I am concerned about the gradual reopening of Santa Barbara and how our community will handle authorities’ requests to continue wearing masks in public as well as on crowded local trails.
There are many Santa Barbarans — and humans on the planet — whose mental states suffer during the lockdown.
We cannot begin to measure the lockdown’s impact on children, their loss of face-to-face school and outdoor playtime, and the economic collapse hurts everyone in the society. It’s like being in exile at home, and after several weeks the negative effects accumulate.
As an outdoors writer and lifetime hiker, I’ve been consistently yodeling to take your children and family into nature on a regular basis. Since I have no cellphone, and no TV at home, I therefore possess more free time to roam the hills — yet the recent mental relief from hiking still astounds me.
My On the Trail columns generally focus on longer hikes beyond the city of Santa Barbara boundaries, but still in our larger Santa Barbara County area. After a limiting health issue at the end of August last year, I wrote more than a dozen columns about local day hikes, and then later car-camping overnights at Davy Brown and Nira Camps in the Los Padres National Forest.
As an aside activity during the coronavirus lockdown, I also began taking note about where the general public chose to park, and how, and which locations bore the brunt of local folk dashing out into nature. Good news: Numbers on the trails are way up!
Gnashing their teeth and wild to get the heck out of town, locals and Los Angeles day-refugees cover our beaches and trails now. My lead photograph from a March 29 column excited too much interest in the distant Nira Trailhead, and a few readers misinterpreted the many vehicles parked there as overload, as if there’d been a huge rave in the forest.
But I was there, and all the backpackers and hikers were easily able to socially distance by spreading out on the 17 miles of the Manzana Creek Trail.
But that was about April 1, and as a public, we had not yet been informed about the effectiveness of wearing masks. The scolds and scientists warn us all the time now to wear masks, and I do so. Please consider wearing a mask on crowded local trails such as Jesusita, Romero, Coldspring and Rattlesnake Canyon.
At the same time, these critics make us realize we can get a litmus test from the parking patterns found at various local hiking venues close to town. I’m excluding the beach sites — On the Trail mostly covers the backcountry hikes and backpacking treks — and focus on the local Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Area parking, especially on the grassy section above Skofield Park (closed at the time of this writing, May 20).
One of the city workers at Skofield Park told me three weeks ago that the weekend numbers going up into Rattlesnake Canyon were remarkably high, few maintained social distancing and very few wore masks.
I hiked the ‘Snake last Sunday starting at 7:30 a.m., and there were perhaps 10 cars parked on the road. When I returned from Tin Shack Meadow after 10:30 a.m., there were several scores of exuberant Santa Barbarans roaming up the trail, old and young, jogging and slogging, and with birdwatchers and botanists happily mixed in.
For some reason, I also saw several intense solo runners, CamelBak waterbag in a shoulder harness, and these young women and men were getting after it with hard workouts on a hot Sunday.
Many happy families also brought their dogs, and it was gratifying to see how owners usually leashed them given the spectacular crowds on the trail. The canines had a blast, too.
Three observations arise, based on this and other ventures up Rattlesnake Trail, and then I pose a more macro question for readers.
Last Sunday, hardly anyone wore a mask on the trail (say, 10 out of 150). I admit that when I go up there during the week, and with no one around, I lower my mask and hike without, but the triangular bandana is very easy to pull up in three to four seconds when other humans appear.
Notably, all the older hikers appeared guilty when they saw my red mask pulled up over over my nose and mouth, and a few of them quickly pulled up their own concealed mask.
I admire the gnarly trail runners who jam up Rattlesnake, and I did so myself for decades. However, Rattlesnake Canyon Trail has mostly narrow path conditions and is literally part of the city of Santa Barbara.
Too often the heavily breathing trail runners would slam past you within inches; if coming from behind, you might not hear them in time to pull up the mask. As an old guy, I don’t mind jumping out of the way, but I see children and dogs and other elderly who really dislike the runners. (Full disclosure, I’m over 70, so I’m certainly more sensitive to the contagiousness of COVID-19 than some others.) Suggestion: Keep running, be able to pull a mask up, and try to avoid the popular Saturday and Sunday mornings.
I made a cursory check in the Rattlesnake Canyon Parking lot on Sunday and found plenty of out-of-town license plates (e.g. Huntington Beach), and also a lot of rental cars, and yet others with out-of-state U.S. license plates. Are these Californians from areas with locked-down trails and beaches coming up for the day (mentioned in the last column), or are these hyper-wealthy urban expats waiting it out in (mostly) virus-free, sultry Santa Barbara?
I compare the very orderly parking at the Skofield Park parking area to the maze of tough-guy trucks and horse-trailers and vans at the Nira Trailhead. It also seems totally cool to stop wearing the mask all the time out on the Manzana Creek Trail, but more risky to avoid wearing it on often-crowded Rattlesnake Canyon Trail.
A final macro sort of issue arises with this question: Is the complete lack of mask-wearing on the Rattlesnake Canyon Trail indicative of the way our general population will behave as we loosen restrictions in town? Will folks scoff at wearing masks downtown? Will the request to wear a mask just seem like a silly remnant restriction, and many, especially men, will just say the hell with it?
Without more widespread testing, adequate trace testing and a viable vaccine, it’s more scientific and much more sensible to wear the darned mask while out hiking on crowded local trails.
— 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 the 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 additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.