I want to understand how these trails remain usable despite the elements, so I meet with the man who helped carve them.
Mark Kukuchek is tall with a white mustache and a chinstrap beard. He greets me with a face-stretching smile and welcomes me to his home on Acacia Avenue, a quiet street near the Bonita-Sunnyside firehouse. He’s lived here for 25 years. Tall wooden trail-markers that he made with the help of the local Boy Scout troop are stacked against his yard fence.
Kukuchek tells me that maintaining the trails comes with time spent on the dirt paths, and a lot of technical work: negotiating with the county and navigating easement lines that run behind people’s homes, a golf course, and a hospice care facility. This entails a lot of paperwork and documentation, Kukuchek says while he warms up his trail horse Bandit — named for his multicolored hair that forms a black mask on his white face.
Bonita’s equestrian community is dwindling, Kukuchek says. Either people become too busy or they grow to be too old, he adds. Many horse owners have moved to Ramona, which offers larger properties. “What we have in Bonita that they don’t have in Ramona is one of the best trail systems in the world, because we all worked on it, so we’ve got dedicated trails,” Kukuchek says. “You go to Ramona, it’s all private property.” He worries people will one day forget about the trails and all the work to maintain them will be for nothing. But he sees optimism in the hikers and the growing mountain-biking community. “We’re still gonna do it, but some of it is turning it over to the next generation.”
Kukuchek is still trying to warm up Bandit. “He doesn’t want to deal with me,” Kukuchek says as he undergoes a sort of dance with the horse, moving toward Bandit, then away, then back again, stretching his arms to point, and then touching the animal’s face. “You just have to make him do stuff. He has to know you’re gonna be the leader.”
Bandit is snorting because I am a stranger and I make him nervous. At one point, Bandit looks straight at me with unflinching eyes, but Kukuchek says he’s looking past me, over toward a ditch where coyotes often cross. “Horses are prey animals. They have to be afraid. It’s their only defense.”
Though horses are domesticated animals, the constant interaction with strangers and modern inventions in suburban Bonita antagonizes their skittish nature. Kukuchek calls Bandit a city horse because he grew up among cars commuting along Sweetwater Road, trash trucks and their creaky metal claws, mothers pushing strollers, a child sitting on the shoulders of a parent — or, in Bandit’s eyes, a two-headed monster. “But they get used to it,” Kukuchek says.
Keeping a horse is hard labor — pounds of manure to be shoveled, hay to be moved, and cleaning a half-ton animal. Kukuchek laments how people say they love the country life but are turned off by the filth that comes with it. “That’s country,” Kukuchek says, pointing at a pile of Bandit’s feces. “That’s what it smells like, that’s what it looks like. Country has always looked like that. You guys have just seen these glorified pictures of horses, but you don’t see that.”
I ask why he is okay with the labor, along with the difficult work of keeping trails. A Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War, Kukuchek says the military taught him how to do grunt work. In basic training, he recalls resisting the authority of the drill sergeant, leading to hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups. “I was a snotty kid, always being a wise ass,” he says. But one day, sitting in pain between sets of pushups, Kukuchek decided to play by the rules. “[The sergeant] looked me in the eyes, and he said, ‘You got it, didn’t you?’ He could tell: he broke me,” Kukuchek says. “And I go, ‘Yes, sir. I got it 100 percent.’”
The sergeant made Kukuchek continue the pushups and sit-ups and he complied while yelling, “Yes, sir! I like doing more sit-ups and pushups!”
Several years ago, Bandit carried a metal flagpole, an American flag, and a POW flag up a steep five-mile climb to the 2000-foot peak of Mount Miguel, which looms above Bonita to the east, a foothill of the 2500-foot San Miguel Mountain further east.
“He hates it,” Kukuchek says. Yet every few months, Bandit and Kukuchek make their ascent to replace the flags, torn by the wind.
Although defined by its natural environment, Bonita’s atmospheric bubble is not only a result of nature’s forces. Like Kukuchek’s steady efforts to maintain its network of trails, the atmosphere is also manufactured by a collection of its citizens. These citizens call themselves the Sweetwater Valley Civic Association.
Dr. Steven Schoenherr, a historian, and Mary E. Oswell, an anthropologist, trace the group’s beginnings in their book, Images of America: Bonita. The Civic Association started meeting in 1948 to “preserve the atmosphere of the valley.” Schoenherr and Oswell write, “The [association’s] first success was convincing the County Board of Supervisors to set a residential zoning standard, which meant no one could build a house on a lot less than one-half acre in size.” The group was also able to negotiate the realignment of State Route 54, the freeway that runs east-west along Bonita’s north side. The original plan intended to cut right through the Sweetwater Valley floor.
The Civic Assocation meets once each month in the Sunnyside-Bonita Library’s community room. I attend the first meeting of 2017 on a cold Wednesday evening. A wooden podium in the corner of the room bears the county’s motto: “The noblest motive is the public good.”
There is some talk about a person who keeps stealing mail out of mailboxes, fleeing in a silver Ford Expedition; about working on a new website for the group; about trying to forge a new logo in the process. But most of the meeting is spent discussing homelessness in Bonita.