“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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Potentially Deadly Assassin Bug In Los Padres Forest

triatomine bugsVarious triatomine bugs in all life stages. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Recent news reports echoing across the Internet tell of the so-called assassin bug having now been found in at least 28 states. Known also as the kissing bug, or by their scientific name triatomine, they are a parasitic insect that feed on the blood of mammals, birds and reptiles and are endemic to Santa Barbara County.

The primary host of triatomine bugs are packrats, also known as woodrats, which are commonly found in chaparral oak woodlands like those of Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Mountains.

They are called kissing bugs because of their proclivity to bite people around the mouth. The bugs are primarily nocturnal and so tend to bite people while they sleep.

They are also called assassin bugs because some of them, but not all, carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease and can be deadly. However, “the transmission of Chagas from a bug to a human is not easy,” notes the CDC. The parasite that causes the deadly disease is found in triatomine feces, which must enter the human body through the bite wound or the eyes or mouth. According to the CDC the risk of getting Chagas disease in the United States is low. Santa Barbara’s Sansum Clinic states that Chagas is not common in the states.

Aside from contracting Chagas disease and the threat of death, bites from certain types of triatomine bugs can also trigger allergic reactions. The CDC notes that these reactions may include “severe redness, itching, swelling, welts, hives, or, rarely, anaphylactic shock.” Allergic reactions do not mean a person has been infected with Trypanosoma cruzi.

Trypanosoma cruzi Chagas disease Santa Barbara

“The protozoan parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, causes Chagas disease, a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted to humans by blood-sucking triatomine bugs.” —CDC

A study published in August 2012, “Do Bites of Kissing Bugs Cause Unexplained Allergies? Results from a Survey in Triatomine-Exposed and Unexposed Areas in Southern California,” suggested a “possibility of a causal link between these symptoms and triatomine exposure.”

However, the study was not conclusive and “despite the plausibility of a causal link between living in triatomine-exposed areas and unexplained allergic reactions, laboratory tests are required to confirm such a link.”

The aforementioned study was “concordant with a previous study in Santa Barbara County.” The previous study “looked at 120 inhabitants of the foothills in Santa Barbara County and found elevated levels of IgE antibodies to Triatoma protracta in 8 (6.7%) persons.”

triatomine kissing assassin bug map CDC santa barbaraTriatomine occurrence by U.S. state, as per the CDC.

Kissing bugs have apparently been a known pest for a long time in the Santa Barbara area. The following news brief was published in the Los Angeles Herald in 1899. Readers may note, however, that the last sentence does not seem to agree with the title, and also that the man was bitten during the day though triatomine bugs are primarily nocturnal.

kissing assassin bug santa barbara

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Ice Cans To Rockets, A New Stove For A New Century

rocket-stoveThe rocket stove was developed by Dr. Larry Winiarski in the early 1980s. (A detailed explanation and design principles of the rocket stove: PDF)

Nearly one hundred years ago an enterprising butcher in southern California fabricated a stove from a steel box or “can” which was once commonly used to freeze water into blocks of ice before the days of widespread refrigeration.

The wood burning boxes became known as “ice can stoves.” They were distributed, circa the 1920s, throughout the lands which would later be known as Los Padres National Forest. (Blog post: The Ice Can Stove: A Brief History)

I don’t believe there is a substitute for today’s tiny backpacking stoves and small fuel canisters. They’re light and take up little space in a backpack and and don’t require the time and effort to find dry tinder, kindling and wood and stoke up a fire hot enough to do the job. They work with little effort virtually anywhere in all conditions.

But what if there was a backwoods onsite alternative reminiscent of the old ice can stoves, but vastly more efficient? A wood burning stove for the new century. A stove of this sort does exist and could be out there.

Joe and Sierra on Cerro AltoJoe and his dog Sierra atop Cerro Alto in San Luis Obispo County. (Photo courtesy of Joe Ramirez: Joe’s Hiking Adventures.)

