California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Santa Barbara

California Fool's Gold


A year ago — over a year ago! — my partner and I visited the town of Santa Barbara. I meant to write about our visit for California Fool’s Gold sooner, but 2020 was the year everything went pear-shaped. When the pandemic hit, many suddenly found themselves with more time than they knew what to do with. My job-job (as opposed to my work) got very busy, though, and I found myself overworked and exhausted. Then I got ill. An unwanted OS update erased most of my photos. Anyway — if I don’t write about it now, I never will — so here it is, what I can remember, and without many pictures. 

Santa Barbara is a rather small city that’s popular with tourists — exactly the sort of place, in other words, that’s not exactly high on my list of top places to visit. It’s not that I had anything against Santa Barbara in particular or that sort of place, generally. It’s pretty and walkable. It’s just that I (with few exceptions) prefer vibrant, massive metropolises or utterly untamed natural landscapes to genteel tourist towns. One person’s rest and relaxation is, to me, an endurance test. Sitting in a sauna is about as appealing an idea to me as is being waterboarded. On the other hand, I’m somehow capable of enjoying myself, with some effort, even in places like resorts, sports bars, and outlet malls. I did quite enjoy my stay in Santa Barbara, though, even if I was unnerved by what I perceived as its failings.

Santa Barbara
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s ink and watercolor map of Santa Barbara, 2021. Available as a print or on merch.

As Una planned our trip to Santa Barbara, I saw on Twitter that Emily Han — the woman behind the much-missed Moving Stories LA — had posted about a recent trip to Santa Barbara that she’d taken with her partner. Committed multimodalists, they’d taken the train and bicycles. She reassured me that that Santa Barbara was easily accessed and explored without an automobile. 

So, when the day arrived, Una and I rode our bicycles toward Glendale, stopping first for breakfast at always excellent Tacos Villa Corona in the Atwater neighborhood. Less than five minutes later, we arrived at the Glendale Transportation Center, a train station built in 1923 as the Glendale Southern Pacific Railroad Depot and later known as Tropico Station. It’s a charming Churrigueresque style station, designed by Kenneth A. MacDonald Jr., made more charming by the hints of a non-existent second story. Despite serving Amtrak, Glendale Beeline, Greyhound, Metro, and Metrolink — and despite being the proposed terminus of the Glendale Streetcar — it is a quiet station and the ticket window has, for many years I suppose, been unstaffed.

Predating, as it does, both Metro and Metrolink, the station is graced with public restrooms — a great relief to any traveller who concerned in the slightest with comfort and cleanliness. To the traveller familiar with the modern transit systems of most modern, developed countries, it is worth pointing out that in degenerating democracies, public restrooms are rare; almost no American public transit station has been built with public restrooms since the 1970s — certainly none built by Metro or Metrolink. If station elevators and stairs smell like urine, it’s because transit authorities provide no better place to relieve oneself. There are worse things than urine-soaked station floors, I soon learned. I normally carry a handkerchief with which to dry my hands but on this day I did not. When I reached into the towel dispenser and discovered, to my horror, a wet pair of gym shorts stuffed inside. If anyone reading this has the ear of anyone in the Glendale government, perhaps you could hip them to electric hand dryers — a waste-reducing invention that has now been around for a century.

Not long after I left the restroom, The Pacific Surfliner arrived and we boarded it without incident. The Pacific Surfliner is a coastal train that runs 563 kilometers from San Diego in the south to San Luis Obispo in the north. Nationally, only the Acela Express and Northeast Regional carry more passengers. The scenery, as it washes over one from the comfort of a train car, is beautiful.

However, for anyone who’s ridden a train in, say, Belgium, China, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Korea, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, or Uzbekistan; the unhurried speed of trains in the world’s wealthiest nation will likely come as another surprise. The average speed of the Pacific Surfliner is about 66 kilometers per hour (roughly 40 miles per hour). Its top speed is only 145 kph (90 mph).

