Pit Viper on Arroyo Burro Trail

chumash bedrock mortarChumash bedrock mortars in Barger Canyon below Arroyo Burro Trail.

Arroyo Burro Trail purportedly follows an historic Chumash Indian route over the Santa Ynez Mountains linking the Santa Barbara coastal plain to the Santa Ynez Valley. In the foothills below the trail can be found a number of bedrock mortars, including in Barger Canyon and several in and around San Roque Canyon. It is, along with Jesusita Trail, one of the first hiking trails I explored as a kid.

cloudsClouds over Santa Ynez Mountains.

“If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious.”

—John Steinbeck Travels with Charlie In Search of America (1980)

Steinbeck describes in a simple, specific example a general universal experience. With enough practice many activities become second nature. It’s what author Laurence Gonzales has described as “automated (unthinking) action.”

In his book, Deep Survival, Gonzales discusses how the human mind develops “mental models” of the world based on personal experience, and how these models can unconsciously shape if not control one’s actions.

Mental models enable us to navigate through the complexity of daily life in an efficient manner, because we can act and complete tasks without having to waste time thinking about all the sophisticated intricacies involved in making them happen. In an article for National Geographic Adventure Gonzales echoes Steinbeck:

“Most people, for example, have a complex model for driving that allows them to do so while talking on the phone and drinking coffee. Once models are established, they require no thought. …This system uses our previous experience to prescribe our behavior in new situations.”

Arroyo Burro TrailA view southeastward down the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking east fork San Antonio Creek canyon through which Arroyo Burro Trail passes, a heavy marine layer covering Santa Barbara and Pacific Ocean below.

Whether driving a car or walking, as with with much else in life, the mind builds complex road maps allowing us to act automatically based on acquired knowledge from previous experiences. In an earlier post (Sage Hill to Santa Cruz Guard Station) I reflect on hiking in that context in response to the Steinbeck quote:

Along certain stretches of the thin winding dirt ribbon leading me to my destination, I seem to slip into a liminal realm between conscious states. I follow mindlessly the path before me. Walking on autopilot, a machine, I plod along the trail by rote as my mind flies through an abstract wilderness of thought and memory.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m describing what it’s like to act within the framework of a mental model. But while this quirk of the mind enables effortless ease of action it can also insidiously blind a person to danger and potential threats. While hiking the Arroyo Burro Trail recently I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake because I was mindlessly following the footpath on autopilot.

Arroyo Burro Trail Barger PeakTrail leading down into the canyon.

The section of singletrack trail I was hiking near the top of Arroyo Burro Trail is slightly overgrown with grass and scrub, and although the tread itself is a well-beaten wide furrow, it’s hard to see in some places as it disappears underneath the overhanging plants.

Yet even though the path isn’t too visible in certain spots, I was charging along looking around more at my surroundings than where exactly I was stepping. It was the march of an experienced hiker, of somebody, anybody, that’s walked away innumerable hours on mountain trails over the course of several decades.

I couldn’t always see where I was stepping, yet I wasn’t always looking and I hardly if at all slowed my pace. I was guided by a well-established mental model enabling automated unthinking action and taking for granted that my feet would fall on a trail I was hardly looking at.

Arroyo Burro Trail East Fork San Antonio CreekUpper San Antonio Creek canyon.

Arroyo Burro Trail southTrail towards the creek.

As I walked passed a clump of brush some creature bolted through the fallen leaves and tangle of dead branches causing gravel to slide down slope toward the creek. Whatever it was sounded big, but I quickly conclude it was probably a rabbit or some other small furry animal. I slowed my pace, but kept walking, looking for the animal as it loudly scurried away. The noise ceased then erupted again causing me to stop short and peer into the brush.

I didn’t see anything and without thinking, or looking where I was stepping, I resumed my march. I took a couple of light, short steps still looking toward the creek before glancing back around, and leaning into my walk with earnest strides, only to see myself plant a foot about twelve inches from the head of a pit viper lying across the trail.

For the rest of the afternoon I hiked far more slowly and nervously, afraid of stepping in every little spot obscured by shadows and brush, wondering if even on clear sections of trail there was a rattler hidden in the trailside weeds waiting to strike.

At one point I stepped on a dead branch half buried in dried leaves, which shifted in the mulch enough life a snake to make me physically jump. I felt a deeply ingrained fear shoot through my body for a split second and it actually felt like a snake squirming through my innards, somewhat similar to an electric shock where one can feel it enter a finger, for example, and exit some other part of the body. I had to take a deep breath to rid the terrible constricted feeling from my chest.

Rattlesnake Santa Ynez MountainsRattlesnake on the trail.