It’s the rocket stove. A miniature, highly efficient wood burning device specially designed to make use of small caliber branches and significantly less fuel when cooking. What otherwise would serve as little more than tinder and kindling in an ice can stove back in the day or an open flame campfire is all that’s needed to fuel a rocket stove. Cook full meals or boil water with nothing more than twigs.

The wood burns so hot and so thoroughly in the insulated combustion chamber that virtually no smoke is emitted and the volatile gases, which otherwise escape from a campfire or traditional stove and are lost and wasted, are burned up as well. Because of its exceptional efficiency it’s possible to avoid blackening the bottoms and sides of pots and pans.

It seems to me that rocket stoves could be installed throughout the forest at backcountry campsites much like the old-time upcycled ice cans had been a century ago. They could be crafted onsite using nearby rocks and sand to form the exterior body of the stove and the interior insulation surrounding the burn chamber.

The metal parts, light and relatively small, could easily be packed in. The mortar used to seal the exterior stone body of the stove would be the heaviest component to transport. Perhaps such a project might be worthy of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts or other groups and volunteer associations.

Such a device would provide a tool with which backpackers could cook hot meals and drinks and purify water without need of the industrially produced propane-butane fuel canisters and stoves commonly used these days; gear that in its production, transport and sales releases a significant amount of pollution.

The rocket stoves would be fueled instead by a renewable and thus sustainable resource produced naturally at the site of use and of which there is no shortage in the forest, wood. The burning of wood in this manner is, arguably, carbon neutral or carbon lean. While burning fossil fuels like propane and butane releases into the atmosphere carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years, burning wood only releases the carbon which had been absorbed by the tree or bush during its short lifespan.

Campfire Los Padres Santa Barbara

A rocket stove would have a few notable disadvantages, however. It would require more time to use than a pocket stove in that a camper would have to forage for wood fuel and work to kindle a fire rather than merely turn on the gas and spark a flame.

With winter rains such fuel might tend to be moist and less inflammable and more difficult to set alight. Perhaps the greatest problem would be that the use of such stoves would be prohibited during extended portions of the driest times of the year, in summer when official fire restrictions are in effect throughout the forest.

Yet it might be a worthwhile endeavor, if enough people would be willing to forgo a little time and convenience for sake of carrying a little less gear in their pack and reducing, if only a little, their share of pollution and trash.

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Petroglyphs, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle Arran Scotland hiking forestThe petroglyphs are found just inside this stand of planted conifers, silviculture being an important part of the local economy.

At nine at night I stepped out for a walk in the woods. Couldn’t sit around the house after dinner any longer and let slip away the last two hours of daylight. Neat novelty for a visiting Californian; darkness doesn’t fall on the Isle of Arran until about 11 o’clock in June. First light cracks in the morning at about four or so.

The mountains of Arran that night, thickly forested in conifer and dripping wet from intermittent rain showers or a stuffy old house? Right. “To the hills!” as the beard with a man says.

Stronach Wood Arran Scotland hiking hill walking

I stood gazing into the drenched, mossy forest, the sound of rain slashing through the trees overhead and pecking loudly against my hooded jacket. The strange woods were ominously thick and gloomy beneath a low ceiling of cloud cover.

I had only a vague sense of where I might find the slab of exposed bedrock whereon the petroglyphs were carved. The land was heavily forested with no rock outcrops and any open terrain outside tree cover was buried beneath a dense tangle of plants and peat. I couldn’t much hope to find the mysterious rock art by scanning the countryside for jumbles of rocks, because there were no rocks nor long views.

I walked on into the closed-in wilderness quietly, slowly, eager to find the ancient treasure, but also with a tinge of uneasiness.

“The word [wilderness] is European, and it is revealing that most Native American languages are unable to translate it. Its etymology derives from the Anglo-Saxon wildeor, meaning of wild and dangerous beasts, which speaks volumes about the perceptional differences toward nature between Europeans and Native Americans. For nearly 2,000 years the western mind has been conditioned to the value-laden meaning of wilderness as it is used in the Bible, where it appears more than two-hundred times and designates a wasteland, a chaotic and dangerous antithesis to civilization.

