Aeda’s origins—A deepening mystery—The hot hike out—A worrisome ride—Dust and gas—A brief summary of findings—Pibi Martorell & the centenarian—Aeda’s origins, revisited

8 June, La Grulla, 6am

Up at 5:15am and packed by 6 for the long walk across La Grulla and back up the canyon to La Tasajera, and from there the ride down the mountain to Rancho Meling.


John spoke with Aeda about Valladares and San Antonio Ranch—the next major site we plan to visit. To our surprise, she says that she practically grew up in the house in Borell’s photo (4800, Old Mining Ditch, Valladares). She claims also to know of a 110-year-old man named Antonio Murio whom Lamb, Borell, and Huey all mention in connection with San Antonio Ranch. Senor Murio claimed in 1925 that he was the Ranch’s namesake, and Borell writes that he photographed him, but this photograph doesn’t appear to have survived (Borell FN 4.26, 271; Lamb FN 4.27, 66). That was 92 years ago: it’s a mystery how Aeda knows about him, too.

Old Mining Ditch, Valladares 4800

It’s about a 5 1/2 mile trek up 1650’ back to the pickup point at La Tasajera, Road’s End. We retrace the two oak- and manzanita-lined granite canyons. It’s a steeper incline than I remember on the way down, and there is frequent stopping by the crew in the small shade of the oaks. After some initial bodily resistance to this walk, I soon warm up and come to enjoy this climb and these canyons tremendously. It’s a beautiful botanical garden of Baja flora. The Jeffrey Pines on the meadow floor, with their deep-rutted rich brown bark that smells of butterscotch and vanilla, give way to Sugar Pines nearer the top of the canyon. These have an unruly branch structure and deep brown, almost cedar-like bark, and a “cropped” top that frequently appears flat. Between the floor and the top of the canyon dominate the small-leaved, short-statured oaks characteristic of chaparral–likely Canyon Live Oaks (Quercus chrysolepis) or perhaps Scrub Oaks (Q. berberidifolia). I don’t have the expertise to make the definitive species determination, or to check for acorns and the characteristic gold fuzz on the underleaf of Canyon Oaks that might indicate which species is which.


We spy some new birds on the way out: Say’s Phoebe on the meadow floor, Acorn Woodpeckers on the trek up, and perhaps a Costa’s Hummingbird (John is reasonably sure of its long wing projection past the tail, absence of throat patch and buffy sides, and grayish cheek). At the top, in the Sugar Pines, Williamson’s Sapsuckers.

Say's Phoebe
Costa's Hummingbird
Williamson's Sapsucker
The crew naps

9 June, 12pm, La Tasajera, Road’s End

We arrive at the trailhead about noon and nap and write for an hour or so while we wait for Don Rolando and our train, which set out after us. Everyone is tired and hot and hungry. Don Rolando arrives at the trailhead about 1pm with the mules, horses and our gear, looking like he’s had some trouble with the pack train. A lot of the gear is dusty from a fall and my (useless) fishing rod has come loose from its case, and the case strap broken. All in all not too bad an experience with mules and far better than I expected, though I can only imagine the travails of Rolando and Aeda with those mules up that canyon.


The real challenge starts once we’re in the truck. Devon and I “volunteer” to ride in the back of the truck—the two longest-legged fellows crammed into the boot. This leg of the trip proves worse than any other: the rutted dirt road feels a lot less obliging when you’re bouncing in the trunk, tire irons jabbing at you while inhaling dust and the reek of the aging truck’s gasoline wheezes. Discomfort turns to genuine worry when the brakes overheat on the steep ride down under the weight of gear and people. We’re forced to stop a number of times to let them cool, lest we careen down the mountain. This only adds extra time and discomfort. But while we wait at the Parque Nacional ranger station, we get a chance to observe some California Quail, a Mountain Chickadee, Turkey Vulture, Lesser Goldfinch, and our old friend condor #49, soaring high above, whom we met on the way into the Parque nearly a week ago.

