The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford
“It is the aroma I remember best. The sharp smell of greasewood, sagebrush and ceanothus is so powerful that it seems almost as hard to penetrate as the chaparral itself. Its richness envelops you and stains your hair and clothes and memory with fragrance.
Off in some faintly scented wilderness in Idaho, where there are lakes and peaks that will not be seen here until the coastal range uplifts for a few more years, I have caught a whiff of that aroma and been instantly awash in nostalgia, longing for that spare, glamorless wilderness back of Santa Barbara....”
Michael Parfait, Santa Barbara Magazine
On a warm spring or summer day there is no finer place to spend an afternoon than along one of Santa Barbara’s many creeksides. The rock is hot from the sun, perfect to lie back on and relax, and after a plunge in the chilling apple-green water, it feels good to lie back and absorb it the sun’s energy. The weariness of the hike will begin to drain away, and the frantic pace which always seems to be the rule back in the city will start to evaporate.
It is a lazy, unpretentious way to enjoy the mountain wall and its hidden treasures. Resting on the coarse sandstone, so many years in the making, it is possible to assimilate the sense of deep time silently offered to you.
Light filters through the oak leaves in canyon country. Beneath, in their shade are smaller shafts with bulbous, bright-red flower pods known as hummingbird sage, and the intense nuclear yellows of the bush poppy. In the springtime these wildflowers create a Mondrian landscape of pastels which soften and give vibrance to the countryside. There are also the honeydew oranges of the sticky monkeyflower, plumes of goldenrod, long vines of morning glory, and clusters of the odorous pearly everlasting.
Life in the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains begins in the canyons, the corridors into the mountain wall most often visited by Santa Barbarans, thin creases of abundance, a land where wealth is measured in terms not of hard currency but in liquid. Water is the life force here. I have spent many an afternoon hiking in the canyons of the front and back country and what draws me back is this liquid gold and its cascading sound as gravity pulls it down to the sea. “If there be magic on this planet, it is contained in water,” scientist Loren Eisley wrote. “Water....its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future.”
The canyons are places that seem to allow an easier life. The vegetation literally has its feet in the water, and as a result, the leaves are larger and greener than in other plant communities, for these plants can afford to transpire more freely than their chaparral neighbors, which live but a hundred or more feet above.
The Plant Communities
The canyon community has three distinct layers to it. At the top is the canopy, composed of the long branches of bay, willow, sycamore, and alder, and in the higher parts of the canyons, an occasional bigleaf maple. This overstory provides the shade, coolness, and humidity necessary to the lower layers. Next are the shrubs, including coffeeberry, elderberry, currant, the ubiquitous poison oak, and the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, which has brilliant red teardrop-shaped flowers with white inner petals.
Also in this middle layer are blackberry, wild rose, and the sunshine brightness of the canyon sunflower. Beneath is the herbacious layer, including a number of plants which can be classified as fire followers, plants that prosper in the years immediately after fire has swept through an area. Among the herbacious plants are miner’s lettuce, hummingbird sage, cream cups, buttercup, lupine, brodiaea, shooting stars, blue-eyed grass, nightshade, watercress, and mint.
Here the abundance is nowhere more evident than in the numbers of small creatures which inhabit the canyons. To think of wildlife in the mountains one usually thinks of the big creatures: the bear, the lion, the bobcat, or the coyote. But these are creatures more of open country, the grasslands, the wider canyon bottoms, the higher country where the brush is sparser. In the deeper canyons, and especially in the chaparral, the thickets and the interlacings of ceanothus, manzanita, toyon, and scrub oak serve to keep the big life out. The chaparral, as the canyons, are worlds of small dimensions and the little creatures.
The Little Creatures
In the late spring, the creeks run in volume, with alder leaves accumulate on the surface in places. Some sweep on downstream while others sink as they become waterlogged, and there is a thick layer decaying on the bottom, providing rich nutrients for the small life—the water skaters, the pincher beetles, and the like.
