Carrizo Plain #touristbloom

Miles of desolate dirt road are no longer deserted, at least not today—the day before Easter; the day after the LA Times headlined an article about the four best places to see wildflowers in Carrizo Plains.

You know, #superbloom (Trendy thanks to the Mojave Desert super bloom in 2016. Thanks a lot “The Media!”), but this year, I’m calling it #touristbloom because people exploded alongside the flowers in Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Wildflower viewers take a rest in a field of blazing stars after the steepest part of the hike from Elkhorn Road into the Temblor Range.

Even thought I didn’t read that LA Times piece, I’m sure the trail I picked was on that list, because the number of people crowding onto the first leg of this hike was shocking. Like little ants with cameras and tripods in hand, they milled around for about 1/4 of a mile, gawking at the yellow goldfields and white-tipped tidy tips that speckled the normally brown earth, spilling down from the ridge line on both sides. The high point on this leg was where most stopped, but the color that has been on my bucket list for four years was still waiting for me.

Yellow goldfields and tidy tips, purple phacelia, and orange blazing stars color the hills of the Temblor Range in mid-April. It’s wildflower tourist heaven.

The floral abundance is indeed super, but Carrizo Plain National Monument pops with color every year around this time. Purple phacelia, yellow goldfields, orange fiddleneck, and white tidy tips stretch into carpets of color that patchwork through the valley along Soda Lake Road and undulate through the hills of the Temblor Range. Signs of life for a few weeks in an otherwise bleak, baked, and barren landscape. Last year, I drove, stopped, and explored the monument alongside relatively few fellow wildflower seekers compared to this year.

Desert candles peer over the tidy tips and phacelia that cover the range miles above Soda Lake on the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

But then, I only drove my Toyota Matrix through the valley below my current perch, where dust billows behind cars and trucks pulling campers meander next to random fields of yellow and purple that follow the road’s track for 30 miles from the California Valley to Highway 166. You can see the train of vehicles traversing south from way up here, where that same loose, fine, dry dust wafts onto my legs as I push them to continue ever higher. It’s steep, and I can grab the trail in front of me without falling over. My ankles ache from the awkward angle (years of sprained ankles) and the unpacked soft, ashy dirt trail is flanked by orange-yellow blazing stars that continue up over the next hill.

Blazing stars grow in fields above the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

A desert candle flies solo above a crowded field of wildflowers in the Temblor Range.

The trek persists up over the next hill, this one covered with the purple of caterpillar phacelia, and up over the next higher one, covered with green grasses and views of the neighboring hills eclipsed by yellows and purples.

Wildflower seekers take a rest in the Temblor Range after trekking up a steep trail through goldfields, blazing stars, and phacelia blooms above the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

It’s hot and dry, and the flowers are starting to wilt, curling up in random patches. They will be gone soon and so will all the people. The population in this valley will drop back below 500, and the number of cars on Elkhorn and Soda Lake roads won’t stir up enough dust to hang in the air all day long. That fine stirred up sediment now fills the sky like smog, hazing up the view over Soda Lake, a white expanse that currently has water in it (Thanks atmospheric rivers!). That dust will eventually settle and the California Valley residents who were yelling at me to slow down as I drove 25 miles per hour down Belmont Trail should no longer feel overrun by people who don’t know how to drive on rutted out dirt roads.

California poppies and blazing stars glow orange on the hillsides of the Temblor Range above Carrizo Plain National Monument over Easter weekend 2017.

Lights, chainsaws, and smoke

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Red and blue alternating flashes flipped a u-turn, pulled up next to the curb, and backed up 10 feet. The kids across the street backed four cars out of a shared driveway. Next came Engine 2 from the San Luis Obispo Fire Department; then Engine 3; then the big kahuna, mammoth-sized engine with a ladder that extends from its top. Yellow-clad firefighters hopped out as college students stopped on the sidewalk and ran down their driveways.

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Sparks that looked like fireworks without the sound flickered above a green tree. They were coming from the roof.

A chainsaw started up: brrrrimmmm, brimmmm, brimmmmm. Generators whirred and chugged to life. The behemoth’s long white ladder lifted off the truck, slowly spun around, perfectly missing the power lines, and began stretching its neck, each section that poked out was smaller than the last. Firefighters started cutting through the roof. The first cut was two feet long; the second one was one-and-a-half feet. And they kept cutting until they could pull the rectangle of slats and shingles off. Smoke eeked out, billowing into a column visible only because of the five-story tall ladder shining bright beams of gigantic emergency lights into the 9:40 p.m. darkness.

