Narratives about motorcycling on Northern California's back roads; Reflections on the history and geography of the North State; Memoirs and early recollections of youthful visits to towns and forests and mountaintops.
Also middle-of-the-road takes on current issues in politics and education. Middle of the road? Isn't that dangerous?
Cresting a pass in the Temblor Range, the vast expansive valley of a once-inland sea spread out before us. Miles off, the far ridge, dappled by a low early morning sun, displayed patches of bright and shadow. Breath-taking! The golden yellow swaths seemed almost neon – almost too intense to be an image created by early morning rays. And it was 10:00 AM, well past early morning. And it was slightly overcast.
Some of these pictures, I'll modestly suggest, are worth clicking on to expand.
My only previous visit to the Carrizo Plain National Monument came in a December a few years back. In the midst of California’s five-year drought, there’d yet to be much winter rain. The ground was dry and my interest bounced between the ridgelines and peaks of the Temblor Range to the east and the Caliente Range to the west; and the derelict farm implements, a rusting display of a short span of the plain’s history.
My gray-scale memories of the region beckoned me to return on a day like this one would be.
Here are a few shots that, frankly, fail to capture the explosive colors we would see this day…
Even before we made our way onto the Carrizo Plain, we found ourselves stopping along CA 58 to capture springtime scenes that in perhaps two more weeks would be gone.
At the junction of CA 58 and Seven Mile Road we hung a left, and then an immediate left onto Elkhorn Road. Elkhorn Road is named for the Elkhorn Scarp, a geologic feature created by movement along a faultline.
David Lynch’s Guide, referenced below, reminds us to stop at Wallace Creek where a hike up the hill takes us to active evidence of the San Andreas Fault. An interpretive sign illustrates the northwesterly movement of the Pacific Plate and its impact on the stream course of Wallace Creek.
The North American Plate is to the left in this frame which is shot from the Pacific Plate side. This fifty-yard section runs roughly north south. You can see where Wallace Creek comes in from the east.
Behind me, the creek takes another abrupt turn heading west toward the plain. This is as good a view of an offset creek caused by tectonic forces as can be found anywhere in the world.
We follow Elkhorn Road round a bend to find a landscape of hillsides painted in wildflowers.
Fast-forward to later in the day: This is a shot looking east toward the Elkhorn Scarp and the Temblor Range.
On this day, we saw little evidence of wildlife, although since the week-ago rains, more than a few little someones had darted across the area.
I’m glad the sandstone paw print turned out as well as it did. My prowess for close-ups of flowers with my new Panasonic leaves much to be desired.
I’m sure travel partners David and Carol were much more successful because they’re both much more patient with their cameras.
I did get lucky once or twice…
…and I did luck out with this little beetle. Many of his buddies could be found in and about burrows dug by unseen rodents.
Until I gain better command of the camera, I’ll need to be content with distant shots of carpeted lowlands…
At the south end of the scarp, we make a choice to climb over a ridge and descend onto the Carrizo Plain proper. Along the way a hazy view of the southern San Joaquin invites pause.
Heading north on Soda Lake Road, we are reminded of the ranching heritage that dates from the early 20thcentury…
…through early mechanized times.
Impressive is the gentle beauty of plain’s floor where in one section the flora will be of one sort and two hundred yards further on, something entirely different.
Makes me wish I knew more about botany.
The Carrizo Plain, bounded on the east by the Temblor Range, the west by the Caliente and the south by the Transverse, was once a great inland sea. Precipitation falling across the area would flow into a basin that had no natural outlet.
A boardwalk crosses the marsh, but we chose short climb to a lookout point where what’s left of that inland sea – Soda Lake – spread out before us.
Also, before us lay this swath of blue explored by a couple of fellow sojourners.
Too soon, we were on the road exiting this marvelous and relatively undiscovered corner of California. I left delighted that I’d made this return trip, thinking that I’ll need to come again, once I’ve figured out my camera.
Peterson Guides: We carried A Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers and Rocks and Minerals as well as a bird book but found that with so much to see and with so many stops to view both flowers and the fault zone, we rarely referenced them. Still, they were good to have along and it felt good to find a photo of some rusty colored sandstone that matched the bit I’d pinched between my fingers.
