After spending another week climbing in Joshua Tree National Park I was ready to hit the road and avoid the windy forecast of the next few days. The drive from J Tree is butt numbing and averages 8-9 hours. I had one stop I wanted to make along the way, to visit my 94 year old Aunt Eugenia who still lives in Paso Robles after more than 50 years.
I decided to take a detour between HWY 5 and 101 and get a drive by preview of an area I had only recently heard of, the Carrizo Plain National Monument. It’s about 200,000 acres of valley bordered by rolling hills and most notably, the jagged edged hills of the east formed by the sliding of San Andreas Fault.
Former chief of the CA Coastal Commission, Peter Douglas, expounded on the marvels of the Carizzo Plain when we met this past summer at his second home on the Smith River in northern California. He claimed it to be one of his favorite places in the state. Adventure Sports Journal also published an article on it a few months back glorifying the wildflower bloom and the wild feel of “California’s Serengeti.”
I should have known better to expect much of anything in the middle of this particularly dry, warm winter. I drove the roughly 40 miles of Soda Lake Road through the center of the Monument from south to north and enjoyed only passing one car, a CalTrans truck. The road was only paved for about half of the distance, and had some unexpected curves that forced me to downshift into a mellow mood and just enjoy the scenery.
I made one stop at an old farm stead site and as soon as I left the rough and tumble tunes of Calexico behind in the car I was blasted by a cacophony of bird song. If I had been paying more attention the Audubon bird sign on the fence in front of my car would have prepared me for this.
As the interpretive signs said, this place was a serious hang out for some of California’s most ubiquitous feathered friends. Ravens, house finches, jays, with the most “country feel good song” coming from the sweet Meadow Larks. These larks could be the Mr. Rodgers of this neighborhood, always waiting on a fence post with a 70’s yellow shirt bordered by an old “V” neck vest. Except they don’t have to change their shoes, and their song is far superior to “these are the people in your neighborhood.”
The Plain is looking pretty barren right now. Nothing but stubbly dead grasses across the whole valley. Spring is really the time to catch colors here, with wildflowers blooming, but I don’t know if that will even happen this year, given the low rain fall we’ve had. This is normally the time of year that Central California resembles Ireland, but the landscape is still wearing a coat of grey stubble.
Supposedly the Plain is also home to pronghorn antelope. I didn’t see any of these either. I don’t expect to see much when I’m just passing by in a car.The stiller you sit, the more you see.
The great Soda Lake looks like it sounds; a giant pit of baking soda. The dry lake is caked with salts, which actually looks pretty cool. One smaller dry pond had tire tracks from someone spinning doughnuts. That’s not so cool.
My Aunt Eugenia remembers this valley being home to farmers growing grain crops. Turns out my Grandpa, EC Livingston sold farm equipment to many of them during and after the depression. Sometimes he accepted a few eggs and a hand shake for payment, much to the frustration of my Grandma.
Herds of cattle roamed the hills too. Graded tracks in the hillsides are still evident of their bovine hooves. Aunt Eugenia also remembers it being a secret garden in the spring and her face lit up when I told her I had come through it to reach her house up on Cherry Hill. She kind of looked through me for a moment and smiled, like she was recalling fond memories.
I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the Carrizo again this year, but it is definitely on my list for spring stopovers. I’ll be sure to bring a wildflower and bird guide next time. It was worth it though, on this last trip, just to recapture that feel of the wild west, a sort of place that time forgot.