Santa Barbara: a storied past

Formidable, blue waves rolling in from the expansive Pacific Ocean. A leisurely bicycle ride along a winding river alive with jumping fish. Brilliant rays of sunlight bouncing off the Spanish Colonial style structures of downtown Santa Barbara. This sounds like the makings of a great story right? Well, not really. But our short time around the city was nice and relaxing—just what we needed after the Grand Canyon fiasco and a night in the desert.

Daniel (left) and Peyton taking in our first siting of the Pacific Ocean near UC Santa Barbara

Before I get started, let me acknowledge that it has been quite a while since I last posted an article. I mostly blame school in the way a young boy might blame unfinished homework on a dog’s appetite. I honestly just didn’t do it. The real reason I have struggled to write about Santa Barbara is that nothing notable happened to us there. We camped in a pretty forest, grilled burgers, rode bikes, walked around downtown, and told ghost stories around a fire. But don’t let that turn you off to our stay in Santa Barbara. The city has some pretty cool stories of its own that encapsulate its history into a small series of artifacts and events.

Los Prietos campground in Las Padres National Forest

On Santa Rosa Island, just off shore from Santa Barbara, Phil C. Orr made a discovery that actually predates history. Around 1960 he uncovered remains from an archaeological dig of a man dated to have lived over 13,000 years ago. Originally dubbed the Arlington Springs Man, the name was once altered to reflect studies showing that the remains were a woman’s, and she became known as the Arlington Springs woman. However, in 2006 further studies concluded the bones were more likely to have been a man’s, so the name reversed again. Either way, the remains are believed to be among the oldest found in North America and support the theory that seafaring nomads migrated from Asia and traveled down the Pacific Coast.

A male turkey feeds in the early morning at the campgrounds

Skip ahead to 1542. Hunter-gatherer Native Americans known as the Chumash occupied the area for centuries, but their world changed forever when the first Europeans arrived. Joáo Cabrilho, a Portuguese explorer led the first Spanish expedition through the channel of islands. He died from gangrene brought on after injury suffered while fighting natives and was buried on one the islands. “Santa Barbara” did not become the name of the place until 1602 when a Spanish explorer survived a terrible storm on the eve of Saint Barbara’s feast day; he named the channel and one island out of thankfulness.

In 1769 the Spanish began operations to occupy and fortify Alta California from other imperial powers. Soldiers arrived in 1782 to begin ten years of construction on El Presidio Real de Santa Bárbara, a fort to defend the settlement and the later-built local mission—Mission Santa Barbara—from threatening natives and other powers. Although most of the structure was destroyed in various earthquakes, the Presidio still holds the title of second oldest building in California. It is also the last military outpost built by Spain in the Americas.

Spanish Colonial style building near downtown Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara mostly avoided violence during the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. More impressively, they cleverly managed to escape destruction when French privateer Hippolyte de Bouchard threatened to attack. Bouchard commanded two frigates and was employed by Argentina to demolish Spanish assets and resources. When Santa Barbara cavalrymen caught some of Bouchard’s men who were wrecking a nearby ranch, Bouchard threatened to shell to the town if his men were not returned. Having seen hundreds of patrolling cavalrymen before his crew members were released, Bouchard decided to sail away without attacking. What he did not know is that the hundreds of men were actually only a few who rode in a huge circle and changed costumes every time they rode behind dense brush. Santa Barbara peacefully assimilated under Mexican rule when Mexico gained their independence. Later the settlement became part of the United States without violence during the Mexican-American War.

After annexation to the U.S., the gold rush sparked a more exciting, violent, and virulent time. Outlaws, gangs, and chaos enveloped the small town and promised infamy to the most fiendish criminals. Criminals such as Joaquin Murrieta, the fabled Zorro of the movies. He and other bands of men were known to ambush travelers near the city, killing them and taking everything they carried. One Jack Powers, the leader of a local gang, claimed infamy when he and his men drove away a posse citizens 200 strong that sought to force him away from Santa Barbara. The story goes that he was eventually murdered and tossed into a den of wild boars sometime after being driven away by armed men from another town.


The 1925 Earthquake stands out as the single most destructive event in Santa Barbara history although earlier earthquakes may have been just as devastating if the amount of infrastructure had been the same. Many buildings crumbled during two large aftershocks and a fire even broke out to ravage more of the town. This event is the reason Santa Barbara now has the unified Spanish colonial style buildings for which it is known. Several politicians agreed on the style while Thomas Storke—a prominent lawyer and newspaper publisher—argued that it was an unconstitutional move on property owners. He later changed his mind. In an unrelated incident Storke won a libel case against his publishing rival and took over his foe’s business as well to form a media monopoly over the town. Eventually he was elected to the Senate.

