I pulled my jacket close against the chill stirring of an early breeze. A heavy silence enveloped the world in the final, darkest minutes before dawn. To the east, a gray sliver of pending morning peeked from beneath bands of straggling clouds to silhouette the rugged crest of the Temblor Range. Planning a day exploring the Carrizo Plain, I had risen early to watch the sunrise from this elevated spot at the northern entrance to the National Monument, about seventy miles east of San Luis Obispo, that has been called “California’s Serengeti.”
From my vantage point on the promontory of Soda Lake Overlook, white mineral deposits bordering the water reflected a swelling glow in the east, the first sign of physical landscape in an ocean of darkness. Orange tints, brightening by the minute, injected a promise of color into the neutral gray of fading night. As the spectrum moved to the red of blood, ragged peaks sharply etched against the horizon slowly, slowly released the tip of a glowing disk. The first rays of sunlight spilled out over the ridgeline into morning.
A newborn flash of green-gold light, immortalized by poet Robert Frost as “nature’s hardest hue to hold,” dissolved into pinks and yellows and reds and blues against the disparate textures of rocks, sand, scrub, saline wetlands, and wildflowers. Denizens of the Plain, from blunt-nosed leopard lizards, pronghorn, and giant tule elk, and burrowing owls to high-flying ferruginous hawks, began their scurrying and soaring.
With typical annual rainfall of less than ten inches, Carrizo qualifies as desert country. Not the slickrock Utah desert of Edward Abbey, or the endless crescent dunes of T. E. Lawrence’s Arabia but a grassland with wildlife and vegetation more typical of a prairie. Isolated from the coast on the west and the great Central Valley to the east by mountain-building earthquake movements along the San Andreas Fault, the 50-mile long by 10-mile-wide flat plain was sacred to the Chumash people for thousands of years. They called it “the place of the rabbits.”
Established in 2001 as the Carrizo Plain National Monument, nearly 250,000-acres between the Temblor and the Caliente mountain ranges are preserved as public lands. Volunteers are gradually removing fencing and structures from recent ranching activity to return the valley to a landscape that has changed little in thousands of years, except for violent lurches to the north every century or so.
Lingering shadows dissolved in the flood of daylight, revealing a slope of orange-tinged Fiddleneck blooms. A rising song of Western Meadowlarks broke the silence. Hailed as the essential musical theme of the American West prairie lands, their melodious refrain accompanied my walk downhill to a boardwalk edging Soda Lake.
Rainfall once drained into the Salinas River but is now trapped in the shallow basin of the plain. Covering 3,000 acres when full, Soda Lake is the largest remaining natural alkali wetland in southern California. With no outlet, summer evaporation leaves a vast expanse of white mineral salts that shimmer and sway in the afternoon heat. Early settlers mined these saline deposits for preserving meat. Sandy spots alongside the walk glowed with California goldfields. The intense yellow carpet flowed like liquid gold between grey skeletons of the last season’s spiny saltbush shrubs. Eager to arrive on time for a coveted spot on a guided tour of Painted Rock, the dominant cultural feature of the Plain, I hastened back to my car.
Seasonal intern Gannon, gathered our group outside the Goodwin Education and Visitor Center. He pointed to our destination, Painted Rock, a sandstone outcrop protruding through the level valley floor that served as a sacred meeting place of Chumash, Salinan, and Yokut people for generations. Access is restricted to preserve ancient pictographs and to protect nesting falcons and other raptors.
We entered an open horseshoe-shaped area at the center of the rock. Painted on the walls of eroded caves along the base, pictographs in multiple layers of black, red, and white pigment from charcoal and local minerals span a period estimated from 3000 to just 200 years ago. Images of animals and humans, together with abstract representations of water, fertility, rain, and religious symbols, survived centuries of weathering. Modern vandals have not been so kind. Carved graffiti and shotgun blasts have taken their toll.
I tried to imagine how the area must have looked all those years ago and how people survived in such an unforgiving environment. Surely it must have been cooler and wetter to support a population with time and energy to spend mixing and applying colors to rocks. Gannon requested that we not post photographs on social media out of respect for the sacred nature of the images for the Chumash people.