In the canyons of the Santa Ynez Mountains the water falls fast, racing downhill, rarely traveling more than a few hundred yards before pouring into the next pool. The steepness of the mountain wall, an angle of nearly 50 degrees behind the city, and the constrictions of the resistant sandstone layers causes a pool-drop effect, and inbetween, where the shales prevail, a number of quieter pools exist, which are perfect havens for the insect world.
The hum of the crickets is steady, and like the sound of the ocean, the din does not seem to come from any one direction. Curiously, the sound is more conspicuous when it stops and the canyon becomes intensely quiet by comparison.
Though they are pitifully small, the water skaters cast monstrous shadows beneath them. But when they propel themselves across the water, they become as graceful as ballet dancers, moving in short spurts with a steady breaststroke. If you look closely, you can see that they rest not in the water but on its surface tension, looking somewhat like miniature trimarans.
Viewed from the perspective of a child, this is an exciting world, and on even closer inspection, face pressed close to the surface of the pool, you can see that it is not a sterile place, as might have been guessed, but is teeming with life. The skaters have greatly elongated legs and their feet have oil glands which help keep them water-resistant. The surface does not appear strong, yet it must be like a thin, stretched membrane, because the feet of these bugs make tiny depressions in the film.
While this membrane supports and sustains some insects, it constitutes a barrier to others, which do not have the body weight to plunge through it. The water boatmen and the backswimmers make their way back and forth from bottom to surface. Their bodies are coated with water-repelling hairs so that a thin film of air encases each, making them look as if they have been coated with silver. They also have specialized rowing equipment, including elongated hind legs which are covered with hair, making them highly efficient oars. Both look like mini-subs, but while the boatmen swim right-side-up, the backswimmers, as their name implies, move in an upside-down position, which allows them to drift up under their prey.
Other insects, like the dragonfly larvae, are aquatic in their infancy and airborne as adults. The larvae has gills and uses its legs to crawl about or to stalk prey, but if alarmed, it draws water into its rectum and forcibly expels it, creating a unique sort of jet propulsion.
Lying on the pool’s bottom, the larvae do not look like the sort of creatures that will metamorphose into the world’s most efficient flying machines, but they are as predaceous, perhaps preparing themselves for their future role as top hunters in the insect world. If you look closely on the stalks of poolside vegetation, you will see the shells of those larvae that have made it beyond the water’s surface and been transformed into delicate-winged dragonflies.
Home of the Long Legs
Just below the upper pools in Cold Springs Canyon, there is a large alder I have climbed many times. It houses a colony of a favorite of mine, the daddy-long legs in a two-foot diameter tree decorated with numerous carvings. They are monuments to young lovers who have passed by, I suppose. (I wonder whether Rog and Dena are still together, or whether their initials are all that remain of a brief high school fling. And what of Adolph and Laura, who stood under this tree on 8-11-74?).
Alders are wonderful trees. Their bark is smooth, pearl grey, the leaves like green jewels against the azures of the sky. The branches break off easily, I can promise you from experience, but that seems to add something to their looks, a scattering of what appear to be owl’s eyes etched into the trunks where there were once limbs.
Directly in front of me, in the pocket of one of these eyes are the daddy-long legs, their message clear: the more you explore, and the closer you look, the more you see. They lie completely still, bodies huddled together, legs jumbled one over the other, so that I can’t tell which legs belong to which. One leg waves in the air like a solitary antenna as if taking in surrounding stimuli.
The spiders are always close at hand in the canyon as evidenced by the silk of their webs etched in geometric patterns near our sunbathing spot. I must confess that I do not know my spiders, but I am always fascinated by the sizes and shapes and the colorings of those that inhabit the Santa Ynez Mountains. They are not insects, as many people think, but rather belong to the class Arachnida, making them closer relatives of the scorpion and the tick than of the fly or bee.
