I’ve driven the 47 miles to Nira Camp on Manzana Creek during hundreds of trips into the Santa Barbara County backcountry since the early 1970s. Nira, therefore, ranks as the best backcountry trailhead for extensive hiking and backpacking.
Situated just a mile below beloved Davy Brown Camp, itself a base for five grand hikes, Nira is the main gateway to the rugged and raw San Rafael Wilderness (originally written N.I.R.A., an acronym for 1933’s National Industrial Recovery Act; see 4-1-1.).
Like everyone, myriad cancellations of social events left me hollow and hanging at home while the blessed rains nonetheless reinvigorated the earth. (The spiritual and mental solution became constant spattered rain-walks on the Westside heading up into Elings Park and wending back down West Valerio Street.)
While driving to the lovely U.S. Forest Service campgrounds at Davy Brown and Nira on the aging and mostly dirt Sunset Valley Road, motorists will encounter two difficult creek crossings in rainy weather.
There aren’t really proper “bridges” at these two spots — one channel just below Davy Brown Camp, the other at Nira on the Manzana — since the 1930s road engineers simply dumped many extra tons (cubic yards) of concrete and paved right over the creek channel where it crosses the road.
Thus, after winter rains, the crumbling asphalt-dirt Sunset Valley track disappears completely from sight, and flooding covers the pavement. Ya just gotta drive through it, risking potholes and any other problems.
Occasionally after heavy rainfall, the road itself becomes impassable, and the Forest Service helpfully lowers the bar at Cachuma Saddle, thus blocking all access to Davy and Nira (see lead photograph).
Even with four-wheel drive on my four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma pickup, a few times I’ve carefully chosen to go all the way back to Santa Barbara rather than “ford” the deluge covering the concrete.
The existing road crossings are so-called “Arizona” road crossings, and years of heavy rains and sedimentation have effectively reduced them to near uselessness. In addition to assisting motorists, the new structures will enable local steelhead trout to pass more easily below the concrete channel-spanning bridges.
“Bridges” actually do stretch over rivers and streams, of course, but the term is also a favored metaphor of poets and artists — and even politicians. Build those bridges back better.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo wrote, “Passion is the bridge that takes you from pain to change,” and my healing passion to wander in the wild soothes some of the 21st-century “pains” I share with many 2022 readers.
Bridges make for an endless smorgasbord of metaphors, like the corpus callosum bridging the two major brain hemispheres, or a span uniting Americans to bridge the huge chasm dividing us today.
Davy Brown himself can serve as a sort of “bridge,” too, by assisting our comprehension of local settler (pioneer) history in our own inland region of California. As a much older man, Brown lived into his 80s and 90s on the other side of Figueroa Mountain along a steady creek, now named after him and his little lean-to shack there.
Born in 1800, Brown served as a cabin boy on an American privateer in the War of 1812 (yes, 1812), and later moved west and rode with Kit Carson and became a famous hunter. Even later he resurfaced in Northern California as a noted grizzly bear killer and provider of provisions for the gold fields.
Brown bridges the imperialistic 19th-century California pioneer ethos and confirms Wallace Stegner’s description of the American West as an “oasis civilization” full of restless seekers and idealistic dreamers.
Beautiful Davy Brown Camp today reflects the man’s keen foresight in choosing a verdant little potrero watered by two vibrant creeks. His insistence on self-reliance stands out as he survives back there to age 96.
I have had my vehicle slew around and end up off the road at the very deep creek crossing just below Davy Brown Camp; hence, I quite welcome these new spans using huge steel I-beams.
About a mile past Davy Brown, the Sunset Valley Road dead-ends at expansive Nira Camp — this rugged car-camping site next to the roaring Manzana Creek also serves as a trailhead for short but also very long backpacking treks into the San Rafael Wilderness.
In Willa Cather’s novel Alexander’s Bridge, the main character, a world-famous bridge-builder, becomes overworked and experiences the infamous “midlife crisis.” It feels like the story resembles 2022’s postmodern blues, not the United States in 1912.
Bartley Alexander finds himself unable to bridge between his engineering competence and the social focus on his marital status. When finally shrieking that “a million details drink you dry,” he is inspecting his troubled Canadian bridge when it collapses and kills him, just as his dual love affairs had collapsed and killed his joy in life.
Alexander’s actual bridge work and the attendant details have driven him horribly, and he’s equally deficient in dealing with human interdependence intricacies; just as in this 21st century we struggle to balance scientific knowledge and social media during a savage pandemic.
Readers who love hiking the backcountry can look forward to much easier and safer creek crossings on Sunset Valley Road after Peter Lapidus Construction completes the work in April. The new structures can function as a wildlife corridor of sorts by facilitating native steelhead trout moving freely up the creeks for spawning. (Note: Sunset Valley Road remains closed at Cachuma Saddle; see lead photograph.)
» Thank you to Peter Lapidus for the bridge construction photographs in this column.
» Willa Cather, Alexander’s Bridge (1912); President Franklin Roosevelt’s successful 1933 “N.I.R.A.” legislation was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935.
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.