In Category: ‘Santa Barbara Iphoneography’

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.

Last weekend, I was way way out there… backpacking in the wilderness of the Santa Barbara backcountry with my uncle, Dan McCaslin.  As in no cell phone reception, no roads, a rattlesnake bite and you are not making it out of there alive – that kind of out there.  This happens to be my uncle’s favorite way to connect with nature, to find quiet, to both connect and in a sense, upon each foray – to reconnect and center his life.

Dan and I went backpacking in the San Rafael wilderness, which is completely contained within the much larger Los Padres National Forest.  Essentially, this is an area that is further inland from Santa Ynez Valley, which is a wonderful wine tasting region, and also home to Lake Cachuma – a vital water resource for Santa Barbara and reached by Highway 154 from Santa Barbara up and over the Santa Ynez mountain range.

The wild … or wilderness – it’s not really as far out there as you think.  It might even be a state of mind, a space between this conscious world and something else, therefore not even a physical place at all.  Or, wilderness might be as close as a walk in the neighborhood, or the beach, or a local trail.  I believe “wilderness” can be a variety of environments or spaces that contain no immediate physical barriers and that enables one’s mind to wander and breathe – and not necessarily the stricter definition of having to be surrounded by all things natural.  We can’t all just up and drive out to the forest (on the assumption you even live near one) every time we need to unwind our complicated minds.  However, it certainly would be hard to refute the intangible benefit to the broadening and deepening of the mind when surrounded by the natural world, even if that just means the sky overhead.

And that is the subtext of this long wordy scramble through the brush… the quest to find quiet, to connect to “wilderness”, or some aspect of the natural world to help bridge our complex and often loud daily thoughts into a much calmer, deeper, authentic space.  Going further, the quest I am seeking is the attempt in a spiritual sense, to connect us to something much larger.  A question – can we invite the natural world as a magical force into our lives to help us find and establish a meaningful, even spiritual connection, to something much greater than ourselves, our partners, our work, our computer screens, and our bank accounts?

Dan and I parked the car at a campsite called Nira, which is at the end of a long winding barely maintained road in the San Rafael Wilderness.  After this point, there was to be no more gas-powered machines.  Just wilderness, in all its rugged and immense splendor.  We hoisted our packs, I took a look at the trail map sign which made all the campsites look close, whereby Dan assured me they weren’t – but in typical male bravado asked me if I wanted to come back another time as we could do the 50 mile loop which would take us to most of them.  That 50 mile loop is something I keep thinking about… kind of like a city boys Mount Everest (minus the congestion, but not minus the potential danger).  Feeling energized, off we went on our now seemingly short 6 mile hike to the Manzana campsite.

Hiking and or backpacking into the wilderness to establish or reestablish one’s own spiritual connection is just one method of what I like to call “seeking”.  And one thing I’ve learned about my life is that I am a seeker.  In the metaphorical sense, we each walk or hike our own path during our life’s journey (yours might not include possible rattlesnakes on the path, but more than likely there will be some type of dangerous mythical representational creature or questionable elixir as an impediment) and there are many paths and many methods to find quiet, to seek a connection, to find your truth, which may or may not involve bringing in the natural world.

But let us agree, that in this new technological and scientific age it is becoming easier and easier to withdraw from and discount the power of the natural, “magical” world.  No one has to flip a switch or write a sub-routine to make the sun rise and set each day.  It does that on its own, but that is something we take for granted.  Nothing seems magical about that… or does it?  We humans have incredible intelligence and power, we are immensely capable, but why is it that so many of us are simply dissatisfied with our lives, or parts of our lives?  We even make little pills to deal with that – but this dissatisfaction is so varied and nuanced it’s beyond my comprehension.  Perhaps the discomfort and dissatisfaction are merely creatures lying across our path that each of us is forced to confront and deal with in some fashion on our journey.

With 40 pounds on your back, the pace slows, and there is plenty of time to talk on the path – and my uncle Dan and I talked about this general if not symptomatic dissatisfaction.  It is something we have all felt more or less at some moment in our lives.  Could it be nothing more than a disconnection from this quiet, wild, spiritual place that resides deep inside each of us? We lose our connection (by our own foolish actions), or we get knocked off our center (life deals us a bad blow) – and we disconnect from our authentic selves in reaction.  Then, subtly or loudly we walk around the world looking to reestablish that connection and honest reflection through all kinds of false representations, apparitions, and potions.  In short, because we have lost who we honestly are, we start making up (and or listening to) and believing a story about our self that is plain manufactured bullshit.  And we are the one’s who make up and believe this story, because we have to fill the void in our spirit with something, anything.  Whether you are feeling high and mighty, or feeling low and lost, once disconnected we start believing our own thoughts about our self… and this inner dishonesty pains us at the core.  When we are in too much pain we seek comfort in all manners; unfortunately these often end in personal wildfires.

