A letter, a map, a new trail, and a personal loss

Earlier this month we received a thank you letter from the Santa Barbara County Trails Council. Included in the envelope was a trail guide for the Midland School Trails. The Midland School Trails is one of the Santa Barbara County trail systems we have supported in the past and the Lover’s Loop Trail is a favorite hike when I’m in the area. The climb up Grass Mountain can be quite spectacular in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom. Birabent Canyon, which is common to both of the aforementioned routes, is a beautiful and diverse area; in the not so distant past, it was home to a band of Chumash Indians.

Opening the brochure, I noticed, not for the first time, the High Country Loop and Maple Canyon Trails. What struck me was the realization I had never ventured forth on these paths. Please don’t ask me for an explanation for this omission, I don’t have one.

A sore ankle had slowed me down for a couple of weeks, but a pair of events in Los Olivos and Los Alamos, a need to pick up my Casa Dumetz wine club shipment, and the unquenchable desire to get outside combined to propel me north on a 48-hour getaway. Thursday evening the Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society and the Los Olivos Library sponsored a presentation by author James Wapotich on ‘Backpacking and Hiking in the San Rafael Wilderness’. After taking copious notes during James’s talk for use on future adventures, an outing the next day was a moral imperative. Not needing further incentive, Friday morning I drove up Figueroa Mountain Road to the Birabent Canyon Trailhead to finally hike the High Country Loop.

It was in the 40s as I walked away from the car; cold for now, but the temperature would (too) quickly heat up into the low 80s by early afternoon. Too bad I couldn’t split the difference and have the entire outing in the 60s. As I left the parking area, there were two women getting ready to head off on the Lover’s Loop trail. These were the only people I saw the rest of the hike.

It felt good to be on familiar ground. I’ve visited this canyon in all four seasons and each period has a different feel. Today, in the fall, the creek was dry, desiccated leaves were everywhere, branches on many deciduous trees were bare. Winter was approaching, albeit at a slow rate.

After a while I paused. The trail I was on led to Grass Mountain, not the High Country Loop. Did I miss the turn-off? I hadn’t noticed a trail junction. Checking the map I had indeed passed the point where I should have headed left. Backtracking I found a faint track and headed up it, to a dead end. Checking the map again and looking for clues I thrashed through the dry underbrush and eventually found the trail.

Midland School High Loop Trail 10-13-2017__0006_edited-1

Only at the end of the hike would I find out where the unsigned trail junction was and the how I had missed it.

This was a bit humbling. The previous evening my friend Sarah suggested using a GPS mapping program like Backcountry Navigator. Being old school I prefer map & compass, but GPS certainly has its place. As it turns out, even if I had used a GPS app, the Midland Trails, with the exception of the Grass Mountain Trail, aren’t available on any of the map overlays I could find so it wouldn’t have helped me much.

The rest of the day went smoothly. My route was a little over five miles in length, the trail was overgrown in places and clear in others, and the views were both intimate and expansive. It was hot at the end of the hike and my water was gone so I plotted a course to the Los Olivos Grocery Store for hydration and lunch.

I arrived back home on Saturday afternoon. It had been a packed 48 hours. Later that evening, the doorbell rang. Our next-door neighbor’s mother was there. Her daughter, our dear neighbor, had succumbed after a long battle with cancer. Throughout her illness, Denise was upbeat and positive and we never heard her complain. She didn’t live in denial, but she knew the one thing she had complete control over was her attitude. Denise was an inspiration to me, and also a reminder that there are no guarantees in this life and we shouldn’t keep putting things off until tomorrow – there may not be one.

Denise’s struggle with cancer, my own brush with mortality, and the loss of several other friends this year have reaffirmed my decision to leave corporate America and embark on a more adventurous journey through life.