The solace of solitude at Upper Sisar Canyon pool

Dan McCaslin

The solace of solitude at Upper Sisar Canyon pool

Wilderness: The Cure for What Ails Us

Federally Protected Lands Yield Reflection and Solitude

Monday, June 9, 2014
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As a postmodern, middle-class American citizen dwelling in Santa Barbara — the symbolic core of the American Empire — I witness our era’s warp-speed pace from a small Westside bungalow near Harding School. It’s a clichéd observation that the early 21st century’s frantic and increasing “velocity” really does push many of us right to the edge, but it’s valid nonetheless. Most Americans work hard and are highly productive, yet this hectic race sends a few right over the edge into violence or madness, or both. In a long New York Times opinion piece (Why You Hate Work), Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath demonstrate that for American white-collar workers, “excessive demands are leading to burnout everywhere.”

September 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s landmark Wilderness Act, which led to all previous “primitive areas” and “wilderness” areas being designated as congressionally mandated wilderness zones, with strict protections. In 1968, our own 197,000-acre San Rafael Wilderness was the very first primitive area to formally gain the new “federal wilderness” status, thus banning all motorized vehicles, bikes, chainsaws, and permanent improvements but supporting hiking, backpacking, and equine visitors. Part of the congressional definition calls wilderness “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Today’s National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) protects about 110 million acres of land spanning 44 states.

We should celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NWPS system because without these dazzling realms of extravagant beauty to serve as relaxing refuge for overburdened workers pounded by the posthuman work pace, we would see even more burnout among working Americans. We can gather inspiration from U.S. Representative Lois Capps’s proposed new wilderness expansion legislation, called the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act , which aims to protect another 240,000 acres near Santa Barbara. Fragile areas on the Carrizo Plain would get more protection via three newly designated wilderness zones, and 160 miles of “wild and scenic” river status is planned for the Manzana, Indian, Mono, Sespe and Matilija. Several past Hiking the Santa Barbara Backcountry columns involve treks up these small rivers.

Schwartz and Porath correctly diagnose the cause for this typical worker fatigue and burnout — “the relentless stress of increased demand, caused in large part by digital technology” — but they omit the healing powers of nearby nature and our nearby wilderness areas. There are over 55 federal wilderness areas in California alone, and five are less than a two-hour drive from Santa Barbara: They are available to all of us, and you don’t need an Adventure Pass!

By Dan McCaslin

Walking backwoods trails relaxes the soul and refreshes the mind.

Some posthuman Americans periodically flee north and east into the isolated riparian corridors of the San Rafael or Chumash wildernesses where white noise abates, one can “hear” one’s mind ticking, and oak, sycamore, and conifers encircle. Away from the iClutter and S.B.’s blaring 101 freeway, there’s no haggling over Measure M, wondering about serial murderers, or stressing out at work.

The Internet world with constant communiqués from every port breeds the wearying strain of constant partial attention. At the workplace it’s called multitasking, but in the rest of one’s day it’s just hell. Some of us bear bigger burdens from participation in America’s constant wars (PTSD and more), were failed by the public schools system, or have suffered other forms of abuse or neglect. The savage celerity at many workplaces heightens the cosmic stress, since the digital device array means the worker can get even more done in the eight-hour day.

The best antidote for American anxieties of medium or minor intensity is finding access to nature belts and zones, including local parks and green areas. An additional physical “port” to another land of relaxation and consistent total attention is where the road ends at one of the five local federal wilderness areas (see Hiking the Backcountry columns for directions).

How can we celebrate? How can we consecrate these fantastical tracts of landscapes bedecked with their pristine creeks? Go purchase a Bryan Conant trail map, load supplies up into your vehicle, and drive 90 minutes some weekend to … say … Nira Camp ). Day hike or backpack into the federal wilderness there, and unwind … mind control and relaxation are easier while immersed in this overwhelming and arid landscape. Begin by strolling beneath the sycamores and gray pine, looking for mountain king snakes and horned toads … and only later do you realize that some of the debilitating stress has dissipated.

