On Wednesday night we endured the worst wind storm of our entire eleven-month trip. Worse than the one at Blow Me Down Provincial Park in Newfoundland which tore out our rear windows, or the one in a remote hunting camp in Virginia where a falling branch set off our alarm at two in the morning, or any of the others that followed. Last night’s storm felt like the ones they make movies about where people die. We were in northern California, at a BLM campground just south of the Oregon border. Weather Underground, our go-to weather app, posted a severe wind advisory for the area, warning of winds gusting up to 70mph. But the warning was only for Thursday, a day later, and we thought we’d be ok. It wasn’t particularly cold and though it was windy when we got there in mid-afternoon, it wasn’t bad. We’ve had a lot of windy weather in the last few weeks that was worse. And it was a nice place. The campground, right on Lake Shastina, was scenic in a moody and atmospheric kind of way.
By dinner time, Snowflake was swaying from side to side so much that our bread/chip basket, hanging on a hook behind Roland’s head, swung side to side, pendulum-like, in a most unsettling way. It was unnerving and I had to put it on the counter. Then, Roland took Melo and Pix out to do their stuff and the door flew from his grasp and nearly ripped off. And it started raining, the drops slamming into the roof above us. It died down somewhat after an hour or so and we breathed simultaneous sighs of relief but our relief was short-lived. The wind picked up again with new ferocity around eight and didn’t let up this time.
Periodically punctuated by rain, the storm raged until morning. We barely slept. Rocking us like a ship at sea the wind raced around us, even buffeting us from underneath as if giant unseen hands were trying to raise us off the ground like a child’s toy. It took all my mental strength to convince myself we were too heavy to actually be picked up by it. In the meantime, Roland worried about branches. We were in a bit of a clearing but there were trees everywhere and branches flying. It was terrifying and, as always at such times, made us feel very small and far from anywhere. Not even the thought of other people sharing the campground with us helped much – several of them were tenting and would be enduring even worse fears.
Blessedly, we made it through without damage and were on our way out of there by seven-thirty in the morning. Now we’re in Oregon, at a different remote campground, and there are patches of snow on the ground. It’s overcast and cold – a land still ruled by winter. We took Melo and Pix out and all of us wore our warm coats. And we wore gloves. Such a sharp contrast to a mere week ago when, in T-shirts, we hiked through meadows full of wildflowers in the golden sunshine of central California. Yes, we knew we’d be facing colder weather as we get further north, but the reality of it comes much too soon. I’m not ready for this; I want to go back to the warmth and the sun.
California is beautiful. It might even be the most beautiful state we’ve seen. It seems like the Californians have it all – the ocean, the mountains, the “grow whatever you want” land, the forests. There’s also that sandal-wearing, holistic, anything goes consciousness I feel so at home in. At the small and coastal Morro Bay we stopped for tacos at a place offering “California Fusion”. Out the window we watched windsurfers navigating the waves until our plates arrived with such a mound of fresh veggies on them we had to hunt for the tortilla underneath it all. And everything was perfectly-sauced and flavourful. It was by far the best restaurant lunch we’ve had in months.
But then there’s also the other side – the plastic and shallow youth-worshiping one that leads sixty-five year old women to dye their hair, get face-lifts and Botox treatments, fake boobs, and dress like twenty-somethings. And there are the crowded cities that sprawl for hundreds of miles in a long urban chain with no break between the links. The cities that suck the northern mountain lakes dry just so people can have swimming pools. It seems like such a contrast – the spiritual side and the materialistic one.
We avoided the cities for the most part but it still didn’t take long for the congestion to get to us, whether out on the roads or at the state parks we stayed in. Even at this time of the year those parks were already crowded and the crowds, along with Melo and Pix not being allowed on the trails, led us to seek out the more remote USFS or BLM campgrounds instead. We were thrilled to find so many, particularly since we worried that camping in California would bring our expenses up again. During the last three months, after boondocking for longer stretches of time in free or inexpensive forestry service and BLM campgrounds, both our camping and fuel costs dropped drastically, from nearly $2000 per month (for both) to $400. In California, we anticipated a big surge that never came. Even though our fuel costs are rising again as we cover more ground, we not only managed to avoid costly camping but also to camp in some pretty special places.