Dan Flores, Caprock Canyonlands (1990)

Wilderness, as conceived in the Western mind thousands of years ago during the rise of civilization, has historically been a fearful, life-threatening realm of beasts and monsters, wherein the ignorance and imagination of early man combined to create fantastical creatures and supernatural beings.

Roderick Nash, professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at UCSB, writes of one such ancient monster in “Wilderness and the American Mind” (1965).

Pan, mythical God of forest

Pan engaging in some “gross sensuality” with a goat. (c) Marie-Lan Nguyen

“Pan, lord of the woods, was pictured as having the legs, ears, and tail of a goat and the body of a man. He combined gross sensuality and boundless sportive energy. Greeks who had to pass through forests and mountains dreaded an encounter with Pan. Indeed, the word ‘panic’ originated from the blinding fear that seized travelers upon hearing strange cries in the wilderness and assuming them to signify Pan’s approach.”

Standing alone in the darkening, rainy woods of a foreign nation I well understood the primeval emotions underpinning the historical understanding of wilderness. At that moment I was nothing if not a product of Western culture. A fickle human mind burdened with the cultural baggage of misconception, emotion overruling reason. The derivation of the word “panic” seemed apt.

As an aside, author Laurence Gonzales writes in “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” that in dangerous situations emotions can serve defensively as instinctual, hair-trigger reflexes. Reason, by contrast, is methodical and slow in response to environmental stimuli.

When born we don’t fear a gun shot. As we mature we develop that or after being shot at. If shot at enough times our reaction becomes involuntary and automatic and instantaneous. Think of a war veteran immediately throwing themselves on the ground at the sound of gunfire or even a loud pop such as a car backfiring. That is a secondary emotional response designed, as science tells us, to save our life. “To survive, you must develop secondary emotions that function in a strategic balance with reason,” Gonzales writes. (These emotions can also get a person killed and Gonzales describes a number of examples.)

Intellect or reason, by contrast, can be far less effective. It would take a lot longer to seek cover if we had to, every time we heard a gun shot, reason our way through a maze of complicated thoughts to determine the nature of the threat, the level of potential danger, possible consequences, and, finally, what our response should be and how to achieve it. Emotion is automatic and instantaneous whereas thinking takes deliberate effort and time.

And so I wondered, in those gloomy Scottish woods that evening, if despite knowing by way of intellect that I was perfectly safe, emotion was somehow overriding that reasoning along the lines of what Gonzales had described in writing of danger, survival and the human mind.

I knew I had nothing whatsoever to fear from animals or horrid beasts, and that I stood firmly atop the food-chain. But the farther into the woods I wandered the creepier the place felt. I walked on slowly, softly, quietly, and scanned the trees and nervously cast glances over each shoulder every so often.

I hated to admit it to myself, in a running mental conversation as I walked, but there seemed to be a tinge of fear percolating. Was that it? Fear? Every look into the darkened alleyways formed by the conifers I imagined for a brief moment somebody or something storming out of the woods at me or that I might catch site of something, who knows what, scary as hell. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I couldn’t shake the uneasiness. Uneasiness, that’s a better wordif only for my delicate pride as a supposedly stoic woodsman.

Isle Arran, Scotland petroglyphs hiking

I spied a rock slab in the waning evening light. My thoughts changed course to more pleasant pondering of ancient rock art, that is until the return walk to the car with even less light.

The rock slab was found in a small unremarkable clearing, mostly from the fact that no trees could grow from the stone, but probably also because the site has been pruned back and cleared on occasion to prevent the forest from swallowing it.

The scent of saturated peaty woodland and the sound of rain in the forest comprised the fragrance and soundtrack that evening, as I gazed at the concentric rings and cups carved into the rock, gently ran my fingers over and through them and wondered what it all meant.

Since I can only offer these hideous snapshots captured using my meager ability and an old cell phone camera, I have included here two vintage illustrations to give a better idea of what the rock art consists of.

Note the far-reaching view from the site revealed in the old drawing as compared to the density of the forest currently surrounding the rock as shown in my snapshots. The two images below, snapshot and illustration, are views looking in the same direction. Were the trees not there one could also enjoy a bird’s eye view of the sea and coastline just about a mile away in the other direction.