Still, traveling on even the slowest train is superior in my mind to driving on any interstate freeway. Instead of the anxiety-inducing focus on other drivers, the train passenger is treated to the views of gently rolling Simi Hills and the crashing turquoise waves of the Pacific Ocean. I found myself entranced, as I often am, by the sight of the majestic, mysterious Channel Islands across the channel. For the traveler less interested in beautiful scenery, there are so many things one can safely do that the driver cannot — although that doesn’t stop most  from trying. For my part, I read the news, sent a few texts, and probably practiced a foreign language on Duolingo. After we entered the Simi Valley, I headed to the café car and obtained some crackers, grapes, cheese, and a small bottle of Sauvignon Blanc

Any time I go on vacation I examine my notions and/or memories of my destination. I’m not sure when I first heard of Santa Barbara, but in 1984, I sometimes watched a soap opera of that name. As a latchkey kid, my siblings and I weren’t picky about what we watched and tried to absorb as much television as possible before the sound of tires on the gravel driveway alerted us to the fact that our mother was returning and would not want to find us glued to the television. I remembered almost nothing about the soap opera although I remember never even wondering where Santa Barbara was other than somewhere with palms, polo, and posh people. I, in fact, didn’t know the difference between Maui and Malibu until my 20s. I re-watched Santa Barbara in preparation for our vacation and was thoroughly amused… although not enough to watch a second episode. Nor was I left with much insight into the town which was filmed, predictably, inside of a Burbank television studio.

I first visited Santa Barbara in 1998, when I first visited California. My friend/roommate’s brother was living there with his wife. I remember he made us play “Name That Tune” with his vast collection of mp3s. He was flabbergasted that I could recognize only two songs by Oingo Boingo. He was in utter disbelief when I gently broke the news to him that Oingo Boingo were only massive in Southern California. He recovered from the shock and we all walked around the quiet downtown which I found attractive but like I didn’t exactly belong in.

in 2005, I was passing through Santa Barbara with friends when we found ourselves mired in an obscenely unpleasant rush hour. We decided to wait it out at a cinema. Hustle & Flow was showing. I think we all liked it. I know I appreciated feeling transported out of freeway gridlock to Memphis for two hours. When the film ended, we didn’t dally long and in next to no time were back on the road to Los Angeles.

In 2013, when a group of us headed over to see Best Coast and Belle & Sebastian play at the Santa Barbara Bowl. We got there early. Writer, friend, and former resident Colin Marshall texted some recommendations. We ended up visiting the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and, if memory serves correctly, a café that Colin recommended. Afterward, we went to the concert. After that, we headed back to Los Angeles.

Una’s and my visit would be the first of any real substance, then, spending a few days and nights in the town. Therefore, as is my habit, I conducted a bit of cultural and historical research.

Santa Barbara is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. It’s the county seat of Santa Barbara County. As of 2018, it had a population of 91,350 people. It’s a college town — home to Antioch University, Santa Barbara City College, and Westmont College. The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), though it no doubt looms largest of all, is technically located outside of the city and is the biggest employer of Santa Barbarans. 

Santa Barbara is composed of several neighborhoods, including the Eastside, the Mesa, Mission Canyon, the Riviera, Samarkand, San Roque, Upper State Street, the Waterfront, and the Westside. As of 2010, the population of Santa Barbara self-identified as 75.1% non-Latino white, 3.9% mixed race, 3.6% Asian-Pacific Islander (primarily Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Vietnamese), 1.6% black, 1% Native American, and 14.7% other. 38% of Santa Barbarans are Latino of any race.

On the far side of UCSB’s campus is another large transit hub in Santa Barbara — the Santa Barbara Airport. It’s located about eleven kilometers west of Downtown Santa Barbara and is connected by one of the most amusing shoestring annexations imaginable. In 1962, the airport was annexed via a 90-meter-wide corridor of sea-floor. Someone with a boat, then, can sail off the coast, leaving Santa Barbara behind, and then take a submersible down to the ocean floor, finding themselves once again, back “in town.” It offers direct flights to Los Angeles for the traveler immune to flight shame as well as unpressed for time since, the entire process of flying takes longer even than Amtrak’s admittedly slow train. 

