A guest post I wrote for my friend Molly Samuel’s California’s Islands blog:
The image of an island that we carry around in our heads was probably formed somewhere around second grade: a crayon-sketched lump of yellow sand in a sea of cornflower blue. Perhaps the little mound is topped with two cartoonish palm trees slouching under the weight of bowling ball-sized coconuts.
As Molly Samuel has been chronicling here on California’s Islands, however, the term “island” is not monolithic. Some islands are indeed surrounded by water. Others are not. Palm trees are hardly requisite. The essential ingredient for an island, it turns out, is isolation. Isolation can result from vast distances, rapid shifts in elevation (and the attendant changes in temperature and precipitation), or impassable geographical boundaries such as swift rivers, wide lakes or ragged mountain ranges.
Aside from the Galapagos and its menagerie of highly adapted creatures, biology teachers often use the story of the Kaibab squirrel to illustrate the evolutionary power of islands. The Kaibab squirrel is a tufted-eared rodent that lives only in the Ponderosa pine forests on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. This is its island. The forests of the north rim are cut off from other forests of the southwest by a sea of high desert and a mile deep canyon. Another species, the Abert’s squirrel, makes its home on the Grand Canyon’s south rim and is a close relative of the Kaibab. It just so happens that the Abert’s and the Kaibab were once a single species. But the squirrels diverged over millions of years, forming distinct subspecies as the Colorado River cut the gorge and drove an evolutionary wedge between them.
The Carrizo Plain – a rift valley in Central California containing the state’s largest parcel of intact native grassland – is an island of a different sort. At 400 square miles (the five boroughs of New York cover 300 square miles), it is an islet of native biodiversity in an ocean of altered landscapes.
The Carrizo’s island-ness is not the result of any one of the factors mentioned before. Yes, the Carrizo is dry, receiving a mere nine inches of rain per year, and its soils are alkaline and poor. But aridity and inhospitable soil alone cannot fully explain the Carrizo’s isolation.
The Carrizo is an island because it lies off the heavily trod path of daily commerce and, more importantly, out of the loop of the state’s extensive water engineering system, which has brought agriculture and urban development to many of California’s dry places.
Geographically, the Carrizo is isolated just enough. You can get there by car, but you’ve got to work a little to do it. The best route is Highway 58, a two-lane road that runs between flyspecks, connecting the San Joaquin Valley oil town of McKittrick and the wine country hamlet of Santa Margarita. The Carrizo is not prohibitively far from major cities. It’s only an hour-and-a-half from Bakersfield and three hours from Los Angeles. But it is a straight shot from neither. Nor does the plain’s flat terrain equate to rapid passage. Highway 58 is a shortcut to nowhere.
Highway 58 is dramatic, but not in the same way as Tioga Pass is dramatic – with its ascent through pine forested mountain valleys and over high alpine summits. Really, 58 possesses none of the usual hallmarks of California’s “great” drives: yawning alpine or ocean panoramas, say, or high exposed positions on serrated peaks, or large crowds milling listlessly at designated viewing areas.
Highway 58’s drama comes from its emptiness, its overriding beiges and grays, its vast and unobstructed sightlines – all rare commodities in a state whose population is rapidly approaching 40 million. I’ve never traveled to the arid, empty ranchlands of West Texas immortalized in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, but I can sometimes hear the author’s words echoing when I’m wandering alone out here. “Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat,” and so on . . .
While a sense of abandonment seems to dwell on these dusty flats, enough people arrive at the Carrizo annually to keep it in the public consciousness as a place worthy of protection. To the chagrin of oil companies that still own hundreds of acres of mineral rights here, President Bill Clinton declared it a national monument before leaving office in 2001.
Reportedly, a few years back, the Carrizo Plain was even short-listed as a United Nations World Heritage Site, a distinction that has been bestowed on only two other sites in California: Yosemite and Redwood National Park. Among such company, the Carrizo Plain would have surely become a “destination” for travelers who base their vacation choices on officially sanctioned lists. But it’s probably better that it was left off. I’m not sure how legions of vacationers expecting “big” things of their natural places – 300-foot trees or 2000-foot sheer granite cliffs, for example – would have reckoned with the valley’s big emptiness.