I didn’t know most of this while I was actually in Santa Barbara, but Daniel, Peyton, and I did get to see the Presidio. The town is saturated with history, and if I get the chance to back, I plan to take full advantage of its historical sites and museums. I wrote this article from information found on various Wikipedia pages, so it should be noted that while the articles cited reputable sources, all of the information may not be completely accurate. To read the article I gathered information from, follow this link.

Mojave Mini-Adventure

Where do you want to go for vacation? Ask a hundred people this question, and you may receive as many answers. But I would bet few if any would say “the desert.” Why? Because there is nothing there? Because deserts are massive desolations? Maybe that is the exact reason you should visit a desert, at least for a day and a night. The guys and I will always remember our stay in the Mojave Desert as one of our favorites from the entire road trip!


Distant granite spires, Mojave Desert.


Peyton (left) and Daniel set up tents at a roadside camp.

Arriving in Baker, California late in the afternoon, we filled up on ridiculously overpriced gas and set about finding a place to crash for the night. We picked out a little spot near the granite spires about 50 miles south of Baker on Kelbaker Road, a rough highway straight through the desert that probably never sees much traffic. Windows down, music blaring, eyes peeled for tortoises—there were flashing signs requesting the latter—we cruised through the Mojave watching the sun sink as we approached an area we hoped would provide a good campsite. Nearing sundown we picked a dirt road, and drove down it until we found a suitable area partially concealed from the road with no vegetation where we could pull over and set up camp. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended for these roads, and we soon found out why. Luckily it only took a little pushing and some well-placed rocks under tires to get the truck moving through the sand.


Traveling Wall-e hangs out on a branch, Mojave Desert.


The sun sets, Mojave Desert.

Seeing an opportunity after we parked, I immediately set my bike up and tried riding around the area. While the unpacked sand was impossible to ride, the road provided a somewhat stable surface for the large mountain bike treads. It was still slippery, in some places more than others, and provided a fun little challenge for higher speed downhill sections of the road where I often ran into patches of sand that tried to spin my tires out from under me and send me spiraling into the cactus-filled brush lining the road. Knowing that dark was falling, I peddled back to the truck to shoot some obligatory sunset photos and help make camp.


The sun blazes across the horizon line, Mojave Desert.


Sunspots captured in red, green, and yellow, Mojave Desert.

As dark began to set in, we realized it wasn’t the intense darkness that we had expected, and few stars were becoming visible. To the south we noticed a bright glow, vocalizing that it was probably a little town that put off enough light in the dark desert to be seen. Then, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen crept over the horizon line and began rising at such a pace that we could actually see it moving. The amount of light reflected by that full moon was astonishing. It blocked out all but a few of the brightest stars and provided light for us to easily explore the area without flashlights. We hiked down the dirt road toward looming hills surrounded by shrubs and short cacti shrouded in shadows. The eerie experience could not be duplicated in any other environment. Alone in the desert, we strode along for hours without another soul around for miles except the occasional car we witnessed passing by on Kelbaker Highway.


The moon rises over distant hills, Mojave Desert.


Long exposure of a dirt road and a car on the distant Kelbaker Highway, Mojave Desert.

For me, the isolation created an introspective mood, giving me a greater inner connection to the life around me. The life that thrives in the desert is different from what most of us are used to. There were no bright greens and yellows that we love so much in deciduous forests and the pastures that speckle them. No deep, rich, black soil. No towering, majestic evergreens. No deep blue lakes. Yet there was still life, stripped to the dull greenish gray necessities and fighting with all it could muster just to survive. There is something beautiful about that natural struggle. It encompassed the universal conflict of life against death without any distractions, and it highlighted that even in some of the most barren environments, life can prevail.


Roadside camp, Mojave Desert.


Close-up roadside camp, Mojave Desert.

Between midnight and 1 a.m. we arrived back to our camp to get some sleep before the next day’s drive. After waking up to the heat of the sun on our tents, we made breakfast and coffee. Still sore and stiff from our Grand Canyon hike, Daniel, Peyton, and I elected to work out the soreness with a bike ride, so we peddled as far down the dirt road as we felt comfortable and cruised back. We rode on the highway some too, giving me the idea of going back one day for a cycle trip down one of the desert highways. I was a little sad to leave the Mojave after spending so little time there, but at the same time I was excited for our upcoming two night stay in Santa Barbara.


Peyton (left), Peyton (center), and Peyton (right), Mojave Desert.


Long exposure of the dirt road leading to granite hills, Mojave Desert.