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Imagine a gym with the freshest air, most expansive views and supportive, understanding help – all for about 23 cents a week. It’s called the Santa Ynez Valley Women’s Hikers Club.

And they meet every Wednesday morning at 8:50 a.m. sharp at Solvang Veterans Memorial Hall. Together they carpool to the hike appointed for the day, and spend the next few hours, talking, walking and enjoying a sack lunch along the way. The $12 yearly fee to join covers incidentals for the club that has been in existence for about 30 years now, says Lloyd Mills, a co-founder of the group and more or less head mistress of the movement. “I’ve just made so many friends,” says Lois Brown who owns a vacation home here. “It’s made me a part of the Valley.” She discovered the group a year after setting up her home away from home, and finds herself spending an increased amount of time here.

There aren’t many rules, and the few they have are meant to keep everyone safe and having a good time. Wear hiking boots, bring a backpack with your lunch, a quart of water – and don’t forget sun and weather protection, which means a hat, sunscreen and jacket. The only other rule is that except for an occasional family hike, its ladies only.

Visitors from near or far are always welcome. “Tourists find out about us from the Visitors Center,” says Mills, though she is uncertain how the center learned about the women hikers. It may have something to do with the longevity of the group or that their membership numbers, something more than 100 – though on the average day, the number of hikers ranges from 8 to 30. If you are interested in joining or just want to give it a try, simply show up, they say.

“I think the reason why we’ve been going on for so many years is that we always have new people coming in,” says Mills. The first question new hikers tend to ask is “How far,” when they really ought to ask ‘How high?”

“I think the important thing for us to discuss is altitude gain,” says Liz Knowlton. She points out that a 30-mile hike on a flat path is something quite different than winding your way up to a breathtaking mountain vista. The answer is, however, that most hikes are in the 7-mile range and they usually finish by mid-afternoon.

Members receive monthly schedules, so they’re sure not to miss their favorite hikes and know when to skip if there are hikes too challenging for their present abilities.

Hikers need to arrive promptly on Wednesday morning (except sometimes, not always, when a major holiday falls on a Wednesday and they meet a day later). In the summers, due to the heat, the group tends to hike along the beaches. Just about any beach from Carpinteria to Morro Bay is fair game. The ladies pile into cars, each coughing up $4 for the driver and the camaraderie begins. New members can’t officially join until completing four mountain hikes, done in the fall, winter or spring. “We’ve never had anyone not want to pay the $12,” says Sybil Cline, who rarely misses a hike. They all laugh a bit, as no one seems able to remember there being disagreements on virtually anything the group does.

“There are not a lot of privileges that come from membership,” says Mills. But Knowlton quickly disagrees.

“We are an eclectic mix, but we all love nature and being out there,” she says. There are the bird watchers, the artists, the knitters, the book lovers, the docents, the older, the younger, the locals and well, as she said, they are a diverse group which always makes for interesting conversation. Some of them have splintered off and created other non-hiking groups, including a book club and knitters group.

For Knowlton, being a part of the group and getting a chance to explore the wilds of Santa Barbara is a privilege indeed. It is the group aspect that makes it the most fun, they all agree.

“The passion for hiking is contagious,” warns Mills. It is so much more than just getting physically fit.

Another frequently asked question is about the wildlife they encounter. Talk turns to the more dangerous variety. They’ve all seen rattlesnakes, they admit nonchalantly. But the snakes never seem too interested in taking on a gaggle of women hikers. In 30 years, the group only once saw a bear. They’ve never had an injury worthy of note. The truth is, with so many ladies all in the same place at the same time, they simply make too much noise laughing and chatting. The wildlife has plenty of time to notice to get out of the way.

“It’s better than the hairdresser for therapy,” says Cline of the even mix of exercise and friendship.

Suzi Matthies, who moved to the Valley in 1978, taught at Solvang School before retiring. She admits that despite her longevity in the Valley, she is seeing things now she never has before. “It’s been wonderful. For as long as we’ve been in the Valley, we’ve never been to the places I get to go now.”

They have a lot of miles on their boots. At the usual Friday morning coffee get-together (with husbands in tow), Brown takes a moment to proudly show off the tear in her hiking boots. She has enough miles on hers to warrant a new pair, a rite of passage of sorts, which the group warmly acknowledges. They also enjoy monthly potluck suppers – another family affair. Sometimes, too, they have family hikes where it is not uncommon to find three generations hiking together.

The club also has a long history of community service. On the first Thursday of every month, they meet at El Rancho Market at 8:30 a.m. to don reflective vests and head out to pick up trash on their portion of Highway 246. Sometimes non-hiking club members step up to help; often cars will stop or slow to issue a thank you and from time to time a bewildered high school student will ask if they’re convicts.

The group is one of only 25 across California that adopted a section of highway to clean and stuck with it for 20 years or more. The Santa Ynez Valley Women’s Hikers Club is currently the state’s Volunteer of the Year.

But longevity seems to be a theme in the club. Once members join, they tend to stay members. Women like Barbara Young and Mills continue to donate many hours to the group. Mills is such an avid hiker, that since 1991 she and her husband spend summers in the Alps leading hikes through the mountains –primarily for Valley residents.

Mills is an inspiration to those new to hiking and not quite in shape, says Brown. If she can be as fit as she is at her age, then there really isn’t a reason anyone else can’t get there, too. But hiking has a strange effect on hikers, notes Brown. Newcomers may need to have Mills pointed out because nothing about her says “older hiker,” except perhaps the number of stories she has to tell.

Stories of Figueroa Mountain and Paradise Canyon, tales of the Guadalupe Dunes, of Morro Bay and the foothills of Santa Barbara, moments and memories to enjoy and share in the company of friends – that’s what the Santa Ynez Valley Women’s Hikers Club is all about.

struax@syvjournal.com