Top of the list, Carrizo Plain, in a remote part of central California dominated by rolling hills and grasslands. On the way there, we spent a night at Ballinger Canyon, an almost empty forestry camp in the Los Padres National Forest.
We followed that up with two nights at Selby campground, one of the two BLM campgrounds of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. As per Wikipedia, Carrizo Plain “is the largest single native grassland remaining in California” and seems to have been a bit of a hidden gem until now. We met an outdoorsy couple who lived just on the other side of it yet, amazingly, had never heard of it. That might change though. I read that the BLM recently published a photo on Instagram which went viral and brought droves of people flocking to see it.
At this time of year the meadows are in full bloom and it’s a glorious glowing patchwork of colour. Possibly because it is such a stunning place, even though it’s remote and accessed mainly by dirt road, Bill Clinton designated it as a national monument in 2001. Driving through now, every bend in the road a different post-card view (how many artists have already tried to capture it), I wondered if the past several years of California’s drought affected it all. If this is actually the first year in some time that the Carrizo Plain really blooms fully again. Maybe that’s what led the BLM to want to show it off.
Back in 2005, when I was just getting into printmaking and knew nothing about the place, I came across a photo of the Carrizo Plain online. Something about the image of it pulled at me so much that one of my first woodblock prints was my interpretation of it. For weeks as I worked on it, carving away the layers of the matrix and printing each new colour, I tried to see myself standing there, surrounded by the meadows and hills, feeling the serenity. But never once, despite the place holding a certain mysticism for me, did I expect to see it in person. I wonder, did random chance bring me there now, in the very year the meadows are showing off their “super bloom”? A coincidence?
Anyway. The Selby BLM campground, about halfway through the Plain, sits at the foot of the Caliente Mountains rising behind it. There are thirteen designated sites with shelters and fire rings but at least twenty campers camped there on both of the nights we were there. We ourselves got in early enough to score the best spot in the whole campground, a little removed from the main area, and then watched new people coming in and jostling for whatever available level piece of ground they could find. People camped where ever they could and those who came really late in the day ended up so close to other campers the campground resembled an RV park, albeit a singularly scenic one.
At the top of the campground a trail leads up to the mountain crest through miles of what they call the Wilderness Study Area. Roland and I climbed along a steep path bordered by oaks, junipers, and wild sage – golden flowers everywhere – until, nearly eight hundred feet up, Soda Lake and the surrounding valley lay far below us. It was breathtakingly beautiful and oddly, though I’d never been there before, seemed vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until I was back at Snowflake, looking through my photos, that I realized I’ve seen similar landscapes in the silkscreen prints of Eyvind Earle, one of my favourite printmakers. He celebrated California in much of his work and you can see how well he captured it in the two photos below:
The next day, after hiking down through the meadows to Selby Rocks, we had a great conversation with a guy from the coast who told us he’s never seen the Plain so green. The last time he was there, he said, the meadows were dry, the sky was heavy with clouds, and the whole scene was a uniform and dingy shade of yellow. Vastly different from it’s present luminous state. Later, as we sat basking in the afternoon sun in our temporary back yard, listening to the birds and watching the butterflies flit and dance, I realized how lucky we were to get to see the Carrizo Plain precisely at its most glorious time of year. It was perfect: warm, alive with colour, drenched in sun, the world around us glowing.
And in the morning, as we drove away, I wished we had more time to spend. This might be the last time on this trip we’re camping like this, Roland said the previous afternoon and he turned out to be right. By next night we were on the coast in a parking lot masquerading as an RV park and then we began our slow climb north. Yesterday, our friend Andy sent us his favourite Tennessee Williams quote:
Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going?
There’s so much truth in that isn’t there? Today, California’s golden sunshine is only a memory. As hard as I tried to grab onto and hold the feeling I had in the meadow at Carrizo Plain, it’s gone. It stayed behind there, dancing in the breeze among the tall grasses and the wildflowers. But, maybe one day when we’re settled again, I can try to recreate it through yet another print – a much more informed one this time.
Roland talks about his California impressions and even the stuff I’m saving for my next post here: