“Fortunately, the task of preparing this volume has been carried on by those who have had the feeling that a piece of work must be done, but who also have had a purpose to make it reveal beauty and exude the historical atmosphere of the region with which it is concerned.”

—Santa Barbara: A Guide to the Channel City and Its Environs (1941)

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Eddy Fields’ Initials, Manzana Creek (Circa 1900)

Manzana Creek Trail San Rafael Wilderness hikingBlue skies and golden grass along lower Manzana Creek Trail at the Pratt homestead site.

“The Pratts homesteaded just below Cold Spring on Manzana Creek. They had a stepson by the name of Eddy Fields. At the site of the Pratt house you can still see a large “E” and “F” carved into the trunk of a live oak tree.”

-Historical Overview of the Los Padres National Forest, E.R. “Jim” Blakley and Karen Barnette (1985)

The oak is fairly thin and ordinary, unremarkable, another tree in the forest like so many others. Not like the oaken hulks aside the grassy flat several miles away on the west end of Sunset Valley in lower Munch Canyon, which in their height and massive girth draw attention and would make good targets for a bored mind and idle hands.

The oak must of been a relatively minor tree a hundred years ago when he carved his initials into it. I wonder why Eddy chose it. Maybe it just happened to stand between his family’s cabin and the nearby uncommon pocket of the creek that holds a perennial pool, where I imagine he might of played.

The Pratts stayed only a short time on Manzana Creek and apparently never proved up on their homestead claim. They sold their stove to Edgar B. Davison, a forest ranger who used it to outfit his Fir Canyon station on Figueroa Mountain: Edgar B. Davison’s Fir Canyon Cabin (circa 1900).

Eddy Fields initials oak tree Manzana CreekThe E

Eddy Field's initial Manzana CreekThe F

Manzana Creek Trail Eddy Fields oak tree initialsEddy’s oak on the left.

Manzana Creek coldwater cold springThere is a pocket of clear cool water in the creek by the oak. This in the month of July during a record drought while most of Manzana Creek is dry. At the moment of this writing a stack of rocks sits on the bank above the pool to note the uncommon availability of good water for passing hikers in an otherwise dry landscape. It wasn’t a bad choice for a site to stake a claim as a homesteader.

Manzana Creek summerManzana Creek upstream from the pool shown above at the Pratt homestead site.

Related Post:

Manzana Creek Schoolhouse (1893)

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Mono Narrows, The Old Oak Dies

Upper Santa Ynez River valley JuncalThe upper Santa Ynez River valley.

Santa Ynez River Upper Santa Ynez River

Mono Creek canyonLooking up lower Mono Creek near the Santa Ynez River confluence.

“During the month of November the trail in Little Caliente and Mono canyons was greatly improved.”

Los Angeles Herald (1899)

The Mono-Alamar Trail is a treasure hunt to hike for the uninitiated. Near constant searching, scanning the brush and ground, straining to see subtle clues and telltale signs that lead to the goods. It may well represent in microcosm much of the world of hiking in southern Los Padres National Forest.

I had little time to spare with nine miles to hike in late afternoon up the unkempt, poorly marked trail. The treasured outcome was actually arriving at camp before sunset.

A short distance from its beginning the trail fades into the poison oak understory of a coast live oak forest and there I stood once again, like last time, wondering where the path went and which way to go.

In a general sense I knew exactly where to go. I’ve been there before. I didn’t need the trail. I could’ve reached the campsite without it and I wanted to forget the damn thing. Not waste time searching for it.

Mono Camground debris dam meadowThe meadow at Mono Campground. I lost a toy cowboy rifle somewhere down there several decades ago, which for some reason still sticks out in my mind.

The intense mental effort required to search for and follow the trail for miles on end makes it seem like an irrational obsession at times. I feel like an unsuspecting character in an outdoor theater of the absurd compelled to stay on the trail whether it makes the hike easier or not.

