Usually my road trips evolve from a long researched theme. This latest trip comes out of panic. We were told there might be a once-in-several-decades super bloom in the desert if El Niño dumped the rain it was supposed to. But I hesitated to plan a trip not knowing when the rain would end and the bloom would begin. Since Death Valley is prone to severe flash flooding, I didn’t want to try to negotiate dry washes when they became raging torrents. Well, you can’t hesitate on these things. As soon as word came in that the desert was ablaze, I tried to book various guided hiking tours but they were all filled. In fact, I couldn’t even get into any campgrounds or the two lodgings in Death Valley until nearly May. As more word of a Super Bloom came in, I just went for it and booked a motel for as near as I could get as soon as I could get. That happened to be Lone Pine which is an hour away from Death Valley, nearly two hours away from the peak bloom areas. Well, who cares? Better to drive more than miss a historic eco event. So no theme, no plan other than getting down to the desert while the flowers are still out.
Now, I may not have planned this trip with a theme, but that doesn’t stop me from making one up as I go along. First, I always take the older roads, those with some historical significance. Sometimes this works out wonderfully and I end up on a road that, if you ignore the asphalt, looks much as it would have to the first explorers. Other times, not so much. This trip had mixed results. I headed south from San Jose on El Camino Real — also known as Route 101. At Gilroy, I shot over to CA Route 99. This highway is paved over part of the old Siskiyou Trail which was a major Native American trade route from Mexico to Oregon. Perhaps not coincidentally, the ancient footpath was the eastbound counterpart to the Pacific Flyway, the great bird migration route from South America to Alaska. I’m sure the early Native traders consciously chose to follow below the migrating flocks past Tule marshes and other water sources. I’d like to report that I saw some of the marshes, but they seem to have all been drained and converted to agricultural land. I’d like to report that I, at least, saw a super bloom among the fruit trees, but that doesn’t seem to be in full swing yet. So I powered through the Central Valley even past places I would normally have explored — because I was gunning for flowers. Some of the things I missed: the site of Colonel Allensworth’s experimentation with an all African American town and Delano which was ground zero for the struggles of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. I did breeze through McFarland, subject of the only good movie that Kevin Costner has done in decades (see it!) I scooted through Bakersfield so fast I only had time to note that it has a Merle Haggard Drive and a Buck Owens Boulevard. However, I did make one important stop: the Phillip S. Raine Rest Area near Tulare. I should mention that I am a huge fan of rest areas. And though clean rest room are the minimum requirement, I love the rest areas that have historical displays. The Phillip S. Raine has one of the best — an extensive series of informational kiosks giving the full history of the Central Valley, from geological formation through Native American, Spanish, pioneer and White settlement. In fact, I’d put this stop at the top of my all time favorite rest stop list. (Although Texas still wins this category, due to the numbers of lovely bouffanted Texas volunteer ladies who often preside over them, dispensing wonderful tourist information and even pouring free lemonade.)
Before I knew it, I’d veered off to CA State Route 178, which I chose just because it looked like the fastest path to Lone Pine. Little did I know it would be a scenic surprise.
Then from a floral wonder to an ecological tragedy. Apparently Lake Isabella was formed by a dam to part of the Kern River. It flooded out a valley and small settlement. Unfortunately, it is built on an active fault and not built very well at that. So it can only be filled to 60% capacity at any time.
There were even more surprises waiting for me once I exited the canyon. I guess I didn’t check the map carefully as I had no idea my route would skirt a corner of the Mojave Desert. And what’s in the Mojave and nowhere else? Joshua Trees. I passed through stands of hundreds of them. Whole forests of Joshua Trees.
An interesting factoid I learned about Joshua Trees in my research later in the evening: Joshua Tree seeds have been found in the fossilized dung of the now extinct bear-sized Shasta Ground Sloth, leading many scientists to think that pre-historic animal was a major distributor of Joshua Tree seeds. Now that we have no more Shasta Ground Sloths, it’s up to the Yucca Moth which doesn’t seem to have much of a range, hence the rarity of these trees. Better see them quick. They are listed as one of the most vulnerable plants due to Climate Change and it’s predicted their population will be reduced by 90% at the end of the 21st Century. I say somebody better start cloning some Shasta Ground Sloths.
Finally I reached Lone Pine, but I overshot the town by a few miles to see something I’ve wanted to visit for a long while now — the Japanese American internment camp at Manzanar. Besides the excellent museum, there isn’t much left.
While the museum is a must see and the recreated living barracks are also interesting, what you must do is take the driving tour. It winds throughout the camp with stones and signs marking and identifying each building. It’s only then that you get an idea of the magnitude of the camp. It was a city of over 10,000 detainees with a post office, hospital, assembly center, mess halls, gardens, a chicken ranch (detainees were expected to do agricultural work), machine shop and more.
Tomorrow, into the Valley of Death. And if you want to read an interesting take on the Shasta Giant Ground Sloth, here’s one fan of bringing them back from extinction.