Unsung Keeper of the Trails


Stephen Murdoch
Santa Barbara News-Press
March 30, 2006

When the Visigoths come, we'll miss Ray Ford. You might argue that by that time we'll be too busy gathering loquats down where Lucky's used to be on Coast Village Road to think about Ford, and you might be right, so let's consider him now.

While hiking over the past couple of months I've occasionally run into Ford, who is trails manager for the Montecito Trails Foundation. At times he's had another worker with him and a couple of horses to help pack up the heavier tools, but most of the time he's been alone moving rocks around, cutting back chaparral and fiddling with the direction of the path.

He can be quite philosophical about it.

"A trail is basically a sacrifice zone," said Ford, a 62-year-old retired teacher who looks about 20 years younger.

"We have decided that we want to experience nature and we want to have an intimate sense of what the Santa Ynez Mountains and the canyons are like, but we can't go there because there's no way through, or very little way through," Ford said recently while taking me on a tour of Cold Springs Trail 

Ford maintains and constantly reshapes about 25 to 30 trails in the area. His job is difficult, and history is partly to blame. Some of the front country trails are 100 years old and more, built in the days of horse travel and when "you could use dynamite and blow up stuff and no environmental reports and you could just reroute something if it got bad," said Ford.

It's not just that they're too steep as a result, but that we use trails today in more varied ways. Ford has subtly got to balance the oft-competing interests of hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, and equestrians, as well as to keep the trails looking good and to protect the environment

"A mountain biker has the ability to use more of the trail corridor than a hiker or a horse typically would," said Ford. "If I'm trying to protect the environment (in a particular place) then I would try to use rocks that they can't go up over. 

"These are good examples," he said, pointing out a couple of handsome rocks covered in lichen that formed a "gateway" on opposite sides of the path. Their block shape "tends to slow somebody down . . . so you won't see tire marks or skid marks (and) you won't see the scratches of chain rings."

One of his primary concerns is user safety, but there's sometimes not much that can be done physically to the trail to avoid the dangers of mixed use. Ford took me through a stretch of Cold Springs that was patently dangerous. The trail narrowed and if a mountain biker were to lose her balance there would be nowhere to go but down. 

But then Ford pointed out a turn in the path that to me didn't seem dangerous at all -- it was plenty wide -- and yet toward the end of last year a woman and her daughter were almost pitched off the side while on horseback when they encountered mountain bikers coming in the opposite direction.

It appears that neither side was to blame, but the horse, without its riders, ended up slipping between some bay and ceanothus trees, off the edge and to its death far below.

In short, Ford has one hell of a job. But, to me, it's amazing the job even exists and that he's taken it (for far too little money, as you can imagine).

In part my astonishment has to do with expectations, which I think are the key to happiness in life. Every time I hike I expect the trail to be littered with land mines only occasionally covered over by a disastrous mudslide.

Granted, this is neurotic, but consider that instead I happen upon a fellow who ponders my every step with safety, aesthetics, environmental impact and enjoyment in mind. I return home remarkably pleased. 

"We're starting to think about joggers who like to be able to push off of rocks," Ford said at another point in the trail, demonstrating a running motion with a tennis-shoed foot.

The idea that there is a retired man shifting rocks around the hills so that joggers have a slightly better run almost brings tears to my eyes. Let's face it: We're not worthy.

Ford and his work are a mark of civilization, which brings me back to the Visigoths and the likes of whoever burned down the Royal Library at Alexandria.

Someday there will be no Ford -- or his functional equivalent -- in Santa Barbara. At least we'll be able to tell our grandkids, as they hunt for wild boar in the upper village, about what he used to do for our pleasure.

Enjoy him while you've got him.

Thursday, September 3, 2020