Name of hike: Matilija North Fork Easy Solo Backpack (Matilija Wilderness)
Mileage: 5.8 mile easy roundtrip
Suggested time: 2 days/1 night easy backpacking
(See driving directions in my Matilija Falls day-hiking column.)
There are many secret joys associated with solo backpacking, which is why I recommend solitary ventures in the wild — if you are fit, experienced, cautious, and eager for new inner and outer discoveries.
Mountain horse-packer Mary Breckenridge has traversed the rugged Sierra Nevada range several times, and in a recent Los Angeles Times front-page article, she states, “Being alone in the scenery, you get a sense of being a very small but very important part of everything around you.” While she has a horse and two pack mules, most years she does this alone and sleeps out on the ground above 10,000 feet.
The highly important natural law theory developed in 1700s Europe presupposed an indubitable natural order that prominent thinkers of the time felt could be observed in raw nature. John Locke’s ideas on the topic led to the social “norm of a stable order of industrious men in the settled courses of their callings, dedicating themselves to growth and prosperity, rather than war and plunder, accepting a morality of mutual respect and an ethic of self-improvement,” as Charles Taylor states in A Secular Age. This school of thought, including Locke’s great A Letter Concerning Toleration, called for natural reason to run societies, not irrational religion, popes, or kings ordained by “divine right.”
Like Mary Breckenridge (we’re both 64), I intuited my “place” in things while trudging along the North Fork Matilija Creek Trail near Ojai. When you’ve walked even a very short distance into raw nature (I made it just 2.9 miles into the Matilija Wilderness on this short October backpack), you instantly apprehend a sense of cosmic or natural order. For Emerson, “cosmos” meant both order and unrefined beauty.
When hiking alone, the first requirement is to have your equipment and body in top shape so you won’t end up in trouble out there. If you are well-prepared psychologically, as well as physically, then – without human distractions, idle conversation, social dramas – you will welcome the sense of being spiritually and physically “outside.” Outside your town, your truck, your life partner, your friends, your teaching colleagues, your newspapers, your iPad and electronic screens: You’re spontaneously wide awake at last.
Or, awake again. You imagine a return to humanity’s very origins – like Ishi, California’s last living stone-age individual, who died 1916, you’re just wandering and wondering along the watercourse way (North Fork Matilija Creek). Your hard-wired pre-civilized instincts take over, and you allow and accept this ancient knowledge from your genes to emerge: It tells you to stay close to the watercourse and keep that rushing liquid sound always in your audio background. Look for possible food resources while hiking, e.g. the plentiful yucca (Chumashan wip), which the Chumash used as a sort of earth-roasted “cabbage,” up on the steep hillside
You feel immersed in the rocky, and almost-gloomy, thick riparian vegetation of the North Fork Matilija Creek, and scramble around, picking your way, looking for obscure cairns, as well as food sources, never concerned but ever alert. It’s another careful choice not to bring a GPS device.
While western scientific time is essentially linear and bound up in problematic ideas of “progress” — historian Jill Lepore suggests in her recent book The Mansion of Happiness – A History of Life and Death that in earlier ages, ideas about time and death were cyclical, and this may have been easier for humans then. Thus, in the “eternal returns” of recycled individuals, similar events recur again and again, but clothed in wildly variant particulars. Events and landscapes merge: In my head, hiking ventures along the Manzana, the Sisquoc, the Sespe, and the Santa Cruz all run together and resemble the archetypal Matilija Creek setting which surrounds the five-sensoried fellow trudging this particular trail on October 19, 2012.
My two-day backpack began with planned collaborators, but as I’ve bemoaned before, most of my backpacking peers no longer enjoy it like they did in their thirties and forties. Since my entire life is a series of backcountry returns to nature, re-firing the ancient wiring, there is no hesitation about heading out there solo, especially when it is just for two days and one night. How tough can that be?
Bryan Conant’s nicely detailed Matilija and Dick Smith Wilderness Map Guide, combined with Craig Carey’s new Santa Barbara & Ventura Hiking Guide, make it easy to locate ideal spots for a Matilija Creek “free camp.” I picked a free camp at Conant’s red mileage dot just below Middle Matilija Camp, and I located it after backpacking just 90 minutes up the Upper North Fork.
Almost three miles in and surrounded on three sides by the towering rocks of the North Fork gorge, here I found my universal place in the cosmic order of things. Raw nature, with faint sounds of the flowing creek about 50 yards away and the skittering lizards and hopping birds crashing onto hard, dead leaves. This small valley slanting back down to the Matilija Canyon Ranch’s dirt road angles west. Below me lies Matilija Camp, and on up this narrowing canyon-gorge I’ll find Middle Matilija, Upper Matilija, and finally verdant Maple Camp at 3,800 feet.
I’m ensconced in an enchanting solitude along a riparian woodland watercourse with many mature oaks, hard chamise and Manzanita, and steep stony hillsides towering above on three sides. The scrub oak and ubiquitous Eriogonum fasciculatum (California Buckwheat) with its harsh rust-orange color dominate the colorful landscape by my camp.
I enjoyed thousands of yards of the rusty orange California Buckwheat on this trail, as well as on the northern side of the free camp. In her fine book Chumash Ethnobotany, Jan Timbrook writes that fasciculatum, called poleo in Spanish, was used as a medicinal tea against arthritis and also against stomach problems and fever. Ventureño Chumash, who called this plant tswana’atl’ishup , boiled it and then drank the fragrant tea warm or hot to settle the stomach.
I’ve been carefully searching for the glorious Matilija poppy flower (Romneya coulteri) with the gorgeous white blossoms atop tall stalks, knowing it’s the wrong time of year for flowering, but I still can’t even locate the stalks of this famous plant. (There is a huge stand of them dominating the front of Crane School, where I’ve been teaching for three decades.)
The water from the North Fork Matilija is indeed reliable, as all the guide-books indicate, but as dusk fell, it was difficult to access from my free camp. I needed my pole and had to clamber down a root-infested 6-foot dirt cliff to get into the rocks of the creek bed in order to find a deeper place to get water into my three containers. A bear has obviously been using this entry point, as well, and it was difficult clambering back out of the stream bed, juggling water containers while going on all fours. Crawling in the dirt is great fun, highly stimulating, and you remember to remember after all you’re just a creeping mammal.
The amazing skyline looking west from my spot here continually attracts my eyes. I stare at the distant ridge with its jagged saw-tooth silhouette, and after checking two maps, I believe this to be Old Man Mountain, 5,538 feet high on the Conant map. Nearby but out of sight is the 4,900-foot Cara Blanca and further north the 6,000-foot Monte Arido.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton has written that solitude does not mean separation. Although I cancelled the second day hike on up to Maple Camp due to an achy back, saving it for another time, the two days solo in this gorge and near the water has electrified my awareness and stimulated my imagination.
The 2.9-mile backpack returning to the truck was a pleasant and thought-making amble down toward town. With about a mile to go, I met an Ojai family – father, mother, two children – out for a day jaunt, and these were the first humans I’d interacted with since driving away from Santa Barbara. How wise these parents are to ensure their kids get their portion of raw nature.
Historian Lepore believes that distorted thinking arose when the ancient “from dust to dust” circular time-sense disappeared, writing that “a more scientific understanding of life and death has resulted in quackery, superstition, and excuses for bullying one another.” Our linear lives are extended by medical science, but do our morality and consciousness show proportional “improvement”? Over two days, the Ojai family of four were the only folks interested in showing their kids at least a few hours of raw nature, and experiencing a stone-age phase of experiencing/thinking.
Mary Breckenridge figured it out: In nature, your tiny self realizes its important place in the natural order of things.