10 June, 7am, Rancho Meling to Valladares

We are packed and ready to go by breakfast, excited to head south through the mountains to the old mining town of Valladares where await numerous rephotography opportunities and the Rio Santo Domingo, type location of the Sierra San Pedro Mountain Rainbow Trout.

Lamb described Valladares in 1925 as consisting of a single “Mexican hut and a deserted mine,” but, he says, once it “must have been a rich district for one can see where large sums of money have been spent” (Lamb, 4.14.1925, 48)–money that was no doubt the result of the mining boom and minor gold rush in these mountains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But in 1925, the mines were empty of valuable metals and full instead of Big-eared Bats that Borell trapped. What these places look like 90+ years on is anyone’s guess. The short trip promises to be rich in human and natural history.

But first, the matter of the bill. This time we pay Christian his Rancho fee with no trouble, but the matter of Rolando’s fee is less simple and there is some confusion and further travel-related controversy when Christian asks for half the price of the La Grulla trip for only two days, one fewer party member, and no cook!

Rolando and his machine

Just as this matter is coming to a head, Don Rolando arrives in a vehicle that makes us all stare in horror: a two-seater Ford Ranger pickup with some kind of steel cage over the back. It turns out his other truck has broken down. This machine seems a significant downgrade from the wheezy Bronco we rode down from La Grulla. We’re not excited about the prospect of three of us four-wheeling it to Valladares in an open bed jammed with gear.

Between the price-gouging and this less-than-ideal transportation, we briefly consider abandoning the whole enterprise. But cool heads prevail–or, at least, Whitney’s cool head. She patiently explains the pricing discrepancy to Christian, who relents, but not before tacking on an extra $80 in gas money for Rolando’s trip from San Vicente and back. This is money we’re not sure Rolando will see. (Later we consider how having a woman explain the error might have affected Christian’s mood).


The episode reinforces a view of Christian as a nice guy who carries a chip on his shoulder about Americans, maybe the result of experiences both north and south of the border.


Our trials are only begun. Rolando’s Ranger appears to have been strung together just this morning with rusty wire, its metal cage soldered in some dystopian Max Max future. The doors whine on their hinges like a crazed and wounded animal. Tail and headlights gape, electrical wires dangle like eyes torn from sockets. With some hesitation, James, Whitney, and I install ourselves among backpacks in the truck bed while Devon rides shotgun.

Installed in the machine
The road to Valladares

The next 3 hours prove harrowing. The “road,” we quickly learn, is less road than rutted, rocky path up and down dangerously steep hills and around sharp turns. It would have made a challenging hike, and yet we’re driving it, and the externals of Rolando’s machine do not appear up to the job of cresting rocky inclines while clamoring over ruts and rocks.


The truck lurches and groans up nearly 2000’ vertical feet and across 17 miles through a dense and forbidding chaparral landscape. The whole trip feels like something out of a movie. Sumac and scale broom lash at the cage (and us!) as we race by. At creek crossings, where the downslope meets the incline at impossibly sharp angles, the truck’s rear scrapes unnervingly against “road,” leaving deep gouges in the dirt. At hill crests, the roaring engine feels like its giving its last gasp, only to win its battle at the very last moment. At soft creek bottoms, tires miraculously do not get stuck and, even more wondrously, do not bust altogether on the sharp stones. We do not slide backward toward San Jose Valley, which we can see receding precipitously below and behind us as we white-knuckle the metal cage on steep inclines, nor do we roll the entire contraption at corners taken at speeds I’d call unsafe on a paved surface.


We are filthy and terrified, but thankfully we’ve underestimated both truck and driver, who deliver us safely, if bone-rattled, to Valladares. Here the “road” finally becomes recognizably roadlike: simply a dirt track of a moderately challenging sort. This road leads west, and most likely to San Telmo. According to Lamb, such a road was built “just for use of this former gold camp.” So we’ve taken a shortcut from Rancho Meling. It’s quite possible that we could have saved ourselves the terrifying ride–and maybe even the price of a guide–had we doubled back to San Telmo and taken this old mining road.