The healthy response to a scenario where life is becoming confusing, complicated, and messy, is for our soul to moan.  The comic, foolish, or nasty actions we stir up in response to life’s difficulties alerts our soul to speak up – and if we are not so off center our conscious mind takes notice that our inner self is speaking and is asking to be re-centered, connected, grounded.  If we are listening and honest with our self, we take appropriate action – we slow down, we invite spiritual power or magic into the process, we take honest stock of our self with a trusted friend or loved one to gain a different perspective on the perceived difficulty, and then we correct any grievances or missteps.  We then learn to share this truth with others, because it’s a tool that has authentically worked.  We also sense that this lesson is too valuable to own, it does not belong to us – it belongs to all of us, and has always belonged to humanity.  We have finally started learning from our mistakes instead of repeating them.

We can also bring the natural world into this healthy response system.  Nature has the power to help us stay centered, and works wonders as a check and balance.  How?  If we take an honest look at the natural world it is plain to see that it works perfectly without man’s interference.  Nature is exactly as it’s supposed to be.  If my core is seeking truth, if it’s seeking honest interactions with my fellows and the world at large, then nature is the perfect mirror for the soul.  Why?  Nature mirrors my authentic self, I am neither greater than nor less than anyone or anything around me in the natural world… I simply am. Just as a rock is a rock, I simply am who I am.  I am not an elaborate story of and about myself – just as a river is not a story about a river.  This is what centers us; when all the stories, thoughts, and feelings about our self drop away.  The natural world does not care what you think about yourself, it only exists in the present moment of being, and this truth speaks directly to our core.  And this notion can filter up to our conscious mind, reminding us to quit taking our self and our stories and beliefs about our self so seriously.  It is nourishing to know that I am exactly who I am, who I am supposed to be, at this very moment.  Tomorrow, when it arrives, I will be the person I am supposed to be tomorrow.  There is absolutely no false reflection standing under the sky with your feet firmly planted on the ground.  You are simply, you.  When we throw out life’s petty judgements about literally everything, we are present and authentic through and through… what possibly can be more centering than that?

We arrived at our camp six beautiful sweaty miles later – the chaparral and sage are hallmarks of this hike.  We set up our tents, and with the Manzana creek gently bubbling off to our side, the sun began slipping behind the steep gorge walls – the last rays slicing through the giant twisted oaks, making all the leaves shimmer in what appeared as a final applause.  It was then that Dan and I wandered off into deeper conversation about connection and the natural world.  Dan related to me a discussion with author Richard Louv who had spoke recently in Santa Barbara.  Louv feels strongly that technology in our lives needs a counter balance, that we and our children are bit out of whack – and specifically that the “overuse” of screens which some of us depend upon for “a meaningful connection” to the world, can lead us to feeling “less alive”.  The balancing mechanism would be for us to attempt to alternate screen time with outdoor time.  And especially for children, as my uncle (and long time educator) argues… who might really be in dire need of real-time contact with nature, even perhaps real-time scrapes, cuts, and bruises.  I submit, learning to endlessly re-spawn and teleport back into the fray of electronic life without an actual band-aid or suture, is nice – but what actual life lessons are being learned?  That life is painless, does not have consequences, and is not much of a challenge?  The skillset learned in the electronic world is a certainly valid (even economically valid) in this world – but let us be clear, it has no grounding in the natural world.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the wired world, but the argument is that without a counter balance, ones and zeros can become yet another place to hide from life and our fellows, an inherently false reality – leading eventually to our soul seeking to be righted.

Speaking of the natural world, I want to share some background information about the San Rafael Wilderness where Dan and I camped.  Although it is very remote and rugged – its chaparral, riparian grasslands, and limestone features are stunningly beautiful.  And the water that flows in the Manzana creek, ohh that water is good – creates a well-spring of life and spirit for animals and humans alike.  The San Rafael Wilderness was formed in 1968, changing from its previous designation as a Primitive Area (humans have continuously inhabited the area for 10,000 years), to a wilderness area by the passage of the important 1964 Federal Wilderness Act.  The Wilderness Act, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, contains a beautiful and simple much quoted definition – “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”.

