Cowboys and Vikings on US Highway 101

By Jason Burgess

Jason Burgess keeps it real in California.

Highway 101 follows the footsteps of Spanish missionaries. Photo / Thinkstock
Highway 101 follows the footsteps of Spanish missionaries. Photo / Thinkstock

It has been more than 30 years since legendary Hollywood cowboy John Wayne rode over the big ridge for the last time. Not that you would know that here at the Santa Barbara Fiesta Stock Horse Show and Rodeo. As a soundtrack plays the Duke reciting the patriotic ode "I'll Tell You Why I Love Her", his immortal booming drawl stirs the faithful to their feet.

"From Alaska's gold to the Everglades," Wayne begins, "from the Rio Grande to Maine ... My heart cries out ... my pulse runs fast at the might of her domain ..."

More hand-over-the-heart patriotism follows with a nervy local teen warbling through a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, while a horse with rider gripping the Stars and Stripes whips around the ring at an ever-increasing gallop. The flapping flag claps like a gunfight.

In the pens, snorting steeds and belligerent bulls, also known as "arm jerkers", "double kickers" and "headhunters", are mounted by apprehensive-looking cowboys. One of Wayne's own lines springs to mind: "Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway." Fear has no place in this ring - even 4-year-olds are called to ride bareback on oversized, bullet-paced sheep.

Although Hollywood appears to have claimed rodeos as America's-own, twirling the lariat (la reata) and riding a bucking bronco (el bronco) are originally Mexican customs. The term cowboy comes from the Spanish el vaquero, who today still wear los chaparros or chaps to protect their legs, and keep their livestock in a (el) corral.

It is no coincidence then that this rodeo is a regular fixture on Santa Barbara's Old Spanish Days Fiesta that dates back to 1924. At the mariachi and margarita tail end of the fiesta, musical horns and car horns honk and wail up and down State Street which looks as if a giant pinata has cracked open overhead - streamers, confetti and crowds of rosy-cheeked revellers fall out onto the sidewalks.

During the latter part of the 18th century Spanish culture flourished along California's coast. Missionaries were sent to harvest souls from the indigenous population for God and the King, while opening the way for colonisation via the 966km long Camino Real (Royal or King's Highway). Initially a walking path, the trail linked 21 Spanish Missions and presidios or forts. Today, the rather less salubriously named United States Highway 101 more or less follows that route.

Driving 25 minutes north from Santa Barbara on the 101, I hit Refugio Beach, where a country lane winds deep into Refugio Canyon and on up to The Circle BarB Ranch. The ranch was once a part of a coastal farm called Nuestra Senora del Refugio, belonging to Captain Jose Francisco de Ortega, a Spanish army officer who served as trail scout on the celebrated Portol Expedition that founded the Camino Real and stumbled upon San Francisco Harbour.

A backslapping wrangler named Jack greets and checks us in at the clapboard stables. Down at the corral our guide introduces himself: "Just call me L.P." After a briefing, footwear and hat check we mount up. I'm riding Charpo, a giant black stallion named after the Mexican drug dealer with whom he apparently shares similar features.

"Watch out for the poison oak," hollers L.P as we meander along dusty tracks and through creek beds. "The horses love it but if you touch it you'll end up in days of misery."

Beneath woods of sycamores we ascend towards a promontory high above the box valley floor. At midday a persistent sea fog curtains the otherwise breathtaking view of Santa Barbara's Channel Islands. We can barely see the canyon beachhead where smugglers once traded and the French pirate Hippoloyte de Bouchard razed the original Ortega family farmhouse to the ground.

Higher still, the bobbing heads of riders on the half-day trail trace a ridgeline against an expansive powder blue sky where the Circle Bar-B meets the former ranch of that political cowboy, Ronald Reagan.

L.P. reveals that while his ancestry has tentative roots on a bare dirt ranch in Wyoming, his great grandfather found life there too challenging and shifted back to his native Denmark. "That's where I was born. I was brought up in Copenhagen on subways, not horses. Now I live in a town more Danish than Denmark."

He's talking about Solvang, another 20 minutes up the 101 and my next port of call. "It's like a theme park," says L.P., "without the rides. But folk come and lap it up."

