Wildflower “Superblooms” and an Unpredictable Earthquake Fault: Exploring the Heart of California

When I was young and growing up in Massachusetts, I had an almost scary obsession with California. Perhaps it was the influence of TV, beaming images of the “Golden State” into my living room on a daily basis, but to me, California seemed like the Promised Land, and from an early age I dreamed of going west.

The Golden State is even more golden this week with a wildflower “Superbloom”

I grew California poppies in my garden, I constructed a miniature version of San Francisco in my back yard, complete with a hose-filled Bay and even an “active” San Andreas fault, activated by sliding a snow-shovel beneath the city and shaking it.  I visited California for the first time in 1975 when I was just 16 years old, and after a few more visits over the years, I moved to California back in 1982 to attend graduate school.

Over the past 35 years I’ve experienced a lot of the magic I had dreamed of. I spent my first two years living directly on the oceanfront boardwalk in fashionable Newport Beach, and for the past 25 years have been living in a rent-controlled apartment perched atop San Francisco’s Twin Peaks, with a million-dollar view of the city and San Francisco Bay below me. I’ve watched elephant seals frolic on the beach near Santa Cruz. I’ve camped out in the back of my pick-up truck in the Mojave Desert, unable to sleep because I couldn’t stop staring at the impossibly starry skies and kept waiting for the next shooting star to streak toward the earth. I’ve hiked otherworldly landscapes like the “painted dunes” of volcanic Mt. Lassen, through the jumbled boulders of Joshua Tree National Park, and into the cool, dark redwood forests of Muir Woods. I’ve felt what seemed like a hair dryer switched to its highest temperature pointed at my face when I stepped outside my car on a windyAugust day when it was 119 degrees in Death Valley, and I’ve been sprayed by the the cool mists of the famous waterfalls in Yosemite.

But amidst the dreams, there have also been nightmares. I’ve been stuck in 6 lanes of stalled traffic on the 405 freeway in West L.A., and have struggled to catch a deep breath in a blanket of smog that totally obscured the San Gabriel Mountains, despite them being only a few miles away. I returned to a pick-your-own strawberry field with great anticipation, only to find that since the last harvest, the field had been leveled and an office building was now occupying the site. I have watched San Francisco become ever more dirty and unsavory, while the cost of living here forces anyone who can’t afford a $4000 a month apartment to abandon the city for cheaper pastures in other states.  And my car’s shock absorbers have been pounded into jelly by the Bay Area’s seemingly endless potholes. Once I used to cry when I had to leave California and these days I often cry when I have to return home after a trip.

Faced with a long Easter weekend during which I had some free time, but not enough time to leave the state, I decided to take a little road trip somewhere within California. After reading that the state’s wildflowers are experiencing a “superbloom” after our drought-busting rains this year, and seeing photos taken from space that showed huge swaths of central California swathed in yellow, I decided to head south to the Carrizo Plain National Monument for some “petal peeping”.

I loathe the I-5 Freeway, a 300-mile-long corridor that passes through the ugliest scenery that California has to offer and on which drivers recklessly careen back and forth between the two southbound lanes at 50 MPH over the 70 MPH speed limit. Therefore, I opted for Highway 101, a somewhat longer and slower route that at least provides beautiful scenery and a far less hectic pace. I made a slight detour near Gilroy to visit the infamous “Casa de Fruta”, home to an array of shops that feature fresh produce, wines, baked goods, and a restaurant. Many years ago I used to commute to L.A. from San Francisco once a week and the only thing that brightened the long, 6.5 hour drive was a stop at the Casa for one of their giant cinnamon rolls, which had enough sugar in it to keep me alert for the remaining 5 hours of driving! So with a touch of nostalgia I visited the bakery (which is called Casa de Sweets) and managed to score the very last cinnamon roll, which I devoured as I continued southbound. Around Paso Robles I found a stand selling fresh strawberries, the first of the season, and I snacked on them as well as I headed east toward my destination.

The Carrizo Plain is a semi-desert area sandwiched between California’s Coastal Range on the west and the Temblor Range to the east. The name “Temblor Range” is no coincidence, as the San Andreas Earthquake Fault lies at the base of these mountains and one of California’s largest earthquakes occurred in this area in 1857. Because this is a desert with sparse vegetation and little water erosion, the surface features of the San Andreas can be seen if one knows what to look for, including creek beds off-set by movements along the fault and strangely folded and up-thrust rock formations along the fault’s path. With my interest in natural disasters, this area has always attracted me.

