While references to a writer’s age — 68 by the way — usually seem superfluous, there’s a crucial connection between an intense 150-minute ascent to the West Hurricane Deck apex and re-energizing an urban/aging human brain. My own physical brain, in this case.
Ascending the 1,800 feet from the lower Manzana Creek area at Potrero Canyon Camp, 1.2 miles downstream from my car, mind and heart exulted in the raw organic beauty all around; in Buddhism this is the “heart-mind” idea called buddhi.
Entrancing sights and sounds immerse the neo-cortex in a pandemonium of sensory pleasures.
Along with hard chaparral and the brilliant yellows of the blooming golden yarrow (eriophyllum Confertiflorum), my colleague and I saw lizards and plenty of flying insects, too.
During mid-Spring in these desert foothills, the hiker also has to watch out for rattlesnakes: This intensely focused one-pointed concentration also stimulates brain activity.
As we ascended the steep and lovely footpath, we had constant mountain vistas all around, including 6,600-foot San Rafael Mountain and McKinley Peak, the backside of huge Figueroa Mountain to the south, and the white “Castle Crags” formation down toward Dabney Cabin
Of course, the overwhelming Hurricane Deck formation we are scaling dominates the entire northern half of the sky’s blue vault.
When you set out from your car after driving the 47 miles from Santa Barbara, and park on a broad bench above the flowing Manzana, you suddenly realize you’re entering public lands: the official federal wilderness area within Los Padres National Forest.
Since there was only one other car where we parked (see the 4.1.1), we’d perhaps manage to avoid any other homo sapiens. For me, this is as anti-urban and relaxing as it gets.
Just after passing through Potrero Camp on the lower Manzana, we encounter one of the archaic iron signs, signaling that the apex of Hurricane Deck, where we can join the Hurricane Deck Trail, is “3” miles up.
It’s actually a challenging 3.2-mile ascent over the 1,700 feet. For me — on a mid-April day when body and mind felt strong — the whole 4.6 miles took about 2.5 hours to the top.
This involved hiking steadily uphill, not talking with my colleague (maintain some separation), and taking very few breaks.
I carried extra water (3 liters), since there’s none on the ‘Deck, and basic survival gear. I deployed the trusty hiking poles, and had enough stuff in the fanny pack to manage at least one night outside clinging to the ‘Deck.
The very steadiness of my stride helps an over-stimulated urban mind minimize “town” obsessions, and ward off social anxieties. It often takes a couple of hours before the “linear” Western kind of thinking fades away and shifts into a more trusting buddhi-style of awareness — call it contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, concentration, quiet time.
Efforts to inspire one’s consciousness into such “phases” where you truly relax, and find an affirmative inner domain, have occurred in all cultures and civilizations.
In early U.S. history, the right to “roam” wild or unoccupied lands was considered a fundamental freedom, including walking across not just public lands, but also unused private land.
As naturalist Ken Ilgunas has shown, the fundamental “right to roam” was something we Americans once had, and we then forsook this sacred citizen privilege.
Many countries, especially in northern Europe, Britain, and Germany, specifically guarantee their citizens the right to walk across public and private land, with provisions that the hikers cannot disturb any occupants or undertake any commercial activities.
In Scotland, the “Land Reform Act of 2003” codified this ancient tradition supporting the right of universal access to Scottish lands. It specifically gives hikers the right to cross private lands, too.
I agree with Ilgunas’s point in his recent New York Times article, in which he described Americans’ timidity and uncertainty about entering “the forest” (or, here, “the backcountry”); a public forgetfulness that all of Los Padres National Forest, for example, is ours to wander in and to enjoy responsibly.
One wonders if our status as a rather sedentary country with many obese children isn’t partly because adults have forgotten our ancient right to head out into mountains or backcountry, and to take the kids there?
Since our growing population (urbanization – look at the Santa Ynez Valley!), sprawling suburbs, and increasing loss of green space degrade the planet (Anthropocenic angst), we can hope that a ‘national right to roam law’ might sometime be promulgated.
Even so, 28 percent of the USA is public land – mostly right out here in the American West. The five local wilderness areas near Santa Barbara await our decisions to go there and enter the green chaos of these adjacent wild places.
The 9.2 mile roundtrip day hike into the San Rafael Wilderness described here takes you to the top of the western Hurricane Deck formation and back.
On our return from the apex and junction with the Hurricane Deck Trail – where the iron signs are lost but the aged iron pole still stands tall – we notice the intriguing “Indian Caves,” also termed “Negus Cave”.
While one can wax romantic over the re-charge an older brain gets from the vistas and the steady trudging and heavy breathing, you also gain the feeling of a freedom to roam over a pristine landscape unencumbered with roads or many humans.
Note that within the last 10 years, people have died up on the Hurricane Deck due to lack of water and poor pre-planning. This demanding day hike isn’t recommended in summer or in extremely arid conditions: Remember, there is no water on the ‘Deck.
4-1-1: Nira to Potrero Canyon Camp to West Hurricane Deck apex
Distance: 4.6 miles hiking one way to the top; 9.2 round-trip miles.
Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive up Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma; turn right on Armour Ranch Road at the concrete Santa Ynez River bridge; in about a mile turn right again on Happy Canyon Road and drive to the end (Nira Camp); park on the high bench above the Manzana Creek, about ¼ mile west of Nira Camp itself.
Map: Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.