a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
When I first moved to California, Christmas seemed out of place. Sacramento is known as the City of Trees – very likely, it’s not the only city in the United States with that moniker – but although you can grow a variety of trees here, from palms to redwoods, firs are not one of them. It is not atypical for Christmas lights to be strung around citrus instead: grapefruit, say, the large golden orbs like a kind of decoration in itself, but also lemons, oranges. I had a garden with two gnarly lemon trees and one blood orange, once upon a time, and my husband and I strung our lights around the trees for frost protection, rather than festivities. It’s possible, even at an altitude of 28 feet above sea level, for temperatures to dip to freezing a few nights a year.
I find Southern California even stranger at Christmas, at least along the coast, where the palms are abundant, rather than occasional, and complemented by such dashing exotics as Peruvian pepper trees, jacarandas, with their flagrant purple blooms, and silk tassels (which look, when they’re flowering, like the trees are throwing a party). Of course, all ideas of place are shaped by perception and perspective; I spent the first twenty-two years of my life in northeastern Pennsylvania, where firs abound and White Christmases are commonplace, which is why the California Christmas, such as I’ve experienced, seemed so strange to me. I’ve never made it up to Tahoe for the holidays, which I’m sure would have felt more familiar. I’ve gone to Death Valley four separate times, but Christmas, deep in the Mojave, deserves a narrative all to itself. This year, I decided to take a shorter trip. I stuff my car with camping gear, a load of firewood from last winter’s foraging, and drive to Pinnacles National Park.
Have you ever heard of Pinnacles? At 26,000 acres, it’s small for a national park, although when you’re on the High Peaks Trail, with a 360-degree view, and can’t see a single sign of civilization, aside from a few picnic areas and park outbuildings, it certainly feels wild enough. The Salinas Valley, which has probably served as your salad bowl, at one time or another, lies west of the park; the long disruption of the San Andreas Fault is only several miles east, which makes Pinnacles part of The Ring of Fire, that tempestuous zone of earthquake and volcanic activity that arcs around the Pacific. The actual pinnacles for which the park is named – a rusty orange clutch of oblong rocks – are the eroded remains of an ancient volcanic field. The trails that lead to them provide great views, and I am going for them, and for time spent in the chaparral, and the rare chance of a condor sighting, more than for the rocks, intriguing as they are. And, I suppose, because the park allows for easy winter camping: full sun, most days, and nights that don’t fall below freezing.
My original campsite is quite possibly the crummiest in the entire campground: on a steep hill and right next to the road. I chose it because, according to the website, it was the lone “tent only” site in the park. When I complain to the woman at the campground store, she tells me not to worry, I can move anywhere. The campground isn’t even half full. And oh by the way, the rangers have all gone home and probably won’t be returning until after the holidays, so Merry Christmas!
“The rangers have all gone home?” I look past the woman to the ranger station: dark and empty.
“Because of the government? The shut down?”
I had just saved eighty dollars – a gift I wasn’t expecting. Still, I felt disappointed about the closure; I would have enjoyed talking to the rangers, getting the latest info on wildlife sightings, buying a regional field guide. My new site is relatively private, surrounded with active vegetation. A coast live oak showers my jeep with acorns. The coyote brush just beyond my tent is poised to fill the air – and stick my sweater – with the fluffy white pappus carrying its seed. To the south, a rolling ridgeline. Already I see birds, ravens or turkey vultures, circling on the updrafts. Even from this distance, and without my binoculars, I can tell they’re too small to be condors.
That night, I don’t put the rain fly on my tent. I love sleeping with just a thin skin of mesh between me and the outdoors. I can see stars through the tent, the moon behind my eyelids. Often, I wake earlier if I sleep like this, but not the following morning. The cold had me turtling in my sleeping bag, oblivious to the dawn. As I hurry to make coffee, a California thrasher perches on a nearby branch. I’ve seen this bird before, its lovely down-curved beak is unforgettable, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard its sunrise song, as uplifting and complicated as that of any wren.