Today, you’ll find mostly earth science students and seismologists there, along with leather-skinned ranchers and intrepid hikers seeking stray cattle or blistering solitude. Perhaps the Carrizo Plain is best described as an island sheltered from the tides of human habit.
From Santa Margarita, Highway 58 winds through oak-forested hills before entering a fold in the valley. Once on the plain, the road runs arrow straight over the veldt. The road passes through the invisible town of Simmler, nudging close to the Temblor Range whose sweeping ridges and smooth shoulders run along the northeast side of the valley.
Just beyond one lazy curve, a small lump appears in the pavement. At 65 miles per hour it looks about as threatening as a gumdrop tucked under the asphalt. On my first drive I decided not to tap the break and crested the little roller at top speed, confident that the flatness of the terrain to that point meant more flatness beyond. Instead I encountered a drop of 15 or 20 feet. The front tires levitated a little, and a groan of metal emanated from the suspension as the auto lurched – Dukes of Hazzard-style – over the rise and into the depression. The bottom of the trough was covered with the hieroglyphics of scraping axles, transmissions and exhaust pipes. Before touching down, a vista opened ahead – a stretch of roadway undulating like a sine wave.
I wondered who on earth would have engineered a road like this. And then I remembered: the San Andreas Fault. This stretch of highway runs over land that has been bunched up like a hallway runner by the steady movement of the San Andreas, which is sliding parallel to the roadway at a clip of a centimeter or two per year.
On the half dozen or so times I’ve driven this section, it has been common to go 20 or 30 miles without encountering another car. I have straddled the yellow center stripe for five minutes at a time, the zap of my camera shutter breaking the silence as clouds crested the treeless slopes of the Temblors and dust devils whirled against the silhouettes of the Caliente Range on the valley’s southern edge.
The Carrizo Plain does not always feel like an abandoned atoll. For a few weeks each spring, in fact, it becomes a destination. It is then when an explosion of blooms transforms the sere plain into a desert flower show.
I attended that show last April with my parents, who live nearby in the town of Paso Robles. The hillsides whose arid blankness I had pondered months earlier had become a canvas of yellows, golds, oranges and purples. The Carrizo bloom is such a sought after spectacle that several “Wildflower hotline” web pages have been set up, providing day-to-day updates on which of the valley’s flowers are coming into color.
On that bright April day we came into the Carrizo from the opposite side of the Valley, from the San Joaquin Valley oil town of Maricopa, over a rough, rutted track called the Elkhorn Grade. Tiny yellow flowers spilled down into the steep-sided valleys.
The road brought us into the more remote southern end of the valley. The fine flour of the unimproved road ran out behind us like a jet contrail. We saw no more than five or six cars in a twenty-mile stretch of the lower valley. At one spot, I waded out into a meadow of unbroken orange. The blooms, called fiddleheads, were aptly named, covered with arches of small bell-shaped flowers which stood waist high and tickled the backs of my hands.
We eventually picked up small crowds along the shores of Soda Lake, near the park’s entrance. There we parked and walked a faint trail along the dry lakebed. Wildflowers of a dozen varieties carpeted the salt-encrusted soil. (Later that night, over a glass of Central Coast tempranillo, my mom and I Googled them. “YELLOW-FLOWER-CARRIZO.” We compiled the following list: purple asters, yellow pincushions, goldfields, wooly threads, fireweed, lupine, shooting stars, California poppy, tidy tips.)
As we ventured toward the park’s exit, we encountered dozens of visitors soaking up the final hour of sun and blossoms. The light went from gold to pink, and for a few minutes before the sun dropped fully behind the Caliente Mountains, the ground seemed to glow. Some hunched over expensive looking cameras set atop sturdy tripods. Others sat in folding chairs at the road’s edge, beers tucked snugly into vinyl armrests, flowers lapping at their feet like ocean waves.
-Photos and text by Jeremy Miller