Chaparral


Slopes of chaparral in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

On down the slopes and all the way to the canyons was a thicket of varied shrubs that changed in character as altitude fell but was everywhere dense enough to stop an army.

On its lower levels, it was all green, white, and yellow with buckwheat, burroweed, lotus and sage, deerweed, bindweed, yerba santa. There were wild morning glories, Canterbury bells, tree tobacco, miner’s lettuce.

The thicket’s resistance to trespass, while everywhere formidable, stiffened considerably as it evolved upward.

There were intertwining mixtures of manzanita, California lilac, scrub oak, chamise. There was buckthorn. There was mountain mahogany. Generally evergreen, the dark slopes were splashed here and there with dodder, its mustard color deepening to rust. Blossoms of the Spanish bayonet stood up like yellow flames. There were lemonade berries (relatives of poison ivy and poison oak). In canyons, there were alders, big-leaf maple bushes, pug sycamores, and California bay.

Whatever and wherever they were, these plants were prickly, thick, and dry, and a good deal tougher than tundra.

Those evergreen oaks fingering up the creases in the mountains were known to the Spaniards as chaparros. Riders who worked in the related landscape wore leather overalls open at the back, and called them chaparajos.

By extension, this all but impenetrable brush was known as chaparral.”

John McPhee, “The Control of Nature” (1989)

Everywhere and always around here, chaparral. The woody and wiry brushwood that grows in thickets so tangled and prickly it renders foot travel impossible without being ripped to shreds.

I hate it so much I’ve grown to love it. “Worthy ******* adversary,” to quote Walter Sobchak. Chaparral demands respect.

The hideous overgrown weeds are penetrable only through violent force in most places. “Carrying packs and cutting our way down a brush-choked arroyo with machetes,” Campbell Grant wrote, “we made a mile in two hours.”

Through the years chaparral has defined and many times dictated the day’s (mis)adventures by obscuring trails, barring access and making travel afoot exceedingly difficult and uncomfortable.

I can’t deny feeling a certain degree of pleasure whenever a wildfire scorches vast swaths of chaparral. Take that, vile weed!  And how nice it is to walk freely through open terrain when it’s been reduced to ash and bare sticks. That never lasts long, though.

It’s a rather perverse and maddening feeling to have been “lost” one night within sight of people and the city only because an impenetrable wall of chaparral stood between me and Gibraltar Road. I could see cars driving on the mountain road not too far off from where I was stuck in the dark without a trail, but short of a brutal bushwhack–which might have taken hours to cover only a short distance and require an extreme amount of effort and result in being scratched raw and bloody–I could not make it to the road.

In the land of chaparral, the trail is a thin savior through the thicket. A twelve-inch wide life raft promising safe passage home and a return to the comfort and convenience of civilization and the bottomless well that gushes at all hours everything anybody wants.

To lose the trail is to fall from the raft and be cast adrift in rolling seas of chaparral that stretch to the horizon. A puny human marooned in an ocean of dangerous wilderness. A castaway caught amidst heaving peaks and steep mountain slopes that rise and fall like monstrous green swells.

This entry was posted in Santa Barbara and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Chaparral

  1. Claudia Mitchell says:

    Yes, yes, yes!

  2. Good read this reminded me of a trip I have been wanting to take to locate Chuchadas Camp. I remember someone I think it was Conant that said before the La Brea Fire it was all but impossible to penetrate that brush. Adding it back to my list. “Stuck in the dark without a trail” was the to be continued to that post ever finished ?

Leave a Reply to Jack Elliott Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s