Santa Barbara Station

Being sensible people, of course, we arrived by train at Santa Barbara Station. In addition to Amtrak, the station is served by Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority (VISTA), Clean Air Express, and Santa Barbara Airbus. It is also served by the city’s Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) buses, the local mass transit network that serves Santa Barbara. There are also, despite being a major transit hub, no public restrooms. It really boggles the mind. An airport without public restrooms is unthinkable but a train station? Well, just pee in the bushes.

Santa Barbara does seem like a bikeable city — although there are some fairly vigorous climbs here and there. The Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta metropolitan area, in fact, has one of the highest percentages of commuters who ride bicycles to and from work. The League of American Bicyclists recognizes Santa Barbara as a Silver Level city. In fact, the obvious question is why the average Santa Barbara household includes more cars than children.  If you need more convincing that Santa Barbara is best experienced, like most places, without a car, there’s an organization, Santa Barbara Car Free, who will hopefully disabuse you of that notion.

The earliest inhabitants of what’s now Santa Barbara County were the Paleoamericans who arrived there at least 13,000 years ago. The 10th millennium BCE marked the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic periods of the stone age. Archaelogical evidence from them includes a fluted point discovered on the coast in the 1980s and the remains of the so-called Arlington Springs Man, discovered on Santa Rosa Island, and one of the human remains found in the Americas.

Chumash Village

Around the 8th millennium BCE, the Chumash coalesced into a distinct culture. Their territory extended at least from Morro Bay in the north to San Clemente Island in the south as well as from the Southern California interior to the Channel Islands across the Santa Barbara Channel. Along with the Mapuche in Chile, they were one of the few indigenous people of the Americas to have developed deep sea-faring boats, which the Chumash called tomol, and built from redwood that drifted from the north and tar that seeps up from the ocean floor. The Chumash established numerous villages in the area of what’s now Santa Barbara including Amolomol, Mispu, Swetete, and Syuxtun. After a prolonged drought, however, the Chumash abandoned much of their inland territory in favor of  a smaller territory centered along coastal areas and the Channel Islands.

Around 3,500 years ago, Takic language-speaking peoples including the Acjachemen, ʔívil̃uqaletem, Kitanemuk, Payómkawichum, Taaqtam, and Tongva migrated from the east — an event referred to as the Takic Expansion. The Tongva most likely learned to make plank-canoes from the Chumash. There is also, however, evidence of warfare between the Chumash and Tongva and it was the Tongva who lived in the Southern Channel Islands when the Spanish arrived in 1542 CE.

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first Spaniard to arrive in the area and he led a maritime expedition along the coast, claiming all land that he saw for the Kingdom of Spain. Sebastián Vizcaíno, who arrived in 1602, named one of the islands he came across “Isla Santa Bárbara” after the mythical Phoenician martyr. The Spanish did little more than claim and re-name the lands, however, until 1769, when Gaspar de Portolà and missionary Juan Crespi were sent on an expedition through the region in order to counter the threat of English and Russian expansion into California and in preparation for the conquest of California’s native peoples. In 1782, under the command of Felipe de Neve y Padilla, the Spanish established a presidio in Santa Barbara. Four years later, on the feast day of Saint Barbara, the Spanish founded La Misión de La Señora Bárbara, Virgen y Mártir

The Mission in 1876, photograph by Carleton Watkins

A community, also known as Santa Barbara, arose afterward around the mission and presidio. On 16 September 1810, Mexico, including all of California, declared independence from Spain. In 1812, however, an earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of Santa Barbara, including the mission. In 1818, a French-Argentine pirate named Hippolyte Bouchard attacked what was left of the town but was repelled by a local force led by Fernando José María Ignacio Martín Tico. In 1820, the mission was rebuilt. In 1821, Spain finally recognized Mexico’s independence. Land formerly controlled by the Franciscans, including those of the mission, were granted to local Mexican families including Tico’s.

In 1840, American lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. published a memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, about life in Santa Barbara. On 27 December 1846, Santa Barbara was conquered by an invading American battalion led by John C. Frémont. In February 1848, the US emerged victorious from the Mexican-American War and 1,370,104 km2 of land, including all of California, Nevada, and Utah plus portions of four other states were ceded to the victors. Roughly a week before, James W. Marshall had discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. The ensuing California Gold Rush (1848-1855) contributed substantially to the growth of Santa Barbara, which proved popular with prospectors, gamblers, and bandits. One of the best known of the latter, Jack Powers, came to control the town until he was driven out by a posse from San Luis Obispo.

