritage oaks.  It was a cool shady spot where we could catch our breath and have a snack.  Actually, I would be the one catching my breath; I think Doc could have gone several more miles.  He took a large bottle out of his pack with a neon green liquid.  He swears by 2 parts Lemon-Lime Gatorade mixed with 1 part Minute Maid Orange Juice as a mid-hike source of energy. 

The return hike was much easier since it was all downhill and I had the savvy to navigate the creek.  On the drive home, Doc told me about the hiking club he founded which provides twice-monthly guided hikes to the trails featured in his book.  Membership in the Hueneme Hiking Club and the hikes are free.  When he dropped me at our meeting point, he invited me to join him and his hiking club members on future hikes.  I accepted and promised I would bring my own hiking stick! 

To order his book, “Mileage Hiking Maps” (also available on CD), or to join the hiking club, contact Dr. Caballero at 805-684-1504 or  Or check-out his website at

As published in the Sierra Club's Condor Call October/November 2005.