Santa Barbara backcountry
The men emerged at dawn from the confine of darkness with strained faces wet and ruddy as writhing newborns and the forested land materialized before their bloodshot eyes by the minute in the lightening day, ever larger, until mountain wilderness reared all around in the faint and colorless twilight and the view was strange and desolate.
Slopes thick and tangled with bristling chaparral rose from the creek and folded and blended into one another and compressed with distance into an olive drab felted wall of mountains that encircled their world.
They stepped off the main trail pounded bare and wide through the river valley and slunk into the bush to enter the narrow canyon mouth of a tributary creek.
The stream flowed clear and steady. The cool water pooled among boulders in the shade of alder and willow and sycamore.
Tree tops spread over the creek and the canopy filled the canyon like a lumpy green reservoir pooled between sheer sandstone cliffs framing the canyon mouth.
The men bounded across creek stones through the tunnel of trees.
Native trout flitted between the stones like green torpedoes fired underfoot each time they leaped over the purling water, fish of the oldest origins untainted by the genes of McCloud River rainbows that had by mankind’s hand taken over the world.
Holt Carson stopped and turned about his small wiry frame, chest heaving, mouth agape.
“We’ll know we’re close to the Indian cave when we see the sign warning us from going there.”
He sucked in a fresh breath through a wry smile and turned and waded onward through the creekside scrub.
“What?” Daniel Hillman snapped.
Holt kept walking letting his comment hang.
Hillman followed, waiting for him to elaborate.
“Can’t go there?” Hillman pressed in a confused inflection when Holt offered nothing more.
“Nope,” Holt said, almost sounding pleased.
“What the hell you talking about?”
“It’s illegal. Five thousand dollar fine and a six month jail sentence for trespassing,” Holt said.
They kept walking. “Maybe I forgot to tell you that part,” Holt said.
“Yeah pretty fucking sure you never mentioned that tidbit of invaluable information,” Hillman said. “So what’s the deal? We get to leer at this place from afar through field glasses?”
Holt laughed. Always quick on the rhetorical draw, he fired from the hip: “Well, if you can climb the fence, that might work.”
“A fence? There’s a fucking fence? We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
Holt laughed. They hiked on.
* * *
The blaring white sign reared up in the forest as they approached, an intimidating, bristling hackle of authority unwelcoming of anybody.
“There it is.” Holt pointed up the draw with his chin, hands resting atop trekking poles.
Hillman tramped past him with eyes on the sign and his mouth cracked open. He pulled up short and leaned back on a straight leg, other knee bent, gripping his two trekking poles with tight fists. “Unreal.”
“Hear ye. Hear ye,” Hillman bellowed in a stentorian blast that resonated from his bearish chest. “To protect fragile resources for future generations the area behind this sign is,” and here he outright yelled to convey that the next few words were printed in all capitals, “CLOSED TO ENTRY.” Then he tagged on the end bit in a low rapid mumble, “until further notice.”
“How ‘bout that?” Holt said. “Guess we have to go home.”
Hillman turned. He fixed Holt in an intense glare through crystal blue eyes. “Horseshit!”
“Here we go,” Holt said, grinning.
“So let’s follow their reasoning. . .”
“Whose reasoning?” Holt interjected, leading the conversation in a direction he knew Hillman would appreciate.
“Good question. Nobody knows. The nameless. The faceless. The unelected. The unaccountable. Some desk-bound cog in the bureaucratic regulatory wheel whose profession it is to revoke without reasonable justification the rights of others on the pretext of supposedly protecting sensitive resources.”
“The wheel that just rolled us,” Holt said, wiping his wet beaded brow with the back of his forearm.
“Ground like grist,” Hillman added.
“No soup for you!” Holt shouted.
They stood in silence, thinking it over, looking about, sucking warm tap water through clear hoses running into their backpacks.
“So the man that lives today,” Hillman began.
“The man that woke in the wee hours like some tortured lunatic from over the cuckoo’s nest,” Holt declared “and hiked his ass through half the night and all the next damn day.”
“Yes. Yes, indeed. This glorious sentient man of action present before you in the here and now. He is forcibly denied access from his own public lands on behalf of the man that does not exist, for the man that has yet to be born.”
“Insane.” Holt said, shaking his head.
“Utterly. We’ve been stripped of a right that’s been reserved for fictitious people that don’t even exist. What the hell kind of sense does this make?”
“That’s not now a right, my friend,” Holt said. “That’s called privilege.”
“Un-American. Is what it is. What about equal treatment and access and opportunity?” Hillman said.
“Well, come back in a decade or two, after you’ve been born again as a future generation, and you’re in like Flynn,” Holt said, a double click of his tongue sucking wind through his teeth as if guiding a horse.
They stood silent.
“Or wait here for further notice,” he added.
Hillman grinned and lowered his chin to his chest looking at nothing in particular. He looked up at Holt. “Meanwhile the chosen few come and go as they please, no doubt.”
“Oh yes, of course. It’s all in who you know. We lowly unassociated kulaks get nothing.”
“Nope. We get lectured by Gevlin Dandy. Do as he says, not as he does. He asks for directions to trespass while telling us not to.”
“Yes he does.”
Hillman looked up into the vast cloudless sky, looked ahead, and marched on in a sudden surge of energy, touching the sign with a single gloved finger as he passed.
Holt fell in behind him. “Just keep to the ravine,” he called ahead.