I waste time and energy searching for the trail, wandering around in circles over here and over there, into the brush and back out, up the creek and back down.

Where is the damn thing? How can it just disappear? It’s clear as day here and then a few steps later, poof, it’s gone.

Ogilvy Ranch adobe Mono Alamar TrailAn adobe at Ogilvy Ranch along Mono Creek.

Ogilvy Ranch adobe Mono CreekAnother view of the adobe looking up Mono Creek canyon.

Mono Creek Santa Barbara CountyLate afternoon reflections on a clear water section of the creek.

I stand gazing over the land straining to recognize some trace of the trail’s presence cutting through the grass or bushes or across a patch of soil, but I’m also thinking that I could easily hike on without it. I could make a lot better time hiking without a trail than standing around looking for one.

Sometimes I’m standing around looking or walking back and forth searching for the trail in the midst of a thirty or forty foot-wide gravelly wash beside the main creek channel. It’s open country in a wide, flat-bottomed canyon, but rather than hiking easily up the creek without need of the trail, I’m erratically wandering around staring at the ground searching for it.

It’s like a sick obsessive-compulsive disorder. That I must stay on the trail at every turn, even when it requires more time to do so and doesn’t make hiking any easier. As if the entire point of the trip is walking the trail as an end itself.

Mono Creek Narrows canyonLooking upstream into Mono Narrows. The location of the campsite can barely be seen frame left as a tiny touch of brown, the top of the dead oak tree, at the foot of the shadowy cliff.

Mono Creek NarrowsMono Creek Narrows after a little rain.

Muddy Waters

Sight of the dry creek triggered visions of digging for mucky water in the gravel of the narrows, squatting in some low spot between boulders ladling up the dirty leftovers of a once clear flowing stream.

I hadn’t actually expected to see lower Mono Creek flowing or even muddy. I knew it’d be dry. Recent rain, a measly and sporadic few showers, had barely moistened the droughty hills. I had packed enough fluids to sustain me for two days at a minimum level and hoped to find water near camp.

Rainwater was puddled in depressions atop boulders along the trail as I hiked up canyon. Even though the creek was drier than the previous year when I was there last, enough rain had fallen to actually raise the creek through the narrows, but it turned it into a silt-laden stream of chocolate milk. While it didn’t invite a swim nor look appealing to drink, some muddy water was better than no water at all and it actually didn’t taste bad despite its hideous appearance.

Mono Creek Narrows Santa BarbaraMono Creek Narrows hikeWarm and muddy in Mono Narrows.

Mono Narrows Camp oak tree
The Old Oaks Dies

I stopped short and stood gazing down the twilit creek in astonishment, mumbling to myself, cursing and questioning what had happened. The gnarly old oak had died.

The oak defines the campsite, hanging awkwardly over a bench of silt deposited from prior floods. It looks as if its acorn one day long ago washed ashore during an epic flood and rooted in near the high waterline.

The tree gives the camp a sense of place, that it isn’t just another few yards of unremarkable scrubby forestland like so many others. The tree imbues a particular ambiance to the nook that makes it feel like a destination, somewhere worth arriving at, somewhere worth spending time.

Mono Creek Narrows campMono Narrows Camp under the dead oak. Each day the water cleared up a little bit and the water fell cutting lines in the sand along its bank.

The oak tree sprouts out of the soil with tentacle-like meandering limbs reaching over the flat. In wild day dreams sitting around camp, the old tree my only companion apart from a bear, I imagine that the deep black hole in its trunk is the sucking maw of some fantastical monster with flexing, reaching lips like that of a horse. Some bizarre beast rooted into the creek bank, its tentacle limbs reaching into the stream snatching prey and stuffing its gaping mouth hole like a crab scavenging a reef, its pincers shoving forage into its grinding mouthparts.

Mono Creek Narrows camp hikeMono Narrows Camp
Mono Creek Narrows backcountry camp
A camp fire with a view.