In the morning dew, their webs are strikingly beautiful, and though I have often cursed these tiny creatures after catching an invisible web full in the face, I am thankful for their existence—if for no other reason than they eliminate the pesky chaparral flies faster than I can.
Newts and Skinks
In one of the upper pools is another favorite of mine, the water dog, or the Pacific Coast newt, a yellow-orange creature that seems to cling to the bottoms of the pools. Actually this newt is a salamander, but a salamander with a difference, because it has a rough, dry skin which makes it pleasant to handle, as I often did when I was little.
The Pacific Coast newt is an amphibian, a relative of frogs and toads, and one one which demonstrates one of the basic principles of the canyon—that much of the life is adapted both for water and for land. The newt begins life as one of a cluster of about sixteen eggs in a pool. The eggs hatch into tiny babies with gills for breathing underwater, where they remain for over a year. Then they lose the gills and start to breathe by means of lungs. Thereafter they must surface for air every few minutes.
After forsaking its aquatic home, the newt becomes a land dweller, living in damp, woodsy places. In the spring, when the wet season comes, it responds to the rain, returning to its original home to breed. I have seen this occur several times beneath the surface of a quiet pool, male clinging to the back of the female, their coloring so closely matching that of the layers of leaves littering the bottom, that the delicate process often goes unnoticed.
The skink, one of the bright jewels of nature, a slim-bodied lizard which flashes suddenly on the trailside, is often found in environments similar to those inhabited by the newt. A study in water-colored mixtures of beige, black, cream, and flourescent blue, the skink seems to appear out of nowhere, then as suddenly it disappears in a blaze. Its scales are tiny, smooth and very shiny, accenting its colorings, and it is so slick that it looks like it has been dipped in a glossy varnish. The back of the skink is brown. It is bordered on either side with black and cream lines and its long slim tail is a strikingly brilliant blue. Clearly it is the most beautiful of the chaparral lizards.
Just overhead is the chaparral, a sterile environment by comparison to that found in the canyons. Because it is dry, dull, and difficult to pass through, the chaparral is difficult to appreciate. The key element in the chaparral life cycle is fire, and nature has preadapted this scrubby brush to respond to the slightest spark. It is not uncommon for fuel moistures to drop to 8 to 13 percent during summer drought periods or during Santa Ana conditions. In addition, the close spacing and continuity of the cover and the high surface-to-volume ratios in the chaparral community leads to a high percentage of available fuel.
Over time, the ratio of dead fuel to live plant material increases dramatically. For example, by age 30 often as much as 50 percent of the standing mass of the chaparral is dead, and dry material litters the ground. Where such conditions exist over large mountainous expanses, fires, when ignited, tend to be quite large.
Though the chaparral seems tough on the surface, it is actually a very delicately balanced community, well adapted to water stress. Over many millions of years, the chaparral has evolved an equilibrium between water conservation and water use. One of the adaptive features is the solid continuity of the brush cover and its nearly uniform height, which helps minimize evaporation and retain winter moisture through the long summer months of water deprivation. Holding fast to this soil moisture in the summertime is critical, and the even mantle acts like a blanket that protects the soil from wind and solar radiation.
While the cover tends to mimimize soil moisture loss, the leaf structure of the chaparral plants is sclerophylous, which means it is well adapted to resist water loss. Some plants, like scrub oak or holly-leaf cherry, have a heavy wax cuticle on the leaves and stems, which helps reduce water loss. On other plants, dense mats of hairs serve the same function. Another adaptation is vertical orientation of leaves, or, as in the case of sugar bush, the leaves are curled so that they do not receive sunlight directly. The greyish color of plants like white or purple sage or yerba santa also reduces the heating up of the plant tissues. Further, sunken stomata on the leaves of these plants help make water loss mimimal.
Most of the leaves of the chaparral plants are also desiccation-tolerant, which means that the leaf structure resists damage during long dry periods. Nevertheless there are limits to the length of time these plants can survive water stress and many are drought deciduous as well. Often, after 100 days or more of prolonged drought, many begin to lose their leaves, bringing evaporation loss almost to a halt. Plants that drop their leaves commonly develop smaller leaves on side shoots of the main stems, and it is these tiny leaves that enable them to persist through extended drought.
