“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)
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?
The standoff ended when I pressed the panic button on my key and the alarm went off.
That I waited so long before hitting the alarm speaks to how comfortably uncomfortable I was during the standoff.
That I hit the alarm button shows how I had reached the end of my willingness to any longer be held at fang point and gazed at like a hot plate of food, soon to be eaten.
I opened my door fast and jumped into the cab, slamming the door shut. And then the emotional release. A tremendous wash of anxiety and relief.
I sat there marinating for a moment, not previously realizing how stressful the encounter had been in the moment, and a bit surprised by how, even in a car, I felt so uneasy.
Subsequently, every time I watched the video for the first several replays it ended in a blast of anxiety for me.
The video below followed by a transcript of my monologue delivered to the mountain lion:
“I see you over there. HAHHH!
You were behind me. I didn’t even see your ass.
Here I am staring at a boulder and you were going to eat me from behind.
HAHHH! HAHHH! HAHHH! HAHHH!!! (Yelled while stepping forward toward the cat. The cat takes a single step back, then stands firm, cocked on the hind leg muscle like a loaded spring ready to fire.)
“GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!
GET. . .THE. . .****. . .OUT OF HERE!
(It was very odd, and so very unnerving, to yell at a mountain lion and watch it just stand there looking at me. I would’ve never guessed lions around here to be so bold.)
“I tell ya, I got a knife. So if you don’t kill me. I’m gonna ******* kill you.
(After I fired off my silly knife threat is when in the video you see the cat look around behind itself, funnily enough. A few seconds later I hit the button on my key and set the alarm off. Note how the cat still does not immediately bolt, but sets its footing in a flash and then stands tall craning its neck for a look, before finally running off. A bold animal, indeed.)
(Those are actually fantastic conditions! The worse the better.)
And yet in the face of such natural horrors, the likes of which only Danny Hillman might venture risking limb and life to vanquish, they didn’t close the forest because it was a forest.
Which the Forest Service has done currently under the Stubbsdiktat for purported “health and safety” reasons.
This yellow Forest Service sign was posted at Baron Ranch long before the current Los Padres National Forest closure.
It warns people, aside from possible deadly cataclysms, that the trail may be hazardous and not even useable. Holy mackerel, Batman!
Yet the big ugly sign welcomes walkers nonetheless or at least doesn’t tell them no.
Such a refreshing welcoming to a bold land is rather amusing when we consider the current timid closure.
laughingstock [ laf-ing-stok, lah-fing- ]
an object of ridicule; the butt of a joke or the like:
His ineptness as a public official made him the laughingstock of the whole town.
“Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”
— Obi-Wan Kenobi
The leaders managing our local national public lands and County wildland preserves appear to act in arbitrary and contradictory ways.
The fallout from that confusion results in lost trust, which undermines the Forest Service and government institutions.
Any associated private civic outdoors organizations that work in tandem to manage these open spaces also expose themselves to similar harm.
And when trust wanes so does cooperation.
The people are not unconscious. They see what happens and respond accordingly, to each his own.
It may be that the damage now being done to the relationship, a social contract, between citizen and state is far greater and longer lasting than any harm that might come if the people were allowed to go into their forest, rather than being shut out.
It may be that the short-term cost of rescuing me, the unlucky one or the loudmouthed idiot who gets himself hurt in the forest, is far less than the long term damage done to the integrity of the institutions and organizations currently responsible for the senseless blanket closure.
The Forest Service has criminalized entry into thirty percent (30%) of the entire county.
It’s knee-jerk, arbitrary and capricious. There was no design. This yellow sign above reflects these simple truths. And we all see it.
In reference to the sign’s mention of debris flows, it should be duly noted that around here in Santa Barbara County, after the Montecito Debris Flow (2018) killed 23 people, that phrase carries serious weight. It rocked the entire community and beyond like nothing had before. My wife knew victims who lost their lives.
Yet nevertheless, fortunately, the Forest Service did not bar access to the forest following the Alisal Fire (2021), as the sign shows.
Somebody just posted a warning to inform you what you were entering.
People made up their own minds whether or not they were interested and fit and able enough to proceed.
That they even got a warning is more than I’d like to see. Yet another ugly sign yelling at me. There’s no need for it. Make people use their brains.
Make the people keep walking until they see with their eyeballs that they don’t care to walk any farther, and so decide to return.
Whatever happens along their short way out in the forest is surely better for their physical and mental health than most anything in that loony bin city.
At trailheads leading into the condemned forest at the moment, for weeks now since January 13, walkers see signs saying the trail is closed because it’s unsafe and that they might ruin the trail, too.
The forest is a threat to you and you are a threat to the forest, authorities tell us.
The walkers of the public woods wonder, after they stop chuckling, what in heck could possibly be more unsafe than potential hazards like loose rocks, falling trees and limbs, flash floods and debris flows?
I’d pull my hair out if I had any. It’s utter madness.
Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.
People have been ripping the silly signs out of the ground and throwing them in the bushes. To be clear, not me, other people. They know the closure is nonsense.
I’ve seen people of the most ordinary sort out on the trails all during the closure, quite a number of them, of all ages, children to seniors. Members of the community. All sorts of good, decent folks out walking.
“It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree’s presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.”
—Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged (1957)
My eldest daughter saw the Cave Fire (2019) first among us, at the top of the mountain, not long before sundown. We were all outside in the yard and she called it out.
We stood in the yard and watched, that afternoon and into evening, as it swept down the front side of the Santa Ynez Mountains and into San Marcos Foothills Preserve.
I climbed atop the roof to watch as the grassland flared, nervous it might make it to our house.
The fire swept West Mesa on the Preserve and past the old oak.
The tree has certainly been burned before, and bears those scars, and it’s not likely that a great grandparent of an old oak like this would perish from a fast moving, light intensity grass fire.
Nevertheless, firefighters paid it special attention and took time to care for it as if it was somebody’s home or some historic cabin or schoolhouse in the forest.
They did not have to do this, but they chose to protect the tree. A single tree.
They went to work sod busting and turning the soil to create a defensive firebreak that entirely encircled the big tree. The tree sustained only minor leaf scorch due to their efforts.
Firefighters are the ultimate tree huggers and we recognize and praise them for it.