The Arlington Hotel in ca. 1885

California was made the 39th state in 1850. In 1851, a surveyor named Salisbury Haley botched his work when designing a new Jeffersonian street grid, which accounts for the modern preponderance of doglegs. The town’s first newspaper, the Santa Barbara Gazette, began publication in 1855. A drought that struck in 1863 destroyed the local ranching economy. Stearns Wharf, completed in 1872, allowed visitors to dock in the port with greater ease. Mortimer Cook opened the town’s first bank, National Gold Bank of Santa Barbara, in 1873. By then, Santa Barbara had emerged as a popular destination for vacationing tourists and the grand Arlington Hotel opened its doors in 1876. Many of the town’s homes of the era were designed by Peter J. Barbar, who also served two terms as mayor. In 1887, the railroad arrived from Los Angeles and, in 1901, from San Francisco.

Piers with California’s first offshore oil wells, Summerland Field, before 1906 (G.H. Eldridge – Published in Nature and Science on the Pacific Coast, 1915)

Oil provided the fuel for Santa Barbara’s industrialization. It has seeped up from beneath the Santa Barbara Channel for millions of years. The Chumash had for then thousand years used it to waterproof their ocean vessels. The oil rush began in 1859, when kerosene became a popular fuel for lighting homes. In 1885, over in Germany, Karl Benz invented a motor carriage that ran on a byproduct of kerosene production called gasoline and afterward, the appetite for fossil fuel-burning automobiles in the US required vastly expanded oil extraction efforts. In 1896, the world’s first offshore oil well drilled into the Summerland Oil Field, located in the Santa Barbara Channel, igniting an oil boom. The drilling of Ellwood and Dos Cuadras fields followed. 

Oil wells on Dos Cuadras oil field as seen from Stearn’s Wharf Pier.

Earthquakes have long posed a threat to Santa Barbara. A serious earthquake leveled most of Downtown Santa Barbara on 29 June 1925 and killed thirteen residents.  When the town began being rebuilt, Boston-born civic leader Pearl Chase successfully lobbied new constructions to be in the Spanish Colonial Revival style — a style which still dominates Santa Barbara.

1925 Earthquake Damage

Spanish Colonial architecture was common throughout the vast lands of Spanish Conquest. It was designed, in part, to impress, intimidate, and inspire indigenous Americans. In 1915, the Panama-California Exposition took place in San Diego, and showcased the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of New Englander Bertram Goodhue. From then until the early 1930s, Spanish Colonial Revival dominated architecture in California, Florida, and Mexico — now used to conjure up a romanticized Spanish past. 

Today, it remains nearly ubiquitous in much of Southern California — applied not just to churches and town squares — but to strip malls, drive-thru banks, and smog checks . Due to its ubiquity, some of my memories of Santa Barbara inevitably combine with those of nearly every coastal-is town between Santa Rosa and San Diego into one big, swirl of beige stucco and red tiles. Some of Santa Barbara’s Spanish-style buildings, though, stand out — such as the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, designed by William Mooser III in 1925 and completed in 1929. 

Santa Barbara postcard

Santa Barbara’s military culture can be traced back at least to El Presidio de Santa Barbara, founded on 21 April 1782. In 1916, brothers Allan and Malcolm Loughead relocated their Alco Hydro-Aeroplane Company from San Francisco to Santa Barbara and renamed it the Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing Company. They hired John K. “Jack” Northrop to design a sightseeing plane, the Loughead F-1 or “Flying Boat One.” In 1917, Allan secures a contract to build planes for use of the US Navy in World War I. Loughead and Northrop went on to found the Lockheed Aircraft Company. Northrop went on to found the Northrop Corporation.


