Some places are best discovered on their own terms, and perhaps they are most rewarding when you travel alone. The Carrizo Plain National Monument, three hours north of Los Angeles, is surely one of these places. Guide books and the Internet will guide you to the Soda Lake Overlook, and to the spectacular offset on the San Andreas Fault at Wallace Creek. You will be advised on how to visit the pictographs at Painted Rock, and in years of winter rain, the Theodore Paine Hotline will advertise the spectacular wildflower displays that follow. Instead of these, let me tell you of other magic, less known, that I have found in the hills and along the backroads.
On the west side, the Caliente Range runs along nearly the full length of the Monument. Roads into these hills are dirt; many are steep; some are badly eroded. They are not for your sports car. To travel these routes you will need reasonably high clearance, and in some places you may need four-wheel drive. Above all, you need good judgement. But don’t be deterred. It is along these roads and off them that the best of the Carrizo is to be found.
Along Soda Lake Road — the principal route through the Monument — you will see a sign indicating a road to Quail Springs. Once you begin this journey there are no more signs to guide you. If you make a wrong turn, springtime will find you wandering in valleys of flowers, and autumn will show you an entirely different, stark beauty. You will pass old rusting farm machinery, abandoned in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Beside one of the hills is a collapsing adobe structure looking out over a small meadow. The history of this building is entirely unknown. except that the word “Sinaloa” has been carved into the bark of a nearby tree. From another of these hills, you will look across lower valleys, see a few buildings in the middle ground, look down on the main road that you left half an hour before. Who would have seen all this from the pavement?
Another of these roads on the west will lead you to Wells Ranch. This is not a secret place. It is marked on some maps, but it has few visitors with the exception of rodents from the fields and some owls in a nearby nest. There is an old house which is nearly falling down. A shed lies several yards away, and various pieces of farm equipment lie about, trash now, but once useful. Windows have no glass, the roof is little more than a frame, wallboard is crumbling, and doorways are only holes in the walls. You must wonder how these people lived in isolation here, and what they felt when the time came to give up and leave.
Farther south, a small gravesite stands on a low hill. Inside a low iron fence are three graves. The headstone of one reads, “Mary Morris, 1833 - 1896.” At the age of 55, she, her husband, and four children had arrived for a new life at the south end of the Carrizo Plain. Back in Texas, ten children had already died, and she never again saw the other three who stayed behind. For the next eight years, Morris lived in a dirt-floor cabin not far from the gravesite. She never left the Carrizo Plain. Several differing accounts of her death have been given, but perhaps it is better that we don’t know for certain. On this hilltop above Soda Lake Road and surrounded by the drying grasses, Morris has earned her quiet and our respect.
In the open center of the Plain, there is an abandoned homestead site, owned and farmed from 1940 through 1970 by a family named Van Matre. Here, several buildings are crumbling slowly, and nearby are three wooden-sided harvesters. The machines are collapsing and parts are missing, but it is possible to see how the cutting bar worked, where the cut grain was carried into the thresher itself, and where the blades and fans separated straw and chaff from the grain itself. Dryland farmers planted wheat in late autumn and depended upon the winter rains to bring it to harvest in the following summer. It is difficult to imagine this work with temperatures over 100 degrees, with dust everywhere, and with days of 12 hours minimum. Standing alone among these ghosts takes you to an earlier time and way of life that is now gone.
My special and personal memories of the Carrizo Plain are found far from the traveled roads.
A small group of pronghorn antelope were returned to the Plain in the 1970s. These do not jump fences, but rather, they attempt to scramble underneath. To help the antelope move faster, particularly when they are stressed by predators or by automobile traffic on the roads, volunteer groups have been removing and modifying barbed wire from fencing that is no longer needed.
Once, I returned to a particular section of barbed wire where I had recently worked. This was a particularly remote and perhaps lonely part of the Monument to the north of the Visitor Center and beyond Soda Lake. My car stayed behind, and I worked alone. With a bolt cutter, wires are first released from the poles. The fallen wire is then rolled into coils to be picked up later. Where metal poles had corroded in the saline soil, I pushed them over. Other poles that were stronger had to stay.
It was a warm afternoon in late October. Dust devils rose above Soda Lake, and Meadowlarks sang from the tops of nearby saltbrush. Beside one fence pole, I found a piece of a coyote skull, and a bit farther on, the outer covering of an antelope horn lay on the ground. Earlier, the sun had been bright, but later in the afternoon dark clouds spread across the sky. Briefly a wind came up, and few, large raindrops scattered. The storm passed quickly, and a setting sun broke through the clouds to the west. A few poles stood in a long line across the open country, and wire coils lay along the nearby road. It was time for me to walk back to my car and return to the city.
Open land and solitude are becoming more and more difficult to find in our modern world. It is perhaps a blessing that a place such as the Carrizo Plain National Monument exists only three hours north and west of Los Angeles. It is not a park with a list of destinations to visit; rather, it is a place to be discovered and met on its own terms. Not everyone will feel this call, but it would be folly if we were to destroy all such places. The old roads and trails are more than tracks across the land. As you follow them, they will become a part of you as well.