A light snacky breakfast, more coffee, my morning ablutions, and I don’t get to the trailhead until eleven, much later than I planned. The bright sun sways me against rain pants and an extra shirt, but I pack a sweater, jacket, sunhat and gloves, three liters of water (two of them unnecessary), a headlamp and extra batteries, and food staples: energy bars, chocolate and cheese.
The Old Pinnacles Trail starts off sandy and low. I cross a bridge, turn right and start scrambling up the High Peaks Trail, which in a few minutes carries me deep into chaparral.
I’d never heard that word before I moved to Sacramento. It’s mostly a California thing, a bioregion characterized by hot dry summers, mild wet winters, and wildfire. Shrubs that thrive here have leathery, aromatic leaves. The word is Spanish in origin – chaparro – and means either evergreen oak or dwarf evergreen oak. From far away, the chaparral has a soft, rounded look, but up close there are a lot of sharp edges: serrated leaves; spiny branches. I wind my way up the trail, gazing at old familiars. Chamise. Toyon. Buckbrush. I pinch and roll the leaves, raise my fingers to my nose and inhale these chaparral aromas. The tiny leaves of coyote brush have a green scent. The needlelike leaves of chamise remind me of creosote, carry the faint incense of fire. Small brown birds are singing in the shrub oak. Acorns litter the path.
The path is steep, and soon I remove my sweater, and then my wool shirt. Alone I can walk as slow as I want, luxuriate in the flex of my calves, the sun on my forearms. Owning my slowness, I take back the day, expel the residue of guilt for getting up so late, lingering over coffee. And with it goes that heavier weight: the oddness of spending Christmas alone.
There are only a few plant communities like this in the world. One of them is in the Mediterranean. It also has a lovely name: the maquis. I cycled there one summer with my husband. Our plan was to bike from Paris to Barcelona, crossing the Pyrenees, but after riding down the Rhone Valley, we decided to detour to Nice, through the Luberon and along the Mediterranean coast, and thus spent a week or so cycling in the maquis. That was seven years ago, and my memories of individual plants have faded. I remember the sight of my first wild rockroses, sprouting from an old stone wall, and huge silvery mounds of lavender, the smell of the crushed flowers, but what really comes to mind is the feeling of keen recognition I had whenever I looked around, or stuck my nose in the air. Not that it smelled the same, but the smells rose up wild and fragrant just like here: mint, myrtle, rosemary, and thyme.
It was kind of like encountering acquaintances from home in a foreign country. Perhaps you are tempted to share a drink with them, a meal. The relationships grow warmer than before – even after your return home.
We had biked through the maquis in early July. Here, in the chaparral, the bloom will begin in late winter, end by mid spring. The campground will be full then, the trails spill with people.
But soon, I realize, walking in wonder, that this is the perfect time to visit. These dull greens and shots of red are Christmas colors. Big clusters of shiny toyon berries and the holly-like leaves of the hollyleaf cherry. Even the coppery reds of California buckwheat fall within the spectrum. Even the manzanita, which I start to see near the ridgeline: its canopy colored in olive; the twisted dark flame of its bark.
A quirk of vision and mood that turns the pappus of the coyote brush into chaparral snow. Some shrubs are merely sprinkled, while the boughs of others – like the one in my campground – are laden with creamy abundance.
That night, I open the book Introduction to the California Condor by Noel and Helen Snyder. The California condor nests in caves, cliffs, even giant sequoias. They’re quiet birds, not singing or crying out; still, you can often hear a condor coming before you see it: a steady hissing, when air passes through their primary feathers. They have ten-foot wingspans, an average weight of twenty pounds. They are exceptionally smart. I’d never put much thought into the intelligence of condors before, figuring any animal relying on carrion for sustenance was likely dull. But condors, like other scavengers, have to navigate intricate social interactions around kill sites. Who will eat first? Who goes next? When is the best meat most available? At what point should a condor simply give up and leave without eating, because the carcass is being devoured before its eyes by golden eagles – one after another – and waiting there any longer is simply a waste of time?