Two military bases, the Marine Corps Air Station Santa Barbara and Naval Reserve Center Santa Barbara operated in Santa Barbara during World War II. Nearby, the army established Camp Cooke (present-day Vandenberg Air Force Base). Soldiers wounded in the Pacific were treated at Hoff General Hospital. In February 1942, a Japanese I-17 submarine fired sixteen shells at the Ellwood Oil Field. No one was injured and damage was minimal. After the war’s conclusion in 1945, many service personnel remained and Santa Barbara’s population swelled by about 10,000 over the next five years. 

A town dominated by the military personnel and petroleum extraction might seem an unlikely incubator for environmentalism but Santa Barbara was one such place. It was, though, and the language of environmentalism was arguably weaponized by wealthy, obstructionist NIMBYs and used to halt the construction of affordable housing.

In the 1960s, the oil fields off the coast began to run dry and oil companies began detonating explosives near a fault line that had already produced numerous earthquakes in search of more oil. Like the dwarves of Khazad-dum, they dug too greedily and on 28 January 1969, an explosion from Union Oil‘s Platform A unleashed a torrent of 100,000 barrels of oil into the sea. The environmental devestation was the catalyst for the passage, the following year, of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the formation of the citizens’ group, Get Oil Out (GOO). 

In the 1970s, the environmental cause was weaponized by local NIMBYs who succeeded in passing, in 1975, a zoning ordinance designed to cap the city’s population at 85,000. As a result of their efforts, development froze and property values skyrocketed to levels within reach only to the aristocracy. The working class, meanwhile, were essentially banished to places like Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Ventura. Anti-density “environmentalists” are conveniently willing to ignore the fact that automobiles areone of the largest contributors to environmental degradation, filling as they do the air with greenhouses gasses, the soil with brake dust, and the sea with microplastics and heavy metals.

Santa Barbara’s economy is dominated by the retail and service industries. With housing reserved for the wealthy and no sustainable alternative, the working poor of Santa Monica have few options but to commute via single-occupant vehicles from neighboring towns — choking the roads with traffic and pollution — all to keep Santa Barbara’s population capped. 

Montecito Tea Fire (2008) — in Montecito and Santa Barbara, California. (Photograph: Justin David Fox)

Meanwhile, the world grows warmer and the rugged chaparral wilds surrounding Santa Barbara grow more arid. Tried-and-true methods of fire management practiced by the Chumash remain off the table, having been banned by the Spanish centuries ago. Wild fires grow deadlier and more destructive as they reach deeper into the city from its perimeter. In 1964, the Coyote Fire burned 106 homes and 270 km2 of backcountry. More than a decade passed before the smaller Sycamore Fire destroyed 200 homes. The 1990 Painted Cave Fire incinerated over 500 homes. 2008 brought the Tea Fire and even larger Gap Fire. The following year there was the Jesusita Fire. 2017’s Thomas Fire resulted in the loss of 1,050 structures and was the largest recorded fire in Santa Barbara County history — a record that will likely be toppled within a few dry summers by an inevitable, major fire.

Motel 6 Postcard

While Una and I will never be one of those who could, if we wanted, buy a home in Santa Barbara, finding temporary lodging is considerably easier. I jokingly suggested, as I always do, that we stay in a Motel 6, which never amuses Una. And yet, I was surprised, to learn, Motel 6 originated in Santa Barbara. Its name refers to the $6 price of a room when the first location opened, at 443 Corona Del Mar, in 1962. Without research, I’m certain that the price has increased since then but Motel 6s are always cheap — but neither this fact nor the undeniable historical significance could persuade Una to book our stay there.

Instead, she found a place called the Hideaway, which somehow did manage to feel “hidden away” despite being a literal stone’s throw from an interstate highway. It cost quite a bit more than a motel, too, but it did have a sort of rustic, cottagey charm and what’s money for but to splurge now and then. We arrived at the Hideaway early and our room wasn’t yet ready and so we walked downtown. There we passed many pricey boutiques. Outside of many there were homeless people. There are more than 1,000 unhoused Santa Barbarans, at last count — some of whom sleep inside of cars thanks to the city’s safe parking program — and the prioritization of providing storage for cars over housing for humans.