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Policemen shut the street down, using their flashlights to turn away cars. Someone put orange cones out in a semi-straight row across the turn lane.

More engines showed up; this time they were Cal Fire trucks. A long flat hose rolled out, firefighters dragged it across the four-lane, usually busy, Foothill Boulevard. Water sprayed from the fire hydrant. They hooked it together, water filled the hose, pfft, engorging the lifeless hose as it snaked its way across the street.

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The neighboring houses emptied, as residents watched. Firefighters climbed down from the roof, while others with face masks and oxygen tanks went inside. Water trickled down from a vent charred from the fire.

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A tall boy with a buzz cut and a Cal Poly shirt said, “Since this is my house, should I pose for your pictures?” He said he was eating dinner when he heard a knock at the door. It was a girl from next door. She told him his roof was on fire, and it was then that he noticed what seemed like water trickling from the ceiling. “But we’re all OK,” he said, walked away, and got on his cell phone. He was still in his socks.

A utility truck’s here now. It must have been downed wires that caused the sparks, that lit the fire. At least, that’s what people are saying. The power lines look like they’re draped across the house. Someone just bought that house this summer. Lucky them.

Flower season

Yellow, purple, blue, white, and pink are the colors of wildflower season. Not just one hue of each, but shades upon shades of each. Shapes, sizes, heights. Some mimic each other, but all are unique.

The weather this year must have held out perfectly for wildflowers in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The soft, and very tall, hilly crests that give way to water and wildlife in a normal year were shouting color late into this summer. In Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest, just west of the Montana border, we checked more than we could count off the Rocky Mountain Flowers of Idaho booklet we had.

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Elk thistle, elephant’s head, lupine, violets, fireweed, glacier lillies, asters of all types, monkey flowers, bog orchids, I can’t remember them all. I wanted to keep them all. Pick them and deposit them between the pages of my journal, just so I could save the feeling I had when I looked at them with my mouth hanging open. Just so I could remember the awe I felt and the giddy feeling that it was special.

It’s a shock to the system when all you see between blades of grass and under lodge pole pine and spruce are little spots of color. Bear grass as far your eyes can carry your mind. Straight up the sides of mountains and spread out between trees, were meadows of the tall white poofy-topped flowers that bloom once every 10 years. In every direction, down every dirty forest service road; it was unbelievable.

Fearless

I forgot how much I love the Pacific Ocean, how much its rhythm quiets me, how fast it breaks me from my complacency, how quickly it wakes me into the present; coloring my mind with the soft sound of lapping, crashing, receding, and the white of the water’s insistent presence, drawing me toward something bright in the dark of moonless-ness. The muted crunch of teeny pebbles reverberates almost silently as I step with the awkward intensity of absolute desire not to fill my shoes with gritty sand before giving into the inevitable and removing the barrier between my naked foot and the gentle give of the shoreline.

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I forgot about the ocean’s power over me, incessant in its pull, waves demanding my attention as they pound and recede from the sand. About the scrape of sediment as it pushes between my toes and over the top of my foot, kicking up the back of my leg and forward, redistributing itself in barely visible sprinkles. About the chill that makes me inhale quickly, even if it’s only my feet that touch the water.

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It’s easy to forget when I’ve been away, when I’ve allowed the last 10 years of my life to take precedence over the first 20, when I’ve lost the strain of myself that used to give into the ocean constantly—that person I was before I became who I am. The one who fought through adolescent reveries and love and loss and confusion to trudge through a decade of pathways. The one who used to feel the ocean inside her blood as she stood and stared; the salt and wind would wrap her up, enveloping her in a sea of comfort that separated her from the longing or anger or angst that drove her to the shoreline for counseling.

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It’s easy to forget that when I left those coastal California counseling sessions, I used to be fearless. Fierce and determined to trail no one, to start fresh, to lay down the bricks that would build me a new path, to face my fears head on, to wrangle the unknown and force it to be what it was and not what I wanted it to be. To force myself to be who I was and not who I or anyone else thought I should be.

John Muir’s highway

Pulling up to the end of Rock Creek Road revealed an astounding vision of cars and people. Of course, there was also a gigantic stretch of mountains known as the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, but all the activity along the road was what I noticed first.

There were just so many humans.

Cars and SUVs lined the sides of the pavement and we played a game of chicken trying to figure out whether driver or pedestrian would bare themselves to take the right of way on the skinny one-way road.