In fact, high intelligence is a mark of many scavenging birds. Ravens, for example. Ok, so this: the acute perception of ravens: this I knew. How did I know? The same way you know, probably: a mix of folklore, and fairytale, and living urban legend. Through firsthand accounts and by witnessing it (I remember, once, kissing my husband goodbye and walking to work, as I often did. A few blocks away, I heard a raspy cough, descending in pitch. I looked around and found a raven on a rooftop, its beady eyes fixed on me. What had amused it? Was it my gait? My clothes? Or simply my nature? My need to put one foot in front of the other in order to move forwards? My earthbound perspective?).
Specialized scavengers, like condors, also have low reproductive rates, slow maturations, and long lives, which explain why they’re so vulnerable to rapid environmental changes; they can’t reproduce quickly enough to evolve.
I didn’t see any condors today, hiking the Condor Gulch Trail, but a friend of mine, a birder who lives in New Mexico, saw one the very first time he came to Big Sur.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a turkey vulture?” I had asked.
“Positive,” he said. “The thing was huge.” He extended his arms, fingertips stretching towards opposing horizons, and immediately, I could see it: the dark outline filling the windshield, white triangles beneath the wings.
Reading, my feet propped on a stump, I’m cold, but I won’t light a fire. The campfire ring is simply too close to the dry winter shrubbery, and I’m only a few weeks removed from The Camp Fire, which filled Sacramento with so much smoke, my university closed for nine days. Instead, I light a candle in a jar, and instantly the whole area feels cozier – even a touch magical – if not necessarily warmer.
The next morning, storm clouds gather above the ridge. I have reservations for two more nights; so many dark hours without a fire. I could move campsites, look for a campfire ring out in the open. But would I be able to keep a fire going in a storm?
Another option is to hang out on the covered porch of the store, but four or five hours of this? Before I know it, I’m packing up, chucking stuff in my jeep. My next stop is a hot springs resort on the other side of the mountains, and though it will probably rain there too, and I’m camping again, they have a common room in a cabin with a woodstove fired up most of the time, where I can hang out indefinitely.
I eat at Eva Marie’s café in Tres Pinos. I have a Spanish omelette with green chilies. It goes with the décor: red curtains and tablecloths patterned like a bandana. All the men in the restaurant are wearing broad brimmed hats, even as they eat. There are only six tables, and the short order cook knows nearly everyone by name. After breakfast, I stop by a tiny church on my way out of town, all festooned for the holidays, to say a few quick prayers for the health of everyone I love (and the fulfillment of a secret desire) and then, to get the stiffness out of my body, I consult my iPhone for the nearest swimming pool.
The closest YMCA is in Salinas, too far, but I find a gym in Hollister which has a pool. What can I say? They gym is a strange one. All classical décor inside, like some rundown Athenian temple, a big banner hanging from the ceiling proclaiming Jesus will save me. I swim fast, then languish in the Jacuzzi. When I leave, I’m radiating heat, so much so my sneakers feel tight.
My last stop is the Paicines General Store. I’m hoping to buy a bottle of local wine. There are vineyards everywhere, creeping up the hills. All they have is Yellowtail from Australia, so I just use the bathroom and leave.
The road I need to take – J1 – angles off from Paicines. It’s a secondary highway, I’ve never driven it before, but it’s the shortest way to the hot springs. Otherwise I’d have to horseshoe around on 152. At first, the road is simply amusing. I’m grinning, skirting the potholes. Even here, in the state that’s supposed to have the fifth largest economy in the world, we have this kind of patchwork enterprise. But about eight miles in, it becomes the kind of road I truly don’t like, the kind that terrifies me, in fact, narrowing, in some places, to a single lane, a sheer drop off on one side – the wrong side – a steep slope on the other. Sure enough, right at the top of Panoche Pass, two big trucks come barreling around the cliff edge. We curl around each other, a whisper between us. Up to this point, I thought I might return to Pinnacles after my stay in the hot springs, but mountain passes, even a low one like Panoche, are like a one-way portal; it’s hard to backtrack, once you’ve gone over. At least it is for me.