Mono Creek near Alamar HillLooking downstream.

Mono Narrows CampsiteOverhead view of camp looking upstream.

The death of the great oak is a tremendous loss. When the tree falls it will take with it much of the campsite’s character and leave a void which cannot be refilled.

It’s unlikely that the campsite will remain an inviting place to stay. It may still serve a basic utilitarian purpose for the odd backpacker passing through who merely needs a patch of dirt upon which to sleep a few hours, but the camp has lost its defining feature and is on its way out. It died along with its ugly old oak.

Mono Creek Narrows CampsiteAnother view of the camp.

Mono Creek Narrows Santa Barbara hikes

Mono Creek rock slideA large cottonwood tree snapped like a toothpick by a massive rock slide.

 Related Post:

Mono Narrows Camp, 18 Mile Day Hike Gone Bad

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Black Bear

black bear Santa Barbara hikingI was lounging around camp in midafternoon boiling the billy. Had me a relaxation station set up in the shade of a tree, an air mattress propped up against a boulder as a makeshift recliner, and a long view down the creek.

I had pulled my can of boiling water off the campfire and set it beside my lounge chair, and when I glanced up before sitting down, I caught sight of a black bear just before it passed behind a wall of bushes along the creek bank.

I was startled for a second. It was odd to unexpectedly see an animal of that size, a big black beast, so close to me. I’m not accustomed to seeing anything larger than deer when out in the forest around here. It’s not like Sequoia National Park or other places where bears are a daily sight.

billy canI was all alone in that canyon, I thought, the biggest animal around, hadn’t seen anybody in two days. Then seemingly out of nowhere another large mammal suddenly pops into sight. And it was only a short stone’s throw from where I stood and coming directly toward my camp.

I bounded over to my backpack and ripped my camera from its pouch, but when I looked up the bear had already fled back across the creek. It was pushing through the brush and climbing over boulders moving up the slope out of the streambed. It paused briefly several times to glance back down at me as I watched it intently.

It’s only the second bear I’ve ever seen in the Los Padres National Forest. I saw one a couple of decades ago, but just a split second glimpse of its hind end as it charged into the chaparral, after having been surprised by me as I blasted down a dirt road on a motorcycle.

Nearly every time I go out for a hike I see bear sign. Bears seem to be everywhere all the time, judging by the number of footprints I see, but they’re sly and not commonly seen. On this day, however, a bear walked right up to my camp oblivious to my presence.

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The Slot at Devil’s Playground

Devil's Playground Santa Ynez Mountains hikingDevil’s Playground topside, Santa Ynez Mountains.

There are two worlds in Devil’s Playground. The topside and the underside.

The upper dimension is one of expansive sky, farsighted coastal views and the blinding sunlight and heat of a southward sloping mountainside facing the mirror-like Pacific Ocean.

The lower realm consists of the cool shadowy confines between and within the weathered stone. The massive caves and voids hollowed out of the sandstone by wind and rain and the cracks formed by the rise of the Santa Ynez Mountains and fracturing of massive bedrock plates.

The Slot is one remarkable geological feature of that subsurface realm, a some forty foot crack in the sandstone which a person can barely squeeze through in some sections.

Devils Playground Santa Barbara Goleta Santa Ynez MountainsDescending into the shady and shadowy underside of Devil’s Playground.

succulentMossy sandstone and dudelya succulents deep within the cracks.

Devil's Playground Goleta hikingThe red arrow points into The Slot.

Devils Playground Los Padres National Forest hiking Santa Ynez MountainsLooking down the pipe from the top end. Where’s Waldo?

Devil's Playground Goleta hikesThe oak tree popping out above the rock, and Pacific Ocean in the distance.

Santa Barbara hikes Devil's PlaygroundThe oak from below.

Devil's Playground Santa Barbara hikingLooking back toward the oak from further down the increasingly narrow Slot.