As is typical of tourist towns, there are lots of upscale restaurants serving New American cuisine. A coastal town, too, there are many seafood restaurants (if no vegetarian seafood restaurants). What is slightly more unique, perhaps, is the popularity of tapas. Maybe it’s the wine, maybe its the architecture, maybe it’s both. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. One of our best meals was at a tapas place called Loquita.

There are also your usual bourgeoisie-favored suspects: Italian cuisine, sushi restaurants, and Asian fusion. Our first meal, though, was a light one taken at Lilac Pâtisserie. It was very good. As we ate, I observed the locals. Several women with chunky jewelry and plenty of windburned looking men who looked like they bought their wardrobes from an REI

Later, at a wine tasting, one such couple shared with their sommelier tales of their trips to his homeland and recounted all of the fabulous food they’d tried — huitlacoche tacos, exotic Oaxacan moles, ceviche that was still swimming — that sort of thing. After a bit, they asked what his favorite dish was and he responded that it was the humble chile relleno. I believe that their obvious shock was authentic, not performative.

Of course, some of us common people like things like that and not all food in Santa Barbara is suitable for toffs. There are numerous Mexican restaurants where one can order chile rellenos, in fact, as well as the normal assortment of forgettable multinational fast food chains. Santa Barbara’s biggest culinary claim to fame, in fact, is the humble Egg McMuffin, which was invented by a “food scientist” named Herb Peterson at the McDonald’s at 3940 State Street in 1972. 

The oldest restaurant in Santa Barbara is Joe’s Cafe, founded in 1928. One of Santa Barbara’s strangest restaurant stories concern’s Chad’s, which from 1957 until 2020 was known as Sambo’s. Although the name was purportedly an innocent combination of the founder’s names, Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett, the chains — which at their peak in 1979 numbered 1,117 — were decorated with characters from Helen Bannerman’s notorious 19th century children’s story, Little Black Sambo, about a dark-skinned South Asian boy. We ate at neither Joe’s nor Sambo’s though, in part because we’re vegetarians and Joe’s is a steakhouse and Sambo’s wasn’t on my radar.

Vegetarian food in Southern California is rarely hard to come by but our long, uphill bike ride from the coast to Mesa Verde, did prove a somewhat difficult journey. It’s a vegan Mexican restaurant and we hungrily devoured our meals and washed them down with a couple of beers. I remember thinking that it was a really amazing meal — but then again, I was so hungry that I could’ve eaten at a Shakey’s. I’m confident enough, though, to recommend it. The ride back to the Hideaway was, literally and thankfully, all downhill.

Although Santa Barbara is known for its wineries and associated wine bars, sometimes after a long, hot stroll from a mission you find yourself wanting a pint of hoppy bitter and for that there is nothing better than beer. We popped into the Old King’s Road for a pint of Boddington’s. Given the name, it was no surprise that it was aiming for a vibe and the Kooks (pretty much unknowns in the US) were playing on the jukebox when we entered. The ratio of televisions 1.3 screens for every patron, seemed to me a bit excessive but it was still pretty cozy. All of the screens were tuned to those sports chat shows where athletes in suits talk about basketball or whatever and I’m not sure what the point of having them is when the sound is muted except that they’re hell for someone like me who — although utterly uninterested in the subject matter — is as easily distracted by anything on a screen as a dog might be by an owner shaking their keys. I did occasionally snap out of my muted-television trance, at one time overhearing a snippet of relatable conversation in which a fleece-wearing patron told the barkeep that he’d just returned from Hawaii on his yacht.

On the whole, though, we did drink much more wine than beer. The first wine in Santa Barbara was made at the mission and later, private vineyards. The most popular grape came to be known as the Mission Grape. By the late 19th century, there were seventeen winemakers in the county who cultivated a combined forty-five vineyards.


Prohibition all but wiped out the wine industry, however, which only began to return in the 1970s. The Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) were established in 1981 and 1983, respectively. Today there are seven AVAs, over 100 wineries, and more than sixty-five varieties planted on more than 80,000 hectares of land dedicated to what’s now a nearly billion dollar industry. 

