As an old Zaca hand I should have known better than to drive my low-slung Japanese econobox up the winding road that crosses five or six streams on the way to the lake. The third in a series of February storms had hit, the streams were now much higher than usual, and we would have been stuck for sure if Joe MacDonald hadn’t come out from the lodge in his pickup to intercept us, make us park and go in with him. I asked Joe how things were at the lake and he laughed. “It’s Zaca, isn’t it,” he said. He’d worked at the lake in 1992 and 1993 and now he was back and like always, things at Zaca Lake were a little kinked in the Zaca mode. Once a hippie haven, Zaca has gradually recast itself in New Age robes as a meditation center, a place to contemplate stuff you feel like contemplating. “You hear about the panther?” Joe asked. I hadn’t. The panther — black of course — Joe said had escaped from Michael Jackson’s private zoo at his NeverNeverland ranch on the other side of Zaca Peak, and had been seen sauntering regally about the lake.
“A panther . . . really?”
Joe threw me a sly country smirk and I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not, but when he mentioned the bald eagle, as we drove through the usually dry, now overflowing edge of lower Zaca slopping over the road, he pointed it out, over there sitting on top of a dead tree. An eagle for sure, and bald.
Then the old darkwood lodge and its deck under the big sycamores came into view, the ducks and the noisy geese and the handful of funky old cabins scattered along the shore of the tiny lake (no more than a 20-minute walk around the whole thing) — suggesting a sort of time-warp mid-American Loon Lake with a slightly down-at-the-heels, alternately sinister and summer-camp-sunny vibe. This was the place, after all, where Jason in his hockey mask chopped his victims in the first two Friday the 13ths, and the Meatballs comedies were made here too.
The only natural lake in all of Santa Barbara County and some insist the only privately owned natural lake in the whole state, Zaca sits off by itself on its own 320 acres, a kind of private duchy within the Los Padres National Forest. Through the years, Zaca (which may or may not mean either “Peace” or “Hidden Waters” in Chumash) has evolved into a kind of resort. The tennis courts stand abandoned, un-netted in the big meadow out back; the corral and barn where the horses used to stay have been empty for at least 10 years and the last sailboat was scrapped several seasons ago. In the old days, the two most dependable things about Zaca were 1.) There would be a new cook in the kitchen — the average stay of a Zaca cook was about two weeks and 2.) All the pool cues in the lodge’s poolroom would be broken except one. This was a sort of de facto presiding principle, an expression of the fact that funds were always tight and its many owners never made any money. (Its greatest economic utility was, rumor had it, as a tax write-off.) Now even the pool table is gone.
A New York vitamin manufacturer and his family have operated the lake through their Human Potential Foundation since the mid-’80s. With them came the shift to New Age-y spiritual pursuits. (This visit, I was told that Zaca has somehow been found to be on the same mystical energy grid with Sedona, Arizona, Stonehenge and, for good measure, Santa Fe. The lake, also, according to Chumash lore recently unearthed, is connected via an “underground channel” to Santa Cruz Island, 80 miles distant in the Pacific.)
Zaca at the same time remains well-grounded in the mundane everyday, as ever open to the shifting fortunes of its proprietors: Last summer, after a bitter falling-out among members of the vitamin mogul’s family, the lake was closed briefly, staff chopped from 18 to seven, and when it reopened did so without its restaurant (the kitchen is now “communal”) and with a new policy of admitting guests by group reservation only. But such changes are common at little Zaca and by no means permanent. Meanwhile, the very casual low-key attractions of the place remain.
Motorboats are not allowed and fishing has even been 86’d (resulting in em boldened swarms of muscular catfish who rise furiously to the smallest bread scrap). What Zaca ultimately has to offer is Awayness, tucked away as it is up in its seven-mile private road, at the northern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, about 45 miles north of Santa Barbara. It has Quiet to sell. In the summer it’s a good swimming lake — no more than a half-mile end to end and my own favorite thing to do is to row to the middle of the lake, pull in the oars and drift. A little booze in a sports bottle doesn’t hurt either.
This last rain-sodden trip offered an unusual chance to soak up Zaca-ness in almost complete privacy. I’d come with my friend Deborah, the mad poet, and her 4-year-old son, Nick, and we had the luxury of being the only guests. The last guests 10 days before, during the previous deluge, had to be choppered out when the lodge lost power for four days and the roads were impassable. It had, we were told, almost been curtains for the lodge itself during that storm: Manager Rose and some of the staff had heard the crack and seen the gargantuan sycamore limb which had hung over the lodge for so many years break — a great hundred-foot monster of a multipronged branch — falling directly down toward the lodge roof. But the winds were so strong “gale force, 60, 70 miles an hour,” Rose says, “The limb was pushed a couple of feet and landed safely in the water.” As a result, happily enough, the flock of herons that used to hang out on top of the tree now do so directly in front of the lodge where branches of the fallen limb protrude up through the water. “Sometimes things work out,” Rose says. “It’s a kind of miracle.” (Rose, a formidable earth-motherly type, is no Zaca dupe, however, calling the tall-tale telling that regularly goes on here “Zaca lies.” No one for instance really knows if the panther escaped from Jackson’s place and it might be a mere dark-coated cougar, she says, though no less majestic for the change in species.)
Still, our night there did happen curiously enough to be Friday the 13th and the moon was a day beyond full and Nick, Deb and I went out wandering when the rain let up toward midnight, our eye out for the nominal panther or a man in a hockey mask. The only thing of real interest was a series of four “gates” arranged in a circle around a firepit — “doorways” made from branches and, Deb explained, used in Celtic ceremonies (a “medieval” wedding had taken place there some weeks before). Making up our own ad hoc ceremony to promote great riches and success for us in 1998, we passed through the gates and returned with our fates much enhanced to our cabin where we played Crazy Eights in front of the fire as the rains again began to fall.