Most chaparral plants produce chemicals that inhibit other plants from invading their territory. Through a process called allelopathy, the chemicals invade the soil from the leaf litter and prevent roots of other plants from competing for the soil moisture. These toxins are so potent that in some cases, as with the bush poppy or certain species of ceanothus, the spaces that they occupy may remain open and uninvaded 20 to 40 years after they have been killed off by wildfire.
The main adaptation of the chaparral to its arid conditions, however, is its response to fire, which initiates a new cycle of plant succession. In the hard chaparral the buildup of dead plant material tends to ensure the continuity of fire, while in the softer chaparral it is the volatile and highly flammable oils that do so.
Afer a fire, annuals and short-lived perennials, called fire followers, temporarily dominate the hillsides, producing spectacular displays of wildflowers. In about two to five years after a fire though, almost all of these species stop growing and their spaces are usually taken by the expanding canopies of the resprouting or regrowing chaparral shrubs. The seeds of these herbaceous fire followers persist in the soil until released by heat from the next wildfire.
Once a shrub occupies the space held by the fire followers, it physically dominates that site, primarily because of its allelopathy. Not until the next fire will the cycle begin anew. Viewed on a linear scale, the chaparral life cycle can be seen as a series of “pulses”, each initiated by fire. Removal of the older brush by intense wildfires that occasionally sweep across the mountain wall is not just an adversity that these plants must overcome, but a necessary part of their life cycle. Unlike some other ecosystems, which require many years to redevelop a healthy diversity once fire has disturbed them, the chaparral is actually healthiest and contains the widest variety of plant and animal species in the years immediately after fire. The concern is not so much if chaparral will recover after fire, or how long it will take, but rather how rapidly the ecosystem will decline if fire is withheld.
Woven through the almost impenetrable tangle are the trails of smaller animals, though without fire, the wildlife does not fare well. As the fuel volume of the chaparral increases, its food productivity decreases. Wildfire prunes out the dead wood, causes rapid regrowth, and permits the spread of annuals and herbs, which are retarded by the thick overstory. Generally, fire favors wildlife by resetting the botanical time clock back a notch to earlier periods of plant succession, thus forcing the vegetation to produce more food.
Almost anywhere off-trail you can see the effect of this fire ecology directly. The branches of the stiff-twigged shrubs make passage within this habitat difficult. Except for the recent Painted Cave Fire, these mountains have not burned in the past two decades, and except for the outer edges of the bushes, most of the limbs are dead. The chaparral plants grow only at their tips.
It wasn’t until I began to spend time wandering off-trail, crawling through the chaparral, or sneaking up undiscovered canyons looking for new experiences that I began to see the wildlife.
The amount to be seen often is in direct proportion to the time spent away from the trails, and most definitely in the value placed on the smaller creatures, for this elfin forest harbors the little things. Mostly it requires patience, and the ability to sit for long periods of time, immersed in the chaparral, to let the life come to you.
My favorite are the chaparral birds, somewhat subtle in appearance. As California bird habitats go, the chaparral harbors relatively few species. Though it produces great numbers of plants, there are few plant types, and as a wildlife habitat it is rather uniform and monotonous.
Because of the density of the brush, many of the birds that reside here are specially suited to life within and beneath the chaparral. Near ground level are surface dwellers such as the California thrasher, the Rufous-sided towhee, the brown towhee and the mountain quail, whose running ability enables it to dash through the narrow avenues in the vegetation. It is a pleasure to lie stretched beneath the chaparral and watch these birds scamper about as they forage through the leaf litter for seeds, insects, and other invertebrates.