We pass some evidence of a mining town–no more than the relics of a house or two–and sadly we don’t have time to stop here if we want to make it to the Rio Santo Domingo river valley. Rolando drives us past it all, another thirty minutes, to a trailhead.


We’re fairly well abused by the time we arrive and not looking forward to a further two hours on foot on the trail, despite the lure of trout. And the trailhead itself is less than inviting. We’re greeted by an old mattress and a cache of plastic bottles, and someone’s long-abandoned plush toy. We’re contemplating this dump site when, impossibly, an acquaintance of Rolando’s pulls up in a truck beside us. Rolando introduces him but we never quite catch his name. It turns out he’s the current resident of the old San Antonio Ranch, which lies along the Rio Santo Domingo, where Lamb and Borell recorded their encounter with Antonio Murio, the 110-year-old namesake of the ranch. Rolando’s acquaintance disappears quickly down the steep trail, carrying a plastic sack of groceries and short length of metal pipe for a walking stick. We sort of can’t believe that anyone lives here and he fires our imagination about what life must be like down in so remote a place.

10 June, 12:30pm, Trail from Valladares

We begin down the steep, south-facing rocky canyon path, which turns out to be rather treacherous, with rolling rocks and gravel–making Rolando’s mysterious acquaintance’s rapid disappearance from view all the more astonishing.


The canyon itself is another remarkable nature walk. The path begins in a very narrow canyon with high, steep walls of vibrant greenschist that give the impression of reflected water. At the top, a large Desert Apricot greets you, along with Chaparral Ash (Fraxinus parryi), a plant that is hugely abundant in this canyon and in the surrounding hills, but listed as endangered in California by the CNPS. Laurel Sumac and White Sage populate the start of the path, along with the ubiquitous California Buckwheat, long-stemmed Hairy Matilija Poppies, Bush Sunflowers, and California Sagebrush. As we brush by a small forest of Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon sessifolium), it releases its characteristic minty smell, refreshing in the hot sun.

Hairy Matilija Poppy

10 June, 12:30pm, Trail from Valladares

We begin down the steep, south-facing rocky canyon path, which turns out to be rather treacherous, with rolling rocks and gravel–making Rolando’s mysterious acquaintance’s rapid disappearance from view all the more astonishing.


The canyon itself is another remarkable nature walk. The path begins in a very narrow canyon with high, steep walls of vibrant greenschist that give the impression of reflected water. At the top, a large Desert Apricot greets you, along with Chaparral Ash (Fraxinus parryi), a plant that is hugely abundant in this canyon and in the surrounding hills, but listed as endangered in California by the CNPS. Laurel Sumac and White Sage populate the start of the path, along with the ubiquitous California Buckwheat, long-stemmed Hairy Matilija Poppies, Bush Sunflowers, and California Sagebrush. As we brush by a small forest of Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon sessifolium), it releases its characteristic minty smell, refreshing in the hot sun.

About halfway down, just as we come into view of the large alluvial fan deposited by this canyon onto the river valley below us, a gigantic specimen of the Cardon cactus stands sentinel just off the path. Its thick limbs reach 10-15’ and are adorned with gold-tinged fleshy fruits that cluster densely at the ends of the arms, but only on the south-facing side.They look like small, velvet-covered pineapples, works of art in themselves. The indigenous Kiliwa plucked them with crooked sticks and ate them raw.

Cardon buds
Cardon hole

These stately cactuses are probably ancient and nearly endemic to northern Baja. They grow only about 2.5cm a year, and so the tallest might be 200 years old. They survive by soaking up scant water through shallow roots, stockpiling it in the soft membranes of pale green flesh held in place by wooden ribs that contract or expand, accordion-like, according to water content. This one has a hole in it, perhaps habitat for bird or bat or rodent. Lamb wrote about the “Cardon forests” in this valley. As we descend toward the Rio, we see a whole stand of Cardon to the east, many of them quite a bit larger with more numerous limbs. It was this cactus and the other native flora—the “bizarre combinations” of fan palms, cirio, agaves, and yuccas (Nelson 103)—that led Nelson to describe the flora of Baja as “strange plant life of some remote geological period…probably unequaled elsewhere in America” (25).


