Alone in the Woods, and Loving It: Part 2

So you survived your first night alone in the wilderness, and maybe even enjoyed it a little, huh? 

Welcome back. 

By this point, I’m going to assume you’ve pushed past the front country crowds, found that secret spot I was telling you about last time, and ended up pretty stoked about it, right?  I’m also going to assume you had a little whiskey.  Or a lot of whiskey.  But no matter the amount of whiskey consumed, (hopefully a good, hefty portion), I’m sure you picked up some valuable knowledge along the way.  I’m not talking about bird watching, studying animal scat, and tracing your route via compass and sundial, but knowledge about yourself. 

This time I’m going to take you on a little journey into the San Rafael Wilderness in the Santa Barbara backcountry, and tell you about another reason to get out into the woods alone:

  • Learning self-reliance


It was St. Patrick’s Day in Santa Barbara, and while everyone was pounding pints of Guinness and blasting back shots of Jameson, I decided it was as good a time as ever to disappear for a weekend in the backcountry.  Considering Santa Barbara’s affinity for debauchery, and the present holiday, I figured I would have a good shot (pun intended) at having the whole trail to myself.  So, after a long, winding drive, coughing up dust on a rutted dirt road, I arrived at Nira campground, the gateway to Santa Barbara’s vast, rugged backcountry, and set out on the Manzana Trail.

Being intimately familiar with this trail, I took off with a brisk pace in the mid-March sun, following the rushing creek, twisting through ravines like the snakes surely sliding through the grass beside me. 


After 4 miles of climbing dry peaks and descending into damp valleys, I noticed the weather starting to shift.  Quick weather changes are always something to look out for in the mountains, but I’m in Santa Barbara, right?  It rains here like 3 times a year, so I figured I had nothing to worry about, and pressed on, eager to reach my ultimate destination.

Then things quickly turned ominous.  Dark, heavy clouds raced in to cover the sky, pushed by a harrowing, whipping wind.

Now let me say this:  I do not like rain.  I don’t like rain when I’m indoors, I don’t like rain when I’m driving, and I especially don’t like rain when I’m 5 miles deep in the backcountry without any weatherproof gear, too far now to turn back to my car, and planning on sleeping on the ground.

Then it stared to rain.  Small drops at first, initially easing my growing nerves, but then quickly followed by a booming crack of thunder, and rain.  Serious RAIN.

The only choice at this point was to run for cover, and break down my options.  I spotted a jagged rock outcropping forming a little overhang, underneath which was about ten feet of dry dirt, and sprinted for it, my feet sloshing in puddles of mud.  Taking stock of what I had in my pack, I figured my only choice for staying relatively dry was the rainfly of my tent.  I was able to drape it over my head, and spread it down over my backpack, essentially creating a makeshift dry sack to protect the contents of the pack.  At this point the only thing to do was to continue forward, make it to the destination, and set up my tent and jump inside to stay warm and dry.  I stuck my head into the exposed rain to catch a glimpse of the sky, saw nothing but clouds, let out an audible sigh, and kept it moving.

After pushing hard and fast for a mile in the sloppy terrain, the luck of the Irish sprang to my rescue, and cleared the sky.

While this was obviously a very welcomed respite, I knew it was probably fleeting, as another set of clouds was quickly approaching.  I was headed for the Manzana Narrows, a lush ravine, tucked between two steep cliffs sliced in half by the powerful Manzana Creek, with dozens of thick oak trees covering the clearing like a natural roof, so I was optimistically hoping to find some dry ground when I got there.  After one last relatively dry mile, I arrived at the camp to find enough dry spots to be completely relieved, although after looking up the sky, it seemed my St. Paddy’s day luck was coming to a quick and daunting halt.  I set up my tent as quickly as I could, and just as I clipped the rainfly in place, the rain started again, pelting me with disdain.

I jumped inside; peering through a small split I left open, to see that it wasn’t just rain this time.  It was hailing.  I waited it out, staying warm and dry inside my down sleeping bag, and eventually it subsided just as the sun was setting.  As the clouds split, a gleaming beam of dark orange and red sun rays radiated vibrantly off the walls of the stone canyon, just before descending into darkness.  Now I was fully able to enjoy my surroundings, as the rain and hail (seriously, hail?!) had subsided, so I found some dry wood and started a fire, and kicked back.  With a flask of Jameson whiskey, as it was St. Patrick’s Day, after all.


Being able to withstand the weather, and ultimately reach my goal made this particular trip into the wilderness that much better.  I passed a test that only nature could have given me, and I worked my way through it, relying only on myself.  And the whiskey.


We’re not done yet!  Check back here for more reasons to get out there by yourself.

 -Steve Hill

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