Devil's Playground Santa Ynez MountainsThe view overhead.

Devil's Playground hike Santa BarbaraShuffling through a tight spot in The Slot.

Related Post:

Devil’s Playground, Santa Ynez Mountains

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The Crackling Oak Forest of Aliso Canyon

White Fire Aliso CanyonA stand of charred oak trees on an elevated flat overlooking the Santa Ynez River. The White wildfire was touched off by careless recreationists barbequing at White Rock Day Use Area in May 2013.

A thick and lumpy Pacific marine layer was flowing up the Santa Ynez River valley and a cool wind buffeted the crests of ridges. The late afternoon low cloud cover added a degree of dark character and attitude to the spring day giving the land a muffled, closed in feel.

I wandered aimlessly around the odoriferous burnt forest. It’s a canyon I’ve hiked through many times, but now I could see the lay of the land like never before, stripped naked and devoid of vegetative cover. Every fold and crease was visible.

I wondered what I might find. I was sure I’d see vintage beer cans long ago tossed aside by littering lushes and buried beneath the now nonexistent leaf mulch. The steel and aluminum variety that required a churchkey to open by punching holes into the can.

Apart from whatever other trinkets I might see, I thought I might perhaps, by the sheer luck of slim chance, stumble across some treasure, something historical from the Spanish colonial or American postcolonial period or perhaps even prehistoric artifacts, like a Chumash arrowhead, a spear point or a bowl. It wouldn’t be the first time, though it’s not a habit of mine to plunder or intentionally partake in such searches. All I found was a rusty horseshoe that now adorns the mid-point of the exterior wall above our garage door.

Aliso Canyon White Fire Santa YnezI climbed a shaley ridgeline to reach an elevated flat forested by a stand of coast live oaks overlooking the Santa Ynez River. I wandered a curvilinear course through the blackened trees inspecting the regrowth, which consisted in part of numerous wildflowers that are particularly adept at taking advantage of the slower reseeding of other wild weeds, which eventually smother or depress the delicate more attractive floral species.

I came to one particular oak that had had its core entirely burned out and stood twisted up into the air from the barren earth like some wicked piece of sculpted black art, as if it had been frozen still in the midst of a death throe as it was burned alive at the stake in some terrible form of sacrifice. It caught my attention enough that I walked over for a closer look.

Weirdo that I am, because, really, how many other people do this sort of thing. I felt compelled to smell its skeleton. I leaned slowly forward into its woody cavity and, with my nostrils inches away, took a sniff.

It was then, with my head inside the charcoal-colored wooden cavity traced with bits of ashy grey, that I noticed it was snapping, and crackling and popping, something like Rice Krispies cereal in a bowl of milk. It sounded like the smoldering coals of a campfire after the flames have died out. I had to touch it just to make sure it wasn’t still burning, though I knew that was silly. That’s how odd, and how similar to smoldering coals, it sounded.

Aliso Canyon White Wildfire
As I walked on, so silent was the place beneath the muffling blanket of maritime fog, I could hear the myriad crackling of an entire blackened forest of oaks cracking in the moist breeze. I stopped and stood looking into the back-lit, black tree skeletons reaching into the grey sky like the gnarled and crooked arthritic fingers of an old man.

The noise did not seem to be the result of scorched, fire-stiffened branches being forcibly bent by the current of air flowing up the valley, as much as it was the moisture in the breath of air blowing against the charcoal in some way playing upon the desiccated carbonaceous wood.

Whatever the phenomenon at work, the faintly lit gloomy and grey late afternoon sky, and the crackling black and bare trees and largely achromatic environment I stood alone within in no way connoted springtime. It felt otherworldly. Like the setting in a mystical realm of some fantastic tale that was about to unfold before me. So far removed did it feel from the bright and cheery, and otherwise ordinary ambiance that that particular patch of land holds on a sunny blue skied day prior to the burn.

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