David Stillman is a legendary and prolific explorer of the southern Los Padres National Forest. He is a walking encyclopedia on the forest whose knowledge was gained from raw experiences on, but mostly off the established path. I don't think it much of an exaggeration to say that David Stillman knows more about the southern Los Padres than all but a very select handful of folks.
From 2008 to 2015, David actively maintained a blog (http://davidstillman.blogspot.com) that catalogued his numerous explorations of the forest. Then, in mid-2015 his voice inexplicably fell silent. He posted no more. As Jack Elliott appropriately observed, "And like that, poof, he's gone. Underground. Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth."
Well I chased the myth down to find out what he is up to these days. As always, David was very accommodating of his time, free with his information, and tolerant of some of my dumb questions. Here's what David had to say:
Wildsouthland (WS): First off, how are you David? Are you still healthy, happy, and wise?
David Stillman (DS): Happy? Generally. Healthy? I won’t bore you with the numerous orthopedic insults that afflict me, but I did tear up my achilles in April and that’s had an impact on my abilities. Wise? It’s a work in progress.
WS: Tell me what you’ve been up to for the past 2 years?
DS: I’ve been pretty busy. Death Valley, the Mojave, the southern Sierra, Arizona,
Nevada, and Utah. I’ve been ranging pretty far and I find that a change of scenery is
WS: Are you still climbing peaks, busting brush, and trodding the trails of the SLP?
DS: Um, the short answer is “Not so much.” I recently logged some time in the Miranda Pines/La Brea Canyon part of the San Rafael, and there was a nasty slog off trail somewhere on the south side of Sierra Madre Ridge that got a bit sporty. I guess you could say I still go out and get torn up. But summits, no. I’ve already done the SLP summits that interest me.
WS: Where have you been recently?
DS: The last outing, a couple weeks ago, involved waking up at 03:00, driving to Lake Isabella, hitting up some rock art sites in the Walker Basin and topping the day off with a 12 mile hike in the woods above the Lake. Then driving home. That was a rewarding day.
WS: Let’s get down to what everyone wants to know. For years you published a very informative blog about your adventures in the SLP and beyond. In 2015 you stopped publishing and went on a temporary hiatus which appears to now be permanent. A lot of folks were bummed about that, including me. Can you tell me what prompted you to stop publishing?
DS: I can. It’s complicated, but let me try to reduce my reasoning to something that makes sense. On one hand, I had this blog going, which was becoming popular for a whole range of reasons. It had taken off to the degree that a local mountain rag can. On the other hand, it wasn’t fun anymore. I began to understand that the need to generate new material, to stay popular and relevant, and to one-up myself every time I went out was really not what I wanted to be about anymore. It started reminding me of Caesar; Vini, Vidi, Vici and all that. I just gradually started to feel like the blog, and not my time in the woods, was what was more important. When I finally recognized what these feelings were, I decided it was time for a change.
WS: How much did controversies over access to certain locations and the constant criticism of internet trolls play into your decision?
DS: The B.S. definitely played a role. Along with a growing readership I attracted plenty of people who were watching what I was doing through the eyes of their own agenda. There weren’t many outright trolls, but organizations like the Wind Wolves Preserve, and the US Forest Service were paying pretty close attention to where I went and what lines I crossed. Also, a particularly vocal shade of archaeological academia made it their mission to equate what I was doing vis-a-vis rock art with the vandals out there. The way I saw it, I was going to go see these places whether they liked it or not, and the fact that I never gave out directions or coordinates or posted landscape shots
that others could use to find sacred places wasn’t good enough for them. The way they saw it, anybody not sanctioned by themselves had no business seeing or appreciating these sites.
WS: Do you ever see yourself starting back up again?
DS: That’s the big, bad question again. To this day, every time I go out and come back with great photos and a solid tale I want to post. The bug is still alive, but I also realize that I’d be less active in the Los Padres, and I certainly wouldn’t be out there doing 25 mile peak bagging days. Mostly because I don’t feel I have anything to prove. I’m content that I left a record of achievement in that forest that stands on it’s own.
WS: Even though you’re not presently publishing, the archival content of your blog is still available on-line for folks to access. It’s very helpful information to those of us that like to explore the SLP. What are your plans for your blog? Do you intend to keep it accessible into the future? If not, what is to become of its content?
DS: I intend to maintain the blog as it is today. I basically consider that content to be in the public domain.
WS: Have you ever thought about putting that content together as a book?
DS: An interesting question, but no, I haven’t considered that.
WS: How and when did you first get into exploring the SLP?
DS: My father was a naturalist/biologist out of UCSB. He introduced me to the Los Padres. Mostly by dragging me here and there to see animal poop. Seriously though, I remember hiking into and camping at White Ledge Camp under Topatopa when I was 5. I did Chief Peak when I was 10, with that old sadist Glenn Hackworth. Being in an active Scout troop really set the hook. The first time I hiked Whitney I was 12. I ended up doing big summer road trips with a friend. We’d save all year and take off for the summer, we were 16, 17 years old. We’d hike in Montana, Idaho, Washington, New Mexico. Past that I was heavy into rock climbing and mountaineering. I moved back to the Central Coast in 2000 and resumed hiking in the SLP in 2005.
