Roland stands on the large granite boulder alongside our camper, playing his accordion. Above his head, at least fifty ravens circle, merge, separate, and then start the whole pattern again in a strange and hypnotic arial dance. They materialized almost out of nowhere when he started singing and are now seemingly entranced by the music. I joke and call him the pied accordionist but joking aside, the moment is magical. We’re camped at the Keyesville SMRA, another free BLM dispersed camping site. Snowflake is nestled on a level piece of ground between a granite outcrop and several junipers. Maybe twenty yards away is the Kern River and we hear it rushing by as it slaps and leaps over its rock-strewn bed.
We’ve been here three days and four nights and I have yet to get tired of testing my balance on the boulders along the river or climbing up to the meadows of the surrounding hills. On Friday we were nervous about local yahoos invading the place to party for the weekend – Bakersfield is about an hour away and Kernsville is much less than that, about fifteen minutes. It never happened. Other than local people who came down in just to get outside for a few hours, there was a number of weekend campers who came in, looked for a spot, didn’t find one, and retreated. We’re guessing it’s because sections of the gravel road leading down to a lot of the potential sites here, particularly where we are, have been washed out by all the recent rains and are now deeply rutted in places. It would probably be much more crowded normally but now, the bigger rigs just can’t make it in. We’re lucky, once again, to be in a truck camper – Roland just flipped into 4WD mode, took it slow, and got us into one of the best sites here. Thursday afternoon through Sunday night, when a couple of families in four-wheel drive vehicles came to tent camp, we only had two neighbours, hidden from view by stands of ponderosa pine.
On a hike to the other end of the campground on Friday morning we met Randy. He and his rig, a jeep and a small pod, are tucked into a secluded little corner over there. Randy’s done a lot of boondocking – three years on the road full time now – and he wasn’t worried about yahoos at all. He seemed surprised when we told him we were. He said he generally avoids campgrounds close to major cities and that in all his three years he’s only run into a loud bunch of people once and even they settled down by eleven or so.
My thought on hearing that was yes, but isn’t Bakersfield kind of big, but Randy called it and the weekend was quiet. So much so that we’re now wondering how we’ll ever acclimatize back to the narrower parameters of camping in state or provincial parks. Roland says if we keep staying in places like this one, we’re going to have a hard time of it. And he may have a point. Since leaving Arizona a week and a half ago we’ve camped at a string of structured campgrounds all of which, while scenic and far from dreadful, seemed restrictive to us now, in one way or another. None of them gave us that feeling of “ahh, this is the life” that we have in places like this one.
Our first three nights in California were in the Mohave National Preserve. First at the Hole in the Wall Campground and then at the nearby Mid Hill Campground. The scenery was gorgeous, there were designated hiking trails – the six-mile Barber Peak trail was particularly lovely – and the fee, $12 per night, was unarguably reasonable.
At Mid Hill, an entire section of the campground had been decimated by the 2005 wildfire that burned a large portion of the Mohave Preserve. The place had a haunting and apocalyptic feel and spaciousness we loved. But, at Hole in the Wall, our neighbours could look right into our camper through our open back door and at Mid Hill we had people driving by us, kicking up clouds of dust, all day long. We had a site upwind and the dust never reached us but we pitied the tenters on the opposite side of the road. And there, some jerks pulled in at midnight and kept their pick-up running for a good fifteen minutes while they maneuvered their fourty-foot rig into place and set it up.
Leaving the Mohave Preserve, we camped at a nearly empty regional campground adjacent to the Calico Ghost Town near Barstow. The campground is set among the “calico” hills that dominate the landscape. It boasts over two hundred sites, one right next to the other in parallel facing rows of fifteen or so, the sections separated from each other by high sandy hills. We picked it because we wanted to dump the tanks and take proper showers but it was the type of place where a full house would be my idea of hell. It was ok when we were there – the other ten or so campers, all in big rigs, opted for full-hookup and clustered together near the dump station and out of sight. But, for some odd reason, when night fell it got a bit freaky. Maybe it was haunted.
When the wind started moaning, mimicking human voices, and making the camper shake, I couldn’t help thinking about the “ghost town” up on the hill above us. The town had looked quaint and picturesque when we wandered around there earlier in the day but when we took the dogs out at eleven or so, the night was pitch black, Melo and Pix were agitated by something we couldn’t see, and the wind seemed powerful enough to grab hold of us and spirit us away into some alternate reality. I raced to get back inside. Are the ghosts of those who lived and died there, when the town was still a thriving silver mining town and not a tourist attraction, still around? It was easy to believe they might be.