Petroglyphs Arran Scotland Stronach hiking

Arran Scotland petroglyphs Stronach Ridge

A quote out of the book from which the drawing is taken:

“It may be of some interest to note that a line bisecting the two ring-groups, G and H, points direct to the summit of Goatfell Peak, and this happens to be Magnetic North. The Polar North is also shown on my plan, and in the general view of the rock (Fig. 5) its relation to the fine range of peaks on the north, culminating in Ben Nuis, may be seen.”

—J. A. Balfour, “The Book of Arran” (1901)

Arran Scotland petroglyphs Stronach Ridge WoodsDrawing showing magnetic and polar north, as referenced in the quote.

Arran Scotland petroglyphs Stronach wood

Petroglyphs Arran Scotland Stronach Wood hikingArran Scotland Stronach Ridge petroglyphsPetroglyphs Arran Scotland hillwalking

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Vernal and Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park

Yosemite bedrock mortars metate IndiansMortars in Yosemite Valley.

The Urban Wilderness

Yosemite National Park represents a contradiction to me. A place entirely about nature, but it’s crawling with hordes of chattering tourists and hiking trails are paved.

There is something oddly and strikingly askew about sections of the John Muir Trail being asphalted over. That seems more appropriate for a footpath dedicated to an industrialist like John D. Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil, rather than naturalist Muir, founder of Sierra Club.

The hardscape immediately and irrevocably alters the ambiance of the trail making the setting feel less natural and wild, and more like an extension of the metropolis. The tentacles of humanity twisting their way deep into the woods to further claim them for urbanity. Junior pathways, “the very tip of the monster’s tentacle,” linking to the byways of “industrial tourism,” as Edward Abbey wrote.

Sidewalks and paved roads are unmistakably metropolitan. They are the capillaries and arteries of city life and that which connects and binds those urban organs of modern human existence together. Found in the woods, they refuse to let go of nature and allow it to be wild, but rather keep it tied to the sort of artificial human sphere I seek to escape when venturing into the wilderness. Such hardscape makes the forest feel like a park, which of course it is, a National Park.

Yosemite reflection Mirror Lake hikeMirror Lake

The Wilderness Museum

Aldo Leopold once plead for “the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.”

Paved paths, hordes of people ambling around at every notable sight, metal hand railings and fencing and signs make my Yosemite experience feel more like a visit to a museum rather than a hike into the natural world. Perhaps Yosemite is indeed a museum piece of a sort, but hopefully our industrial society will never render it a mere tag-end of what once was.

I suppose these characteristics are inevitably unavoidable in a majestic place like Yosemite wherein millions of people visit annually. I can offer no reasonable alternatives to development when the park faces the annual onslaught of eight million human feet excitedly trampling about.

Leaving the park as close to wild as possible with scant artificial infrastructure is unrealistic when the millions of visitors can hardly be restrained even with all the barriers and trammels. I suppose it’s a ridiculous idea for Yosemite at this late stage of the game, maybe better suited for newer nature preserves, but I like naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch‘s idea of a good bad dirt road as a filtering device:

“There’s nothing like a good bad dirt road to screen out the faintly interested and to invite in the genuinely interested. And it’s perfectly democratic, open to anyone willing to endure a little inconvenience and discomfort for the sake of getting away from the crowds.”

Yosemite Vernal FallsVernal Falls

John Muir Trail Vernal Falls hikeJohn Muir Trail at Vernal Falls.

Splash Mountain. DisneylandFaux falls on “Splash Mountain,” Disneyland.

The Wilderness Theme Park

Aside from being a museum showcasing our national inheritance, sometimes Yosemite feels something akin to a gargantuan theme park like Disneyland. When I think, dream, of having the magical power to create a natural wonderland it’s hard to imagine topping Yosemite, for it has nearly all the facets of a wild gem I could think of ever wanting; awesome granite peaks, raging waterfalls blasting off mountain precipices, serene stretches of crystal clear river and tall conifer forests humming with the silence of wildness. Even were I to top Yosemite in this hypothetical game, the park would be the blueprint of inspiration to begin with.

