The Carrizo Plain is a stark and lonely piece of primal California, bereft of any perennial water and riven by the San Andreas Fault. It sits about 40 miles west of Bakersfield and about 30 miles east of San Luis Obispo, splayed out in a north-south orientation between the inner-coastal Caliente Mountains and the torn and fractured Temblor Range. It is not a terribly sexy destination. It is not bound to attract hordes of tourists. And it lacks almost any amenities for the weary traveler. And therein lays its austere charm.
While most of the Central Valley was being drained, chained and plowed under in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Carrizo presented a challenge to even the most hardened homesteader. It was extremely isolated. There were no permanent streams; only seasonal alkali lakes. There were no trees; only wiry shrubs on the surrounding hills. In a good year there might be enough grass and forage for a small herd of cattle. In a dry year, the Plain would become a desert. Today the weathered remains of a few farm houses and barns attest to the failure of men to wrest control of the landscape from hostile elements. And that may have been what saved it.
In this lost remnant of a once fecund valley system, the kit fox and giant kangaroo rat survived. Native wildflowers held their ground. The native Chumash saw it as a place of power and beauty, and held it sacred. And all the while, the steady grinding of tectonic plates literally carved the nearby mountains. Even before the 50-mile long valley became a National Monument in 2001, I was intrigued by what I’d heard about the place. First, there were the aerial photographs of a very visible fault line and offset stream beds. Then, sometime in the 1990s the Nature Conservancy acquired most of the area and it became available to the public at large. And then the feds took it over.
As a native Californian, it seemed like I owed myself the opportunity to personally visit the area which I did in the spring of 2010, as documented in an earlier blog http://redmesacafe.blogspot.com/2010_03_01_archive.html#). It had been a wet spring and the mid-March landscape was covered in wildflowers and green grasses. That experience ended up exceeding my expectations. But when I returned to the Carrizo this last March, the mood was decidedly different. The winter rains had never really come. There were hardly any flowers. And what grass I could find was pretty stunted. Nevertheless, the magnificent emptiness worked its magic on me. The campgrounds were empty. The vistas were vast. And quiet lay over the landscape like a soft blanket.
Places like the Carrizo Plain will never be tourist meccas, and we can be grateful for that. What we have, instead, is a pocket of old California, protected for its own sake. Whether you care to see it or not, it is 250,000 acres of open space not open to farming or oil and gas extraction. It is a place where a person can stand on a hill overlooking miles of nearly-forgotten country and feel absolutely alone and full at the same time.