I’m excited, after a one-year absence, to have returned to the backpacking trail. My uncle and I headed to the Dick Smith Wilderness over Memorial Day weekend in the Santa Barbara back country. Dick Smith, a tireless Santa Barbara naturalist, photographer, artist, and conservationist, co-authored “California Condor – Vanishing American”, one of the most important examinations of the history and mythology of a true back country marvel. Because of Smith’s lifelong efforts to protect the wilderness (he was also a major voice in helping create the 217,000-acre San Rafael Wilderness) the state of California recognized his accomplishments, after his death in 1977, and created the 64,700-acre Dick Smith Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest.
Why do some of us seek the wilderness? Is it because of the quiet, or the solitude, or the pristine beauty? Or is there something else at play? A quote credited to a pair of influential British architects, Peter and Alison Smithson, offers a possible answer. “Places draw us to them for reasons beyond the feelings derived from the five senses,” they said. “Some deeper recognition is at work, felt through an unextinguishable animal sensibility.” Could this animal sensibility also be thought of as a metaphorical magnet within our souls that draws some of us to the dirt, the rock, the wind, the sun – and the glorious water? Is there a primal calling, a sensibility left over from some previous state of being? My uncle and guide, Dan McCaslin, who loves to push the boundaries, wonders: “Can it be that spending time in the wilderness might arguably be a more authentic reality, and that our daily lives in the metropolis provides an abstract parallel reality? “ It is, perhaps, a silly question for most of us–straight out of the Matrix movies –but for those who have spent their lives returning to walk, hike, and bike in the backcountry the question of “which is the authentic reality?” bears weight and is whispered quietly to other fellow wilderness enthusiasts trying to unravel the same shared conundrum. What is drawing these people into the remote and often unpeopled backcountry time and time again?
The 1964 Federal Wilderness Act defines “wilderness” this way: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I bring this up because I’ve been struck, after having visited both nature and specific wilderness areas, by the fact that there is a significant difference. Yosemite, although stunningly natural and beautiful, is–and in no way am I being judgemental– a Disneyland compared to the intensely quiet 9.1 million recognized and delineated acres (inside of National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and National Forests) of American National Wilderness. There are no roads in these wilderness zones, and no gas engines are allowed…and man does not remain, he merely passes through.
So then, turning the question on myself – what is this attraction to the wilderness that I’ve acquired after spending just a tiny fraction of my time on Earth in the backcountry? Is it about my sensitivity to nature, or something else? To be honest, I am no naturalist; I cannot name more than 10 species of birds or plants in the backcountry beyond the obvious rhythmic sounds of the woodpeckers and owls, or the shape and hue of the poison oak, willow, piercing yucca, and scrub oak that is so voraciously swallowing our unmaintained trail, which, in the aftermath of the 2007 Zaca fire, has become so wildly overgrown. Furthermore, in terms of recognizing the total variety of animal life in the canyon I am a novice who actually reads the informational signs that occasionally dot trail heads – and on this trip we were rewarded with a sighting of the endangered arroyo toad. On our hike out, I marveled in naïve fashion at an impressive set of wet footsteps on the creek bank, and recalled that we had passed an enormous pile of fresh scat from (as my uncle pointed out) an evidently large black bear, one of many residents of Indian Canyon. A light bulb went on…the aforementioned creature must have very recently been drinking from the same creek I was standing next to…and I had a vision of him watching us as we tried to watch for him. Fortunately, we did not see him.
But what of this pull to the backcountry? What is this that I am now feeling? If it’s not about my personal sensory experience of nature–although a sun setting over a quiet meadow is not to be missed–then what is the deeper, internal attraction? I’m going to get way out there now, in a way, similar to the distance one must travel on dirt roads to reach the backcountry, as I admit that I believe that there is something more mysterious and ancient at play here than I have ever been willing to admit. Just as “wilderness” is untrammeled and ancient, I too believe there is a space inside each of us that is metaphorically similar…an animal sensibility, or if you will, a primal interior space.
Trying to examine “this feeling, this space” is tricky– first, where is this space? I would venture that there is a small place in our hearts, perhaps our spirit, our soul (all of it, suddenly, seems interchangeable). Some small space leftover and hollowed out when we shifted and morphed to the current upright versions of our ever-so- smart selves now walking the Earth. I think that some of us recognize this mysterious interior space, but, through no fault of our own, most of us don’t… it might now be, for many, a missing piece, perhaps even misinterpreted by the term “gut feeling”. The point is, each if us seems to have a residual ancient space inside us that longs to make an authentic connection to places and states of being that have always existed, and will continue to do so in spite of man’s “progress”. So, then, going out into the wilderness is, in essence, a return to –-an internal experience of –an authentic, primal connection between the ancient physical world and this ancient space in our souls. The effect of this connection is even tougher to put into words, and each of us would describe it differently… is it simply a feeling of being deeply grounded – being connected to what was, and now what is?
The fascinating idea about the experience of being connected is that it happens to people in a variety of ways and in different spaces, both physical and mental – and it exists not merely in the feeling of being grounded by visiting the wilderness. Religious folks might be quick to recognize this “ancient feeling” as a search for a connection with a “God”, and practice this process in a church, temple or synagogue… spiritual folks might say that this process is simply “seeking” a connection with something outside, something bigger and greater than oneself. There are people who meditate, folks who exercise, artists, writers and musicians who create, and those who choose to focus on helping others… the list goes on… but all are, in my opinion, seekers attempting to connect with something deeply authentic – to the core, and importantly, the ancient.
On one hand, some of us learn to seek, connect, and nurture this interior space through all kinds of wonderfully healthy, creative, spiritual, and physical methods. But, on the other hand, some of us painfully ache, and attempt to fill this interior space in all types of unhealthy ways (it is not, after all, an uncommon modern ailment). Fortunately, there are many paths to turn to in order to try to rediscover this ancient ground, and the soul has a way of asking to be healed if need be.
Back at home after 16 tough, rugged miles over the course of three days, bushwhacking many of those miles through nasty overgrowth and an often disappearing trail, pumping filtered water from a very low creek, and sharing the wilderness with my Uncle and all critters big and small, I realize that this trip into the Santa Barbara Backcountry was, for me–and this is the reason I have chosen to write about it—my attempt at rediscovering this internal connection to the land and to something ancient inside myself. I have merely tried to share my experience here, my process of connecting, and I hope that you find and nurture your own means of connecting, in whatever healthy way suits you.
Here’s a link to my Uncle Dan’s Santa Barbara Independent Backcountry Hiking Column – this link is specific to our backpack up Indian Canyon. He goes into wonderful detail about what it was like actually hiking up the dense canyon. http://www.independent.com/news/2013/jun/09/indian-creek-camp/