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Cigarettes, crying children, and fishing poles about sums up that part of the Rock Creek experience. I felt claustrophobic, but my father convinced me to trek on and I quickly learned there’s a reason the Mosquito Flat trail is one of the most popular hikes on the east side. It’s short, easy crests and valleys pave the way into John Muir’s awe-inspiring (honestly) Wilderness.

Water is the first eye-popping feature, and it takes stage left, gaining beauty the further you journey up the trail. Rock Creek is flat at first, winding through a rocky meadow of green, and it starts to climb alongside the trail, stair-stepping up to a higher elevation. Over the initial rise is the first of an endless set of lakes that pool into one another as the creek meanders down from it’s mountainside birth.

We dropped down to the first lake, on the less-beaten path, and found a sweet spot, hidden from view. I hadn’t seen a sight like that since I left Montana.

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I found that even next to this highway filled with wilderness gawkers (like myself), I could sneak away from the blue, red, yellow, and brown that adorns people as they hike. The backpacks and plastic walking sticks, the boots and words, the dogs on or off leash. You can move into a feeling of solitude if you cut away from the stone-lined trail and follow the skinny path down through the grass. Around the lakes, between trees, behind the short hills and piles of rocks, along the meandering of slow water or the pounding of fast, you can sit still along the banks without the voices from another hammering your eardrum.

As I faced the sun, its slanted light pushed below a surface paved with glassy reflection, revealing the grays and browns of Rock Creek’s scummy bottom. Turning around, I watched as light forced the peaks to open up, above the brush-covered valley, pulling me into the pensive reality of perception. Grey boulders bearing the rusty red and neon green signs of age dried out above the water line. Teal blue water changed color with the shallow depth of a high Sierra, snow-fed lake. Green and yellow grasses blended into the soft, mucky water that hedges space between dry earth and creek.

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It was absolute in its power over me, quieting me into that place I love to be: If only to catch a moment in time that is unlike any other. It is what I discovered that brought me there, even though I walked the same path as the profound number of others who also found this place. We stained it, made the dusty sand of high, dry mountains wild with human footprints and chased away any sign of fear or animal that can surface while you’re alone.

It is here where I understood what it means to see, to feel the presence of everyone and everything, purely because everyone deserves to enjoy the beauty of a timeless reality, of something that words cannot do anything but fail, of a place that can only be captured with the deepest breath of life.

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Tufa forest

It was a strange smokey haze that greeted my father and I at Mono Lake. The foreign towers that jettisoned out of the water were of another world. A fantasy land of moon-like proportions, only there were also water and birds, rather than just weird, textured stone and mineral structures.

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My whole adult life I’ve dreamed of visiting Mono Lake. Travel magazine views I’ve had of the lake display something captivating and beautiful. From the visitors center on a hill overlooking the lake, I saw a dull reflection of what I wanted to see. Cloaked in smoke was something I’d thought about seeing over and over again. Inside the visitors center, Yosemite-trekkers and Labor Day campers were also disappointed.

A couple German travelers driving up from Los Angeles had no idea Yosemite was burning, and a park ranger had to tell them about the five hour detour they would have to take in order to see Half Dome. The same park ranger tried to explain to a lady how no open flame meant no fire of any kind, no propane stove, no charcoal, nothing.

With the Rim Fire burning more than 200,000 acres of land just a few miles northwest of where we were, I could understand the no flame thing, but damn, what a weekend for the world to burn. But as awful as it felt to my sinuses and my lungs, the smoke was growing on me. It seemed to fit with where we were, and on our five-mile drive southeast to the South Tufa reserve, my excitement came back to me.

Sagebrush, these bushes with tiny yellow flowers, and rolling hills surround the majority of the oldest lake in the United States, which incidentally has a higher salt content than the ocean. Along with the smoke that day came a threat of thunder, lightening, and rain. Humid electricity hung as we walked toward the lakes tufa-filled edge. The other side of the lake was obsolete, obscured by the grey smog that blocked any long-range visibility.

My dog started scaring off hikers as soon as we left the car, panting and pulling with an excitement I couldn’t handle. I forced him to wear his special nose harness, so he wouldn’t pull. He was still panting and pulling (but not as hard) and everyone thought he was one of those crazy pit bulls that takes chunks out of people. But he’s not, it was the lizards that got him riled up, darting in and out of the brush and hiding under tufa, teasing him, taunting him.

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Tufas have the texture of sand that got wet, then dried to a hard, course edge. They look like old cottage cheese castles, discolored by minerals and molded by gigantic clumsy hands. They were created by the natural springs that feed the lake. As they bubbled up underwater, minerals came together to form the towers of solidified rock.