Living in the canopy itself are the Bewick’s wren, orange-crowned warblers and lazuli bunting. When the vegetation is healthy, this layer of the chaparral produces vast quantities of food. Buds, berries, cherries, nuts, seeds, bulbs, corms, and flower leaves are all available. Insects add further to the rich diet afforded these birds, and it is not surprising that, despite therelatively few species, there are large numbers of birds here.
Seasons in the chaparral differ from the norm. The primary season for plant growth and flowering occurs between March and May, and this season might be likened to summer elsewhere. June and July can be considered as autumn. The hot, dry months of August, September, and early October, during which no new growth occurs, is essentially winter. Spring really commences with the first rains in November or early December and continues until the rainy season ends in early April, it warms, and the new plant life shoots forth. It is then that the highly vocal but elusive wren-tit seems to sing at its best.
Minstrel of the Chaparral
What is it about the song of the wren-tit, a bird you rarely see, that so gladdens the heart and opens the soul? “Peep peep peep-pee-pee-peepeepepeprrrrr,” the well-hidden wren-tit exclaims, a sound that soars over the chaparral.
Friends often ask what bird makes the loud, ringing call that comes with surprising suddenness from the nearby bushes, for though they have looked carefully, they cannot spot it. Even if one knows the wren-tit is close by, it is not easy to see this brush dweller, for it rarely leaves the endless expanse of twigs to come into the open at the top or on the ground below. Only patience will bring them to you, and enough time to arouse the bird’s inquisitive nature. With practice they can be glimpsed, but even then it is never easy to see or follow them for any distance. I prefer to let this bird remain unobserved and am content just to sit and listen to it sing.
The wren-tit is a curious bird. Individuals probably never go more than a few miles from the place of their birth, and once they have established a nest, they spend most of the remainder of their lives on the half to two-and-a-half acres used during the first nesting. Once mated, a pair of wren-tits remains together as long as both are alive, and they are constant companions. Together they flit continually through their limited territory searching for food, keeping in touch with each other by frequent calls. The male often pauses to sing, and in turn other males echo back, creating a thrilling series of calls.
The habitat is such that most of the wren-tit’s movements are a series of hops or flights of a few feet from one twig to the next. Individuals do not cross open spaces of even 30 or 40 feet either readily or often; a flight of a hundred feet or more is a monumental journey. The wren-tits find their food principally on the bark surfaces of the chaparral plants, and only occasionally will they venture out onto the fruiting stems or surfaces of the leafy plants. Rarely do they descend to the ground.
It is after mating that their songs become especially sweet. About 20 minutes after sunrise, the male awakes and begins to sing from his roosting perch. The female responds with her call, and this is repeated often. Then in 10 or 15 minutes the male comes to a branch near the nest. When he is within a few inches, the female leaves, off in search of food. In another 15 or 20 minutes she returns and the male then leaves. He sings almost at once and frequently while he forages and patrols his territory, and then again when he approaches the nest.
Similar exchanges continue throughout the day in shifts that gradually lengthen to 45 or 60 minutes at midday and again shorten toward sunset. Finally, when the female returns near sunset, no more exchanges occur, and the male turns once again to his nesting perch, where he sings his last nighttime song.
The sound bursts forth in quick repetition, a series of whistle-like notes, all on the same pitch, at decreasing intervals until they run together into a trill, “pit—pit— pit—pit—pit-tr-r-r-r-r.” It is the elusive sound of the chaparral, which hides more than it reveals. What it reveals it does so in small bits and pieces, each small piece drawing one a little bit closer to it.
A couple passes, more intent on each other than the setting. Then two boys, about twelve, with fishing poles and knapsacks, carefree in their adventurism. The drone of a plane crosses overhead. After it is swallowed by a distant ridgeline, the sound of two jays in the brush emerges--a series of squawks, catcalls, and screeches—in sharp contrast to the sweet sound of the ever-pervading rush of water.
Though it is late spring, the creek near which Kevin and I lie still runs in volume. Had I not been bitten on the toe by a giant water bug, which probably did not appreciate my presence in its pool, we might have stayed all afternoon. As if a signal to move on, Kevin and I head on up the canyon, to extend our journey a mile or so farther, before turning back. But as often happens, the desire possesses us to see what lies beyond the next corner. Then the next. And the next.