Yosemite is the quintessence of nature so dearly valued by lovers of wilderness and even those less inclined to value forest can’t help but be awed. It is a blueprint for the building of replicas of nature as found in places like Disneyland and urban parks.

In these artificial places the natural world is imitated and reflected, but also natural places like Yosemite come to reflect those artificial creations. Sometimes hiking the trail, amid the jostling crowds and signs and fences and railings, thoughts flash through my mind, that it’s as if the land before me of Yosemite has all been built, a theme park or the false facade front in a movie set of a spaghetti western.

Yosemite Vernal Nevada Falls hike lakeEmerald Pool above Vernal Falls.

Nevada Falls Yosemite hikingLiberty Cap and Nevada Falls.

John Muir Trail hiking YosemiteJohn Muir Trail and Liberty Cap.

Luxury In the Woods

Ten years old was about the age I was when I first visited Yosemite. I had visited the park several times in subsequent years and on each visit we always camped. Not RV-style luxury camping, we always lived for the few days or week long trip down in the dirt and sleeping in tents. Roughing it, as they say.

This last March I stayed in a hotel for the first time. We booked a weekend in the prestigious and historic Ahwahnee originally built in 1927 and located on the valley floor of Yosemite. Our brief stay was like no other experience I have ever had.

In the morning I would wake, ready myself and gear, walk down stairs to the second floor to get a cup of exceptionally good complimentary coffee and proceed to walk out the door into the conifer forest and onto a hiking trail within just minutes of filling my cup. I’d be on the trail walking toward my destination for the day with my cup full of coffee still steaming.

Within minutes, by foot, I’d go from the warm, plush comfort of my bed and onto a trail that offered as many miles as I could physically and mentally bear to walk of some of the best hiking in the Unites States of America. I could, in point of fact, walk out the Ahwahnee, onto the Pacific Crest Trail, and all the way to Mexico or Canada by foot.

At day’s end, fatigued, dirty, smelly, hungry, ragged looking, I’d stagger back into the hotel to a hot shower, a cocktail or two at the bar, followed by an exquisite meal in the grand Ahwahnee Dining Room with Mrs. Elliott, and afterward a plush bed with a stack of books to read for the evening.

Yosemite Nevada Falls hikeLooking from the other side at Nevada Falls.

It was a revolutionary trip. The luxury completely redefined in my mind what a visit to Yosemite is all about or, perhaps better stated, can be about should one desire it. Staying in a hotel and camping in tents are alternatives to each other and not substitutes. Each offers opportunities for far different experiences, all of which hold their own particular value.

In enjoying the luxe convenience I shouldn’t niggle about Yosemite seeming at times to be more of a museum or theme park rather than pristine, untrammeled and undeveloped nature.

In fact, now that I’ve tasted of the sumptuousness of such forest recreation I’m forever spoiled. I’ve gone soft. We’ve got plans booked for another trip come spring. I’m sure I won’t miss any of the dusty campsites nearby a lick. I might even shuffle through the jostling crowds with a wee bit more tolerance. Maybe.

Nevada Falls top Yosemite hikingView from top of Nevada Falls.

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The Allure of Grass

Escondido Potrero Los Padres National Forest Dad Ramey stillA small, but remarkable potrero in the Los Padres National Forest that is a short distance away from Mollisol Meadow.

“But it is upon the grass, mediator of soil and sun, that the human gaze has always tended to settle, and not just our gaze, either. A great many animals, too, are drawn to grass, which partly accounts for our own deep attraction to it: We come here to eat the animals that ate the grass that we (lacking rumens) can’t eat ourselves. ‘All flesh is grass.’ The Old Testament’s earthy equation reflects a pastoral culture’s appreciation of the food chain that sustained it, though the hunter-gatherers living in the African savanna thousands of years earlier would have understood the flesh-grass connection just as well.”

Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

“It seems likely that the Santa Barbara coast in pre-European times was dominated by grassland and oak savanna. … Indian burning may also have been an important factor in maintaining the openness of oak savanna in coastal areas.”

