Friday, January 14, 2005


Many of us who knew Tony Alvis -- close or casual -- envied much of his style as well as lifestyle. Few people know the Sespe backcountry like Tony did. We ALL marvelled at what treats he must have had personal experience with, back there, that we could only hear or read about or see a picture of... Then, there were those of us who are surfers who have shared a particularly exceptional surf session at Rincon with Tony, knowing it was Tony cuz you couldn't miss his beard... I knew him just a little bit, through Lorenzo -- both as a surfer and also a person who walks out into the wonders of the Sespe now and again... The little bit that I knew of him went a long way and I'm thankful for even that... Mystic Trails, Tony.

Here are some Tony Alvis links: la-os-wildwest18jan18,1,2644785.column?coll=la-editions-ventura

(Image courtesy of Jerry England)

... and here's the LA TIMES tribute to Tony:

Requiem for a mule packer
Tony Alvis of La Conchita found wholeness in the Ventura County backcountry. Few knew it better or loved it more.

January 18, 2005

A few months ago, a backcountry daydream took hold in my head. I wanted to go up Sespe Creek, the undammed artery that wriggles high and deep into the Ventura County backcountry between Ojai and the Grapevine. So I called around, and the consensus was clear: I should talk to Tony Alvis.

This guy Alvis, I soon learned, was the only pack outfitter operating steadily in the Los Padres National Forest, a bearded surfer and gifted ironworker who liked nothing better than creeping up the creek alongside a string of mules. If I could get away for three days, he and his beasts could get me to someplace wild and wonderful.

On the phone in November, he was sharp, funny, eager to feed my curiosity. We could go looking for bighorn sheep, he said. Or steelhead. Or condors. Or we could head for a hot spring. We didn't make any concrete plans, but I was encouraged: In the 21st century, within 100 miles of Los Angeles City Hall, there was at least one guy still practicing an Old West profession. Two Old West professions, if you count the ironwork.

He told me he'd been hiking the Sespe for 35 years, since he was 18. He had 36 horses and mules, some of which he kept in a pasture just south of his house. His house in La Conchita.

Now you know where this is going.

Alvis was tall and skinny with a long salt-and-pepper beard and cowboy hat. His friends needled him for looking like Osama bin Laden. On the trail, he liked to surprise customers with rubber snakes and centipedes. Back in town, he downed sushi in vast quantities.

"He knew every creek crossing, every canyon, every Indian artifact. He could tell stories about the Old West, and his house was full of old books from the late 1800s and early 1900s," said his girlfriend in Ojai, Joann Webb. "He was happiest out there in the backcountry. That was his medicine, being out in the mountains…. He called it Tonyland."

"His animals were sound, his packs were tight, and as far as I know, he never had any bad mishaps with clients. And in this business, that speaks for itself," said Austin Curwen, a teacher and riding instructor at Ojai's Thacher School who worked frequently with Alvis.

"He knew the Sespe better than any of us," said Diane Cross, who worked with Alvis as an assistant recreation officer for the Los Padres National Forest.

That's not to say, however, that his schedule always ran smoothly.

"We'd tell clients to meet us at the trailhead at 9 a.m., and he'd routinely show up about noon," said Mike Vaughan, a Ventura firefighter who moonlighted with Alvis on and off for the last 10 years.

"He'd usually had two or three adventures on the way up the hill. He didn't have a clock, so he'd get up late; that's the first thing. Then he might forget the bridles, or have a flat tire. But somehow, he'd show up, crack some jokes, make them happy and pull it off. It was incredible…. He was always on his own time clock. We called it Tony Time."

Chang Liampethcakul, owner of Tipp's Thai restaurant in Ventura, hired Alvis in the 1980s to take his family on a pack trip. They got along so well that Alvis, who loved cooking, started inviting Liampethcakul along as camp cook. For the next 15 years, with customers and friends, the two made three to five trips yearly in the hills, lacing the western scenery with Thai spices. Alvis favored pepper garlic shrimp kebabs.

In late December, when the tsunami hit Asia, Liampethcakul was on a holiday in Thailand. Alvis "left a message for me on my cellphone, saying he hoped I was alive and coming back in one piece," Liampethcakul remembers. "He said he'd pray for me."

On the day of the mudslide, Liampethcakul said, he prayed for Alvis. And called his number, over and over. No answer.

Another of Alvis' friends managed to get through. Around midday, Alvis traded phone calls with Alan Hagman, a Times photo editor and former housemate who knew Alvis for more than a decade.

"He just said his Quonset hut had mud coming down around it," recalled Hagman. Alvis told Hagman he planned to go out and redirect the flow, a familiar chore at La Conchita.

"I'm tired of this," Hagman remembered Alvis saying. "I wanna just go live up in the mountains."

About an hour later, the cliffs came down. Those horses and mules in the pasture were fine, but Alvis, caught digging a trench behind his Quonset hut, was among the first to die. Alvis — the one who'd choose wilderness over civilization every time, the one you'd want by your side if something went wrong in the middle of nowhere — was suddenly nowhere himself.