As we exit the canyon onto the alluvial fan, a nicely curated collection of other cactuses greets us: chollas in various stages of bloom, including Cylindropuntia alcahes, a dense, knobby-clustered variety with meaty stems armored in thick spines and dotted with smooth, unripe fruits. A new cholla, vivid violet-purple, makes an entrance with pink flowers unfolding from inflamed-red buds at branch ends. Another variety of prickly pear cactus, too, yellow flowered, its spiny paddles crazily spilling over the ground. A cluster of flower-crowned Fishhook Cactus (Mammillaria dioica) and a few Senita cactus (Lophocereus schottii)—the “old man cactus,” named perhaps for its hoary micro-spines that might be mistaken for gray hairs, or perhaps for its lanky, 4-sided stalks that sometimes turn from green to gray.

Cylindropuntia alcahes
Senita cactus

Chuparosa (Justicia californica), a common Sonoran desert flowering plant with red, two-lipped tubular flowers on gray-green stems, decorates this landscape as well.


The alienness these creatures provokes uncanny resemblances to strange corals and urchins and other underwater flora and fauna. They remind me of the ancient notion in natural philosophy that every land plant and animal has its corresponding species under the sea. The idea dates at least far back as second century Roman natural historian Pliny. It’s a notion as romantic and compelling as it is absurd. But nowhere else, to my mind, does the idea seem more possible than in a desert, where plants seem as improbable as those of the deep.


In the seventeenth century, the Baconian natural philosopher Thomas Browne debunked this “vulgar” (or common) belief of land/sea correspondence in his Pseudoxia Epidemica, or “common errors.” He regarded the idea as an accident of nomenclature (e.g., sea-horse) based on superficial similarities. He considered the whole idea an affront to God, whose “intellect” and “hand” of creation ought not be restrained by such false resemblances. In the name of God, Browne separated the world into distinct domains (“divided places,” he called them: land, sea, etc.), where the ancients–whose imaginations were stoked by the fires of inventive analogies–had seen resemblances everywhere.


But the ancient impression turns out to merit some scientific consideration. It turns out, Sonoran desert vegetation like cardons and other cactuses were born in conditions far different from their present-day habitat. After the last ice-age, as glaciers retreated to the north, the trend in drying and warming pushed the Sonoran desert southward into territory that would previously have been described as tropical. One surprising effect of this is that “many of the extant Sonoran Desert plants,” including cactus, have “their closest relatives in tropical deciduous forests” (Cartron 45).


It’s crazy to think that the peculiar anatomy of a cactus is in fact the result of adapting from tropical conditions to their opposite: dry weather and punishing radiation. This may account for uncanniness of cactuses. Their familiar yet still-strange hybridity seems somewhere between plant and animal, because it turns out they are in fact monsters: beasts dredged up from deep time whose flesh and spines are ad hoc adaptations to an organism born for a very different climate.


How is the unlikely evolutionary story of a deciduous tropical plant becoming a spine-covered desert one any more believable than that land and sea animals share a hidden bond? (I mean, don’t they? We’re all fish deep down after all.) Those ancient natural historians were merely exercising their imaginations, telling stories that linked plants and animals across environments. Because why not? Those stories might even be considered evolutionary hypotheses to explain the origins of things.


It’s fun to imagine a future in which these monsters have evolved into sentient beings that have shirked the standard 4- and 6-legged anatomical blueprint in favor of locomotion by clusters, tendrils, and paddles, just as cephalopods and squid diverged in their own way with underwater jet propulsion. Imagine a race of cactus people (they already walk!). Deserts are bestiaries, places of curiosity that inspire wonder, places of vibrating intensity and extremes that lay outside our lived experience, as strange and as-yet-unthought-of as the ocean floor.

10 June, 2pm, San Antonio Canyon: Rio Santo Domingo & San Antonio Ranch

The trail dead-ends at the Rio Santo Domingo where we expect a bounty of Baja trout. Somewhere in this river canyon Ford Carpenter caught 60 of them; Lamb and Borell caught as many as 150 on just two multipurpose dry flies (a royal coachman and a brown hackle).


The Rio begins nearly a vertical mile above us at La Grulla, falling precipitously down the west side of the Sierra, more than five thousand feet in fifteen miles over a series of waterfalls before hitting this river valley. Its entire length is around 50 miles—about the same length as the Los Angeles River.

