Trails and paths present symbols and even prescient uses for humans exploring different worlds — along the Ellwood Bluffs, in our local backcountry, through and beneath European cities, and in the well-preserved Bavarian state forests. Since the Los Padres National Forest is closed, let’s consider patterns in Santa Barbara and Munich (I lived there for five weeks ending last Sunday).

In naturalist Aldo Leopold’s 1920s idea for the preservation of pristine wilderness spaces in North America, he literally hoped for no trails or human paths at all, therefore the human hiking incursions would be limited to bushwhacking and free roaming. That is far more demanding than the hikes delineated in most of my columns and also would open true “rewilding” possibilities in the San Rafael Wilderness (bring back the grizzlies and the wolves).

Just like ant-trails and mushroom systems beneath beech forests, the varying ways humans explore and “mark” their byways and highways tell us much about homo sapiens. So below I contribute some observations about postmodern Bavarian “paths” in their main city of Munich (München) compared to “trails” and patterns we know in greater Santa Barbara (and Los Angeles, where I grew up).

Wherever my partner and I have traveled during these five weeks in Munich, especially on public buses and the efficient subways, everyone has consistently worn the highly effective FPP95 facemask. Signs everywhere require this, specifically noting covering mouth and nose, and the trust level is such that we’ve seen virtually no dissent, and observance is more than 99%. Yes, there is a fine, but I never saw an official issue one. Whereas in the greater Santa Barbara area, there are plenty of maskniks refusing to wear them where mandated, and especially in Solvang and in Santa Maria.

Contact tracing, a real problem in California and the entire United States, is actual policy in Munich and followed closely in restaurants and meeting places — I know this since we’ve dined out frequently and attended several mini-concerts of live music. The Bavarian state relies on a scientifically educated populace to freely fill out the required contact tracing forms with date, time of day, first and last name, and contact information (QR code, telephone number, cell number, email — see photograph). Why wouldn’t a restaurant patron or concertgoer want to be notified if someone was in the same establishment with a subsequently verified case of COVID-19 and/or the Delta variant?

Electric-car power stations are everywhere, and the state government is quickly building more of them. While Munich has plenty of cars, they’re often quite small compared to American cars, SUVs and trucks. Zip cars that anyone with a license and credit card can jump into are available. Electric scooters and electric mopeds are ubiquitous and crowd the many wide bicycle lanes lining both sides of major boulevards (e.g. along the Leopold Boulevard).

Bike paths are laid out in generally straight directions, e.g. on Richard Strauss Street with all bikes (and scooters) on the right side of the road going one direction, and the equally wide bike lane on the left side all going full-bore as well. The lanes are not in the street but separated by a grassy strip. Clearly, greater speed is possible for commuter cyclists, and there is less chance of head-on bike wrecks. (This is not tourist or sight-seeing cycling.)

Yes, there is a natural conflict between electric bikes/electric scooters/electric mopeds/electric cargo bikes and the old-fashioned peddle-bikes, and I am unsure how this will be resolved in Munich. In comparison, Santa Barbara seems barely off the ground with its bike lanes, and there are ridiculous controversies over biking along Micheltorena Street on the mountain side of the freeway (residents needing car-parking got it moved to Sola Street, and now residents there are irritated). Sigh.

While Santa Barbara County and the State of California seem unable to legislate a ban on fossil fuel drilling, Munich and Germany, led by the world’s most effective and influential female leader of the past 100 years in the marvelous Angela Merkel (chancellor for 16 years!), are leading in both solar power development and in closing all nuclear power. Unlike neighboring France with more than 40 nuclear power plants in operation, under Merkel’s leadership, Germany will close its last nuclear power plant in 2022. In truth, Frau Merkel is Europe’s most successful and powerful political leader of any gender since 1945, with the possible exception of Willy Brandt.

There is also an active and slightly clandestine live music scene in Munich, with which greater Santa Barbara has no comparison. I’ve attended hotels where groups of up to 60 have enjoyed live music, including jazz, rock-and-roll and American bluegrass. I have had to show physical proof of my two COVID-19 vaccinations to get in, and keep wearing the mask until I sit and order a drink. If you have only had one “jab,” there is a COVID test station right around the corner with quick response, and you’re invited to do that and come back. Hopeful attendees without any vaccinations are not allowed in at all. The beauty of this is that once you are seated with a seltzer water or hard drink in hand, it’s mask off and enjoy the crowd and the show.

Anthropological studies and sociology have shown that vibrant communities, whether tribal or so-called advanced western civilizations, work best when there is genuine trust and the resulting empathy for others; this means deep support for community. I never saw anyone policing the wearing of masks on the subways or buses, or any officials checking the small hotels, bars and nightclubs offering limited venues for live music.

Munich has a much larger immigrant community than it did in the 1970s when I lived there, and Chancellor Merkel famously allowed in more than a million Syrian refugees in 2016 … and was not voted out of office. The recent brown-skinned immigrants all wear masks and work to get their vaccine status improved without evident rancor.

There is trust in the “system” and in the socialistic democracy of Germany. (Merkel leads the conservative CDU party, but they would be center-left here.) That critical trust, and the resulting empathy for others, makes Munich society work pretty well, and safeguards the health of all members of a diverse community.

I have to ask what’s wrong with the United States, or at least parts of it (notably, Florida, Texas and other red states). Here in Bavaria, folks put on their masks and work to get their vaccinations like they brush their teeth or ride in the correct bike lane. In parts of America, these basic community-health decisions are disputed, flouted and somehow made part of a personal political decision: No one’s gonna tell me to wear a mask! No one’s going to force me to get a vaccination!

As a former California classroom teacher for more than 40 years, clearly the level of scientific literacy in the United States is much lower than in Germany, but the issue is deeper. What ought to be noncontroversial governmental decisions — such as making car manufacturers install seat belts or obliging measles vaccinations for all students — too often become conflated with personal identity issues. The same people screaming about their gun rights equate getting a vaccination the same way: a violation of their personal liberty.

Modern Germany serves as an example of what members of a disparate but relatively unified community can do together for group safety and social harmony.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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