My dad and I came to the realization that the only reason the full-length of the stone skyscrapers (it’s pretty much the high desert, so yeah, skyscrapers) are visible is because the water level of the lake has dropped so significantly over the years. From the sign that marked the high waterline of 1941, the shoreline looked to be about 40 yards away. If the waterline was where it used to be, only the tops of the tufa would have been visible above the lake.

Mono Lake is essentially a catch-all for snow melt coming out the Sierras to the west of the basin. Because the lake doesn’t have a natural outlet, evaporation is one of the only ways the lake’s water level decreases after spring’s warm temperatures fill it. However, the Los Angeles Municipal Water Authority thought the streams feeding the lake would be a perfect source of water for L.A. residents, so it started siphoning off fresh water before it hit the lake.

That was in the 1940s.

Here we are now, decades and many legal fights later, and water is no longer being diverted from the natural springs and streams. However, the lake level is still low and faces a long haul of depending on many BIG snow years. Mono Lake needs to rise another seven feet before it gets back to the state-mandated “normal” level. With this whole climate change thing, and the potential for a future full of low snow pack years, it could be a while.

It really is mind-numbing, what we think we can do without paying attention to future consequences. The mountain-fed streams were all but destroyed and are being rehabilitated. And who knows if that state-mandated tick mark is truly where the lake’s water should be, but reaching it could undo some of the environmental havoc we humans caused to this ancient lake over a relatively short period of time.

Should the lake rise, it would cover some of the boardwalks and trails visitors currently use to view the infamous South Tufa Reserve, but it would also mean a fuller, more pristine lake. It’s something I would like to see someday, when I come back. Or, I would at least like to come back and see those cool islands in the middle of the lake, which weren’t visible through the smoke that hung around over Labor Day weekend for my dad and I.

Next time I’m bringing a kayak.

Dad and dogs

Driving inspiration

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Sometimes all I need in life is a drive to put me where I belong. A drive to anywhere will usually do the trick. It’s like walking without the exercise, it gives me time to drift, piece through my memories, pull out what’s important, and match those up with my surroundings.

Take cows for instance.

Hundreds of heads poked out of their long fence, hanging wet noses and chomping mouths over a feed trough. Lined up like black and white soldiers, smelly and loud, fixed to their spot and their lots in life. Just there to feed us calcium and lactose in liquid, semi-solid, or solid form.

Happy cows don’t live in California, I don’t think,  I mean, I’ve never asked them, but I just can’t imagine a herd animal that’s normally a wandering grazer, could feel pleasant stuck in their own muck. So maybe the ones roaming around on the green, green grass at the edge of Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, are living fat off the land and probably feel pretty good about themselves, but I’d be surprised if the ones who live in the Central Valley feel the same way.

Their area is a heat-dosed, agricultural mecca that gets water shipped in from elsewhere. Corn, peas, alfalfa, carrots, whatever else. I don’t understand how we thought that would work and still do.

Did we think that the land was flat and the water from the north would last forever, as we diverted it, diverted it again, then again, and again, and again, until the rivers and lakes that they come from are no longer recognizable, can no longer refuel themselves naturally, or at least how they once did, because they are no longer themselves?

I don’t know, but it’s something to think about. As I rose out of the flatland and into the very first foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and the sun started to shoot out its setting colors over the alternating green and brown of fields, I couldn’t help but feel awe at being able to witness the event.

And shamelessly I pulled out my camera to feebly attempt to capture the colors I’ve never been able to capture, because that’s what we do. We try to keep it forever, when we know it will never be the same later as it is now, or that it’s damn near impossible to truly dam up the beauty of a sunset. It’s too wild. It’s too spontaneous. It’s too much of a moment.

Left to wonder, ponder, and inhale the sun’s pale brightness as it goes beyond the line of the west, thoughts are left to do the same. Potentially try to keep the moment by moving f-stops, angles, shutter speeds, and as my dear friend Steel used to say, “isos,” and the sun leaves quicker than you thought possible. It’s light and colors changed with every tick of the second-hand on my non-existent watch.

It was a learning experience I have constantly.

It was a reminder and an impetus to continue on, to feel ready to be wild and spontaneous too. And as I got my first and only honk and wave from a passing trucker who either thought I was a super-hottie or a crazy lady, off I went, over those foothills and south to the sharp u-turn that led a weary driver up the other side of the Sierras and into a new-to-me spot that pretty much made me not ever want to leave. And soon I will share what I can, because of course it’s only a snippet, with those of you who care to continue my journey with me.