So now that Sespe daydream of mine has a ghost in it — a friendly ghost with a cowboy hat and a rubber centipede in his pocket. Come spring, I'm going up the creek to spend a spend a few quiet hours thinking about him.


  1. AnonymousJune 29, 2006

    Ola! I am a friend of Tony's since 1974. We packed into the Sespe in 1976 with Mutah and 2 donkeys Pancho and Sammy. We spent many years together. I was wondering if you could send color copies of the photos & the painting to me, I am very close to Tony's parents & they'd love to have copies.
    Silvia Gutierrez, PO Box 23021 Santa Barbara CA 93121 Adios

  2. Hi, Silvia ~ Thanks for posting. The original article and images I pointed to in this posting about Tony have since moved. I've relinked to websites that have more images and recollections about Tony. I suggest you get intouch with the arikiart people for copies of the pictures I originally had posted. Aloha, Malcolm

  3. Tony had a hundred or more chumash bowls. His brother Dan ripped off every chumash artifact he could pick up.... How come nobody ever mentions that!!!!!!

  4. tony was such an incredible person i cannot believe it has been 3 years...
    i find myself thinking about him and his impact on my life on a daily basis.
    he was one of those few friends that significantly changed my life.
    we love you tony

  5. Friday morning August 15, 2008, I woke up that morning with Tony so much on my mind, tearful, missing him so much....decided I need to go for a hike. When I was about to get in my car to drive to a trailhead, I saw my neighbor hand feeding a wild raven on the handrail of his porch. I asked if that was his pet bird and he said this was the second morning in a row the bird had appeared and pestered him for a cracker. The raven is the totem bird symbol that Tony and I shared together. It was on one of our first dates together that two ravens were flying around a canyon and as we watched them he said it was a good sign because ravens mate for life. He and his brother had also had a pet raven for 30 years named Egor. I told my neighbor about this story and left to go on my hike. I sat on a big bolder by the riverbottom and I felt as if maybe the raven was a way of Tony letting me know he was still around and I felt his presence all around me. Then I started to cry thinking I must be crazy and talking to Tony in my mind I heard his voice telling me 'yes, of course that was me trying to let you know that I'm here....what is it going to take to get you to know I'm always with you!?' I finally said o.k., I hear you, I get it, I guess I just need more things to happen like that to let me know your here. In my mind he said, 'like what?' I said, 'I don't know'. As I looked up into the clear blue sky here in the middle of August in Ojai I said, 'do something like make it rain.' I felt a smile inside as if he liked that idea and he said 'o.k. and make sure you tell my mom about it'. I left the river bottom with a smile and then thought, 'Oh no, I really am crazy'. I went on about my day and by the afternoon clouds were beginning to gather seemingly out of nowhere. A few rain drops hit my windshield and I thought that was good enough, it hadn't rained in months and that was enough of a sign for me and I told my son about the raven and the 'talk' I had with Tony that morning. We laughed and thought it was a funny coincidence. By around 2am the next morning I was awoken by crashing thunder and lightning and pouring rain. I jumped out of my bed and went outside to pounding rain and rivers of water pouring down the street. The lightning crashed all around so close, the lightning and thunder were almost simultaneous. I laughed and said outloud....'O.K.,I get it, gee, your so subtle, do you have to be so dramatic? you've made your point. In my mind he said, 'do you believe me now?' I said, yes, I will never question you again.
    The next day the weather service said the freak storm was concentrated in the area between Ojai and Oak View (right where I live) and that it was rare to have a storm like that in the middle of August, with over 400 lightning strikes. Was that an amazing coincidence, or am I love that is. Your such a wild man Tony.....Your raven ~ Joann

  6. Another Christmas without my litte brother I never had. That was what Tony called me. We grew up together & I taught him to ride when we were kids. My family owned the stable down the street from him. He always had a big kind heart & great personality even as a little kid. I miss you so much little brother. See you in the future.....

  7. I met Tony back in May of 2000. Myself along with two other friends of mine were about to hike the Sespe trail from Lions camp to Fillmore. A big storm had rolled through a couple days before and made crossing the nearly Sespe impossible. After spending about an hour looking for a place to cross we noticed a couple mules stuck on an island in the middle of the Sespe at Lions camp. Then Tony showed up with his trailer and his surf board. Tony had been hired to rescue the mules from the island. He took his surf board out along with his wetsuit and rode the Sespe to the island and pulled the horses out. I took pictures of the event:

    On the Outfitters tribute page to Tony there is picture of him standing in front of his horse trailer from that day. His surf board attached to the side of the trailer. If you look at the picture you can see myself along with my two friends Zach and Justin standing up inside the trailer with the horses.

    I have ran into Tony a few times since 2000. He was always fun to talk too. I'm glad we ran into him on that wet morning back in 2000, I think he saved our lives by his shear knowledge of the area. Had we tried to cross we might not be here now. I will miss him.

    Frank A. Jones