2104-5: Big Sur Harvest

This trip took us over the ridge from Big Sur on California’s central coast, deep in the Santa Lucia Mountains.

The campground was awash with the moans of the sleepy undead as they returned to life in their sleeping bag tombs. Last night’s campfire went way later than anybody had expected, which just speaks to our normal idiocy because every campfire goes way later than we think it will. When the Juniper Ridge team starts passing around the whiskey flask, everybody dreads the way dawn will always come way too early. Alas, dawn is the best time to get on the trail in order to beat the early summer sun and get our harvesting done before noon.

Coffee is quick to happen and the zombies transform back into the happy campers we know and love. Juniper Ridge’s so-called “Field Lab” crew are used to it actually: going out looking for wildflowers with a bit of a lingering hangover. It is our pride and our passion to be out in the field, collecting components for wilderness perfume that deliver a truly evocative sense of these wild places. This trip took us over the ridge from Big Sur on California’s central coast, deep in the Santa Lucia Mountains.

After coffee, we secure our camp, fill our water bottles from the big jugs in the back of the van and strap on our day packs. We always bring the van on these exploratory trips, and this mission was just that: exploratory, not a big harvest. Our purpose today was to create a aromatic snapshot, as we call them, a fragrant moment captured in the distillation of a small amount of oil lovingly coaxed from a wild bouquet. We really only need a few plants to do this—the plants and the old converted whiskey still that lives in the back of the van. Leaving the van at the trail head, we head out on foot. We collect samples from the really fragrant flora that grows across vast acres in these coastal mountains. The wildflowers, sages, and pines that blanket this rugged and beautiful terrain is just perfect for the work that we do—driving people insane with the power of real fragrance.

As the day unfolds and our backpacks are filled with flowers, soil samples, bough trimmings, and some sticky pine cones, we stop at a swimming hole for a cool dip. After enjoying the shady respite, Hall, Juniper Ridge’s founder, heads off to investigate a promising-looking patch just over the next hill. Around us, the California sun, now past its zenith, paints the nearby sandstone cliffs red and gold. It’s hard to argue with the evocative wonder of this place.

The wildflowers, sages, and pines that blanket this rugged and beautiful terrain is just perfect for the work that we do—driving people insane with the power of real fragrance.

Before the wildflowers in our packs begin to compost, we pry ourselves away from the swimming hole and return to the van. In the back of the Field Lab van, we keep a converted whiskey still called Bubba. Bubba is now used for the production of small amounts of fragrant essential oil when we are out on the trail. We load all our plant and tree trimmings into Bubba. “Let’s see what we get,” is the attitude.

The process of distilling in this way is similar to steaming vegetables, except that we capture the steam with a cooling tower. The cooling tower is hooked up to water pump and a radiator in the back of the van. In the steam, we capture a small amount of aromatic oil. This run yields about a single ounce. “That ounce smells like sunshine syrup, a sage-filled, resinous experience with notes of pepper and clove-like undertones. It’s perfect.”

Running the still takes about two hours, at which point we’ve already started the campfire again and are grilling up some burgers. Somebody busts out our old friend, the whiskey flask, and the jokes parade in kind. The plants we gathered today didn’t yield enough oil to make an actual product, but that’s okay with Hall, who’s getting philosophical as he digs into his burger. “I think everyone needs to be part of something bigger than themselves,” he says. “Religion does that for some folks. For me, wilderness is my church, and the trail is my ritual.” Damn straight, Hall. Pass the whiskey.