I had been paying attention to everything else but where I was stepping. Right in the midst of feeling totally in control in an activity I’ve done all my life, so much so that I don’t even have to focus on it, and I was jarred back to attention and ripped from a thoughtless complacency that nearly earned me a frightening trip to the hospital. The feeling of control was an illusion.

Most accidents are the result of human error. Many times it’s easy in hindsight to see where things went wrong and for what reasons. In Deep Survival, Gonzales writes about how mental models can sometimes lead to injury and death among even highly trained and experienced experts by triggering or enabling reflexive or automatic actions that, while having served well in past experience, override reason and common sense in current circumstances and lead to accidents.

As a result some things, some stimuli in the environment, factors in the grand equation of the moment that should demand attention, are overlooked or ignored and tragedy strikes. And it happens precisely when a person feels most confident and in control of a relatively simple or ordinary situation.

It’s beneficial to routinely slow down, pay deliberate attention and carefully observe one’s surroundings and allow time for second thoughts, because as Gonzales writes, “first thoughts are no thoughts at all. They’re automated actions.” It seems like obvious self-evident advice, but the human mind makes it remarkably easy to ignore. Don’t settle for seeing, but actively scrutinize the ordinary and know that experience and knowledge can provide a dangerous illusion of control and safety. Such deliberation may well save your life.

rattlesnake head

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6 Responses to Pit Viper on Arroyo Burro Trail

  1. oh my, that was close! i understand how that spooked you for the rest of the day – and longer! while jogging and basically doing what you were doing- looking at everything except my next step, i looked down just in time to avoid making my next step one that would hit the snake that was stretched across the dairy road… it wasn’t poisonous, but it still gave me a wake-up call!
    thanks for a great story and a reminder to always watch my step!

  2. John McKnight says:

    Mash the Chumash

    • bwd805 says:

      What are you saying Mr. Mcknight? I know you grew up in the San Roque neighborhood and hiked these trails as a youngster and your comment is “mash the chumash” ??

  3. EMW says:

    Another superior Jack Elliot tale; thanks for telling it. I have come to believe, in the realized presence of a rattlesnake, we actually bypass even mental models and activate a primal reflex arc with no processing in the brain at all. I still maintain that in 1984 I set a world record long jump spanning a creek crossing on the Horn Canyon trail. A rattlesnake, unseen by my as I navigated on autopilot, let loose his rattlesnake greeting as I approached within a scant two feet or so of where he was sunning on the trail as it turned to cross the creek. In a entirely binary experience, I was first on one side of the creek and then on the other more than 30 feet away. A world record, I am sure, but only the snake saw it.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Thanks, Eldon.

      Heheh. Yeah, I recall your mention of that world record jump spurred by a rattler.

      “activate a primal reflex arc with no processing in the brain at all.”

      I’m not sure that what you describe is not in fact the result of mental modeling, as I understand it. You use the word reflex, and models can be exactly that. In other words, as Gonzales makes the point in his book, they’re not logically based responses to stimuli, but emotional hair trigger reflexes.

      For if we had to take the time to process logically the consequences of a potential threat and what our reaction should be to it, it might be too late for any resulting reasonable response we have to be of any benefit. So we have, so the experts say, evolved a method of emotional response that affords instantaneous reaction without having to think at all, because in many life and death situations there is no time to think as things occur in mere seconds. As Gonzales says, once a model is established it requires no thought at all.

      I didn’t want to add further length to what was perhaps already a verbose entry so I refrained from mentioning any of this in my post, but my jump in response to the stick in the leaves was an example of such a hair trigger emotional response. It was beyond my control.

      Another example would be when a friend fakes a punch at you, and although you know they aren’t actually going to sock you in the face, you can’t help but flinch. But that flinching was not something you were born with, it was developed with experience and later recalled.

      I have observed the creation of mental models in my own children, I believe. When very young as babies they have not yet established a model allowing them such reflexive actions and so they never flinch when something flies at them. But as they grow, and gain experience in the physical world, they begin to flinch at things.

      Perhaps I misunderstood your point and so all of that is not relevant, but anyway. . .I’m a thinker and I like to ponder so any excuse to do so I don’t pass up.

      • EMW says:

        Actually, I believe I took far too much poetic license with my reflex arc metaphor. The response to a snake encounter is almost certainly not a classic physiological 5 component reflex arc. You nailed my rather oblique point and the mental model response seems to fit the data, so to speak. I am ashamed to say I was not familiar with the writing of Laurence Gonzales. I now have Deep Survival on my Kindle and will make a stab at understanding his concepts. This is exactly why I read the Jack Elliot blog. I can always use a bit of consciousnesses raising.

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