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Know the West

From river bottom to meadow

A runner in Ojai, California, considers how access to public space isn’t necessarily a given.

“Running Free” is a column by Cassie da Costa, a Black runner and writer who examines the meaning of public space and community through the lens of traversing California’s beach trails, canyons and roads.

My favorite running route in Ojai, California, starts at my front door. In the springtime, when the still, foggy air of winter gives way to a hotter, drier, citrus-kissed ether, I take my course. There is no sidewalk, so I walk to the shoulder, asphalt crumbling underfoot, and set my watch, giving the GPS time to calibrate. Then I set off running west, toward the Ventura River. 

On the road, big trucks blaze past, cyclists weave around cars parked in the shoulder, and couples walk their dogs or push strollers. There are plenty of uneven and rocky patches, but I’ve never rolled an ankle, perhaps in part because I avoid stretching before a run: Keeping my muscles rigid makes for a springy transition from foot to foot. One or two or five miles in, though, legs now loosened up, my muscles settle into a rhythm and flow. 

 

My scramble toward the river bottom follows a series of dramatic downhill-to-uphill shifts. During the first descent, a small animal farm comes into view, heralded by the yelps of what sound like several goats and a llama and a horse, maybe a few pigs. Thick, musty barn odors crescendo as I angle slightly forward to let gravity carry me, rather than leaning back to break my stride. Except for the bleating domesticated fauna, no one else is on foot on this stretch of road. 

Running can be lonely in Ojai, where, unlike other places I’ve lived, there are no local running clubs to join. The activity has become a kind of solitary mapping experience as I weigh several factors to determine how welcome — or unwelcome — I might be in a given space. Will there be rattlesnakes on the trail, cars blocking the bike path, student athletes at a meet on the local high school track, groups of walkers obliviously fanning across my path, some local authority stationed there to tell me to get out? I form a club of one, determinedly logging miles through a handful of tried-and-true routes. The route I took that day, winding yet minimally exposed to sun and traffic, went first to the river bottom and then to a meadow, two places where I usually feel that I am allowed to be. 

But first came the most dangerous segment — a curvy uphill section where cars whiz by on my left. I can’t see them coming, but can hear the burr of a transmission shifting gears. It’s a steep grade, and taxing to my own engine. I have to slow down so that my heart doesn’t overwork, taking short, quick steps on the shoulder, gravel shifting and crunching as I try not to over-anticipate the hill’s crest, where the river-bottom trail finally comes into view. 

Arriving at the trail, I drop my shoulders and un-scrunch my face. Though the start of the path is a jagged and crumbly descent around shallow holes and long branches where sideways steps direct some of the impact away from my quads, the soft, dry dirt underfoot is a relief to legs tired of absorbing the impact of running on asphalt. At the bottom of the hill, woody and grassy smells infused with sweetness erupt from the river bottom, especially after a good rain. Paths diverge in a few directions between spiky chaparral and ribbed black sage. Ultimately, all of the routes lead to the river, which, after seasons of drought, is finally running again on this spring day.

 

This area is owned and protected by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that purchases land to keep it from being developed and makes it available to the public, removing invasive plants and reintroducing native ones. Locals and visitors alike enjoy walking through the chaparral and oak trees, the California buckwheat and many types of sage that form this drought-resistant landscape. 

But in addition to the saving and the planting, the OVLC has made some more controversial moves. The first summer of the pandemic brought scorching heat and a flurry of out-of-towners from inland locales. They visited on the weekends, seeking relief in the pebble-bottomed river, a thigh-high rush of cool water. But their welcome was contingent on their adherence to rules, both stated on signs in the parking lots and unspoken. Pack out your trash. Leash and pick up after your dog. Stay on the trails. Then the Land Conservancy’s employees and volunteers began to find diapers and discarded inner tubes floating unattended. No one knew for sure who was responsible, but many blamed the visitors, who were perhaps more likely to blast loud music or race past on bikes without warning other cyclists or pedestrians. And so the Land Conservancy hired security guards to keep everyone out on the weekends; now, locals hiked during the week. 

This crystalized something for me, something that had been building run by run, along the road or the river or a bike path: What I consider public or accessible at a given moment is highly conditional. At any time, by any owner or authority, access to the land can be revoked — sometimes along established lines of prejudice. In the aftermath of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, I impulsively wave at everyone, both automatic in my brisk and smiley greetings and genuine in my desire to be accepted. When I pause to rub a small leaf of black sage between my fingers, its musky scent tinged with the tang of my own sweat, a thought flashes: Is this even allowed? 

What I consider public or accessible at a given moment is highly conditional.

After looping through the flattest few miles of the river bottom, it’s another mile or so back across my neighborhood to the Ojai Meadow Preserve. In the meadow, inhabited by a variety of vocal birds, from perching turkey vultures to swimming ducks and hyperactive scrub jays, there’s a laxer vibe. The area’s closeness to town — directly adjacent to liquor stores and taquerias, cafés and hair salons — makes the meadow feel more communal than the river bottom. People go to the meadow to birdwatch, spying on a family of owls high up in a still-standing invasive eucalyptus tree, or to hike up a hill and look out over the other side of town. 

I wind through the meadow to a paved bike trail that goes all the way to Ventura, 14 miles away. A dirt horse path runs parallel to it, though pedestrians in search of softer footing are more common than horses. Today, a sign on the fence separating asphalt from dirt warns people to keep off the trail on Sunday for an event. 

It was the Ventura Marathon. The path’s closure is only a minor inconvenience; I like to let its gradual downhill carry me to the final hustle up a hilly, treelined residential road and back home, but it’s not the only way back. Still, its reservation for paying marathoners reminded me of the river-bottom closure, and how the idea of “public” can feel symbolic when those in charge don’t account for prejudice. The city’s bike path, like the nonprofit’s conserved land, is owned and managed to achieve certain aims, and admission to it is not guaranteed by the people who make those decisions. Public land doesn’t merely exist, available in an instant, for all of us at once; it must be conceived and imagined with a sense of communality. Its protection requires more than its users’ desire, patronage or even volunteerism, but also an expansion of who gets to be part of the imagining.  

Cassie da Costa is a freelance writer and an editor for the outdoor retailer REI as well as the feminist film journal Another Gaze. She lives in Ojai, California, with her partner and dog. 

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