Before we know it, we are far enough beyond our intended destination that we cannot make it back down before dark. Somewhere above us is Montecito Peak, and an upper trail. Should we try for it, though it means a half hour of brush-busting? Or should we stay within the security of the canyon?
We are at a fork in the creek where a large, twin-trunked alder rises overhead. We measure the pros and cons of our choices, but in the end there really no choice to be made. Our sense of enthusiasm pushes us on; we have gone too far to stop now. But which fork? The right one seems to head more directly to last glance and on it I see a series of carvings many years old.
The first exclaims, “J.P laid Martee here.“
The second retorts, “B___ S____!“
The third, probably the most accurate of all, simply says, “He’s only wishing.“
We laugh and head up into the chaparral.
Scrambling up the bank of the right fork, I am already beginning to regret our decision to continue on. This is alluvial soil, built up behind layers of Matilija Sandstone whose narrows have caused it to act as a natural catch basin for sediments. The soil is rich and loamy and it supports a small grove of live oaks. It would be a welcome place to rest if it weren’t for the poison oak. The three-lobed leaves are huge and they glisten, their oily sheen filled with itchy promises. Poison oak lines the canyon sides, and as anyone who has ventured offtrail in any of them can testify, you rarely make it through the dreaded vines untouched. These are especially frustrating—the branches just far enough apart to make me think I can sidestep my way through them, but not far enough to let me actually do it.
Finally we crash through, hoping obliquely to minimize our contact, the oak verdant testimony that beyond here there will be no turning back. Then it is up a dry streambed, scrambling under dead branches and around bushes that have been washed down. For fifteen minutes I become lost in the immediacy of the climb. Even in the shade the sweat pours off me, for though it is cooler, it is also more humid and I feel more like a damp sponge in this shadowy sauna.
We are in the chaparral now and it is it is clogged with dead material. T he effort to move forward becomes a real challeng. Kevin and I are in the hard chaparral and we see the effect of the fire ecology directly. The branches of the stiff-twigged, shrubs make passage within this habitat difficult for us. It hasn’t burned in the past two decades, and except for the outer edges of the bushes, most of the limbs are dead. Woven through the almost impenetrable tangle are the trails of smaller animals, and though it is quiet and I see nothing, I know they are nearby.
The bed narrows and steepens, a rocky “V” no more than an arm’s width wide and waist deep. No longer can we stand fully upright, and eventually we are reduced to a crawl as the ceanothus, chaparral pea, and other thorny plants hem us in. As we move farther away from the main canyon, farther into the wildness of the chaparral, an uncertainty begins to creep into my consciousness.
Though it appears that we are nearly halfway to the trail, in actuality we are a long ways from help. I wonder about the wiseness of our decision to head into the brush alone, and I begin to ask myself the “what if” sorts of questions. Like: What if we come upon a rattlesnake right now? The local variety is known as the Western Pacific rattlesnake, a smaller and less potent version of the diamondback, but venemous nonetheless.
“In the thicker chaparral the rattlesnakes don’t always crawl on the ground,” a friend named Russ, who owns a ranch in the Refugio area, once told me. “They crawl through the branches.” Continually I look back up over my head to see if I am being followed.
There is also the realization that no one knows we are up here. Neither of us has told anyone where we will be going, and if we do not show up at home tonight, I wonder, who will know where to look for us? Presently the chaparral seems neither refreshing nor inviting, more prison than paradise.
But we are nearing a ridge line, where the going is usually easier, and I begin to feel better. When we reach it, when we crawl—scratched, bruised, with clothes torn—onto the high point, a bitter disappointment awaits us.
This is not a ridge that will take us up to the trail, but a cliff. Another fork of the main creek has eaten around behind the one we have chosen to follow, usurping it, cutting it and us off, so to speak, at the pass.