After some pleasant wine tasting, Una wandered in a happy haze over to Santa Barbara’s arts district, distressingly known as “the Funk Zone.” We wandered past more galleries than into them — on our way to bars and tasting rooms. Although intrigued, we passed on Cutler’s Artisan Spirits and stopped by Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. Santa Barbara so that I could have more to drink and Una have some food. The arts district, sorry, “funk zone,” seemed to be devoted at least as much to the consumption of alcohol as it was art and yet, had we more time, I’d’ve liked to have explored both more deeply.

Another way to get to know a place is through its cinema. Santa Barbara’s film history, though fairly long, is not terribly deep.  The Santa Barbara International Film Festival was taking place when I was there. Signs announced that Renée Zellweger was being honored with an award. Back at the Hideaway, after some drinks, I watched a no budget black-and-white horror film made in and around a beach in order to get some local flavor… but I can’t for the life of me figure out what it may’ve been. 


The film industry came to Santa Barbara in 1910, with the establishment of Flying A Studios. It was a division of what was then the world’s largest film studio, American Film Manufacturing Company. It ended operation in 1922, having produced roughly 1,200 films, of which only about 100 are believed to still be in existence. 

Arlington Theatre

Santa Barbara is home to the regal Arlington Theatre (built in 1931 and which hosts films and live entertainment), and hosts the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Perhaps the best known actress actually from Santa Barbara was Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, who was born there in 1943. She died there just 28 years later in 1971. 

Of the fair but hardly tremendous amount of films to have been shot in part or in whole in Santa Barbara, there’s: The Sheriff’s Sacrifice, The Mexican’s Faith, The Mistaken Bandit, The Cowpuncher’s Ward, The Tout’s Remembrance, Method in His Madness, The Ranger’s Bride, A Ranchman’s Wooing, The Girl and the Fugitive, The Cowboy’s Sweetheart, A Vein of Gold, The Fence on ‘Bar Z’ Ranch, The Ostrich and the Lady, The Ranch Girl’s Legacy, The Cowboy and the Squaw, The Little Doctor of the Foothills, The Flower of the Ranch (all 1910); In Old California When the Gringos Came and The Medallion (both 1911); The Hidden Treasure, The Greaser and the Weakling, The Girl of the Manor (all 1912); The Garden City in California, Brother Love, The Lesson, An Eastern Flower, American Born, Calamity Anne, Heroine, and Truth in the Wilderness (all 1913); The Diamond from the Sky, Borrowing Hogan, The Price She Paid, Don Quixote, Aloha Oe, and A Brother’s Redemption (all 1915); Dust, The Inner Struggle, Sequel to the Diamond from the Sky, The Twinkler, Lone Star, The Wedding Guest, The Garden of Allah, and Lord Loveland Discovers America (all 1916); The Eyes of Julia Deep and The Ghost of Rosy Taylor (both 1918); A Master Stroke (1920); Ashes of Vengeance (1923); With Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo (1926); The Little Giant (1933); The Gay Divorcee (1934); Mutiny on the Bounty and La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (both 1935); College Holiday and Hollywood Boulevard (both 1936); Double Wedding and SOS Coast Guard (1937); California Frontier (1938); Lillian Russell (1940); Air Force, Action in the North Atlantic, Lassie Come Home, and G-Men vs. The Black Dragon (all 1943); Gallant Bess (1946); A Date with Judy (1948); Once More, My Darling (1949); Dragstrip Riot (1958); It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Terror (1963); Batman, Incubus, and Gambit (all 1966); Something’s Happening (1967); Baroque A Nova (1969); Dad… Can I Borrow the Car? (1970); Terror at Red Wolf Inn (1972); Delinquent School Girls (1975); Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood and Shark Kill (both 1976); Foes (1977); Big Wednesday and The End (both 1978); Malibu High and Pleasure Cove (both 1979); To All a Goodnight (1980); Evilspeak, Cutter’s Way, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Murder in Texas (all 1981); Scarface, Deal of the Century, Tin Man (all 1983); Commando, Father Guido Sarducci Goes to College, and Crime of Innocence (all 1985); The Patriot (1986); I Dare Ya and Savage Harbor (both 1987); Curse of the Queerwolf (1988); L.A. Story and Bikini Island (both 1991); Adaptation. (2002), and Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014).

