Waking suddenly from a bad dream, my heart is hammering in my chest. Peering at the luminous dial of the clock, I see the time: 4:10 a.m. For a few minutes I consider 'calling in sick' to the hike - spending the day curled up under a quilt, completely disengaged from the world.
But by the time we set out from the trail head in the crystalline light of early morning, the usual anticipation lightens my step. The trail winds for miles through golden grass and lichen stained rocks; ancient, ageless.
The view to the West is vast, expansive, with fold upon fold of jagged rock stretching as far as the eye can see. It seems exactly the right home for the primordial Condor.
We begin the very steep descent into the gorge, past stands of big leaf maple blazing gold against the brilliant sky. The canyon is narrow, deep - framed by towering rock formations it is cool and damp even at noon.
In search of a cave purported to hold Chumash cave paintings, we scramble far up the creek, crossing and recrossing the water. Brambles rake exposed skin, bear scat is evident all along the banks.
At last the cave is located, high above the creek. Wind and rain have sculpted the sandstone in dramatic and sensuous curves, but nothing prepares me for the art work painstakingly worked into the walls and ceiling of the cave.
Mysterious, magical - is this the work of the Ventureno Chumash - or more ancient tribes? Are these runes part of a vision quest, sacred rituals of initiation?
Voices hushed, taking great care not to kick up the sand and dust on the floor of the cave, we spend some time examining the fading symbols, the pictographs worn almost smooth by the slow passage of time.
As we climb out of the gorge in the late afternoon, the fading sunlight gilds the mountains to the East, a blue smudge stretches across the horizon to the West. Remote, wild, utterly mysterious - I think I understand now the pull this region exerted on my father; why he spent so many summers exploring here.
Darkness falls long before we reach the cars, above us Venus and a new moon kiss gently in the indigo skies.