A Great Interval of Silence, Chumash Wilderness

campfire cookingBoilin’ the billy.

“Great intervals of silence are evidently conducive to our well-being. A meditative stillness, suggests Gary Snyder, was invented by waiting hunters. Perhaps this reflected the poised and ruminating hush of mothers of sleeping infants. High levels of sound have been directly linked to degenerative diseases in urban life.”

Paul Shepard, “A Post-Historic Primitivism”

I rolled slowly down into Quatal Canyon toward Cuyama Badlands, the crunch of wheels on a gravely dirt road. Passing Toad Springs Campground, I cast a casual glance over my left shoulder at a grizzled and greasy man hanging thin sheets of raw beefsteak over a wire fence.

We locked eyes for a second as I passed. What a look. What a mug. A good face for an artist to render in woodcut. Scruffy and tanned and weathered and creased and glistening in the late afternoon mottled light of the forest, a character out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.

Jesus, I thought. What the hell is that psychopath up to? He might have been thinking the same of me. His piercing gaze and the hanging flaps of raw red meat, a primal scene. I was trying hard to step back in time, into the primitive realm of the undeveloped world let alone by humanity. “Seldom used,” Craig Carey wrote of where I was headed. Perfect. And this strange man appeared like a sign post in the forest hinting that I was traveling in the right direction, maybe.

I kept rolling deeper into the shadowy woods, farther from all others and the incessant noise of civilization. Onward forth toward the great soul-soothing silence of wildness.

Chumash WildernessTrail along foothills of Mount Pinos.

The trailhead was unmarked, which seems fitting for the southern Los Padres National Forest, where official hiking trails are often signless, overgrown, difficult to find, and not easy to follow if located. “Navigating for the correct trail can be a bit tricky,” Carey wrote.

An article appearing in the Los Angeles Times in 1990 described different portions of this trail as “the unsigned trailhead,” “unsigned Mesa Spring Trail,” “an unsigned trail junction,” and “a (poorly) signed trail junction.” Twenty-six years later it remains much the same, fortunately. I saw the sign for the camp on the ground last I was there a few years ago. I didn’t see it there this go around.

There is enough room for two vehicles to park off the dirt road at the trailhead, maybe three can fit with skill. Without four-wheel drive, and the sort of driving ability and gusto for risk that usually accompany such vehicles, the parking spot here might best be described to the average driver of a car as, “Wait, what? I’m really supposed to park there? You’ve got to be kidding me!” It wouldn’t take much to get stuck.

Cuyama Badlands San Emigdio ChumashTrailside view of Cuyama Badlands.

On the way out of town I stopped at the beach and surfed for hours, lured and distracted by a good winter swell. I reached the trailhead late in the afternoon and the sun had nearly set. It was impossible to hike to camp before darkness swallowed the land.

Half an hour after walking away from my vehicle I left the trail. I stepped carefully through breaks in the scrub oak and spotty tangle of brush so as to leave as little trace as possible in the delicate dry habitat.

I found an opening of gravelly soil surrounded by scrub and accented with a single piñon pine. I spread out my bedroll, set alight a small pile of thin branches and twigs, pushed my can of water aside the dancing flame to boil, and laid upon the earth to watch the sunset colors peak and fade to black.

The next morning I scooped up the small pile of powdery ash and scattered it about the area beneath scrub oaks. Scraping up a bit of soil from here and there under the brush, I sprinkled it over the burn site for concealment and then topped it with a dead branch lying nearby. I left only footprints visible as I marched away toward Mesa Spring in the cool morning light.

Cuyama Badlands San Emgdio hikes

I laid in the shade at camp listening to the ebb and and flow of wind through trees.

I wandered through miles of piñon forest, walked San Emigdio potrero, and strolled aimlessly along differing lengths of different trails searching for something I never lost, something nobody had ever left behind, something that most people have no interest in and do not value. What it is I’m not sure. I never found it. The search will continue.

In the mornings and afternoons I sat on a slope along the foothills of Mount Pinos, overlooking the forest of piñon pine backed by Pine Mountain Ridge in the bluey distance.

For three days I watched intently the timeless show rendered in pacific hues of green and blue, tinged orange yellow and red at dawn and dusk, the calming low desolate murmur of wind blown pine needles the soundtrack.

I saw nobody; the sort of body a body like me likes to see when enjoying the medicinal qualities of a great interval of solitude in the woods.

I felt a million miles away from all that is said to matter in the metropolis, alone swaddled in the great therapeutic silence of wildness; salve for the soul. If somebody jarred the feeling I’d be a buyer, maybe even a junkie.

“What is there to do out there?” Somebody may ask from the crowd that constantly demands the throbbing pulse of instant gratification, and the glittering, overt, up-in-your-wide-eyed-face smash of Las Vegas-like stimuli. “Here we are now, entertain us,” Kurt Cobain said.

Nothing. Nothing at all. There’s nothing to do.

That’s the point.

Chumash Wilderness San Emigdio

San Emigdio hike

San Emigdio MesaA green-tinged San Emigdio Mesa in February.

Chumash Wilerness campMesa Spring Camp

Chumash Wilderness San Emigdio Los PadresSunset colors from camp.

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13 Responses to A Great Interval of Silence, Chumash Wilderness

  1. Jim Ansley says:

    Jack, absolutely one of your best yet. Beautiful. You took me there with you. Thanks again.

    jim ansley,
    Iverson Ranch

  2. Coyote Dave says:

    We did two nights there on the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and aside from two day hikers, we had the whole place to ourselves. That doesn’t happen too often in the SLP over Memorial Day weekend. I was amazed at how thickly forested San Emigdio Mesa was and how remote and wild it felt. Our five day trip included nights at Lily Meadows, Sheep Camp, and Mesa Springs. Normally used to long, hot, shrubby, hikes through the SLP, this trip was a pleasant change of pace with short mileage, pine trees galore, and no poison oak. Next time I want to off trail it from Mesa Springs to Boy Scout Camp or Dome Springs and disappear into the thick pinon/juniper forest. Who knows what’s hidden in there.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Yeah, the Chumash is a nice change of scene from the hot and shrubby marches through other LP areas.

      One day I’d like to traverse the badlands from, say for example, Dome toward the 33/166 area in the direction of the Carrizo.

  3. EMW (Expat) says:

    I backpacked to Mesa Spring last May in a driving rainstorm; I had not been there since sometime in the 1970s. The rain moved out and the next day was spent hiking back to that remarkable Quatal Canyon trail head parking location. Ah, but to experience that part of the Chumash again after so many years: you have captured perfectly the ambience. I’ll be going back.

  4. 100peaks says:

    I agree. This is one of your best. And the second blog post I’ve read this week that has used the word ‘salve’ to describe what this sort of place does for us. As I prepare for a 5-day solo trip in the Sierra, reading this post makes me impatient for the experience. Thank you for sharing. Always a pleasure.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Very enjoyable, Jack, thank you.

  6. randomhiker says:

    Freakin’ awesome story Jack. Reminds me of my recent trip to Hell for Sure Lake, but you articulate it much better than I. Love reading your stories and Craig’s. Miss reading Dave Stillman’s stories. What’s he up to these days?

  7. Deborah Bradbury says:

    Beautiful description of what people can find in nature. I love the idea of searching for something, but you don’t know what it is. Captures the unending tranquility and peace nature offers us. Touched my heart and brought up the need to go hiking again, Thank you

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