Our next stop, Red Rock Canyon State Park. We stayed there for a night thirty years ago. It was in the summer and it was hot. We were with Roland’s brother and Roland’s best friend and the four of us were pretty much alone there. I remember the stillness of the night and the immense sky. And how the glow of our campfire reflected on the looming sandstone pillars behind us – “our shadows taller than our souls” to borrow a phrase from Led Zeppelin. The memory stayed with us all these years so once we figured out which Red Rock Canyon was the one we were in – the one in California and not the one in Arizona – we added it to our route.
It’s still a spectacular place. The sandstone cliffs – fantastic formations evoking the sculpted walls of gothic cathedrals – are still there and still amazing. Some, further from the campground, look like the ramparts of crude fortresses. But weren’t they redder before? Oddly, we both remember them to be. The main change though was that this time we were far from alone at the campground. Maybe it was the time of year or maybe it’s just become a more popular destination, but when we got there early on Monday afternoon it was already fairly full, with many of the fourty or so sites taken. We managed to find a space level enough for us and away from other campers. But by nightfall the campground was full, we had neighbours all around and new arrivals driving by until after dark, and we woke the next morning to find a woman sitting cross-legged on a flat rock several feet above us and looking directly at us through our dinette window. No, that’s not what her intent was, I think she was trying to meditate, but it made us feel a bit odd anyway.
We only stayed one night and left there with some mixed feelings. On the one hand, we had a good hike there, loved the scenery, and there were a lot of places to still explore. But, on the other hand, we wanted more solitude. We got a taste of something different, camping at Saddle Mountain, and we wanted more of that. And, because a couple of women we met at the Hole in the Wall campground told us the state parks in southern California were all pretty crowded already, we headed slightly north toward Lake Isabella and the Kern River Valley. Both Allstays and the Ultimate Campground Project show a lot of remote camping options for that area.
For the next three days, we camped at Hanning Flat, a no fee USFS campground on the north side of Lake Isabella. No formal sites and no amenities but this is more than compensated for by a lot of space and lovely scenery. Not too much litter either, if you don’t count the eight empties tossed around by a bunch of locals who stopped by for an hour or so at the far end of the lake, and then failed to take their trash with them. The weather was cool and blustery and the sky, a mix of sun and giant clouds, was at times beautifully dramatic and made for great photos.
There are a lot potential spots, even for bigger rigs, so I imagine it gets pretty crazy there closer to summer, both with campers and boat traffic, but we were completely alone there after the first night. Still, a bit of a surprise, we saw our first rattlers. Live, grumpy after winter’s hibernation, and audibly rattling rattlers.
We were hiking along a cow path through the boulder-studded hills behind us when Roland heard and saw the first one, hiding in a crevice among the rocks he was clambering around on, and started yelling at me to grab Melo and Pix. I heard it too then, a weird sound that was part hiss and part dried beans in a paper bag. And yes, we got the hell out of the area and kept the dogs on leash until we left the rocks behind. Roland says the snake was as thick as a beer can and with fangs like nails. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The rattler I saw the next day, on a hike along the hillside at the other end of the lake, wasn’t as big. It was probably a young one. And I heard and now actually recognized the rattle before I saw it.
I wasn’t expecting it to be there, the day was quite cold, probably only 11°C (52°F) or so, and so windy my hat threatened to fly off my head. But again, as with the day before, there was the snake, sheltering in a crevice between a couple of boulders. I felt sorry for it, seeing it there. Cold blooded or not, maybe it was still cold too.
Here at Keyesville, watchful as we’ve been, we haven’t found any rattlers. Even though there are lots of boulders. Instead, there are hundreds of gophers nesting in the crevices between and under the rocks. So many gophers that Melo and Pix get their zoomies out just racing around trying to catch them. Unsuccessfully. And there are chipmunks, ravens, grey herons – always a good sign for us – flocks of song birds, and glossy six-inch-long lizards that look like the cheap black rubber ones you see selling in novelty shops. We watch them dart across the boulder outside the dinette window.
There’s a highway that winds in a loop at the top of the hills behind and in front of us, crossing the river by a bridge about half a mile upstream. It’s hidden from our view and we are hidden from it on this side of the river, but we can see the traffic on the opposite side, distant enough for it not to matter. The river, frogs, and the occasional chirp of a ground squirrel are all we hear here. But there’s a paid forestry campground over there, one of the few open in this area at this time of year, and we spent the weekend watching another river – big-rig campers – flow into that campground for the weekend. Apparently it’s $25 per night for a site too close to someone else, no water hookup or dump station and, according to Trip Advisor, it’s noisy. People have complained about loud music past midnight.
We are so thankful to be here, in a place where Melo and Pix can race, climb rocks, and dip their toes in cool clean water – something they love to do – and where Roland can stand on a giant boulder and play his accordion to the sky, to the ravens, and to his heart’s content, without worrying about infringing on someone else’s space. And, all of this and more, for free.
Roland beat me to it this time and tells about our travels following our departure from Arizona here: