“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)
The character of the mountain. The viewshed through the canyon of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Cruz Island.
Geography and aesthetics.
I felt compelled to go there. Years passed before I went.
A comfortable and firm fit with flat surfaces for thumb and forefinger.
I walked through the forest and this chunk of stone gleamed from the shadows, down in the surface of the dark soil, rain polished.
On a mountain of golden gritty sandstone, in the gloom of heavy marine layer overhead, the glassy bright chert stood out like a light in the night.
On closer inspection, an artifact, a tiny blade of a sort crafted by human hands, Chumash hands.
The wad of stone may have looked ordinary and natural at first glance, but it held subtle signs of having been knapped. I could see tiny pressure flakes that had been popped from the stone one at a time in overlapping sequence to create a serrated edge.
The particular design was striking, too, a form I had never seen. The small crescent shape along the serrated edge calls to mind a gut hook on a hunting or fishing knife.
Yet, I think the hook form may have been even more pronounced when originally made. It appears to have been broken off and that the crescent edge may have been larger.
I like to think of the artifact as a Cold Springs Canyon trout gutter. Although I imagine it could have been used for numerous other purposes, and I’m assuming the original Native locals processed such fish in a similar manner as we do today.
Who knows how the tool was used?
We fished the creek for the last time thirty years ago. Before the protective prohibition on coastal stream fishing of the 1990s to protect southern steelhead.
We’d catch and release wild rainbow trout with barbless artificial lures. The trout were eellike and wiry, but ferocious in their fight, true to the species. The artifact rested in relatively close proximity to where we’d fish.
The point edge is remarkably sharp and slices through a callous on the palm. It would work well for opening the gut cavity of trout to be cleaned. But again, it appears broken so that sharp point edge at the top of the crescent may be incidental.
And although it may appear like nothing more than a rough chunk of naturally broken stone like so many others, it feels smart in the hand and fits quite well when gripped properly.
The Ojai fritillary is considered rare or endangered by the California Native Plant Society, which says it meets the definition of the California Endangered Species Act and is eligible for official state listing.
The perennial Ojai fritillary is a bulb that sprouts and grows nearly every single year in the exact same spot. It may not be easy to find the first time, but once found it remains so.
Calochortus fimbriatus, the late-flowered mariposa-lily, grows perennially in similar fashion and is also considered rare or endangered by the California Native Plant Society.
By contrast, annual fire poppies may bloom for only a single season in the same place following wildfire or may reseed and sprout again for several years in a row at most.
And then they’re gone, not to be seen again for many years.
Within several seasons the larger woody plants grow back and blot out the sun and the poppies disappear, their seeds buried under heavy leaf litter and shaded by an umbrella of forest canopy.
The seeds of fire poppies, I presume, may rest dormant on the mountain for decades before finally sprouting again, triggered by wildfire. The blooms are typically few and far between through space and time, elusive and fleeting.
I returned to the place of the lion faceoff, to measure the distance between us on that day; the most memorable day of my life in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Condor National Forest.
Using the yard measurement instrument of the common stride, as taught to us at Monte Vista Elementary school by Dr. Ehrenborg when playing football, I paced off 30 long steps.
And so it was over 90 feet.
Ninety feet sounds far to me when spoken of, sounds really far. Ninety feet also feels close when facing a lion, frightening close.
If asked before I had measured it, while sitting in town telling the story or whatever, I would have said the distance was much closer, maybe half as far.
How many loping strides would it take the big cat to close the distance? Not many. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
I walked up to the spot feeling uneasy. It’s hardly a stone’s throw from the road. I wanted to look around more, but I did not feel comfortable enough walking deeper into the woods, far from the road and my vehicle, with its alarm, the panic button in my pocket.
There are now places in the forest, certain settings, that I do not venture into alone for fear of a possible lion attack. It sounds ridiculous. I’ve never in my life thought much about lions when hiking.
The feeling will subside with time, surely, but for now things are different out there.
I see a lion track now and I turn circles, eyes darting around the creek, the rocks, the hills, wherever, all over.
Yet, I don’t ever really expect to see a cat. I’d like to think I’m being vigilant, but I know it’s driven by anxiety.
I didn’t even see the deer. Then, suddenly, they were there, staring at me with their big wet eyeballs in the mottled understory light. The deer materialized out of nowhere in an instant as I finally saw what I had been looking at.
There they stood, fifteen feet or so from where the lion had been standing staring me down weeks earlier.
I had walked up oblivious to the presence of deer when looking carefully to avoid a lion.
Los Padres Forest Association issued an obsequious letter to the Forest Service declaring their full embrace of the two month closure of Los Padres National Forest.
They called the shutout “wise.”
That’s a word of exceptional assuredness. Not just smart, but much more than that, wise. Yet, oddly, they provided no insight into their thinking.
Why was it wise?
They did not say, other than a vague reference about “making sure people were okay,” whatever that means.
We have been left wondering where the wisdom lies, because their letter held nothing of explanative substance, only a few words of empty rhetoric.
The trail maintenance group—toiling volunteers doing a tremendous amount of great field work—failed to offer any reasoning supporting their opinion; that the forest threatened public health and so it was imperative to close it entirely.
Who knows what happened after the storm? Who knows what’s out there? Better close it. All of it.
That’s the essence of their position. And that’s not wisdom.
The letter thus followed suit with most all other local commentary and reportage about the closure; remarkably superficial and unserious.
Most writers online in local hard news and opinion have served as unquestioning bullhorns for authority and amplified the Forest Service’s false narrative, that the forest is damaged and a threat to our health.
This is an issue of great import regarding public health and the curtailment of civil rights by diktat that has cleaved the people from their public lands.
Yet, even though they chose to take a position publicly endorsing the diktat, Los Padres Forest Association glossed right over the issue in blasé fashion.
The Forest Service closed thirty percent (30%) of Santa Barbara County based on the notion that a few people might get hurt if it remained legally open.
This is not rational policy. And it does not comport with our common experience elsewhere in American life.
So how is it wise?
This is a stifling standard of micromanagement, inconsistent with many other areas of our daily lives, where it’s not uncommon for people to get hurt or even killed, and where we accept much greater rates of injury and death, without issuing dictatorial prohibitions to save the people from themselves.
There were “so many unknowns,” Los Padres Forest Association said, casually, echoing the Forest Service.
“We simply don’t even know what we don’t know,” Andrew Madsen said, Los Padres National Forest spokesman, repeating a phrase taken from risk management theory.
But we don’t have to live averse to rational thought and blind to information, fact and reason. And we don’t have to react emotionally out of ignorance in kneejerk fashion to make sure “people are okay.”
We can look to the science of probability for guidance and we can look to our lives elsewhere in society for context and perspective in how we face risk sensibly, rationally.
Pursuits of happiness in Los Padres National Forest are relatively safe compared to many other common activities outside the forest.
How many deaths, injuries and need of emergency services could there possibly have been if the forest had remained legally open? Not many. That’s the answer on that one. If history is any guide to the probability of future happenings.
Only a slim sliver minority of recreationists–a miniscule number–would ever possibly have gotten hurt.
The American roadway with its rates of injury and death is a horror show relative recreation in the forest. It’s one of many examples.
Is it not true that a hiker stands a much greater chance of dying on the drive out of town before they even get to the forest than they do when walking in it?
We can look elsewhere for additional context to maintain perspective.
From economists we understand life as a series of questions about tradeoffs and opportunity costs.
Certain levels of pollutants are accepted by society although known to be harmful, in order that we may engage in industry and common activities we agree in general, on balance, tend to better our lives.
Life is not an all or nothing game. It’s a balancing act.
Why should we have wildly different public health standards applied to our public lands than we do nearly everywhere else in life?
Why should we apply a zero tolerance policy of injury to our public lands?
How is this wise? Cowboy up, and explain it.
This is a serious issue. And so serious people grant it serious thought and consideration.
Los Padres Forest Association appears flippant in their letter, not to have given much thought to the issue at all. They advocate curtailing civil rights without appearing informed by any degree of due diligence whatsoever.
But I have also put up lengthy, well-reasoned arguments. And I have offered context from our common lives outside the forest to provide perspective. We stand on principle on this blog, guided by reason by way of facts and information, with a long view.
Would that Los Padres Forest Association do the same if and when they dabble in politics supporting such serious policy proscriptions that separate people from their public lands.
What I saw when I first turned to continue my walkabout. A beautiful disaster.
“Lions often stalk their prey and attack by leaping on their shoulders and back, biting the top of the neck or head. Their jaws are strong enough to bite through the skull, crushing it. Claw marks and tooth punctures are usually evident along the shoulders and neck.”
If you are within 21 feet of a knife fighter he can reach you in a second, cut you to ribbons and you bleed out and die shortly after.
That’s an old refrain heard among street fighters. It’s taken from cops and it applies even if you’re armed with a holstered gun. Twenty-one feet seems far, but it’s not far enough.
How far is the defensive line when facing a lion?
By happenstance I turned around sooner rather than later and spotted the lion coming up behind me quite some distance away. Not nearly far enough away.
If I hadn’t turned, and events would have further aligned in its favor, I think the lion would have attacked me. I believe that’s what was about to happen.
Attacked from behind, of course. Unheard, unseen, and with no warning whatsoever.
Two piercing paws latched to the back of the shoulders and a fanged vice grip around the soft neck. Taken to the ground. And it’s all over.
Should I have the presence of mind and physical ability I might succeed in grabbing my Mora knife and sticking it into the lion somewhere, anywhere in terrible desperation.
Not likely, though. I don’t think so. Yeah, right.
The standoff was frightening and I could hear, much to my surprise, the fear in my voice in the first few words I spoke as we faced each other.
I hadn’t felt scared in those first few moments of the encounter, but the fear was plainly evident in my voice when I first spoke.
I didn’t know what to do but keep talking.
This is why the video is so unsteady at times; it’s me looking around for a lifeline and thinking, Where the heck is Stubbs with his diktat to protect my health and safety?!
I stood in grass and had no rocks to throw, not that I wanted to squat down low to fumble about for a stone anyway.
I was not terrified, though. In some respect I might have felt some degree of control over the situation. Like I had the lion locked in a standoff rather than the other way around.
I didn’t think the cat would charge me in a frontal assault. It didn’t feel like that was going to happen. At least not at first. The feel changed at one point.
Yet, I still felt as if I was teetering without hand holds, walking a razor’s edge. That the encounter could turn grisly in a split second.
The lion didn’t appear to have any intent on leaving, as I thought should be its normal reaction.
Why didn’t the cat bolt when I first turned around and saw it? When I first talked to it? When I first yelled at it? When I continued to yell at it? When I stepped toward it, yelling at it?
That was the perplexing question. That was the most disturbing variable in the equation I was trying to figure out to save my life or prevent great bodily harm. There seemed to be only one answer.
The cat stepped back once, hind leg loaded.
In addition to yelling several different times, I made one pathetic physical attempt to scare the lion off. While yelling ha! several times I also took several steps forward.
The lion took a single step back, and then stood firm, cocked on a loaded hind leg. The damn thing squared up for a fight.
I’m your huckleberry, said the lion. That’s just my game.
I thought if I continued my weak attempt at an offensive move I might provoke an attack, so I stopped. The cat called my bluff, easily, and looked much meaner all of a sudden.
At that point I did not try things like standing taller with arms up or waving arms around overhead.
There was no cell phone service. My days could end with a severed or punctured artery even if I initially survived an attack.
I had been hobbling about with two tender, sore knees. I wore Doc Martens that day with slick soles, not intending to hike, and was walking over lichen-covered boulders and green grass, all slippery. I had slipped and slid about a few times.
I think the cat noticed my limping and saw me slipping around on the rocks and the grassy slopes.
I believe this is one reason the cat wouldn’t leave and kept me pinned for so long. It saw me as lame prey, an easy mark. A clumsy bipedal creature that must have appeared ridiculous.
I turned around and took a step or two forward to return to my vehicle, and there was the mountain lion looking at me, one paw set forward, still as a statue.
We looked at each other for a bit.
I took a moment to realize I was seeing a lion and not a bobcat or coyote or whatever else. It’s not in my common experience and so well outside my frame of reference to see a lion just standing around looking at me.
I stood near a paved road in the Santa Ynez Mountains, atop the range along the Gaviota Coast. I was a long stone’s throw from my vehicle. I might as well have been a swimmer in the sea a few yards from a life raft with a great white shark circling.
About fifteen seconds into the encounter it occurred to me to take video. Some time later into the standoff it occurred to me that I could hit the alarm button on my key in my pocket. The whole incident lasted about one minute or so.
Without having finally resorted to my car alarm to scare it off, who knows how long the lion would have kept me pinned?