San Antonio Ranch is located at the intersection of two steep and narrow river canyons, one cut by the Rio Santo Domingo, the other by what Lamb called “a fine little stream” joining the Rio from the northeast. Lamb and Borell camped on the far side of this confluence, a few hundred yards from San Antonio Ranch. On our way down into the river valley, we can see the ranch opposite the rivers on the fertile sandy bed of canyon alluvium.

The arroyos form east-west belts of green between wide benches of cactus and sage scrub to the north and south. There is little of the exposed granite of the higher elevations. Here, the hills are of a sandy-loamy character.


In 1925, San Antonio Ranch was the small pig farm of a single Mexican family. To Grinnell, the area was scientifically significant because it was the type locality of the indigenous Sierra San Pedro mountain trout (Salmo nelsoni), which were abundant in both streams running through this canyon. Grinnell had expressly charged Lamb and Borell to collect these fish for ichthyologists studying trout speciation at the University of Michigan. They were caught easily on fly rods: Borell hooked twenty six in one outing—“many fine specimens,” Lamb wrote to Grinnell, “both scientific and eating” (5.3.1925, Lamb to Grinnell). They ate them for breakfast and dinner: “They were very delicious,” wrote Borell.


This trout, the Baja rainbow trout or Nelson’s trout, had first been described to science by Nelson in 1905 when he and his party visited this same location. To his knowledge, the fish lived only in a five-mile section of this stream (Nelson 134). Lamb speculated that the creek below the arroyo was dry much of the year, preventing westward migration; above, steep waterfalls limited eastward migration. A lack of permanent flowing water in the region meant no habitat to which they might migrate even during wetter periods (Snyder 419).


How these fish ended up in this small stream has been a subject of some speculation. Legend has it that they were planted here by the “Mission Fathers two hundred years ago” (Carpenter)–that is, the Dominicans–perhaps in an early attempt to populate these mountain streams with a food supply. This story was repeated by Bertie Meling in the 1960s:


“Only San Antonio Canyon had any fish. An abundance of fat rainbow trout flourished there. They may have come from plantings nearly a hundred years earlier. That would have been when the Dominican Missions were ending their period of influence in the are. And those trout are the same as the rainbow trout in the High Sierras of (Alta) California.” (93)


But even Bertie had her doubts about this story:


“How and when did it happen that the Franciscan priests of Alta California and the Dominicans of Baja were cooperative enough to have carried and planted trout in the remote mountain stream convenient to Mission San Pedro Martir? Others may have planted the trout, but who?”


Neither Carpenter nor Bertie Meling considered that the trout may have arrived on their own. However, Snyder (1926) noted that Salmo nelsoni was likely an ancestral form of the steelhead trout common in coastal streams and rivers in central and northern California (419-21). Steelhead are marine trout: they live in the ocean, migrate to freshwater streams to spawn, and then return.


Though uncommon in southern California, they are not unheard of. According to Hubbs (the ichthyologist for whom Lamb and Borell caught the fish) (1946), steelhead (Salmo gairdnerii) had been consistently discovered in Ojai Creek in Santa Barbara County, in the Ventura and Santa Clara Rivers in Ventura County north of Los Angeles, and in streams in Orange and San Diego counties to the south (Hubbs 83). Steelhead once even ran the Los Angeles River, before it was channelized in 1938 (one was caught in the Los Angeles Harbor in 1938 and to this day steelhead can sometimes be seen snooping in Long Beach, perhaps hoping to get some intelligence of the most recent LA River Master Plan and their possible future).


Grinnell hypothesized, and Hubbs later reasserted, that there was no reason to expect the southward migration of these central California steelhead “vagrants” to stop at the California border. Northern Baja’s faunal and floral character—including the algae and invertebrates important to river-dwelling fish—correspond closely to the San Diegan character, so it would not have been impossible to “expect…that trout (and salmon) wander at least occasionally a considerable distance down the coast of Baja, from which in times of high water in the winter they may occasionally run into the intermittent streams” (84) like the Rio Santo Domingo–at least before agricultural diversions and an increasingly arid climate prevented that river from running to the sea except in the wettest conditions. Once up stream, they might get stranded as river courses dry up. River-locked steelhead are more commonly known as rainbow trout.