Today’s Route: From Buttonwillow on I-5 exit CA 58 west through McKittrick – lots of oil extraction in the area, but, curiously, NO GAS available – and over a pass in the Temblor Range toward California Valley. Left on Seven Mile Road (unpaved); almost immediate left on Elkhorn Road (also unpaved). Essentially on top of or near the fault, follow Elkhorn Road a distance we neglected to measure (nearly 30 miles) to a junction found just as you enter a mountainous region to the south. Bear right and climb steeply over the range making sure you pause for a grand view of the southern San Joaquin Valley before descending into the plain.
Turn right onto Soda Lake Road (mostly unpaved) and travel north-northwest to Seven Mile Road. Head east to complete the loop.
The atmospheric river having abated, several roads and trails in the area are closed as high-water damage is assessed. The bad news is that some nice paths along the river, while being checked out, are not open to the public. The good news is that some gnarly, windy area roads, while closed to vehicular traffic, are open for walkers. It being the first sunny day in recent memory, Edward and I decided to explore.
Big Sulphur Creek drains a deep canyon of clay and shale and limestone. Its confluence with the Russian is on the side opposite town. Tracing the creek’s south-facing slope, Geysers Road winds and rumbles through stretches paved and stretches gravel to the site of one of California’s largest geothermal power facilities. (I’ve driven Geysers Road only to discover that access to the power sites – rightfully – is restricted.)
We parked at the road closure only a few hundred yards up from the Alexander Valley. The barricade was passable for residents and workers of the area. A few steps on, I came to one of those photo-ops that I find irresistible: a shot of a road disappearing at a vanishing point or over a hill or around a bend – the quintessential Church of the Open Road image – at least to me.
Also enticing: The early wildflowers invited me to practice close ups. I call these blossoms “yellow flowers…”
…And this cluster “white ones.” (I’ll bet these are asters.)
I’m always amazed at the places folks feel the need to “mark.” I took this shot shortly after hiking companion Edward left his.
The road had certainly suffered some damage over the past month or so. There proved to be ample evidence of saturated clay and shale slumping onto the thoroughfare.
The ravage is understandable, however when one checks out the detritus carried by a raging Sulphur Creek that is hung up in this snag about sixteen feet above the current level of the stream. There was a lot of water – both in the sky and in the stream course – coming down for that forty-eight-hour period.
How high’s the water Mama? Five feet high and risin’.
– Johnny Cash
Go back to the first picture in this post and enlarge it by clicking on it. Note the patch-o-heaven residence with the green swath of lawn at the crook in the canyon. Now, compare to the shot of the snag. How high’s the water, indeed, Johnny?
The creek’s bank took its share of hits. Some small…
Some not so small. Check out the boulder stuck in the middle of this slide. Imagine that, sodden, it broke free from the top of the clay, shale and limestone dike that courses from the center right to the upper center of this frame. If no one was there when it came down, did it make a sound?
Scenes like like what Edward and I were walking through happened throughout Sonoma County and neighboring environs last week. Homes were flooded or knocked off their foundations. Trees felled. Roads blocked that may remain blocked for months. That which happened on Geysers Road is small potatoes compared to occurrences forty miles down the Russian. Still, it was exhilarating to place a few temporary footsteps and paw prints on a rearranged topography this day.
Mayor Bagby and I spoke in passing the other day. She told about the water over-topping the levee on the town-side of the Russian River, swamping two fresh water wells and raising concerns at our water treatment plant. Here’s what happened:
The Russian River was flowing mightily through its established channel as it approached the confluence with Big Sulphur Creek. Big Sulphur Creek, running high and mighty itself – remember the snag? – undercut and washed down large volumes of clay, limestone and gravel. When the creek’s burden ran into the rushing Russian, much of it was deposited in an alluvial arc that spanned the river’s normal channel. The path of least resistance for the Russian was to edge the flow to the west side of the channel and its associated bank. There, the churning waters easily ate away at the human-conceived embankment inundating the water facilities and, downstream, our little airport.
