Quick Take:

Lookout’s Area Guides are an in-depth look at some of the cities and communities that make Santa Cruz County the unique and special place that it is. Writers for this series were chosen due to their personal knowledge and experiences to get to the heart of what it means live in a specific place.

If Felton is the gateway into the San Lorenzo Valley, then Ben Lomond, Brookdale and Boulder Creek, are the main stopping points along the way.

While at times it feels like I’ve seen way more Trump signs and American flags up in these parts, the data shows that SLV as a whole is only a tad bit more conservative than Santa Cruz County as a whole. There are certainly a bunch of hippies and artists and musicians and tree huggers and everything in between — if you’re into throwing labels around.

I was a longtime Westsider, living a stone’s throw from the ocean for a bunch of years, but when we had the opportunity to purchase a little tiny house on some property in Ben Lomond, we decided to take the leap, all of a sudden becoming SLV residents. My morning jog, which used to be along the flat stretch of West Cliff Drive, turned into an obstacle course through undulating, steep mountain paths behind my house. I quickly realized I was no longer a jogger, and decided to get a gym membership instead, saving my backroad crosstreking to hikes and mushroom hunting.

The further along Highway 9 you get, the deeper the woods, with each little town center expressive of who resides hidden up among the trees. Maps are kind of a joke here, with mountain roads splitting off in all directions, often taking you to a cliff edge or a dead end or someone else’s property that you should not be on.

While everyone up here may not see eye to eye on certain things, like if Bigfoot actually exists or if the COVID-19 vaccine is implanting a microchip in us, no one living here in the valley can argue about the power of the redwood trees or how hard it was to see a fire blaze through them a year ago.

Those trees are what brought many people here, when the logging industry was booming after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. But long before that, the indiginous Achista, Chaloctac, and Sayanta people, all part of the larger Ohlone tribe, were here for millennia. Today, most people who call one of these three towns home would refer to themselves as “mountain folk”, likely owning at least one chainsaw and a few chickens.

We had chickens for years, but the constant battle against predatory wild animals hunting our birds, despite layers of protective, double-dug coop construction, wore us down. Now we beg for eggs from friends who have better coops, plus dogs, to keep their chickens safe.

Amber Turpin looks out her kitchen window at her yard and shed that were charred in the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
The author looks out her kitchen window at her charred yard and shed. Her Ben Lomond home was left standing after the CZU Lightning Complex fire, though flames licked at the property leaving blackened debris. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

During the CZU fire, when we all had to abandon our gardens and animals and everything else, it was assumed by many that the chickens left behind wouldn’t make it. Miraculously, our good friends up the road had their flock of hens survive, who took the absence of humans to sit on their eggs. Upon return many months later, our friends discovered a new set of baby chickens…who are now full grown, but still known as the “Fire Chicks.”

Maps are kind of a joke here, with mountain roads splitting off in all directions, often taking you to a cliff edge or a dead end or someone else’s property that you should not be on.

These kinds of stories are a dime a dozen up here. Property owners and renters have loads of tales to tell, almost like how parents never stop talking to each other about their kids. It’s a whole conversation genre that you wouldn’t even know about unless you happen to find yourself living up here, and then you are smack in the thick of it with a lot to share.

Who else can understand what it’s like to have a mountain lion using your yard like a highway? Doesn’t everyone set up infrared cameras to capture wild cat traffic? How many times did you hear the neighbor on his shooting range this weekend? When do you think our road is going to get fixed from that big storm five years ago? Can someone please take all of this zucchini off my hands?

To live here, you need a bit of grit, to deal with inconvenient occurrences on a day to day basis like downed trees, power outages — before power outages were such a common thing — and closed roads. Also debris flow zones, flooding, evacuation orders and wildfires. Some folks have chosen this life for a reason, to feel less on a grid, less dependent on others, less plugged in.

Other folks just love nature, and rural quiet, the magic of living in an actual rainforest. It might not be the most exciting life, unless you count all those mountain lion sightings as excitement. And you might tend to stay home most nights, since it takes at least 30 minutes to get anywhere at all.

But here in this temperate state, where East Coasters complain there are no seasons, these mountain towns offer just a little bit more of that seasonal shift. Once you pull off those soggy boots after chopping more firewood before the rain comes, there is nothing quite like the cozy feeling you get, tucked near the fireplace as you watch the drops descend from the giants above.

Follow Amber Turpin on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Amber Selene Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer based in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She is a regular contributor to The Mercury News and Edible...