Though Montecito Peak lies in full view, less than half an air mile away, we must descend the cliff, downclimb a steep, overgrown side canyon, and in the darkness make our way up another hillside of chaparral. For even now the light is fading.
I am tired. I am hungry. I am thirsty. But most of all I just want to be done. The fun is long past, the adventure has disappeared. It is now no more than a forced march.
The descent down the cliff and the side canyon is done faster than safety would normally dictate, but we hurry despite the possible danger. Then it is up the far wall, no longer worrying our way in and out of the brush to minimize the damage done to us by the resistant vegetation. We crawl quickly, pushing, clawing, tearing at the bushes, no longer caring about the consequences.
Two-thirds of the way up we stop, on the verge of exhaustion, to rest, to bid the day goodbye, to prepare ourselves for the night. I look over at Kevin. The sparkle is gone from his eyes. His face is smudged with dirt. The sleeve of his T-shirt is torn in several places and he is panting from the effort. Oak leaves and assorted grime sticks to the nape of his sweaty neck, and he looks more the chimney sweep at this moment.
I feel an ant on me and before I can brush it off it bites me, painfully. Nothing seems to be going right. Angry, I crush it between my fingers, and an acrid odor emanates from it, formic acid which renders the ant inedible to most animals. Just then a lemon-yellow banana slug captures my attention as it stretches to bridge the gap between two rocks.
I pick it up and put it in the palm of my hand. After perhaps a minute it pokes a series of eyes out from beneath a lighter yellow, helmet-shaped head. There are four of them, and they emerge slowly, hesitantly, ready to retreat at the slightest peril. The lower of the two pair are smaller, used more as feelers to probe what lies in front of them, and they pop in and out as they encounter my fingers.
It leaves a trail of slime on my hand as it moves, creating a lubricated thoroughfare for itself, and this is what seems most to make the banana slug disagreeable. Surprisingly though, what I most remember about the slug is the feel of the rhythmic contractions that allow it to move across my palm. They are sensuous to the touch.
I place the banana slug on the ground and for several more handfuls of minutes Kevin and I watch its progress. Though its forward movement is painfully slow, the slug glides along, in, under, around, and over pieces of decaying wood, leaves, and stones without the slightest disturbance. In its own way the banana slug is both graceful and delicate.
When I look up, some of the fatigue has gone. It has helped to rest for awhile, to let my breath catch up, but mostly it is this unexpected reward that brightens the moment. It is now sunset, and the canopy is silhouetted black, but through it I can see bits and pieces of orange and yellow on the horizon. Suddenly the chaparral does not seem so confining, our predicament so awful.
In places such as this is the essence of the chaparral. There is no way around it. To know the chaparral you must confront it directly. Caught in its midst, alone, no roads near, the smell of it sunk to my core, I get a whiff of some deeper meaning.
Listening to the sound of nothing as it passes by, feeling the day ebb away, knowing there is an hour, or more, of hardship ahead, I also begin to realize that there is no easy way out of this moment either. But I like it that way. For me, it isn’t until surrounded by it that the meaning of the chaparral really begins. What is it, you ask? Who knows? These are the sort of things that each of us must make for themselves.
Fortunately, from here the way is less difficult. Before long we are on the trail, and we collapse, savoring the firm openness of the path. Lying back, shoulders on the upper slopes of Montecito Peak, with the lights of Santa Barbara in front of us, twinkling in the haze, I feel a goodness inside of me that could have come from no other experience than one just like this.
Later one evening, when browsing through a favorite book of mine by Selden Spaulding, Camping in Our Mountains, which describes his exploration of the Santa Barbara back country as a boy, I saw a passage which described this experience perfectly:
“Looking back now on these escapades it is hard for me to see what fun there was in them for us. Invariably, after such an exporation, we arrived at our homes scratched and torn and utterly weary; yet there was always the feeling in our breasts that we had done something fine that day and there was always the undiminished enthusiasm for another such adventure.”