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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Canyons I Have Known

I returned yesterday from a road trip with my buddy Al, which might have been called “Small-town Mexican restaurants of south-central California” or “800 country miles of nature preserves along the San Andreas Fault.” So many of our miles were on little-traveled county or state roads that on day three we drove 250 miles and saw exactly ten vehicles (though thousands of Beechey ground squirrels, Brush rabbits, and red-tailed hawks). This was the day we ate lunch at a diner straight out of 1950s Oklahoma (Al had chicken-fried steak, and I a hamburger steak and fries, of course) on the stretch of road where James Dean, on his way to a race in his new Porsche in 1955, mistakenly assumed a driver turning left into his path would yield, and consequently met his Maker at the young age of 24 years.

In addition to tracing the San Andreas Fault over most of its south and middle sections, and learning a lot about andesite, rhyolite, serpentine, and so on, we visited nature preserves: the Wind Wolves Preserve and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy in the San Emigdio and Tehachapi mountains, respectively; the Carrizo Plains National Monument; Pinnacles National Park; and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. The first, second, and fourth of these feature canyons, and for me it was heaven.
A canyon is defined in the dictionary as a valley with relatively steep sides and often water running through it, the word coming to us from the Spanish. Canyons are particularly dramatic when they are in mountains abutting desert areas. You enter from a dry environment with little evident life, and the farther you go into the canyon the more life blossoms alongside the stream at its bottom (which typically formed the canyon over hundreds of thousands of years of erosion).

Here in California, cottonwoods, sycamores, alders, chamise, button brush and monkey flowers (not to mention poison oak) line the watercourse of a canyon, with dragonflies darting about, acorn woodpeckers soaring amongst the valley oaks just beyond the riparian trees, rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the paths, and deer in the bushes. Life is suddenly just bursting its seams after the constrained, austere environment of the desert at the mouth of the canyon.

On this recent trip, we hiked down Big Sycamore canyon abutting the Mojave desert in the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, where the abundance and majesty of the oaks were overwhelming. Valley oaks with young leaves still bright green towered as large as any in the valley woodlands of my home in northern California. But unlike in northern California, beside these valley oaks were huge Canyon Live oaks with their sprawling, massive limbs, and not far away were Blue oaks, with a liberal sprinkling of various species of the taxonomically-challenging scrub oaks (we think probably mostly Quercus berberidifolia and even some Q. tuckeri). Hiking up the Sin Nombre canyon of Wind Wolves Preserve, which was the favored Spanish route into central California, we had seen mountain lion scat with huge claw marks where the lion had scratched over his gift, reminding us that wherever you see deer, you’ll have lions.

The highlight for me at Bear Gulch canyon in Pinnacles National Park was winding/stooping/crawling through the “talus caves” formed by huge boulders falling between the rocky shafts, forming roofs to caves dripping with water (and more poison oak in the canyon than I’ve seen in a long time).

One of my favorite canyons is Tahquitz Canyon just west of Palm Springs. You enter through the usual Colorado Desert sparseness, and soon are hiking along a precious stream, rimmed with apricot globe mallow flowers, the red chuparosa blooms, frequent jimsonweed (Datura), with riotous birdlife (including Gambel’s quail, a Costa Hummingbird I observed, oddly enough, flycatching over a pool, the gloriously orange-and-black Hooded Oriole, and the red-eyed Phainopeplas). As you wind through the little canyon’s twists and turns, you reach a sixty-foot waterfall cascading onto a five-foot-square rock at its base, the rock gleaming in the dim light reflecting off the canyon’s west-facing walls. The place just glows with the sacred, and I found myself glancing about improbably for a stall selling incense to light (which would have been present had this been China or Japan).

I’ve never been more alone than in a canyon high in the Emei Shan mountains of China some two decades ago. My buddy Kyle and I had bumped into my Yale friend A.J. in Beijing, and he had joined us for the long train ride to Szechuan, deep in the interior of China. We had climbed two days in torrential monsoon rains (this was May) up the mountain, and were lodging in a Buddhist temple complex just a day from the top of the mountain (from which they say you can see the Himalayas in the distance on a clear day, the catch being that Szechuan has never known a clear day. The saying is that “In Szechuan, dogs bark when the sun shines,” so unusual is that happening). After the crush of humanity climbing this sacred mountain alongside us, and the throngs seeking shelter from the rain in the temple complex, I craved some solitude.

A cliff-side path leading into a green canyon beside the temple had been washed out for some six or eight feet by a very fragile rockslide of small, muddy pebbles. Signs forbade entrance. Perfect. The only problem was that if you didn’t clear the rockslide area on your leap across, you’d slip, slide, and hurtle several thousand feet down into the canyon. No problem. I was young and spry and really wanted some solitude. I nearly cleared the rock/mud-slide area, scrambled with wildly beating heart onto the path on the other side, and took off. The path in time became a narrow ledge alongside the cliff-face. The vegetation was thick, bright green, and splendid in every way, though I couldn’t recognize any of the exotic bushes and trees. I wound deeper into the canyon for over an hour, seeing not a soul (nor, interestingly enough, any birds either) but never out of hearing of the ever-present falling water in the canyon. Finally the failing light persuaded me to reluctantly turn back, satisfyingly full of solitude and the blue/green world of water and plants. The rockslide was again successfully leapt over (though not very gracefully, and more scrambling this time) and I headed for the temple refectory, muddy and wet, with a keen appetite and satisfied soul.

Canyons. Temples of life, water, and rock. The whole package, in other words. May you find your own to enjoy.
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