New Cuyama. Don’t rack your brain. You’ve never heard of it.
But travel north out of Los Angeles towards Bakersfield, just past the Grapevine before the 5 heads northwesterly. Head west on 166, skirting the flat desert farms to the north of the Los Padres National Forest.
Past the town of Maricopa, the road begins to rise up the winding mountain slopes above the Santa Barbara high desert country, before stretching out flat again.
There, surrounded by California postcard monochrome desert landscapes, sits the tiny town of New Cuyama, and fronting Highway 166, is the Buckhorn Cuyama, a roadside motor hotel built in the early 50s, recently revamped and rehabbed into a sleek desert-style hotel with cottage-style rooms around a central astroturf-ed courtyard.
That courtyard once served as the nondescript circular parking lot for a bright red roadhouse and motel, which had long begun to suffer the raves of time before its recent rebirth.
“Like the inns one finds throughout Europe where the food is as much a part of the experience as the stay, we have been committed to bringing these values to Cuyama Buckhorn,” co-owner Ferial Sadeghian said in a press announcement.
“We have become entrenched in the food culture of the Cuyama Valley,” he continued, “and we value being able to share our relationships with local farmers and growers with our guests through our culinary program and offerings.”
The new resort features a full service, farm-to-table restaurant and bar, a craft coffee shop, and a market with house-made and local products, an outdoor dining deck, outdoor BBQ kitchen and culinary education space, along with a Garden Greenhouse private dining space.
The menu is essentially Santa Maria tri-tip grilled on the restaurant’s cherished Red Oak grill, along with smoked pulled pork tacos on handmade tortillas, and Buckhorn burgers and club sandwiches on house-made bread.
For historians, the name “Cuyama” comes from an Indian village named for the Chumash word kuyam, likely referring to the area’s freshwater clams since the town is at least 90 minutes from the ocean.
New Cuyama was born a true “company town,” after oil was discovered in the South Cuyama Oil Field in 1949. The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) developed the town, building housing and the New Cuyama Airport, originally built to fly in ARCO executives, and reopened in May 2015.
The original ARCO-built gas processing plant is actually still in use and can be seen just south of New Cuyama, though it is no longer operated by ARCO.
Arriving just before dinner time for a two-night stay, we were able to order dinner ahead of time, which was delivered to the room, just as we were unpacking. We feasted on the Buckhorn’s smokehouse platter with the Santa Maria Tri-tip and smoked pulled pork accompanied by Rancho Gordo Pinquito beans, house spicy pickles and house BBQ sauce, and prepared by executive chef Daniel Horn. The meats are also available from the Buckhorn’s restaurant to make your own BBQ mischief and mystery at home.
The cottage/bungalow rooms, decorated in Modern Desert Cowboy, each feature a small patio out front with a table and chairs, making a simple dinner like ours a simple extravagance. Dinner was followed by a walk to watch the blood moon rise in the June sky. While an eclipse was due, we were out of the moonpath, and had to settle for a purple-blue blazing sunset and a dazzling moonrise and bright full moon for the evening.
The large pool has also been relocated and rebuilt, along with the large jacuzzi, and was the perfect late night hideaway, and perfect for a crowd, of which there was none. We stayed in the water until our wrinkles had wrinkles, and I, as I always do in hotels, slept like a convicted murderer.
Breakfast had also been delivered the night before, and our first morning began with fresh scones, fruit, fresh juice, and coffee, which we enjoyed on the private patio, like we lived there.
Wednesday afternoon found us at Condor’s Hope Vineyard, where Steve Gliessman and Roberta (Robbie) Jaffe grow wine grapes and olives, with a mission of “putting the culture back in agriculture,” as they maintain their five-acre fields using traditional and historic “dry-farm” practices to produce wines made by local winemakers, while protecting the environment and conserving water.
As Gliessman explained during an afternoon visit, the dry-farming system at the solar-powered, off-the-grid vineyard, works by head-pruning the vines rather than training them out on wires. The head-pruned vines leave enough space to use a tractor to till the soil after the last rain in the spring. In this method, tilling the soil makes the top few inches of soil dry out so that it forms a crust called a “dust mulch” that seals in accumulated rainwater from the rainy winter and early spring seasons.
The deep root systems of the vines and olive trees are able to access that groundwater all summer, making it possible for them to thrive with no irrigation.
“We’re using measurably less water than all of the vineyards that surround us here in the valley,” Gliessman said, proudly. The vineyard also offers wine tastings and membership events year-round.
On Wednesday evening we gathered at the Buckhorn’s outdoor locally-designed-and-built 40-foot metal dining table for an impressive dinner, featuring a golden beet salad, california salmon, smoked chicken breast, a Rancho Gordo chickpea fritter, encored with elderberry shortbread.
Later, as the skies grew dark and the blood moon rose, amateur local astronomer and moon lover Jack Forinash led a group on a walk through town to the local airstrip. Cast in an eerie blood moonlight, we stood on the main runaway, as Forinash walked us through a basic moon lesson and a night road map of the major constellations.
Ironically, the bright full moon deterred us from our skygazing, casting the available stars in a gauzy fog of moonlight, and dimming their presence.
Using his own self-authored guide, “Looking Up,” Forinash continued with his informative lecture, however, as we practiced our best iphone photography in the bright, blurry moonlight.
We strolled back to the Buckhorn along the moonlit streets, bursting-ish with new found lunar knowledge and curiosity.
As the clock slipped past midnight, we broke open the s’mores kits and under a blazing moon, with an equally blazing outdoor fire pit, we toasted marshmallows, pondered the moon’s path, and dreamed of returning to New Cuyama under a curtain black sky.
Oh, and try their pancakes while you’re at it.