This story helps explain the southward migration of the trout, but doesn’t tell us if they are in fact genetically distinct from northern rainbows. Ruiz-Campos and Pister (1987), however, more recently assert that these fish must have been been stranded and isolated from their northern cousins not for 200 but for perhaps 10,000 years (Ruiz-Campos and Pister 132)–long enough to make them genetically distinct: they possess an allele not found in other rainbow trout (132). Their current taxonomic designation, Oncorhynchus mykiss nelsoni, preserves their unique character.


Because they share a recent common ancestor with Alta California rainbows, Baja trout have strong morphological affinity with them. Like their northern cousins, Baja trout are dotted profusely in black spots mainly above a rose or pink or lavender-colored lateral band. But they do have a distinctive deep violet coloration that makes them hard to misidentify.


The narrow, deep canyons make a perfect refuge for this special fish: regular, warm water flow, abundant insect life for feeding and shade for breeding, and relative remoteness has preserved quite a large population. But in his 1925 report, Lamb recorded rumors that this creek was to be diverted or dammed “for power purposes” (419): in that event, these trout would be extirpated unless removed to other waters.


That diversion was never attempted, but Lamb’s intelligence raises some concern for conservation. The Californias are heavy with endemic species due to a constellation of climate and topography that produce microclimates that become creches of evolutionary experimentation. But under human pressures these unique species are the first to go, vulnerable precisely because of their very specialness. This trout is a perfect example.


This thought may have occurred to Charles C. Utt. Utt had been hunting and fishing the Sierra since 1893 and decided in 1929 that the trout ought not be confined to their small range and so set about to move the fish below and above San Antonio–by mule. He gathered trout from the stream, packed them in 5-gallon cans strapped to mules, and released them in pools along the Rio Santo Domingo watershed over the next 12 years. Utt is likely the reason there are trout at La Grulla. He even moved them to another watershed, the San Rafael.


Utt’s one-man (and some-unnamed-Mexicans-) assisted-migration mission was probably motivated more by recreation than conservation: he just liked fishing for trout with his friends and grandson. And we’ll never know, I suppose, how the trout impacted these other micro-ecosystems and their sensitive species (tadpoles, for example, are a special delicacy to trout). Christian, of Meling Ranch, has seen the recreational potential of trout: he’ll likely transport them from here or La Grulla when he gets around to completing his trout pond. And of course we’re here today mostly because of these trout–spending American dollars for the chance to hook one of these storied salmonids.


Visions of a Ford Carpenter- or Chester Lamb-style trout bounty dance before our eyes, sustaining us on this arduous trip. From where the trail meets the creek, we make a short walk westward along to a sandy bank where water freely flows through willow thickets. We’re briefly distracted and stop to snap a variety of dragonflies patrolling the sandy bank: large blue ones the size of Flame Skimmers, with huge glossy blue eyes and bright green mandibles–possibly a Western Pondhawk; vibrant yellow-green ones; and a speckled purple with lentil-green eyes and a glossy black segmented abdomen. All them seem like small mechanical creations: their movements unnervingly precise, their colors the colors of auto body paints. A species of boring beetle on a willow appears inlaid with metal filigree, with joints of copper, as if the creature somehow fused with the rare-earth metals in electronics.

Blue dragonfly
Striped racer

We lose James somewhere along the way, and so we retrace our steps along the creek back to the trail to look out for him. I hop over a Striped Racer, a long, thin, dusty-black snake with two pale yellow stripes extending down its sides. We find James waiting beneath an oak tree bower by the stream, which looks good to eat under, so we collect in the shade and lazily munch the burritos we packed in from Meling Ranch.


After lunch, we hunt for trout. The creek is choked with willows and rushes guarding lovely clear watering holes with a turtle or two but exactly no fish. In hopes of getting an aerial view of a suitable place to cast our flies, we waste an hour and a lot of energy bushwacking up and down the high cactus-covered ridge separating the creek from the Rio.