As I turned off of California Highway 58 onto Soda Lake Road, I saw the Temblors in the distance, their peaks strangely outlined by masses of yellow flower fields on their slopes. Below was Soda Lake, blue in the middle, but ringed by gleaming white salt deposits around its edges, and surrounding the lake, fields of brilliant yellow adorned by the sparkling reflections of dozens of cars whose drivers evidently had the same idea as I did. As I got closer to the flower fields, my heart raced at the sight of vast fields of yellow swaying in the wind, but my blood pressure also rose as I watched dozens of people tromping into the flower beds, sitting, squatting or laying down on top of the flowers, crushing many, many plants and leaving flattened areas that will likely not recover for years to come. Again, the dream/nightmare of California: unspeakable beauty being spoiled by the actions of too many people. At least when I show people my photos of the fields I can honestly make the disclaimer that no plants were harmed in the making of these pictures!

I drove the entire length of the park from northwest to southeast, and part of that drive was on a bone-shattering unpaved section of the road, which still seemed smoother than most of the potholed streets of San Francisco. The patches of yellow continued the whole way, though I was disappointed not to see any purple lupine, or my favorite, the brilliant orange California Poppy, our state flower. By late afternoon, I exited the park onto Highway 166 and made my way to Bakersfield for the night, where I met Jonie, a dear friend from my graduate school days for a nice dinner.

After doing a little online research at my hotel about the best places to view wildflowers, I planned a route into the Temblor range for my return trip to San Francisco. Fortified by some delicious doughnuts from Foster’s, a Bakersfield institution, and still munching on my strawberries, I headed due west and soon rose up from the great, flat southern San Joaquin Valley into cool, green mountains. I think my visit was just a few days too late to catch the peak bloom, as many of the beautiful photos I’d seen online had been taken last weekend and I was seeing anything quite so dramatic. Still, the mountain passes were decorated with vast fields of yellow flowers, with touches of purple lupine and orange poppies and punctuated by wonderfully gnarled live oak trees. I got some beautiful photos.

Again, in an effort to stay far from the crowds and the busy highways, I decided to head back to San Francisco by following the path of the San Andreas Fault. Because it makes a straight line from the Temblor Range to San Francisco, it is the most direct, if not the fastest route. From Highway 58 you can head north on Bitterwater Road, a quiet, paved road which basically follows the fault line through some dramatically changing scenery to the tiny town of Cholame. From here you can continue north on Cholame Valley Road to Parkfield, and the scenery becomes even more idyllic, with ranches, oak trees and lush green hills around every twist and turn. Just prior to entering Parkfield, population 18, you will see signs that tell you that you are crossing the San Andreas Fault and passing from the Pacific Plate onto the North American Plate, the two giant slabs of the earth’s crust that are slowly grinding past one another along the fault line.

Parkfield has a small café and little else, and it advertises itself as the “Earthquake Capital of the World”. The town is the focus of intense study because a series of moderate earthquakes had shaken the area with unusual predictability roughly once every 22 years from 1857 till 1966. Scientists covered the area with seismic monitors in hopes of getting valuable data when the next quake was due in 1988, but the San Andreas decided to play games with the scientists and produced a much larger quake in 1989, 100 miles further north. As I write this, this part of the fault has been quiet for the past 28 years. Still, the sign on the café in Parkfield urges visitors to experience whatever the San Andreas may have in store and “be here when it happens.”

From Parkfield the road continues north and there is a 10 mile segment that is unpaved and would be messy if it were raining. But the road takes you up and over a mountain range and affords some of the most spectacular vistas in the state. From the top of this ridge, the San Joaquin Valley stretches like an ocean to your east, while looking west and south the landscape is an unbroken tapestry of rolling green hills and distant mountains. This is the California that first captivated me and made me fall in love with it so many years ago. I did not pass a single car on the 20 miles from Parkfield to Highway 198. My only companions were chirping birds, swirling hawks, and lazy cattle who gave me a nervous stare as I rolled past, mooing at them when the spirit moved me. Again, I had mixed feelings as I made this trek over the mountains. I thought of all the tourists who come to California to see Disneyland and Hollywood and the Golden Gate, but who would miss California’s pure, simple heart and I felt sorry for them. But at the same time, I was so grateful to have this peace and solitude in America’s most populous state and I was stymied by the fact that I had it all completely to myself.

Highway 25 continues to follow the fault into Hollister and Gilroy and as I turned off my music and turned on the news, I learned that the Gilroy area had been hit by a series of very small earthquakes that very afternoon: another little surprise courtesy of the San Andreas. All too soon I was dodging speed demons on Highway 101 as I returned to San Francisco with a heavy sigh. But this spontaneous and short trip to California’s heartland had refreshed and revitalized me, and at least for a couple of days, I remembered all the good things that had brought me to California so many years ago.

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