The author in the wild. | Credit: Tom Quisel

On a recent Tuesday, a barn owl’s heart-shaped face and snow-white body swooped past me as I stood at a vista point in San Marcos Preserve. Her flapping wingspan kicked up a eucalyptus scent. At sunset, I was one of a handful of people among these gently rolling trails in our foothills. The swaying grasses, oak canyons, and chirruping crickets have made this my go-to spot for walks after work. On more than one occasion, I’ve spotted animals I’ve never before seen in the wild, glimpses that leave me feeling inspirited, touched by magic.

Mark Wilkinson, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara County Trails Council, wants everyone to be enchanted by the outdoors. Wilkinson is a leader in a local coalition of healthcare and recreation organizations that has just launched the Summer Fun Challenge. Part of the Healthy Trails, Healthy People initiative, the challenge invites Santa Barbara County residents to be active this summer. The first 250 people to take the pledge will receive a bandana that is cleverly designed with a green matrix of trails to form the shape of a stylized flower. Be sure to keep track of your time outdoors as the more hours you put in the more chances you’ll have at winning a weekly gift card drawing. The challenge ends August 15.

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“Walking is free, easy, and offers exquisite views,” Wilkinson says. Views that, in a normal summer, would draw thousands from all over the world to Santa Barbara. Now, more than ever, the views are ours to enjoy. 

Once you set your activity goal (thirty minutes for adults and sixty minutes for kids is recommended) browse through a curated set of maps with easy local walking routes. 

The first to take the pledge, Margaret Weiss, Health Education Director at Sansum Clinic, has found her bliss in the spring flower bloom. When she’s not working with other essential healthcare workers, you can find her among our iconic orange poppies at the Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve. It’s how she clears her head after increasingly complex workdays. The most important thing about her walks, she confides, is that they give her peace of mind not only in the moment but also in the long term. 

“Walking now means managing future stress better,” Weiss says. It’s the benefit of exercise on mood regulation that motivates her to walk and why she encourages her community members to take the pledge to be more active, too.

The walk back to my car after the owl sighting was bittersweet. I wanted to follow her progress on her hunt, watch her dive down and come up with a squirming meal for her nestlings. Instead, I went home and planned a backpacking trip in the Los Padres National Forest for the next full moon. Last time I was out that way, a cloud of bats created a beating, squeaky outline against the ridges of my tent. Maybe they’ll visit me again.

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