Bingo, where man himself is a visitor, who does not remain… how many places on earth have you been to where you exists as nothing more than a true visitor, and most importantly, couldn’t remain even if you tried?  Ever temporarily inhabit a landscape where you are at the mercy of weather, where food is scare, where water is life or death?  You could use skills learned through Bear Grylls show on the Discovery Channel, “Man vs. Wild”, and try and tough it out, but more than likely you would go into survival mode and hurriedly hike of the massive sun scorched Hurricane Deck of the San Rafael Wilderness.  Then head down into the Manzanna Narrows for shade and water, and then doggedly hoof it out on the trail back to civilization – grateful to be alive (as in fact a young man died recently up on the Hurricane Deck from dehydration after he and a buddy got lost).  Man is tough and resilient, always has been, always will be, but Man is just a visitor.  Our gleaming cities, marble edifice’s, thoughtful civilizations, and comfortable homes lead us to believe that we are permanent residents, but I think not.  We are all temporary, that is a fact.  I believe our highest calling is “temporary caretaker”.  Of what, or whom we choose to temporarily care take becomes the vital question for each of us.  And it is this choice that either connects or separates us from our fellows, and is ultimately what we as humans can build a deep and satisfying life upon. Caretaking of our self is a valid choice, and we all can fall into the negative side of this rut, but what really does over self indulgence contribute – just more of our fancy self?  Gets a bit nauseating being around people only concerned about themselves, doesn’t it?

The next morning, after a creek lullaby and a satisfying sleep, Dan wanted to immerse me deeper into this magical landscape.  We had discussed going out on a day hike (this being our lay over day) to see some Chumash pictographs.  We filled our water supplies up, packed lunches and spent the next 7 hours out amongst the desert plants; scrub oak, chamise, and manzanita.  The location of the pictographs remains secretive due to possible vandals, and I can see why.  Rock art is beautiful, but it’s at the mercy of the world and the elements.  Seeing this specific hundreds year old pictograph Dan and I talked about what this strange creature on the wall might have represented to the possible shaman who drew the figure. This one wasn’t really zoomorphic, it seemed more human like to me, but what the arcing stream is coming out of the hand, is anyone’s guess.  Could it be water?  We had lunch under the shade of a rock overhang, much like I imagine the Chumash hunter-gathers must have done in a different time, in “eternal time”.  Looking out at the arid land I notice the limestone cliffs, the rocks, the crags, they just spill on and on.  If feels amazingly desolate, in a sense lonely, but mostly just insanely real.  I can’t help but feel connected to the men and women who made lives moving through this landscape.  It makes me smile that I marvel at the sky and stars just as they must have.  What we share in common is the belief that there is immense power in the unknowable.  Just as this shaman drew his spirits on the wall I too practice an art that attempts to preserve the fleeting magical spirit world.  I have visions just as he has visions…. At last after a long spell of quiet, a magnificent natural quiet where the only sounds are the breeze and the occasional bird, we gather ourselves and our thoughts and put our boots back on the earth and wind our way back to camp, to the shade and water.

Back to the water, to the well-spring of life and spirit.  The Manzana creek flowing past our primitive campsite is delicious, we drink it unfiltered, but that is because it’s literally a spring with a beginning point in the earth that we can see when we hike up to a higher elevation (Dan has been drinking this water for decades).  It is a heavenly pleasure to drink water directly from the earth as it spills over a small waterfall, and I feel almost odd talking about drinking water, other than to say, it connects me deeply and for me is the essence of spiritual renewal.  This one sentence is what my whole backpacking experience was all about and it strikes me as ironic that I have the least to say about it, I just can’t put the experience of spiritual renewal into words.  However, I can recommend finding out what renews you deeply, in whatever spiritual manner, hopefully involving the natural world, but in no way necessary.  It is one of life’s pleasures not to be missed!


*Because I am writing this out on the Internet, I have to recommend filtering your water here, it would be irresponsible for me to suggest otherwise.  This is about backpacking after all, and in all cases you must filter your water when you are unsure of the source and or upstream conditions.

*Richard Louv – some notations drawn from Dan McCaslin, “Richard Louv, Nature, Fear, and Teachers” 5/17/2012