There are performing arts venues, as well, of course, and had we spent more time in Santa Barbara or known that a disease pandemic would end down live entertainment for the foreseeable future, we no doubt would’ve made some time for a play or concert. For future reference, assuming live entertainment returns, the original Lobero Theatre was an opera house built by José Lobero in 1873. It was rebuilt in 1924 and now showcases films and live music. The Granada Theatre was also built in 1924. Santa Barbara Symphony was founded in 1953. Opera Santa Barbara was founded in 1994.

We heard a bit of live music as we wandered around the Funk Zone. There was a duo of young musicians performing a song I knew outside of a tasting room — although I can’t remember what it was now. Of course, there was our aforementioned Belle & Sebastian show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Local acts from Santa Barbara include Bobby Beausoleil, Dishwalla, Nerf Herder, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. Santa Barbara is also where Martin Gore lives, although I’m not sure how much, if any, Santa Barbara has crept into the music of Depeche Mode — but it’s never a bad idea to listen to them. 

The New Noise Music Conference and Festival, established in 2009 to support music, arts, and environmentalism. Other festivals include I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival, Old Spanish Days – Fiesta, the French Festival – Santa Barbara, and the Summer Solstice Parade.

Juana_Maria_(Hayward_&_Muzzall)During our visit, we walked up to the mission, which is today a working friary and museum (with a gift shop). It’s not far away from Downtown on the map — but was a bit of a walk on a hot day. There’s also the fact that as you get away from the coast, everything is inevitably uphill. We spent quite a lot of time there where more than 4,000 Chumash are buried, including Juana Maria — the so-called “Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island” who provided inspiration for Island of the Blue Dolphins and who died a few weeks after being baptized and “saved.”

Santa Barbara is also home to the aforementioned Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Casa Dolores (a museum of Mexican folk art), Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Art, Design, & Architecture Museum.

Santa Barbara’s Moreton Bay Fig Tree, planted in 1876 near the banks of Mission Creek and between the train station and our lodging. We crossed over its roots several times and although the setting is park-like, I guess it’s not technically a park. But I love parks and trees and I visited it once more as we waited at the station for our train.

So I’m here going to list at least some of Santa Barbara’s (several of which are beaches), including: Alameda Park, Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, Andree Clark Bird Refuge, Butterfly Beach, De La Guerra Plaza, Douglas Family Preserve, East Beach, Elings Park, Franceschi Park, Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro), Hilda Ray Park, Leadbetter Beach, Mission Historical Park, Parma Park, Shoreline Park, Skofield Park, and West Beach

The great, prolific Huell Howser apparently loved the tree, too, and featured it for the 2001, episode of California’s Gold titled “Trees.” He also, evidently, loved Santa Barbara, as he featured it on numerous occasions, including:  1999’s “Turtle Lady,” 2001’s
“Santa Barbara Stage Coach,” and 2002’s “Cattle Boat” (for Visiting… with Huell Howser); 2000’s “Calfornia Missions” for California Missions; 2001’s “San Marcos Pass” for Road Trip with Huell Howser; 2005’s “Reagan Ranch” for California’s Gold; 2006’s “Carpinteria State Beach” (for California’s Golden Parks); 2009’s “El Carrillo” (for California’s Communities), and  2010’s “Orchid Trail” (for Road Trip with Huell Howser). Watching old episodes of Huell Howser’s shows is just one more thing that you can safely do on a train ride home that you can’t whilst driving.

Not that I watched anything on a screen when the setting sun and dimly lit towns we passed through on the way home were so much more riveting.

View from the Surfliner
View of the sun setting behind the Channel Islands from the Surfliner

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubi, the StoryGraph, and Twitter.

3 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Santa Barbara

  1. Thanks for covering our town so well! For the record, Santa Barbara MTD was serving the Amtrak station with our all-electric Downtown-Waterfront Shuttle at the time you visited. It stops right on State Street in a little turnout pocket. It was suspended early in the pandemic due to the closure of State Street to traffic.

    Liked by 1 person

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