I suppose it’s time I tell you all about Jay Stellar. This fabled man might just be Patient Zero for the eventual birth of this enterprise we call Off Camera. And Jay Stellar represents so much more – freedom of choice, embodiment of the good life and fearless opposition of the fiercest enemy: actual work. Yes folks, Jay Stellar came along at a time when I really needed him and never really left. The tale I am about to tell is a winding one that may take several issues to unfold; in fact, Jay himself may not even make another appearance in this installment. But his story, and the improbable chain of events that led to his inception, is a worthy example of following your creative impulses past all practical logic in order to live an artistic and unconventional life. But I get ahead of myself…
In 1999 I was at a crossroads. I was a fairly successful photographer living in Santa Monica with a production office in an outbuilding in my small backyard. I’d outfitted my garage with a small recording studio and practice space for my band. I had one employee, and every day I made the commute from the back door of my house to my little office to work. I would do pre- and post production on photography jobs, work on my portfolio, and manage the books, all in service of growing my photography business. But somehow it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t yet married and I had periods of intense activity – out-of-state and international shoots, and multiple-day local shoots – followed by periods of no work. Sometimes I sat in my office feeling completely stuck. “What should I be doing right now to get more work?” I would ask myself. Rather than accepting that my business was one that ebbed and flowed, I turned my desk into a self-torture chamber, trying to find ways to keep busy. I had this driving voice in my head that chastised me for being lazy if I dared to take a trip to the beach or the movies. God forbid I should enjoy the undulating currents of my business! When I think back on all the things I could have done between jobs, and before marriage or kids, I am truly shocked at the time I wasted trying to be responsible. I had the freedom to hop on a plane to just about anywhere in the world, and I never took advantage of it.
One day around this time a friend of mine, Val McCallum, invited me up to his house in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. There is a small community there called Pine Mountain Club, nestled in a valley halfway between the Tejon Pass on Interstate 5 and Ojai in the Mt. Pinos range, which tops out at an almost 9,000-foot elevation. It’s a beautiful and sleepy part of California, and after spending a night eating steak, drinking wine and playing guitar with Val, I was completely entranced by its rustic wilderness, mountain air and relative proximity to Los Angeles. As the night went on, Val talked about his childhood motorcycle trail-riding experiences with his father-in-law, and said that this place reminded him of those days. I realized what an incredible place this was to own a dirt bike. When I was a kid I had a Honda XL250 and sometimes my dad and I would go trail riding in places like this. I used to love it more than just about anything, but somehow gave it up after I crashed my bike while riding on the freeway. As the wine flowed, a notion formed in my head, and the more I tried to push it away as impractical, unnecessary, and beyond my means, the more it gained dimension and shape.
I woke up the next morning even more enchanted with the area. It was about 35 degrees and the sun was peeking over an unspoiled range of tall pines. Only birdsong cut the vast stillness. Val smiled knowingly – he could tell that the place had gotten under my skin. After breakfast I decided to go down to the local realty office “just to have a look around.” (When I get an idea I move very fast.) I met a very nice man named Jim who showed me pictures of a few houses in the area. I started to flip through laminated pages of photos and descriptions that were, frankly, a little underwhelming. Underexposed picture after underexposed picture sat atop of cutesy Comic Sans-font captions like “Blue Jay Ridge”, “Secluded Gem” or “Views for Miles!” as if these were cabins that aspired to be quarter horses down at Santa Anita. The titles were followed by descriptions of decks, high ceilings, numbers of bedrooms, and wall-to-wall carpeting – the usual stuff. And then, in bold, prices. They ranged from little shacks for $75,000 all the way up to expansive mountain retreats for $600,000. This was more than a decade before Redfin, Zillow or VRBO, or come to think of it, before anyone took breathtaking pictures of their homes and put them on the Internet. As I looked at these poorly marketed homes, my little spark of an idea faded into the background along with my wine-induced headache from the night before, and I breathed a little sigh of relief. Maybe this was all just a silly notion, another late-night epiphany that looked much less attractive from my current perch on a dusty Naugahyde chair in a smelly real estate office. When I looked up at Jim, getting ready to thank him for his time, he got the same knowing look in his eye that I’d seen in Val’s (to this day, I think they were in cahoots). He said, “Hey, why don’t you hop in my car and I’ll show you around a bit.” The man was a Jedi; I couldn’t say no. “Okay, let’s hop in your car and you can show me around a bit,” I replied.
Jim guided me to a rusting Jeep Cherokee. He sat down gingerly in the driver’s seat. “These adult diapers are a pain in the ass,” he said cryptically. My spark of enthusiasm once again dimmed, and I questioned what I was doing in a car with this guy. I hoped he didn’t pee while we were driving. Or worse.
As Jim drove, he told me a bit about the history of the area. The valley was originally the home of the Chumash people, and Mt. Pinos was their shrine and sacred center. Well, we all know how that ended; after the Catholics, the Spanish Mission period, the Civil War, and other nefarious land grabs and changing of titles, the area ended up in the hands of the Tenneco corporation in the 1970s. They were a natural gas company, and developed Pine Mountain Club as a seemingly utopian community for its employees while they worked the land. About 2,200 homes were built, each on at least an acre of land. Once the natural gas operation was completed, the corporation turned the community over to the local property owners association. The surrounding area is all national forest, Jim explained, so the community will never get any bigger or more crowded.
We navigated the maze of serpentine mountain roads higher and higher, and eventually ended up at a vista. The whole valley stretched out towards the Pacific Ocean in front of me, and behind me loomed the imposing ridge of Mt. Pinos. A giant bird literally blocked the sun for an instant, and I whirled my head towards the sky. “That’s a California Condor,” Jim said casually. “There are about 50 left in the world, and most of them live within 10 miles of here. We ask folks not to feed them, because once you do, they never want to leave.”
That spark of an idea was turning into a bonfire. As I gazed out over the vista, I knew I was going to do something rash, impractical, and above my means. And at that moment, unbeknownst to me, Jay Stellar was born. I took a deep breath. Jim peed.
– Sam Jones, November 2015