9 June, 4pm, Meling Ranch

Back at the ranch, Rolando magically appears at our door with the Tecate six-pack of our dreams. We drink and celebrate a successful adventure, having gotten what we came for: birds and re-photos. We reminisce with Christian about the trip and its successes and hardships and everyone is in very high spirits. We dine in the main hall at 7, still filthy but excited. A pair of environmental educators from Northern California dine with us, and John relates to them some of the takeaways of the trip.


The Big Picture: Things more or less haven’t changed in the intervening years. A few species are present now that weren’t then: Lark Sparrow, for instance, and Rock Wren. The meadow is pretty lousy with these lower-elevation birds, which may have moved up slope because of a drying climate. Beyond these two species, the SSPM remains as it was. Trees live and die according to their life cycle, not ours. If you judge that some of the taller trees might be 200 years old, and most are fallen from the old photos, then you can guess that the lifespan of a monster pine is around 300 years. But there appears to be a cap. None of the largest trees from the old photos was standing today. And some relatively large pines were not even saplings in the old photos. Yet, the wonder is the process carries on naturally. Signs of fire are everywhere in the scars on the larger trees. At the same time, you don’t see the vast burnt tracts of forest like you do in the US, indicating smaller-scale, more localized fires. Larger crown fires—the really destructive kind that spread across the top of a forest and which occur only in the hottest conditions–must therefore be less common here. Crown fires, common in Alta California, are the result of the modern approach to fire, which has been to manage fires by waging an aggressive campaign of suppression. This produces huge fuel buildup and eventual conflagrations that can permanently alter a landscape, disrupt habitat, and open it up to invasion by non-native species. Signs of smaller-scale, localized fires among the pines in the SSPM include an open, park-like pattern covered in abundant pine needles, cones, and short ferns or horsetail near water sources.


No logging has removed habitat; no agriculture has diverted water; no fire suppression has impeded the natural cycles of vegetation buildup and combustion. Trees that die slowly disintegrate where they fall, undisturbed, like monuments to themselves. John sums it up nicely in a photo of the charred remains of a pine that burned long ago yet still somehow stands. He calls it a “rift in the time-space continuum”: like a portal to California’s ecological history. The place is remarkable, as remote and untouched as you’re likely to find anywhere in North America. It will likely be among the only environmental success stories in the Moore Lab’s 5-year Mexican Bird Resurvey project due to the unusual combination of land-use history and environmental resilience.

After dinner, Christian introduces us to Aeda’s father Pibi Martorell, an elderly, wizened, Pall Mall smoking vaquero who now works for Christian, still doing considerable ranch labor. They have to argue with him to take it easy. We wonder if he’s heard of Antonio Murio, the mysterious centenarian. Turns out he actually knew the man, who, he claims, died in 1950. The mystery deepens: Perhaps Murio grossly exaggerated his age, or perhaps Lamb and Borell and Huey all misunderstood him, or indeed Murio was ancient! I’m starting to romanticize old man Murio as some eternal mountain sage. Don Pibi also delivers some intelligence on the house in the photo at Valladares, where Aeda said she was raised. He says that the house is still standing, though it has no roof. Rolando will take us to the site the day after tomorrow. An old cemetery is located across the arroyo from the house, up on a hill, across from mines tunneled into the facing rock walls. We hope we’ll see these, as well as another, uselessly titled “Heavy Brush Habitat”–which might caption nearly every photo we have along. We’re optimistic that the distinctive ridgeline will be easy enough to spot.

It’s great to talk, albeit through John, with Dons Pibi and Rolando and Dona Aeda, who may have met or at least known of some of the characters in our story and to try to sleuth out these photograph locations with the people who have lived in these mountains their entire lives.


Christian says he knows about the ruins of the old Jesuit mission at La Grulla. He says they’re indeed located on the north end of the meadow, east from camp and before you hit the cattle fence. There’s a solid chance that we walked on or near the ruins, perhaps more than once. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’d probably walk right over them. He has a photo of them hanging in the dining hall, which I snap in the event that we ever return. The horizon line in the distance appears distinctive enough to help pinpoint the location accurately.

John and Pibi Martorell, Rancho Meling