Schwartz and Porath mention that a humane company has to improve four specific core needs of its workers: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Every one of these core human values ratchets up in our remote wilderness worlds and feels invigorating and restorative. You walk amid raging beauty, experiencing natural grandeur and grace, and the mental apparatus slumbers while the pulsating life all around the hiker affords intense bouts of spiritual uplift. If you travel north and east to these wilderness oases, with new ones arising in Rep. Capps’s legislation, the mental relaxation will come.

B. Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map, 2009 edition, is obtainable for $8.95 at On “posthuman,” see N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, University of Chicago Press (1999), and Peter Sloterdijk’s books on the topic.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

God, this is so true! I remembering those days where getting away to the back country for an Adult, was like wanting to go to Disneyland for young children; it is one of the memories I treasure to this day.
I strongly agree with the "New York Times opinion piece (Why You Hate Work)", as it is reflected daily around me at the Federal Facility I work in. Although there are places around the Metro DC area to relax and leave Technology Hell, many people bring their PED's with them and carry on their Tech lives in these nature parks due to the Tower access provided to them.
It is the remoteness of the back country that allows peace and tranquility in Santa Barbara Foothills and Back Country that is not accessible in the DC area as you MUST drive at least an hour and half to reach quiet nature but with people still yelling at their phones about the mundane and continued uselessness of their uneventful lives, (slow to a craw at an accident to see if there are any dead bodies lying around at a auto crash for example). Many of the people I encounter throughout the day look forward to getting intoxicated in the evening to relax while I leave my PED's and walk the nature trails at my nearby Preserve (; I still miss my happiness hiking my favorite trail in Santa Barbara, Rattlesnake Trail.

dou4now (anonymous profile)
June 10, 2014 at 5:48 a.m. (Suggest removal)

That NYTimes piece, dou4now, also states burnout is caused by " 'the relentless stress of increased demand, caused in large part by digital technology' " -- wow.
I'm surviving with minimal digital technology, never have had a cell phone, no TV, just a company-given laptop which I usually leave at the workplace on purpose, ... but you're left out of a lot of social stuff with such a commitment. My main worry is shoving digital technology down the throats of children, obliging them to get their iPhones at earlier & earlier ages, the video-game frenzies, the school-issued laptops, the tech-demands of Common Core, the fear of the green nature which this author celebrates.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
June 10, 2014 at 6 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Although my tech career is satisfying, it can result in long periods of life at warp speed. So I also appreciate being able to get out into the backcountry to slow down for a bit.

I recall the first time I saw someone with a Steri Pen (a battery-operated ultraviolet water purifier) and thinking it was odd to see such a modern device in the backcountry. But then again I carry a small GPS and let it quietly record breadcrumb tracks just in case we lose our way. A few years ago, we were backpacking down in Grand Canyon and one of our mates (a bow hunter sans bow) brought a satellite phone. I poo-poo'd the idea of carrying one. But when we saw an NPS chopper air lift an injured hiker out of a remote area, I changed my mind a little. Funny how that works.

Tip of the hat to President Johnson.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
June 10, 2014 at 12:32 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Does anyone have a blog where hikers can report on availability (or lack) of drinkable water for a given date? This year, I'd expect drinkable water at Manzana Narrows, for example, but it would be nice not to stake one's life on it.

atomic_state (anonymous profile)
June 10, 2014 at 4:21 p.m. (Suggest removal)

There is certainly good water at M. Narrows...lasting easily into July despite the drought... I would not count on water at White Ledge, and though likely at Lonnie Davis (where the North Fork gushes in) I would not bet on it at all. I assume upper Sisquoc R. is OK, but haven't been for sometime... good idea about a blog to report in...

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
June 10, 2014 at 6:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

@atomic_state ... highly recommend Dan's column and these two sites:

It was through Stillman's blog that I found out about the Alcove Falls area. You can read about it in his blog.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
June 10, 2014 at 10:07 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Great article indeed. If you are looking for water information across the forest or would like to report water information, check out a relatively new site called

The Los Padres Forest Association also compiles much of this data. If you'd like to get on their email list or ask specific questions you can at:

LPFA (anonymous profile)
June 15, 2014 at 8:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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