Evidence of the importance of this secluded area to other living creatures abounded. Patiently waiting for the intruders to leave, a pair of long-eared owls peered from the darkness of a cave high above us. A hawk circled watchfully in the patch of sky overhead. I stepped warily around piles of mouse-sized bones dropped by decades of raptors dining on the cliffs above.
Coyotes, foxes, badgers, and other small mammals survived the farming era, but hunters long ago cleared the land of anything large and edible. In 1985, the area was one of the first in the state to re-introduce pronghorn and tule elk. Elk herds now exceed several hundred animals and are thriving. Pronghorns are not doing so well. Few fawns are fast enough to outrun coyotes, and, although they are the fastest native North American animal, sometimes called the American antelope, adults cannot leap barbed wire fences to escape.
Simmler Road, a dirt-track crossing to the east side of the plain, is known as a popular spot for grazing elk. While resting in my vehicle for a refreshment break, I scoured the horizon for signs of life. Two distant brown shapes raised my hopes. But, detecting no movement after several minutes, I concluded they were just a couple of darker bushes.
Movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention. Creeping up behind were two critters about the size of large goats. Through binoculars, brown topcoat, white belly, and inward-curving antlers identified them as pronghorn. Over the next 15 minutes, I watched as they browsed, presumably aware of my vehicle but, apparently, unfazed. They approached within about 50 feet before strolling casually back into the brush. Although I never saw an elk, this unexpected encounter with the most threatened animal on the Plain gave credence to the Carrizo as “California’s Serengeti.”
I continued driving east along a dusty, unpaved road towards the Temblor Range and into the heart of a wildflower superbloom. Random purple spears of owl’s clover penetrated a yellow ocean of goldfields. On higher ground, tidy tips’ white-edged petals cast a lighter lemon hue. Towards mid-valley, the floral extravaganza faded into dense areas of immature Carrizo fiddleneck, their fuzzy leaves pregnant with buds ready to erupt into orange-tinged blooms. Occasional roadside clumps of frilly Lemon’s mustard glowed pink against this solid field of green.
The road rose steeply from the valley floor, twisting through loose rocks where eons of earth movement along the San Andreas Fault has ground the foothills into geological debris. In Assembling California, author John McPhee lists the showcase of landforms along this tectonic scar; “benches and scarps, its elongated grabens and beheaded channels, its desiccated sag ponds and dry deflected streams. From the air, the fault trace is keloid, virtually organic in its insistence and its creep — north forty degrees west.”
Savoring a closer view of these features that had intrigued me over years of glimpses from the comfort of an airline seat on flights to Los Angeles, I headed north on Elkhorn Road. After miles of dodging deep ruts, where others had become stuck in the mud, probably having ignored “Impassable When Wet” warnings to their peril, a sign announced my arrival at Wallace Creek.
I strode up a stony trail. At the top of the ridge, I stared into dramatic evidence of seismic forces that continue to shape California. About 3,800 years ago, Wallace Creek flowed downhill from the North American Plate straight across the restless San Andreas Fault to the open plain on the Pacific Plate. As that plate moved northwest, the creek bed bent into a channel that followed the fault line. On reaching its original course, the flow turned back out towards Soda Lake. Over time that channel has grown to about 150 yards in length. Although the average is just over one inch per year, displacement here is not slow and steady. It happens in sudden jerks that we know as earthquakes. Geologists say that this section of the plain lurched 30 feet north in a few terrifying seconds during the devastating 7.9 magnitude Fort Tejon temblor of 1857.
I stared at the displaced creek bed carved into the peaceful hillside and pondered the tectonic energy silently building pressure in the earth beneath my feet. My curiosity overcome by a dose of caution, I decided it was time to set out for home. At any moment, the next Big One could unleash the raw power stored under this notorious seismic hot spot.
The last rays of sunlight shrank from the peaks of the Temblor Range as I headed north. Ahead, the brilliant glow from a meadow of yellow hillside daisies faded into memory as darkness filled the valley. My visit to the Carrizo Plain ended as it began, with another reminder of Frost’s ode to nature’s ephemeral beauty; “Nothing gold can stay.”
This story was published in Travel Stories of Wonder and Change. An anthology of stories by members of BATW on their travel adventures on five continents and more than a few islands. Available from Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA, all bookstores, and online.