Monday, April 11, 2005


The Road to Nowhere

Okay, remember how I wrote that we looked at a number of websites devoted to spotting wildflowers? Well, one of the better looking ones, the Desert Wildflower Watch, in their Southern California section, had a picture posted on April 4 that was absolutely stunning. This was exactly what I was looking for to photograph. When I couldn't sleep Sunday night, I started looking through the websites (I had printed them out before we left) and thought I'd try to see how close this spot was to where we were. It was listed as being near the Carrizo Plain but I couldn't find any information about where that was at first.

Turns out it's just over the border from where we were in Kern County into San Luis Obispo County to our west and it appeared that we'd go right past it as we headed back north on Interstate 5. When I say appeared, I couldn't say for sure because our AAA map ended just before the pertinent data I needed to say for sure where and how far away it was. Monday morning, before we headed to the Reserve, we stopped by the local AAA office and got a map that included the area we needed. Then I put it in the car and off we went for the day.

After we were done in the Lancaster area, we headed north. This was around 2:30 or 3 p.m. Somewhere in that range. We were making good time. We talked about trying to find the valley in the picture and discussed whether or not we should do so. At this point, I still had not looked at the map but I was also getting sleepy. All I knew for sure was that we needed to take the Buttonwillow exit off of Interstate 5 and take Route 58 west toward the Carrizo Plain.

Sarah happily consented to drive after we made a pit stop in Buttonwillow since my lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me. We used the bathrooms, ate a little and filled up the car, a decision which we'd later be extremely pleased we'd made. I even got Porter some ice cream as a treat for doing so well on the road trip (he kept saying, "good job, road trip" throughout the two days we were driving). That decision, it turned out later, was not a good one although in my defense there were mitigating circumstances.

So I crawled in the back with Sarah at the wheel as we headed into the setting sun along Route 58 west. And now, for the first time, I took a good look at the map. It appeared that it was about 42 miles until we would turn off of Route 58 and onto Elkhorn Road. From Elkhorn, I knew it was nine miles, but beyond that I wasn't sure. I echoed my concerns immediately saying that "I despaired that it was farther than I orginally thought" and offered that we could consider abandoning the side trip if we wanted to. We passed a sign that declared rather ominously, "No Gas for the Next 70 Miles." Sarah, who much later admitted that she believed it wasn't very far off of the interstate, was now on a mission.

The road out of Buttonwillow was steep and very windy in parts. At the summit, we were over 3,200 feet above sea level. And the road just kept on going. At one point, just after the summit, the road opened up into a valley where cows lazily grazed and we shot the last picture in the last post from the side of the road. We parked next to another photographer who had also stopped to shoot the picturesque hillside of purple and yellow. She was the last human being that we'd see for many hours.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally found Elkhorn Road. We almost missed it because we actually had to turn onto the imaginatively named 7-mile Road first and turn left onto Elkhorn Road after a few hundred yards. Though, to be fair, calling Elkhorn a road is far grander than it deserves. It may have been paved at one time, but the ravages of time and neglect have made it little better than a dirt and gravel path cutting a swath parallel to the hills to the east on what must have been the north end of the Carrizo Plain. To say the area was remote is to engage in gross understatement. I've been on stretchs of the Appalachian Trail less remote than this. There were signs of human activity, of course. Fences were there, partitioning the grazing land and the ocassional cattle gate greeted us with momentary vibrations. An abandoned car and RV dotted the landscape. And there were the cows.

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Along the road to nowhere.

We watched the odometer spin as the nine miles bounced by, with still nothing to see. We were defintely on a plain, with mountains to our east and west and pretty much nothing in between. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see dinosaurs in this lost world. We passed the nine mile marker but still didn't see the steep road off to the left beyind a cattle gate we were promised at mile nine. In between mile 10 and 11, we came upon it amidst a number of obstinate cows who were blocking our path. Luckily, they ambled out of our way as we drove up to the last partially flat spot where turning around wouldn't entail the possibility of ending up on the news, the object lesson in a rescue effort. I'm not sure when we lost cellphone service, but were keenly aware that we were on our own now.

Sarah, who at this point seemed very determined to reach our destination went on a reconnaissance mission to see if the car could make it up the steep incline. She disappeared over the horizon and was gone for what seemed like a long time before we watched her slip back down the slope, breaking her Tevas in the process. The report came back that no, we could only continue on foot. There were skid marks where previous cars had attempted the slope and it's not like we had an all-terrain jeep or something like that. We had a station wagon. With kids in it. No way were driving up the mountain.

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Sarah, just before she disappeared over the horizon
(she's that white speck at the top of the hill).

After she came back down, I went up, not wanting to have the effort come completely to naught. The altitude was very noticeable, and I was breathing heavily as I crested the spot where Sarah had disappeared. Thinking, or perhaps hoping, that I'd see the valley that had become our Grail once over the crest I was quite disappointed to discover that there were three more summits to be climbed that I could see, and perhaps even more, who knows. Well, Frank's post in the Wildflower Watch estimated that the distance to the summit from the gate was half a mile, at least half of which we'd already driven, meaning it should have been only a quarter of a mile walk to the top. Well, I don't know Frank and he may be the nicest person on the planet, but he doesn't know shit about estimating distances. That much I know for sure. Of course being 46 and out-of-shape may also have been an impediment, but either way, there was no way I was going to make it up to the top and back again and live. Man, but this just felt so remote. It was weird.

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This is as far as I got, looking back down the hill from the second summit.

Also, we could tell that the wildflowers that had been at their peak the week before, when Frank had taken his now legendary photo, had packed up for the year. There were some yellow and white clusters of wildflowers but nothing like the profusion that had been there the previous weekend. And that's just the nature of the beast.

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Coming back down the hill with the last remants of sunlight illuminating what remained of this season's wildflowers.

We got back in the car, a little disappointed but still excited by the adventure of it all, and headed back Elkhorn Road. The cows were again blocking our path but this time seemed determined to stand their ground. Sarah laid on the horn and, happily, they scattered. We were beginning to lose the light but made it back to paved road before darkness enveloped the area. It would still be another hour before we actually saw another human being. We saw lots of evidence of people there (houses, roads, fences, etc.) but we had no actual sightings for quite awhile. We continued west because it seemed shorter than backtracking and picked up Highway 101 in Santa Margarita, a little north of San Luis Obispo. The road was still winding a lot and Porter barfed all over himself and we had to pull over and clean him up. Sure, the ice cream was a factor but the two peanut butter and jelly sanwiches that Sarah gave him didn't help, either. By this time it was dark and a sliver of a moon was high in the sky. We may not have found our quarry, but the adventure was the thing and I think Sarah and I both caught the wildflower bug this weekend. Next time, though, we'll need a different car.

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