Descending through groves of Californian red oak, L.P. tells us: "Around here we use red oak for barbecues, as do the steak houses like the Hitching Post in Buellton. It was in the film Sideways."

As movies goes 2004's Sideways was hardly a blockbuster yet its effect on business in the Santa Ynez Valley area was and, still is, profound.

The Hitching Post is a proud purveyor of 15oz prime top sirloins. It feels homely, like a mid-western Granny's ranch house. Apparently, after Sideways the queues stretched down the road. In one of those life-imitating-art moments, the waitresses practically had to swat off guys who were trying emulate the lead character Miles, who falls for and eventually has a liaison with a waitress named Maya. Today it is still three deep to the bar.

Danish tourists come to Solvang to see what their burbs might have looked like had Walt Disney been the town planner. A proliferation of Hans Christian Anderson motifs, gingerbread architecture, little mermaids, ugly ducklings and Viking heads can be found adorning doorways and in cluttered gift shops teaming with blue and white ceramic kitsch. Life-size faux windmills provide landmarks for map-reading tourists. Horse-drawn trams and enormous four-wheel surrey bicycles carry sightseers through the fairytale blocks and fairy lights guide diners by night.

It wasn't always like this. Solvang (meaning sunny fields) was founded in 1911 as a dream of three Danish immigrants. Like the nearby communities of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez, Solvang was originally more frontier west than Danish Provincial. It is home to one of the original missions, Santa Ines.

In 1947, the Saturday Evening Post described Solvang as a "spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California's charming Santa Ynez Valley."

From that point forward it was decided, the town should reflect its Danish roots. Buildings sprung up in the Danish half-timber, half-brick) style. "Main St" became "Copenhagen Drive" and virtually every road took its handle from Danish mythology or geography.

The culinary mascot of Solvang is the Aebleskiver (apple slice), a melt-in-your-mouth ball somewhere between a pancake and a donut, traditionally a Danish Christmas treat. Meats, cheeses and Danish pastries are celebrated, but the region's greatest contribution to gourmands and connoisseurs is not French: Pinot Noir.

And one vineyard with a deep Hollywood connection is Fess Parker, owned and operated by the family of the late actor best known for his portrayals of America's original frontiersmen, Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone.

Highway 101's Top 5

Flight Centre's Tom Svensen has recently travelled Highway 101 and shares his top tips on places to go and things to do:

1. Before leaving Los Angeles, try to get to a University football game - the Rose Bowl is one of the biggest games of the year and is usually on or around January 1 in Pasadena.

2. Catch a train from Thousand Oaks along the coast and up to Santa Barbara, a route that cannot be accessed by car.

3. When you're in Oxnard, take a trip to the Channel Islands. This place is perfect for getting back to nature - hiking, camping and hearing the legendary Chumash (American Indian) stories.

4. Stop at Ventura, a horticulture centre and the location of the old Sunkissed factory. You can sort oranges and lemons and see how things use to be done.

5. Check out the old Viking town of Solvang and stop at one of the beautiful wineries that are nearby.

* For more information on the United States, contact Tom Svensen at Flight Centre on 0800 427 555.

TRAVELLER'S TIPS

Getting there:

* Santa Barbara is about 150km from LA and takes at least 1.5 hours via Highway 101, depending on traffic.

* Santa Barbara to Solvang is another 45 minutes up the 101, exit at Buellton.

* The two-lane Highway 154 from Santa Barbara is a picturesque detour and the least trafficked route into Santa Ynez Valley.

Where to stay:

* The Circle BarB Guest Ranch and Stables offers a range of horse treks, a frontier lodge-style restaurant and upscale western-themed accommodation.

* The village of Solvang has a host of Nordic fairytale-themed accommodation. The Hamlet Inn boldly takes on Danish Modern design aspects. All rooms come with a coffee and pastry voucher for Solvang's renowned Olsen's Bakery across the road. Bicycles are free for guests to use.

Where to eat:

* For a fiesta-like Mexican feast and tequila tasting any day of the year try: carlitos.com or its sister restaurant doscarlitosrestaurant.com in Santa Ynez.

What to do:

* Santa Barbara's Old Spanish Days Fiesta will run from August 1-7. The Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo runs from August 5-7.

Further information:

solvangusa.com

visitthesanta

ynezvalley.com

santabarbara.com

- Herald on Sunday

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