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Thursday, March 21 , 2019, 7:47 pm | Partly Cloudy 55º


Dan McCaslin: Reyes Peak and the Reyes Peak Trail Offer a Spiritual Journey

Awe-inspiring beauty is just one of the many joys on this path of transcendence


Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s thoughts about homo sapiens and nature’s role in human thinking have deeply affected many of us today in this Anthropocene Age. His concept of “exclusive humanism” and the three historic “waves” of secularity washing over the West help explain some of the reverential attitude to the wilderness I often see out on the trails.

While atop forested Reyes Peak on Sunday, I meditated on the joy found in wilderness immersion by scribbling notes in my field journal based on recent readings of Taylor's work that kept reverberating: “The idea that nature has something to say to us hovers there in our culture, too far out for the buffered identity to be comfortable with, but powerful enough to be evoked in a number of indirect ways — in art, in our feelings of renewal as we enter countryside or forest …” (A Secular Age, page 358).

I do link these columns to a fervent belief — yes, a faith — that walking along quiet trails far from town will indeed give the walker more energy, augmented mental clarity and additional spiritual stimulation vs. pigging out on the couch watching sports on your huge flat-screen television.

Nibbling a sandwich and enjoying pure water at glorious 7,514-foot, conifer-laden Reyes Peak — the tallest mountain between Big Pine Mountain and Mount Pinos (Chumashan Iwihinmu) — you obtain transcendent vistas in almost every direction.

While it was a fairly hazy day, some of the haze did burn off by noon; we could see north to the unique San Emigdiano mesa and then east to Pinos, Abel and the sacred Cuddy Valley where very colorful rock art lurks. Some of this haze may have come from the 200-acre Wasioja Fire in the Cuyama Valley.

The day trip to Reyes Peak Camp and the Reyes Peak Trail requires a two-hour drive out along the very scenic Maricopa Highway (Highway 33) from Ojai, then past the prominent Rose Valley turnoff culminating at the Pine Mountain recreation area (right) turn.

Driving slowly along this well-paved mountain road, you encounter two excellent U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, each with six camping spots: Pine Mountain Camp, and then about 6 miles in my favorite, picturesque Reyes Peak Campground with handy fire pits and wooden tables.

There are three pleasant springs around this 6,800-foot campground (actual Reyes Peak is about a mile east): McGuire Spring, Raspberry Spring and, of course, the magical Chorro Grande Springs down a very steep mile on the south side from the tables. Campers I met on Sunday said Chorro Grande wasn’t grande at all; in fact, it was a mere seep.

Be sure to bring water for hiking or camping up here. Getting down to Raspberry or McGuire springs involves an effort and lugging a lot of water back if these water sources are actually flowing now.

I’ve enjoyed many days and nights car-camping at Reyes Peak Campground with my partner and young son, and it’s a compelling family camping magnet that also can furnish glimpses of the transcendent.

We drove slowly past Reyes Creek Camp — all sites occupied but one — another mile or so on a dirt continuation and stopped where the road ended at the Reyes Peak Trailhead. There were two cars there when Mr. C and I arrived at 9 a.m., and we saw a restroom as well as good interpretive signage from the Forest Service.

After hiking a short distance on the closed portion of the dirt fire road, you see signs indicating you are now on the sloping Reyes Peak Trail, and the trusty Tom Harrison Sespe Wilderness map reveals it’s 5.8 miles downhill to Haddock Camp on Piedra Blanca Creek.

From Haddock — where I’ve taken Crane Country Day School students backpacking — it’s another 2 miles or so to Three-Mile Camp and another 2 miles to Pine Mountain Lodge.

However, we press straight up the mountainside following our plan to ascend across the ridge to Reyes Peak itself. After trudging uphill for only 30 minutes, passing a first mini peak, we see Reyes and the jumble of giant boulders, as well as some old remnants of the former fire lookout there (burned down in the September 1932 Matilija Fire).

The pines afford good shade, so we gnawed on lunch, as noted, and enjoyed the uplifting vistas. While fairly warm, a consistent gentle breeze with cool air kept it very pleasant and blew the insects away. There is a round sign-in box there as well as a U.S. Geological Survey geodetic survey marker.

Although three young guys climbed up to our resting spot in the eyrie at the apex, they were relaxed and quiet, and also seemed to be open for some glimmerings of transcendence. Taylor contends that in today’s utterly materialistic world view, we’ve somehow managed to eliminate the possibility of transcendence.

Our “buffered selves” exist in an enclave of exclusive humanism that makes “faith” a minor option among many.

How we choose to inhabit our materialistic universe hinges on the way one construes transcendence: Do you see the transcendent as “a threat, a dangerous temptation or a distraction”? Or do you view the transcendent as “answering to our deepest craving, need [and] fulfillment of the good?” (A Secular Age, page 548).

In the 21st century’s flattened and digitalized post-modern California, all of us ruled by Google and Amazon.com, finding a path to transcendence, to the genuine ground of existence, literally restores mental health and spiritual vitality.

Whereas the existentialists and Sartre preached that "existence precedes essence" (l'existence précède l'essence), in today’s haunted world perhaps we need to cling to essence and the possibility of transcendence in order to survive psychologically as well as physically.

These ideas connect with hiking up to Reyes Peak because without some tincture of belief in the transcendent (or other worlds, or alternate realities, or Schrödinger’s cat, or von Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or …), because without a faith or hidden faith in something outside ourselves, many westerners are adrift and suffering anomie.

And hey, just exercising in the gym or the backyard without transcendence often doesn’t work out at all. In the last column, we read Jane Brody’s bald comment that barely 20 percent of Americans even get the minimal 30 minutes of recommended daily exercise.

The motivational part of getting outside and on your legs may be more difficult than the locomotion itself once you have started. Many spiritual counselors will tell us that ignition is the key: Getting off that couch or out of your office, biking or driving to the trailhead, requires enormous willpower and constant practice.

Awe-inspiring beauty can lend a whiff of transcendence into your thinking and lead to greater desire to get outside and on the trail. All along the Maricopa Highway after Ojai, we noted amazing wildflowers blossoming right on the roadside for miles and miles, including the rightly famous Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri).

These “tree poppies” are native and grow to 8 feet tall. The white and gold paper-mache flowers last on the stalk for weeks.

Miles of Matilija poppies and golden yellow bushes lined the driving portion, setting the tableau for beautiful air, cool breeze, enchanting easy hiking and … an unending quest for transcendence in this dystopian Anthropocene we face today.

Ventures like climbing Reyes Peak are particularly inspiring for the young, so ponder taking your children there next weekend!


» Map and books: Tom Harrison's Sespe Wilderness Trail Map; Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1992) and A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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