To recap: The Church of the Open Road has been kicked out of the house while Mrs. Church of the Open Road enjoys an annual reunion with former teaching colleagues. The following recounts day two of exile.
I’d learned that evidence to the conflict between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate could be seen opposite the run-aground fishing vessel behind the Inverness Store.
The black wedge on the opposite Tomales Bay shoreline to the left of the boat is an uplifted marine terrace near the trace of the San Andreas fault. Eureka!
I also learned that the Salinian Granite found near Tomales Point is unlike any rock found on the other side of the bay; but it is geo-genetically (my word, not that of a geologist of any repute) geo-genetically identical to the granite found on the eastern side of the fault down in the Salinas Valley some 140 miles away. At movement the speed of fingernail growth, how long did that take? And – some food for future thought – how long before Los Angeles, California on the Pacific Plate will pull alongside San Francisco which is on the North American? And will the two rival cities be able to work out their differences before that happens?
The Tomales Point Trail is groomed for three miles. The 1.7 mile to the actual point is not maintained.
I wouldn’t make it that far this day. Cool temperatures – 45 degrees, according to the Subaru, high winds – 35 to 40 mph sayeth the weatherman on channel 5, intermittent rain and slicing hail along with a gimpy knee would curtail my expedition at about mile 2.5.
For moments the air was clear and sunny, but the distant clouds were foreboding and racing this way.
I wanted to get as far as the Tule Elk Reserve…
…and I did.
Then I wanted to get as far as a view of the mouth of Tomales Bay.
Did that, too. Across the opening a sand spit led to the little community of Dillon Beach, a place I would later visit to catch a view back this way.
Back-tracking, the wind picked up and birdshot sized hail pelted. The circumstance didn’t seem to bother one young bull.
And, as quickly as the squall roared in, it passed. The view to north looked almost the same as it had two hours before.
The trailhead parking area is shared by the historic Pierce Ranch complex. The lush pasturelands of the Point Reyes Seashore have long been held by ranching and dairy interests.
From a distance it’s all quite bucolic.
Pierce Ranch no longer operates, but the National Park Service has maintained the site in a state of arrested decay.
Barns and bunks, implements and even a school house are there to wander by and imagine what life might have been like before so much pavement and progress.
A raven stands guard as I tour the grounds. Hitchcock’s Bodega, I remind myself, is only ten or twelve miles distant the way the crow flies; and this was a pretty good-sized crow.
A primitive hinge caught my attention – simply a two-by-eight (or so) bored through with a hole large enough to accept the whittle stub of a gate swing. The bottom of the gate swing would be stuck in the ground to rot and then be replaced.
Soon it became economically feasible to build a blacksmith shop for this and other ranching necessities.
Tomales Bay State Park (fee required, unlike the rest of the area) shares a small portion of the region. Sections are on both sides of the bay, therefore both sides of the rift zone.
The peninsular portion includes a nice beach where kayaks can be rented, and a well-appointed nature trail recalling the living arrangements of the Coastal Miwok.
The half-mile path leads under this rather gangly looking coastal life oak…
…and out to a semi-remote beach…
…where replica Miwok bark huts which appear quite similar to those found in the Sierra around Pinecrest Lake (Tuolumne County).
A Great Egret (yellow bill, black legs – as opposed to a Snowy Egret: black bill, yellow/black legs) poses in the creek.
The morning of the third day, I was called to return from exile. Along the way, I wheel into the coast village Dillon Beach to get a view or two of Tomales Point from the North American plate.
From a bit greater distance, the spring grasses catching the mid-morning sun show the graceful lay of the land across the inlet.
And from Bodega Head, perhaps a dozen miles further north, I stand on the “furthest north existence of Salinian Granite” and snap a farewell photo of the San Andreas Rift Zone as it is found in Marin County.
The adventure has been a good one. If not actually experiencing – but, at least, imagining – the dynamics of a continually evolving landscape helps place me in time. I come away with a deeper appreciation for the beauty of our coastal environment and the science that helps us to understand.
And I look forward to Mrs. C.O.T.O.R’s next “girl’s weekend.”