I’ve been to this particular hot springs before, but the resort is so low key, tucked away in the soft folds of the hills, that I only catch sight of the sign in my rearview.
The building where you register is the size of a chapel. The windows sparkle with icicle lights. Rick checks me in. Nice guy, really tries to make me feel welcome, tells me what a great time I’m going to have spending Christmas with them, that my particular campsite, E7, is where the long-eared owls have all chosen to roost, up in the tamarisks, that I should look for them in the morning, soon as I get up.
Of course, I’m excited by this. The long-eared owls are one of the reasons I came.
The last time I visited they were in the pines, right around this building, I tell Rick, remembering their golden eyes glowing down at me.
Rick says that a year or so ago, two great horned owls moved in and chased them to the periphery. He also tells me about the barn owls inhabiting the old buildings. “Just think! Three different kinds of owls on the property!”
I agree; it’s fantastic. I ask about the storm.
“If it’s going to rain,” Rick says, “it’s going to be at night, but nothing too bad.” Then his grin fades. “But I guess I should warn you about the pig beetles.”
“The pig beetles?”
“Yeah. Have you heard of them? They only come out after the rain. I mean, they hardly ever come out, it hardly ever rains around here, but when it does, they come out of the ground in the multitudes. Sometimes, campers don’t seal their tent up, and when they wake up, their sleeping bags are covered in pig beetles. Perfectly harmless creatures. They don’t sting or bite or anything. But they smell bad. A lot of people think they smell like B.O.” He laughs. “I guess I’m not making it sound that appealing.” I laugh too, just a little. “Just make sure you zip up your tent,” he says.
Soon as I have my camp set up – tent sealed tight – I take a walk. I walk behind the colorful cabins, scattered in a messy crescent at the back of the resort, and up the steep dirt road to the top of the hills. There are more solar panels here than I remember, but it’s a good place for them, not a single tree for miles. The hills rise and fall in steep folds of bright green, fading to taupe in the distance and assuming the velvety look of antler fuzz. When I came here before, it was during our long siege of drought, and all the hills – both near and far – were bleached gold.
I don’t even see shrubs on these hills, or plants of any kind, and I have to admit I’m disappointed. The chaparral is at its best, in my opinion, right after a good soaking, poignant with scent. I turn onto a skinny trail; the hills steepen the farther I go. If I fell, it would be a long tumble to the bottom.
I backtrack to the lowest hill I can find, walk an animal trail down to the swale. The swale curves, then curves again, and suddenly I see them: bundles of shrubs, hugging the base of the hills. Chamise, of course, brown and straggly in winter. One shrub stands out: a luminous sea green. I pinch and roll the feathery ends, and don’t even have to raise my fingers to smell that sharp tang: the scent of land flung open, April wind and gushing creeks. California sagebrush, my first of the trip.
Here, in the crease of these hills, I think, is the origin of the chaparral; I haven’t strayed too far from it after all.
When I reach the barbed wire fence, I have to turn back. This is ranch country, lest I forget. The fence bothers me, the straight, cutting line of it; I hope the coyotes know a way around. But there is a surprise here too. The rocks are splattered so densely with lichen, they remind me of a Jackson Pollock painting. Fiery orange; bright yellow; pinkish white; velvety black. At least on my side of the fence. On the other side, the rancher’s side, the lichen is monochrome: a delicate ghostly green.
I loiter in the hills until dusk. I’m struck by the number of holes pocking the surface. I think of ground squirrels, snakes, kangaroo mice, but the only animals I see emerging are three silver, black-tailed jackrabbits. No wonder the owls love it here: this place is a feast of meat.
When it starts to get dark, I hurry back to the dirt road and crouch on the hill above the hot springs. Rain begins to pelt my back. I want to see owls, winging from the depths of the shaggy tamarisks, hunting their supper. But when is nature ever predictable? The gifts you’re most likely to get are the ones you never expected, and probably never imagined. I stay until the darkness deepens, fuzzing the air, and I feel my back getting cold.