I walked the Santa Cruz Trail up to the top of Little Pine Mountain. It’s about 15 miles round trip with some 3000′ elevation gain. The mountaintop offers views of the Santa Ynez Valley to the south and the deep Santa Barbara backcountry to the north.
Little Pine hollow is one those nooks of the forest I used to frequent. As a kid I often rode motorcycles up there from Upper Oso Campground. I camped there a few times, grilled steaks over wood fires. Sat at night in the grass out on the mountain’s south face and stargazed. It was a pleasant wooded bowl. But for whatever various reasons, one day came to be my last visit for an extended period of time. I hadn’t been there for at least two decades. It was a sad sight to behold since I was last there, walking into the fire stricken depression of death that was once a shady green dell.
As I wandered into Happy Hollow Camp, deer bounding through the grass, I felt a profound loss. The same feeling I’ve had many times over the last few years seeing so much of the forestland around the Santa Barbara and Ventura region torched in various fires. Charcoal-colored widow makers bristled from the earth. I was angered. Sitting on a picnic bench surveying the landscape I was plagued with the thought of the way things were and what I will never see again. Ever. All of those towering trees standing like giant blackened matchsticks. The little green sprouts of several feet will never in my time grow to the height or girth of the trees they stand to replace. I will never see the landscape as it was when I knew it last. It’s an impossibility. I do not have enough years left in life.
To some degree I suppose I was marinating in the bitter acidity of my own selfishness. Although the area burned from a human-caused fire rather than natural phenomenon, wildfire is an inextricable element of the wild world. It could have been a lightning strike that burned the mountain top to a crisp and I would have felt the same sense of loss and anger, as if I had a natural right to experience the forest as I want it to be rather than how it is.
I sat for ten minutes lost in thought. It was after four in the afternoon, the sun dropping toward the horizon. I wandered off eastward, busted my way through the thickening regrowth and out onto the grassy south face of the mountain. The Santa Ynez Valley was veiled beneath the hazy blue hues of late afternoon shadows, but Big Pine Mountain in the distant backcountry was spottily lit up.
The walk down Little Pine back to Upper Oso Campground measured in the realm of exceptional, with cool temperatures accented by light puffs of warm wind, the sweet fragrance of blooming white ceanothus, quietude and the golden apricot hue of late afternoon winter light. I walked into the campground in the fading twilight, a group of campers circled round their blazing fire. I wished to be doing the same, but my six hours of escape were over, it was back to the city for me.