Narrow bridges

Dan McCaslin: Bridges and Davy Brown — the man, the legend, the camp | Outside

I’ve hiked the 47 miles to Nira Camp on Manzana Creek on hundreds of Santa Barbara County backcountry trips since the early 1970s, so Nira ranks as the best starting point for the trail. backcountry for long hikes and hikes.

Located just a mile below beloved Davy Brown Camp, itself a base for five great hikes, Nira is the main gateway to the raw wilderness of San Rafael (originally spelled NIRA, acronym for the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act; see 4-1-1.).

Like everyone else, a myriad of social event cancellations left me hollow and hanging at home while the blessed rains nonetheless invigorated the land. (The spiritual and mental solution became constant rain-splattered walks on the West Side heading towards Elings Park and back down West Valerio Street.)

Driving to the lovely US Forest Service campgrounds at Davy Brown and Nira on the aging, mostly dirt Sunset Valley Road, motorists will encounter two tricky creek crossings in wet weather.

There aren’t really any proper “bridges” at either of these places – one channel just below Davy Brown Camp, the other at Nira on the Manzana – since road engineers in the 1930s simply dumped many extra tons (cubic meters) of concrete and paved just above the creek channel where it crosses the road.

So, after the winter rains, the dirt and asphalt track of Sunset Valley completely disappears from view and the floods cover the roadway. You just have to cross it, risking potholes and other problems.

Sometimes, after heavy rains, the road itself becomes impassable and the Forest Service helpfully lowers the bar at Cachuma Saddle, blocking all access to Davy and Nira (see main photo).

Even with the four-wheel drive of my four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma pickup, I chose a few times to return to Santa Barbara rather than “ford” the deluge covering the concrete.

Construction of the bridge just below the Davy Brown camp.
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Construction of the bridge just below Camp Davy Brown is expected to be completed in April. (photo by Pierre Lapidus)

Existing road crossings are called “Arizona” road crossings, and years of heavy rain and sedimentation have effectively reduced them to near uselessness. In addition to helping motorists, the new structures will make it easier for local rainbow trout to pass under the concrete bridges spanning the canals.

“Bridges” actually span rivers and streams, of course, but the term is also a favorite metaphor of poets and artists – and even politicians. Build those bridges better.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has written, “Passion is the bridge that takes you from pain to change,” and my healing passion for wandering in nature eases some of the 21st century “pains” that I share with many. 2022 readers.

Bridges are an endless assortment of metaphors, like the corpus callosum connecting the two major cerebral hemispheres, or a span uniting Americans to bridge the huge chasm that divides us today.

Davy Brown himself can also serve as a “bridge”, helping our understanding of the history of local settlers (pioneers) in our own interior region of California. As a much older man, Brown lived in his 80s and 90s on the other side of Figueroa Mountain along a steady stream, now named after him and his little lean-to cabin there. .

Born in 1800, Brown served as a cabin boy on an American privateer during the War of 1812 (yes, 1812), then moved west and rode with Kit Carson and became a famous huntsman. Even later, he resurfaced in Northern California as a famed grizzly bear killer and supplier of goldfield provisions.

Construction of a bridge near the Davy Brown camp.
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Construction of a bridge near the Davy Brown camp. (photo by Pierre Lapidus)

Brown bridges the imperialist ethos of 19th century California pioneers and confirms Wallace Stegner’s description of the American West as an “oasis civilization” full of restless seekers and idealistic dreamers.

The handsome Davy Brown Camp today reflects man’s foresight in choosing a small, verdant potrero watered by two vibrant streams. His insistence on autonomy stands out as he survived it until the age of 96.

My vehicle was hijacked and ended up off the road at a very deep creek crossing just below Davy Brown Camp; therefore, I welcome these new spans using huge steel I-beams.

About a mile past Davy Brown, Sunset Valley Road dead ends at the vast Nira Camp – this rugged RV site beside roaring Manzana Creek also serves as a jumping-off point for short as well as very long hikes in the San Rafael Wilderness.

In Willa Cather’s novel Alexander Bridge, the main character, a world famous bridge builder, becomes overworked and experiences the infamous “midlife crisis”. Sounds like the story is like the postmodern blues of 2022, not the USA in 1912.

Bartley Alexander finds himself unable to bridge the gap between his engineering skills and the social attention paid to his marital status. When he finally shouts that “a million details are drinking you dry”, he inspects his struggling Canadian bridge when it collapses and kills him, just as his two loves had collapsed and killed his zest for life. .

Beginning of the construction of a bridge in the lower parking area of ​​Sunset Road in Nira Camp.
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Beginning of the construction of a bridge in the lower parking area of ​​Sunset Road in Nira Camp. (photo by Pierre Lapidus)

Alexander’s actual bridgework and accompanying detail pushed him horribly, and he’s also deficient in handling the complexities of human interdependence; just like in this 21st century, we struggle to balance science and social media during a wild pandemic.

Readers who like to hike in the backcountry can expect much easier and safer creek crossings on Sunset Valley Road after Peter Lapidus Construction completes work in April. The new structures can function as a sort of wildlife corridor by facilitating the free movement of native rainbow trout into streams for spawning. (Note: Sunset Valley Road remains closed to Cachuma Saddle; see main photo.)


Thanks to Peter Lapidus for the photos of the construction of the bridge in this section.

Willa Catherine, Alexander Bridge (1912); President Franklin Roosevelt’s “NIRA” legislation of 1933 was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1935.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone anchors in antiquity and has written extensively about the local hinterland. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available on He is the Archaeological Site Steward for the US Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes readers’ ideas for future Noozhawk columns and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Construction near Nira Camp on Sunset Valley Road.
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Construction near Nira Camp on Sunset Valley Road. (photo by Pierre Lapidus)