Red Smudge

Wilderness areas are defined, to some extent, by their lack of roads. But the United States Forest Service makes a clear distinction between what it calls 'Inventoried Roadless Areas' and 'Wilderness' and affords a lesser level of protection of the former. Off-road vehicles, for instance, are permitted in roadless areas but not in designated wildernesses.

Provided they fly above 20,000 feet, there are no limitations on commercial airlines overflying either area. We back up to the Sespe Wilderness, while off to the west, as I look across the valley, there is a vast tract of roadless territory to the east of the 33 signaled by Nordhoff Peak and the ridge from which it springs. Commercial airlines, flying north to south, barrel straight on through. Sometimes there is the distant roll of thunder as the sound waves from their engines radiate down to earth: perhaps leaves tremor, the chipmunk's heart beats a little faster than its customary 400 beats per minute and the coyotes' ears prick, but I register it as nothing more than a faint heavenly rumble. Having grown up with the drone of benign aircraft overhead in the back yard I regard the sound as almost comforting in a 'God 's in His heaven—All 's right with the world!' kind of way. My parent's had different memories, and were adept, they told me, at distinguishing the drone of English Spitfire and Hurricane from German Stuka and Messerschmitt while the Battle of Britain raged overhead in summer skies.

Nevertheless, the intrusion of commercial aircraft into the Sky Bowl that sits above the rear of the property, particular in the evenings when the air traffic above the Topatopas seems particularly busy, is of some slight annoyance to me. This is a petulant complaint and just as I assuage my chagrin at heavy traffic on the 101 by reassuring myself that it is a sign of life in what otherwise seems like a pretty dreary economy, so the flashes of red off of a passing plane tail (Southwest airlines perhaps) indicates a busyness that, at year's end, may be reflected in the nation's GDP.

Were I a lone bear-hunter or oil-prospector in the mid nineteenth century, in a clearing hereabouts, and chanced to see a trail of dust kicked up by a passing stage as it reached the top of the long haul up from the Santa Clara floodplain and prepared to pull in at the station at the Summit, I might have pulled out my pocket watch from my leather vest and in a palaver of whisker tugging and mouth wiping pronounced to an un-hearing world on the punctuality or otherwise of said stage; but passing planes offer no such satisfaction to the present day me.

And while, in a rare breathless early morning, as I lay in bed as a child, I might hear the distant rattle of the 'milk-train' as it whistled through the still dark, and could thus count on another hour's sleep, the passing of anonymous, pressurized cigar-tubes at a height of six miles and a distance perhaps of ten or twenty miles tells me nothing about my condition or theirs. They are an exogenous phenomenon. We do not appear to impact one another. They travel on a schedule completely unknown to me, their passengers and crew secure in the belief that the jet engines and the aluminum monocoque structure that envelops them will defy the laws of gravity for at least one more flight, hosted by Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, American Airlines, Allegiant, or other carriers lower down the abecedarian food-chain who ply this route.

Any or all of these passengers, were they to look down from the starboard side of the aircraft, might glimpse the wilderness below and, in a meadow of deerweed and grasses, see the westerly sun glint off of a metal roof and shimmer off of a pool. That, for many of them, will be as close as they ever get to wilderness, although the real thing is actually showing on the other side of the plane, on the port side - where the Sespe wilderness gives way to the Cuyama Badlands, then to scrub punctuated by Soda Lake, shards of Bakersfield suburbia (like Weedpatch, Valley Acres and Oildale), and then dissolves into the distance, at horizons edge, into the vastness of the Mojave. In other words, the kind of mostly trackless (or roadless) landscape you see out the window on almost any flight in the United States - where some kind of US Forest service categorized wilderness or lands lightly administered by the sink-hole that is The Bureau of Land Management consume the ground plane below you.

For me, on my first few flights across the country, that view from the airliner window was a defining experience of this country, and it is why I sleep at night beneath that metal roof and swim in that pool and live in the thrall of the urban wildland. I wanted to be a lonely smudge of infra-red in the heat sensing goggles that surveyed the endless darkness of 'Night-Flight USA', or imagine myself intrepid and sufficient in the tree shadowed, sunlit exuberance of bio-mass that fills in between the sparse, etiolated and mostly coastal or Mississippian conurbations of this great land.

Now, amongst the containered passengers that troop across the upper portion of our north facing window glass, in smidgins of silver that move remorselessly north west to south east across the strip of sky that sits above the Topatopas, or at night, glide amidst the lower reaches of the stars, distinguishable from them only by their dauntless commitment to move from A to B, and, let it be said, an equal commitment to staying aloft that this movement helps ensure, there may be others who dream of being red smudges or intrepid pioneers in the wilderness.

We, for now I am corralling those others who share the dream, are contrarians; for the great global story of our age is one of urbanization, of flight from the countryside, of an abandonment of the bio-mass for the non-organic massif of the city. As an edge dweller, with a foot in both camps, I have not entirely abandoned the City, nor fully embraced the wilderness. I am looking out the starboard window, where the wilderness is afflicted with a kind of psoriasis where patches of residential development appear, and then over the Sulphur Mountain ridge the towns of Santa Paula, Oxnard and Ventura signal the beginning of a suburban trail that flows along the 101 and meets that great floodplain of urbanization, Los Angeles.