Frustrated, and plunging disoriented from one section of the creek to the next, the mysterious San Antonio rancher appears to us again, dreamlike: He’s traded his walking pipe and bag of groceries for a stunning white horse. He seems to know what we’re after and seems to have an interest in leading us to pools of fish of a respectable 10-12” (judging from the promising gap between outstretched hands). These are maybe a couple of ridges away from where we’re mucking about, ankle deep in mud and sand.


We follow, encouraged, but he and steed quickly disappear ahead of us into a thicket and we never see him again. I want to romanticize him–is this the 110-year-old Antonio Muro, now over 200, still walking this landscape like some immortal Sierra god, guiding wayward travelers to a Canaan of trout? But I’m too weary and disenchanted, and our trout dreams dry up like so many sun-baked brittlebush sunflowers. Turns out he’s just a crazy hermit who thinks we’re too stupid to find fish.


(Later, Don Rolando will confirm that the “good” fishing is much farther upstream, toward the Cardon forest—or perhaps it was downstream—but it doesn’t matter, since it would likely have been another 2-hour walk to find it. James will remark drily, “If only we’d hired a guide.” The closest we got to it is probably this photo of Ford Carpenter’s from 115 years ago, of a couple of granite-bounded trout pool, entitled, somewhat maddeningly, “Where we caught the sixty trout,” and one of some actual fish.)

Carpenter, where we caught the sixty trout
Carpenter, where we caught the sixty trout

Had we not had the chance to fish back at La Grulla–thanks to Charles C. Utt–the experience would have been a lot more disappointing.


We’re so exhausted by the misadventure that we entirely neglect an opportunity to reshoot two important landscapes of the river canyon: one from Borell (#4774) and one from Carpenter that he called “The trout stream.” I later discover that I’ve shot a near-equivalent on accident as we were climbing out of the canyon–a repeat of the La Encantada qualified success. The horizon lines aren’t exact, but you can trace the same ridgeline in all three photos, 1903, 1925, and 2017.


We are more successful with the birds. James spots a few new birds for the trip: a Black-throated Sparrow on a Spanish Bayonet, California Gnatcatcher on Yerba Santa, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow on Laurel Sumac. The Gnatcatcher is critically endangered in California, its coastal habitat having been largely eliminated, along with the coastal habitat of much of California, and so we are quite pleased to have snapped one. We also snapped an American Kestrel, a Bewick’s Wren, a California Towhee, and some Bushtits cavorting in Acacia.

We also snap another California endemic, the Red-legged Frog, in the creek beneath the oaks, and a species of metalmark butterfly on a chaparral ash tree.


10 June, 4pm, Valladares

Rolando is waiting for us to take us back to Valladares and the house where Aeda said she grew up, and a contender for one of Borell’s photos. On the way, this time I sit in the cab with Rolando and ask him the names of the plants that have been eluding me, finally realizing that a Spanish name would be quite helpful. He also tells me the names of some of the more common plants: chamise is “valle de prieta”; Laurel Sumac is “lentisco”; buckwheat is “maderista”; and Broom Baccharis is “hierba [or yerba] del pasmo.”


It is nice to connect with Rolando in Spanish over these plants. He’s a kind and generous man who seems happy to be included in our gang, and after our truck adventures today I have a new respect for the old vaquero—strong and capable and deeply knowledgeable of the area. In John’s absence, we have all begun to step up our Spanish.


We arrive around 6pm and decide pretty quickly that this isn’t Borell’s “old mining ditch,” but the light is good and the scene tranquil and we’re happy to be done with the day, so we take some photos before setting up camp in the sandy streambed. The house near the arroyo where we camp isn’t the site of the original photo, but we’re told it’s the house where Rolando’s wife Aeda grew up. Whitney and Devon whip up a fine meal for the rest of us. After dinner I engage Rolando in more plant nomenclature and we all sit around a willow-wood fire, drinking rum and cokes (Devon persists, despite mockery, in adding some horrible green powdered drink concoction to his).


I nearly fall asleep by the fire, pleasantly listening to James relate tales of his Alaska adventures, including of some near-misses with grizzly bears and an account of the northern lights. Despite the difficulty of the day and its disappointments, it ends well and in good company. The Don sleeps in the bed of his truck.