Beautiful Nowhere Place

April Great Story by Ayelet Zamek, 2018-19 Central Coast Water Fellow

Yellow. Orange. Another kind of orange. After a wet winter, driving down Highway 58 in April turns into an elementary-style exercise in knowing one’s colors. Purple. Blue. More yellow. 

Even the most responsible divers, AAA cards tucked in the sun visor, would be distracted by the vibrancy of the hills, gone from gold to green to technicolor. We form an impromptu caravan of flower thrill-seekers, Teslas and pickup trucks with rusted gates both among the throng. Periodically throughout the drive, the road opens up into a valley soft with blooms and traffic slows to crawl, a beauteous form of rubbernecking, which no one minds.

We stop with the others off Shell Creek Road in the vicinity of Creston. The ownership of this patch of open space is not quite clear. Remnants of farm equipment dot the landscape. A shed of some sort. A windmill. A water tank rife with bullet holes. A cement trough-cum-koi pond. Abba rests a foot against a raised pipe running along the dirt road and assumes it is Bureau of Land Management. 

Whosoever owns the land, it has erupted in brilliant color. The small valley is thick with an eye-searing yellow that thins, but does not dissipate, as it extends towards the hills and trees. Cars line both sides of the road, but the passengers creeping through the fields are quiet. The only noise is the repetitive creak of the windmill and the faint rustle of the flowers. I catch myself noting that for the first time, I am truly experiencing the oft-used simile. “When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress.”

We take a moment to admire the blooms from a distance, or maybe simply to allow time for our eyes to adjust to the brightness, as if we stepped out of a dark room. Once our eyes have ceased watering, we step over the boundary pipe and find ourselves in more beautiful a garden than could be consciously planted. We follow afore-traced paths deeper into the field. Our steps are stiff, our feet placed one directly in front of the other to minimize the damage our visitation wrings. We know of the poppy fields trampled flat by unconscious feet farther south.

In their midst, the mass of yellow fragments to reveal individual flowers. New colors, shapes, and textures emerge. Fuschia, growing in tufts like thistle. Flowers with edges rimmed in white like carnations dyed in reverse. Small, hard bursts of gold. California poppies, their neon orange color at odds with their dainty petals. Little blue ones. Little white ones.

Texas bluebonnet? In retrospect, the purplish cone-shaped flower could not be the same blue emblem of the Hill Country, but still another type of lupine–beautiful and toxic and completely Californian. No matter. Identifying the many species of wildflower forming the “super bloom” phenomenon that has packed so many little towns, was never the objective. We are comfortable in our ignorance and delight. 

Our next stop, following our caravan further east almost to Kern County, is Carrizo Plain National Monument. The wildflowers have taken root here too. Certain of the flowers spotted at Shell Creek Road, which I now know to be California goldfield, have consumed the valleys and hills by Soda Lake. While there are more visitors here, the expansiveness of the area belies any sense of crowdedness. Narrow paths lead a few feet into the flowers, curve in on themselves, and meet abrupt ends creating the illusion of Dorothy in the poppy fields in photographs.

Returning to Carrizo three weeks later, the super bloom had faded. The goldfield was less vibrant, but grown taller, scraping dryly against my knees, stickers caught in the tight weave of my leggings. Soon, the increasing heat would cause them to disappear entirely.

Without the flowers to distract me, my attention turns to other wonders.The largest remaining native grassland in California, Carrizo Plain is described fittingly as “a land by-passed by time.” Modernity, in the form of SUVs and portable toilets, bears no weight against the natural landscape, vast and primordial. A mineral-rich crust forms around the edges of Soda Lake, baked in the shadeless sun, tempting visitors to stray off the boardwalk. Two steps, maybe three, before the crust breaks, and the thick mud sucks down unsuspecting feet. From the overlook, after freeing oneself from the muck, one can see the San Andreas fault line in the near distance. 

Elsewhere on the Plain, we drive up and up a pitted dirt road to a crest of hills, following no signs and no cars. It is unclear if there is level area to turn around. An older couple trudging up the path, their spindly walking sticks glinting in the sun, encourages us to stop. It’s a long way to go backwards, the man jokes, almost as if he wants to see us try. We find some level ground and pull over to walk, legs deadened by the long drive. A few minutes we later, we find the actual trailhead. Parking available. 

A small campsite is tucked between some scrabbly trees. I am jealous of the person who slept there last night, who had the fortune to witness the sun rise up on over the hills with their whispering grasses and quick-moving lizards. My jealousy lessens when one of us almost steps on a snake in bare feet.

Many animals call the Carrizo Plain, with its blending of desert and grassland with mountain shrub lands and woodlands, home. Animals I associate with desert, rattlesnakes and cottontails, commingling with animals I associate with the plains, pronghorn and badgers. The omnipresent coyote, of course. Many types of birds: long-billed curlews, American avocets, meadowlarks, northern harriers, short-eared owls, long-eared owls, ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, prairie falcons, golden eagles. Animals for whom the Carrizo is one of the last refuges: the San Joaquin kit fox, San Joaquin antelope squirrel, burrowing owl, giant kangaroo rat, and blunt-nosed leopard lizard. A Californian bestiary more felt than seen.

Time touches the super bloom and the Plain differently. The super bloom is brought about by time, when months of winter rain give way to warm, sunny days, and fades in time. Carrizo Plain is “by-passed by time,” a land seemingly unchanged from the wild “then” to the confined “now.” However, this dichotomy of time, ephemerality and permanence, is a faulty modus of understanding these feats of nature. This season marked the second super bloom in three years, bucking the one-a-decade average, causing one to think of the change humankind has wrought on the climate. A version of time immemorial, with the notable absence of the Chumash, Salinan, and Yokut peoples that called this area home, has been recreated at Carrizo Plain by the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Nature Conservancy, through their reintroduction of species and management actions. Still, at any time, the monument could be opened for exploitation. The permanence of Carrizo Plain is not a given.

The bloom has faded; I am back at my desk breathing in the stale air of an office suite, but the memory is fresh. Reading Dune on a lunch break, I see the words “kit fox” and “kangaroo rat,” and for a moment the desert planet Arrakis becomes Carrizo Plain. Try as I might to describe in words pretty and practical, I cannot hope to convey the extent of the feelings the super bloom and Carrizo Plain generated in me by the extremity of their existence, the super bloom with its vibrancy and the Carrizo Plain with its expanse. Although Carrizo Plain is not the flashiest of Monuments and attracts few visitors outside its sphere of influence, I know where I will go when I tire of the everyday and feel the familiar tug of silence in a beautiful nowhere place.