My passion for wilderness hiking in the Santa Barbara backcountry quickened after living abroad for a few years in the 1970s and during yearly trips to Greece, Germany, and France ever since. After trekking in the Austrian Alps and hiking in the Bavarian national forest with German friends, when I returned to Santa Barbara, my UCSB running buddy, Frank Hudson, led me into the San Rafael Wilderness on numerous day hikes, and then backpacks. For many years I also led student groups from Crane School into local primitive zones within Los Padres National Forest.
In the course of week-long walking odysseys down the Manzana and then east and “up” the lower Sisquoc River, the slow realization has dawned that this green riparian reality forms one of the most enchanting and stimulating realms of all those I’ve encountered. Neuroscientists now think that the amygdala and hippocampus carry out the human brain’s integrative and creative functions, and the next question is how to stimulate these regions so our imagination is even more fertile. While Faulkner and others chose booze, and there’s a wide repertoire of legal drugs out there, I’m suggesting something both safer and simpler.
Most of us casually accept the revivifying power of jaunts into nature — but excursions to places like Hurricane Deck help us to go deeper: Adding solitude to the beauty, you will find your creative side even more stimulated.
Hiking the 3.6 miles up to the fabled Hurricane Deck formation provides compelling proof. After driving the 90 minutes from Santa Barbara to Nira Camp, you park a few hundred yards before the “Nira” sign and begin walking into the San Rafael Wilderness, heading west with the Manzana’s flow toward Potrero Camp. After about 1.5 miles you reach over-used but still lovely Potrero Camp, cross the shallow Manzana, and at the signed junction begin ascending Hurricane Deck on the “Potrero Trail” — it’s about 1,600 feet over two miles to the apex of this stark and forbidding formation.
The demanding trek offers splendid vistas, first south toward the coast and the backside of the coastal Santa Ynez Range, and then at the top, northeast out to the Sierra Madre Range. Early on you can view the startling white “tip” of the Castle Crags formation looming above Twin Meadows camp.
A pleasant lunch on the top, fortified by strong hot tea from a thermos, elevates one’s thinking and strengthens the spirit — especially in winter when a cold wind often blows. If you search around, you may find old iron trail signs in the dirt with “Hurricane Deck Trail” on them, but there really isn’t much of a trail there at all.
Philosophers and sages from Immanuel Kant to Thich Nhat Hanh recommend the salutary benefits of solitary walking and reflection, and when one strolls along a pristine mountain trail it can be simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. One can “go home to the present” while ascending a new path. Endorphins? Entrancing beauty all around? The spectacle of the west Hurricane Deck? All of these and more combine to draw one out of present worries and concerns, and dwell on the beautiful simplicities of the moment: Here, the great warm sun embraces; all that stuff “over in town” will just play itself out.
So why don’t more Santa Barbarans head out into the San Rafael and up to the ‘Deck? Author Gary Ferguson offers some ideas about this conundrum in his Los Angeles Times article “The Great Fear of the Great Outdoors.” He quotes the pioneering psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall — the man who coined the term “adolescence” — that everyone (and especially children) needs breaks from “the urban hothouse,” and we do need to be exposed to wild nature. Children must be introduced to nature, he wrote, and taken “to visit field, forest, hill, shore, the water, flowers, animals, the true homes of childhood.”
When leading student groups, during at least part of the hike, the other teachers and I mandate periods of silence and ask for an approximate 20 feet between each student so the temptation to blab is reduced.
We live in fearful times, and when children observe their parents’ reluctance to venture into wild and beautiful nature, these fears grow in them, too. Certainly, our corrosive phobia of deeper wilderness is both primordial and postmodern. Philosophers like Peter Sloterdijk and Katherine Hayles posit that we’re now in a fully “post-human” world today, much more dependent on our artificial-intelligence machine devices than we dare admit. A crucial aspect of 21st-century post-humanism is this dependence upon our micro-communication gizmos, our obsession with “connectivity,” and our consequent loss of real “communication.”
Critic Leon Weiseltier writes, “As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes.” Alone together, we’re limiting ourselves to online “friends,” and we don’t cognize the loss of natural beauty in our day-to-day lives. So try this hike!
Along Manzana Creek and up on the ‘Deck, one may encounter deer, mountain lion, bear, rattlesnakes, condors, and centipedes. Silence screams so loud you even begin to hear differently. If it’s not the consistent melodies of the creek water flowing over the rocks, then you notice a high wind moaning through the tall gray pine.
These beauties and primeval forces stimulate your inventive side, and novel ideas blow through your naturally expanded mind. When you return to the city, you’re more than refreshed: You have changed, you’re more creative, and you realize how much you and your children need these transformative experiences in remote nature.