The Cuyama Badlands can be a wicked and terrible place for a human on foot with minimal supplies. Heaved aloft, scorched and desiccated, it’s a land clawed open and washed away by spotty cloudbursts that quench a sparse growth of piñon pine, juniper and sagebrush.
Barren hills pushed upward through thin forest like a balding head pushing through thinning hair. Deep rain-carved wrinkles, tall and thin wavy fins and ruffles hint of hills melting imperceptibly raindrop by measly and hardly ever seen raindrop into the piñon flats below. Hillsides of ocher-colored cobblestones piled as if dropped by dumptrucks.
How long with so little rain to wash the stones free and clean of nearly every grain of sediment that once entombed them? How long to form the cement-like, crusty hard sedimentary fins of eroded badland terrain that rise above the ground taller than a person’s head, forming deep and narrow troughs?
A spent chia bloom full of seeds.
“Good-tasting and satisfying, chia was highly regarded among every Native American group in whose territory it occurs.”
—Jan Timbrook, “Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California”
August can be hellish, but the day is mild. I rest comfortably on a hillside in the desert sun rather than hiding in tree shadows from the fireball overhead.
The bad land and sparse forest before me feel more like Arizona or New Mexico than California. Indeed, a nearby arroyo takes its label from this variety of drylands, “Apache Canyon.” It’s appropriately named. Venturing into these canyons is like traveling into the American Southwest though they’re only a short drive from Santa Barbara in neighboring Ventura County.
Despite the land’s deathly appearance and harsh climate, a remarkable small flowering plant grows here that was once vitally important to prehistoric humanity, including the Chumash Indians for which a nearby wilderness is named. This is the chia seed producing Salvia columbariae.
The Chumash would roast the seeds, grind them into flour and then mix the flour with water to create a drink, chia pinole, that was “a good thirst-quencher,” Timbrook writes. Using less water in the mix, they also made a thick gruel or paste that was dried into small cakes. The cakes could be saved for later or carried into the field on outings.
Wandering a random animal trail along a ridge I come across a stand of crispy brown chia plants which bloomed and died months ago. Yet, a quick shake of a stem sends shiny seeds flying. The seeds have remained sheathed in the protective husk of the spent bloom through months of summer swelter.
The old blooms stand in the air on thin stems like packets of a highly nutritious snack on the shelves of nature’s grocery store. Within a couple of minutes I gather several handfuls. The tiny kernels have an exceptional flavor, far superior in my opinion to the store-bought variety. I eat the free and natural energy-packed snack by the handful savoring the nutty flavor.
Freshly harvested chia seed.
The word “chia” derives from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec. “The seeds of the chia plant were such an important part of the Aztec diet,” Keoke and Porterfield write, “that they were brought as tribute to the capitol city, Tenochtitlán. . . .The effects of chia’s nutritional potency were legendary. Aztec warriors and hunters lived on chia seed in the field.”
Commenting in jest to emphasize the point, Christopher McDougall writes:
“In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone. . . .If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia . . .after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home.”
“The Hopis fueled themselves on chia during their epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean,” McDougall writes. “The Mexican state of Chiapas is actually named after the seed.”
In his book, “Born To Run,” McDougall writes of the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico whose diet includes chia. The Tarahumara credit the seeds for helping them achieve mind boggling feats of physical endurance.
The men of this tribe are widely regarded as some of the world’s best long distance runners. In traditional times their hunters ran down large game on foot, chasing deer until the animals dropped of exhaustion and could no longer so much as walk to escape.
“The Tarahumara keep the deer constantly on the move. Only occasionally does he get a glimpse of his quarry, but follows it unerringly through his own canny ability to read the tracks. The Indian chases the deer until the creature falls from exhaustion, often with its hooves completely worn away.”
-W.C. Bennett and R.M. Zingg, “The Tarahumara: An Indian Tribe of Northern Mexico” (1935)
Victoriano Churro of the Tarahumara set a world record for the ultra-marathon in 1993. At age 55, he ran 100 miles through the mountains of Colorado with 20,000 feet of elevation gain/loss in just over 20 hours.
He finished 40 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.
Still not impressed? Try this on for size: He made the record-breaking run while wearing “huarache sandals homemade from old tires and leather.” (See a photo of Churro running down a mountain in sandals.)
Chia seeds contain all essential amino acids and are about twenty percent protein, which notably comes in a nutritionally complete form. The seeds are also about twenty percent fat and high in fiber. These components combine to provide a remarkable level of essential nutrients that fuel sustained energy. These days the tiny kernels are often called a “super food.”
Two tablespoons of seeds provide about 6 grams of protein, 8 grams of fiber and 8 grams of fat along with 120 calories. By contrast, a Clif Bar offers about 9 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, 3.5 grams of fat and 240 calories.
If available in nature’s storehouse along a hike, four tablespoons of seeds will outperform that dense wad of Clif Bar, and do so without added sugars and artificial foodstuff like “soy protein isolate” that’s concocted in a laboratory by scientists.
In addition, chia absorbs many times its own weight in liquid, which is thought to help maintain hydration and electrolyte levels longer during physical activities when the seed is eaten with water. For the hiker of hot weather and drylands this hydrating characteristic is invaluable.
Interesting that this plant often grows in these sorts of dry places, one of many cases of nature providing something of a solution on one hand for a problem it presents to humans on another. Sort of like medicinal mugwort growing beside noxious poison oak.
Even if a hiker doesn’t care about scoring the nutrients for added energy without having to carry it, a couple handfuls of seeds quickly harvested along a trail could do wonders for keeping them hydrated, and thus lessen their need for water, which in turn could mean lugging less weight in their pack.
Knowledge and skills weigh nothing and take up zero space in a backpack. What a person carries in their head they need not carry on their back nor buy at the store.