Jan Timbrook “Vegetation Burning by the Chumash

The historic population of Chumash in the Santa Barbara area would have well-understood the flesh-grass connection mentioned by Pollan, as they routinely burned the landscape to encourage new plant growth, fresh green shoots and seeds, and thus increase their available food supply. While it is speculative, as per what little we know from historical sources, perhaps they also burned the forest to spur fresh plant growth to attract game to hunt.

But what is the appeal of grass for a modern day urbanite like myself? Few other features of the Los Padres landscape capture my attention like an open patch of grass, the potrero as they’re commonly called.

There is aesthetic value. I enjoy looking at a potrero, the golden brown hue of dry grass set against a dark green, shadowy backdrop of oaks or chaparral carpeted hills and a clear blue sky above. In other ways, as well, fields of grass are instantly pleasing to gaze upon.

Grassy flats serve a utilitarian purpose, too, providing uncommon open and level spaces for ancient habitation, early American homesteading and modern-day camping in a forest that is often densely covered in impenetrable chaparral and folded about by inhospitable mountain slopes. The role potreros have played in shaping the human condition fascinates me.

I like to analyze the character of potreros in this context. Consider their particular componentsgnarled old oaks providing shade there, a creek running along the fringe here, an exceptional view of nearby sandstone crags over thereand decide on the best place to locate a campsite. I choose plots where I’d build a cabin and consider where the garden and orchard would go. I wonder about past peoples that have lived, camped and hunted in the potreros 100 years ago or 500 or 1000 years and more. I consider grass gazing a legitimate form of recreation, to relax in the shade of a tree on the edge of a quiet backcountry potrero and watch it lie there. And ponder.

Yet while I have an aesthetic as well as utilitarian interest to these swaths of grass surrounded by trees and brush, sometimes it seems there may be something far more to it than mere superficial attraction and historical curiosity. There is no doubt that I like to go sit around in a potrero for no particular reason.

Matias Potrero Los Padres National Forest hikes campingMatias Potrero, Santa Ynez River environs.

Pollan suggests a far deeper connection to grassland habitat stemming from humanity’s prehistoric roots as hunter-gatherers. He notes that people’s appreciation for grass is often cited as an example of biophilia, the theory posited by E. O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning evolutionary biologist at Harvard. Wilson’s hypothesis holds that humanity possesses, as a legacy of evolution, an innate bond or instinctual attraction to nature.

Wilson was recently featured in a Washington Times article mentioning biophilia and, specifically, his belief that grassland ecosystems are particularly attractive to humanity:

“Wilson believes that there is an innate tendency to want, as a human, to be in certain types of natural environments — particularly, he says, those that mimic African savannahs where we evolved. ‘People say, ‘I go there and in a short while, I feel somehow completely at home,’ Wilson says of traveling to the savannah.”

Washington Post 9-30-15

I first came across bear sign on the creek bank under the oaks, along the shadowy fringe of the potrero shown in the first snapshot above. A few yards away a large oval patch of the deep grass was pressed flat to the soil where the bear had been laying. Funny I should have happened upon a bear’s bed when looking myself for a place to nap. Just a few feet away lay a huge wad of bear scat, gut-processed grass in this case.

For whatever reasons the bear and I were drawn to this small and remote parcel of grass. It seems reasonable that something instinctual led or at least nudged the bear to walk there. I would not be surprised and I don’t think anybody else would be either.

“For the most part we still, somewhat awkwardly, occupy the bodies of foragers and look out at the world through the hunter’s eye.”

Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

“We don’t have to go back to the Pleistocene, because our bodies never left.”

Paul Shepard

If we are in many ways still the ancient hunter-gatherers from which we evolved, then it does not seem far-fetched to think that I, too, the human animal, am subconsciously motivated by prehistoric instincts or atavistic impulses, which compel me to venture into the wilderness for reasons I am not aware of and will never understand.

Related Posts:

Santa Barbara hiking Los PadresSearching For Soul Outside the Cage



Cottam Camp Los Padres Santa Barbara hikes Santa YnezGrass Gazing In Cottam Meadow

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