A hiker heads to Matilija Falls behind Ojai.
A hiker heads to Matilija Falls behind Ojai. It can be lifesaving to follow the standard safety guidelines when out in the wilderness. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

“Adjacentcy” (not adjacency) explains a crucial hiking issue that trail walkers should anticipate, but I’m afraid some casual day hikers may not have considered.

Adjacentcy in our new Anthropocene Age defines the way densely populated California urban zones lie right next to wild areas and wilderness preserves.

Within Los Padres National Forest’s nearly 2 million acres, five specific wilderness zones butt up against the coastal frontcountry (including urban Santa Barbara as well as Goleta, Ojai, much of the Santa Ynez Valley and Solvang). When local day hikers rush out into “the wild” — activities I’ve celebrated for more than 45 years as a teacher, a hike leader and an outdoor columnist — it’s easy to forget that these are actually wild zones, however close to town they may be. I’m aware that readers may think, “Oh, isn’t that obvious, Dan?!”

Wallace Stegner famously called the American West an “oasis civilization,” and he was right in stressing our limited water resources and the enormous distances between towns. However, in the times he describes (Stegner died at an advanced age in 1993), the settlers did not have cellphones, emergency beacons or Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue available to them.

Let’s look at a tragic case from March 2014 along the Cold Springs Trail when two day hikers ambled out about two miles toward the base of Tangerine Falls (Montecito) late in the day. One hiker, 22-year-old Saylor Guilliams, severely injured her ankles, and her friend and partner, 22-year-old Brendan Vega, tended to her as evening fell. Many of us have trudged around Tangerine Falls, where the paths are notoriously complicated and even misleading, including several sections with steep drops on one side. Unable to get cell reception, after dark Vega valiantly set out to find help — imagine, one knows the car is not more than two miles away, just two miles.

One story I’ve heard is that the couple used their only cellphone’s light in order to see in the cold, dark night and thus depleted the battery. I do know there are spots along the Cold Spring Trail where there is occasional cellphone reception, but by the time Vega might have wandered into such a spot the battery was dead. In the end, the next day, casual hikers heard the woman moaning for help and contacted SBCSAR, who rescued her (two broken ankles and a broken wrist). On their way out, the rescuers then spotted Vega’s body on a ledge 20 to 30 feet below the sketchy trail.

That situation highlights the challenge of adjacentcy in our time.

I confess that adjacentcy is my own neologism, a new word intended to highlight this novel situation in our on-rushing Anthropocene Age. Today, so many more of us are crammed into expanding urban and suburban areas. This is the time of the megalopolis with 37 million living in Tokyo and another 30 million dwelling in Delhi. With such multitudes of folks jammed into burgeoning cities, many suddenly become frantic to escape from urban confines and flee into the near backcountry.

Vega and his friend were exceedingly close to Mountain Drive and the Cold Springs Trail trailhead, and they relied on cellphone technology plus the proximity to a road, neglecting to appreciate the late hour they set out and the cold weather of March. Because it was late and cold, unluckily there were no other hikers around to hear their faint cries for help.

We have much less dense population in California than in Japan, of course, and I am agèd enough to recall when the state had 14 million residents (1957), whereas today it’s officially 38 million, but certainly higher in fact. We entrapped humans need to bust out into raw nature, bringing our families, but some of us forget there is little middle ground between city and wild.

Locally, we may chant our “rush outdoors” mantra and head for the arid backcountry such as the San Rafael Wilderness, but this new trail safety problem has emerged: Awareness of adjacentcy helps define the challenge.

In our early 21st century postmodern confusion and intended chaos, as human walkers we face situations where raw nature now directly abuts the urban zone, with little to no intermediate ground. Haven’t you read about the bear in downtown Solvang or in Winchester Canyon? Last year, I witnessed a large bear rushing through Campo Alto on Mount Cerronoroeste, and reader William Fincher sent me a photo of a bear this June wandering along the Trespass Trail (Gaviota Peak).

We lull ourselves into complacency, and honestly disrespect nature, when we tell ourselves that our proximity to “civilization” or our cellphones and emergency beacons mean we don’t have to undertake wilderness precautions. One example is that my colleagues in Partners in Preservation always assume the technology will somehow fail and prepare for all the cultural resource searches, just like in the old days of oasis civilization where you are truly on your own when “out there.”

Rattlesnake Canyon shrouded in mist, with Gibraltar Road above.

Rattlesnake Canyon shrouded in mist, with Gibraltar Road above. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Let’s play that again: We face situations in nature where the outrageous human population expansion (8 billion homo sapiens!) shoves our habitation sites deeper into nature’s dangerous regions; e.g., the mountain lion that mauled a boy in Gaviota State Park in 1992. Adjacentcy is here, and we need to take it into account.

Situations do happen where the day hikers are alone, the cell technology fails, you forgot the emergency beacon (or forgot to pay the monthly online bill), and no one knows where you have tumbled down. What is your plan then?

Do you have a plan for such an eventuality? Bears and mountain lions are now our near neighbors and actually are the least of our issues way out there. Wandering away even a mile or two into genuine wilderness without preparation can be deadly. Lack of adjacentcy consciousness disarms the unwary hiker. Note the very tragic event on Trespass Trail over Labor Day weekend. Who hasn’t watched the YouTube replays of night cameras showing mountain lions leaping about in various Montecito yards?

I personally feel terrible when considering the recent deaths on the trail of Jake Parks and now Tim Sgrignoli — and reference also the March 2014 tragedy mentioned above. In 2012, I got way off the Santa Cruz Trail on the final day of a seven-day backpacking trek and, appropriately, my trail partner from whom I’d separated called in SBCSAR when I missed the planned rendezvous point (Alexander Saddle). I eventually made it to Upper Oso Camp under my own steam, much chastened, and wiser.

Adjacentcy lulls us into thinking we’re still in town and allows over-reliance on various communications technologies. We need to keep the “old” safety guidelines up to speed: Go with a partner, properly outfitted, tell others about the trip and when you will be back, carry water, understand the weather conditions, understand your own physical limits, take it seriously even if “only for two hours.”

In an important sense, taking raw or wild nature seriously is practical for your survival, too, as we see today. In addition to proper gear and training, understanding adjacentcy will prepare you psychologically for rigors right near home.


» Adjacentcy also describes the situation, for example, in Los Angeles County with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy trails area of 75,000 acres, or how 4,300-acre Griffith Park in Los Angeles is the largest U.S. municipal park with an urban wilderness in the United States (and hundreds of mountain lions).

— 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 cazmania3@gmail.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Long-haired man smiling

Dan McCaslin, Noozhawk Columnist

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 cazmania3@gmail.com. The opinions expressed are his own.