WS: How did you gain your extensive knowledge about the forest? Did you gain it primarily from books or from raw experience?
DS: I just went. But I will say I have a boner for maps, and I’ve never paid much attention to where the trails are. They’re just lines on the map.
WS: Who were some of the folks that you looked to, and still look to, for guidance and information about the SLP?
DS: Uh, I just figured this shit out on my own. It wasn’t until later, when the blog became a thing, that I started meeting other SLP people of note.
WS: I don’t know these folks, but guys like Craig Carey, Jack Elliott, Mickey McTigue, Bardley Smith, those are some of the guys I consider giants of SLP knowledge and adventure. Do you know all of those guys? Are they still exploring and writing, or are they “retired” like you?
DS: I know of McTigue, but have never met him. Bardley I’ve met a couple times. He’s a guy I wish I could get to know better. He’s probably got some good stories. Craig is heavily involved in the forest, both through the Scouts and with the USFS. He’s done some really good things and I admire him. Jack Elliott is still a close mate. He and I get out every couple months for something that usually turns out amazing. In a word, Jack is stalwart. And a good mate.
WS: Who, if anyone, do you see taking up the mantle you have laid down? Any young SLP up-and-comers that we should know about? Who are the next generation of SLP prophets?
DS: No idea. I don’t really care what other people are doing. I’m not on social media and I rarely look up anything to do with the Los Padres because I already know everything I personally need to know about it. I know I sound like a dick but I’m just not a social person. I will say that there are always tough people doing awesome things in that forest.
WS: Shifting to your other interests, I know you are interested in native rock art have documented a number of Native American rock art sites. How did you get involved in that?
DS: I guess it was always there. My grandfather had grown up in Santa Barbara and had collected baskets, points, tool and the like. We call that looting nowadays. I visited the Alder Creek site when I was 11. Over the years it just became an ongoing and unrelenting interest. Aboriginal art of any type is interesting to me. I usually plan road trips and hikes around rock art sites. A good rock art panel adds a bit of mystery to any day. Plus, a lot of these places are hard to find so there’s the easter egg factor. Been to hundreds of sites and far from done.
WS: Do you coordinate your outings and share information behind the scenes with scientists and archaeologists, or is it primarily just to satisfy personal interest?
DS: Absolutely not. Next question.
WS: I know there has been some blow-back by folks about you publishing images of some of these sites, even though you have never disclosed the locations. Their protectionist attitudes are understandable given the damage that occurs at publicly know sites like Piedra Blanca for example. How do you reconcile the need to protect these sacred sites with the desire to document them and share them with the world before they disappear?
DS: I’ll start by saying that the protectionism around the local stuff, Chumash art, is unlike anywhere else. By protectionism I mean mostly academia. Other regions are comparatively much more relaxed about access to rock art, and yeah, there’s always some jackass out there that’s going to defile a rock art site, but the venom coming out of certain corners when one poaches their patch is pretty remarkable. This is the only region I’ve visited where certain constituencies actively discourage the visitation of rock art sites, and fight hard to assert their own right to those sites at the expense of the
few interested public.
WS: Have you had conversations about this with Native American tribes and how do they feel about it?
DS: I have nothing to talk about with the Chumash. It probably wouldn't serve anyone’s interest to share where I’ve been or where I’m going.
WS: Ok, this is kind of a “secret sauce” question. But if you could only visit one site in the SLP before you die, where would you go and why?
DS: Of course I’ve already been there. There was always some hidden gem and impossible mission in the SLP. But I ran out. For the purest, most unique experience in this forest I would have to hand that to Hole-in-the-Wall. Of course it is deep in Condor Preserve country and I can’t endorse going there. And good fucking luck if you try.
WS: What’s next for David Stillman? I know you’re hoping for a trip to Denali. But what else do you have in the hopper?
DS: Let’s see. Italy in the Fall. I still have the three most minor California fourteeners left to do. I’ve got a couple adventure motorcycles now and I’m finding that travel on a tricked out enduro suits me. I can really experience getting into rugged, out of the way places. Camping off a bike is pretty special. And getting into the back deserts and dark mountains alone on a bike is right up my alley. One day, the Yukon to Denali.
WS: What was your hardest day in the LP?
DS: No doubt about it, Devil’s Heart Peak. 22 hours, going into and out of, up and down the Sespe, plus a peak nobody’d ever climbed. Yeah, toughest day.
WS: What was your most rewarding day in the LP?
DS: Easy answer, White Ledge Peak. There was insane route planning, insane trespassing, a mountain lion, an unclimbed gully to a massive face overlooking the ocean, and a new route to a summit nobody’d had in a generation.
WS: What was your worst day in the LP?
DS: I've never had a truly bad in the the LP. Knock on wood.
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