Our leader’s departure—The Elfin Forest of California—Shaggy mountain temples—The pinyon harvest—A wake of condors—A lost cabin—The Museum of Wilderness—Squirrel-spying—Vallecitos—Observatory denied

9 June, 7am, Rancho Meling

John left for Los Angeles before breakfast in the Equinox, leaving the rest of us behind to finish the trip in the Armada. Our plan is to leave tomorrow for Valladares, to visit the old mining community of Valladares to the south, and San Antonio Ranch on the Rio Santo Domingo, where we hope to score perhaps our largest re-photo opportunity yet and to fish at the type location of the Sierra San Pedro Rainbow Trout. Last night we arranged that Don Rolando would take us to Valladares in his awful truck, and guide us down to San Antonio Ranch. He says he knows at least one photo we’re after and so hopefully can give us a little bit of direction—though his suggestions so far have not panned gold. We’ve asked Christian for more details about the nature of the trip to Valladares, but it’s hard to get a good answer. It could be two hours or six. He’s a little cagey about the route and its challenges. It’s a little frustrating having to use Christian as a go-between with Rolando, and we don’t have a good idea what we’re in for. It will be a challenging trip, and quick—just two days to accomplish everything we want.


Today we plan to rest up a bit and meander back up the mountain and into the Parque, to the most accessible of the large meadows, Vallecitos, which sits along the Observatory Road. We’re hoping for some re-photography opportunities, one of a site between a place called La Cienega and La Corona (#4783) and another, of a small hunting cabin near Vallecitos. Another, a vista of the San Felipe Desert to the east, from the top of Diablo Canyon, called El Altar, is sadly out of reach on this trip. We learn from Christian that the hike to El Altar would be an all day affair.

9 June, 9:30am, Observatory Road

We leave for Vallecitos around 9:30am, driving up the steep Observatory Road again in the Armada. On our way from Meling Ranch, James spots a Belding Sparrow on the barbed wire by the secondary gate of the ranch, which I am able to snap. A peach-breasted bird with gray wings, one of the 3 new sparrow species for the day.

As we drive along the road listening to James’s “sleepy-time music” (so judges Devon), I try to botanize a bit. The road winds through a rapidly changing landscape of chaparral scrubland, as different plants wax and wane in dominance the higher you go in elevation before you hit the pine forest. Found all throughout Alta California, chaparral extends as far north as southern Oregon and south as far as northern Baja, and from sea level to mid-elevation mountains. The Sierra here is about the southernmost boundary of chaparral in North America. Despite that it’s perhaps one of the most distinctive of the ecologies of the Californias, its ubiquity is also the most overlooked. Frequently, it is lumped in with many other communities as “desert”, that misused catchall term for “wasteland” or the places in between points of more sublime interest like ocean and mountain, or the non-places between human communities. This may be an unfortunate symptom of our collective environmental ignorance that reduces hugely diverse landscapes to “blandscapes,” to borrow the environmental writer Robert Macfarlane’s term, largely due to the fact that we don’t know the words that allow for a finer-tuned recognition of the nonhuman communities that share our space.


If not overlooked out of indifference, chaparral is sometimes savaged as overtly, even intentionally, hostile. In 1923, the botanist Francis Fultz admitted that the chaparral of southern California at first “aroused [in him] a certain feeling of hostility.” John Muir, recalling his short walk through some chaparral-covered canyons in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, regarded the landscape as “the most self-possessed and uncompromising.” Nowhere in his much-preferred Sierra Nevada Mountains does Muir find himself “compelled to creep more than a mile on hands and knees” through “stubbornly bayonetted” brush, beset by rattlesnakes, only to peer up at a “thorny sky.” But to his credit, Muir tried hard to love the chaparral, and even struggled to apply some of his most famous mountain metaphors: but the appellation “shaggy mountain temples,” as he designated the San Gabriels, seems comically out of place when you remember that his temple metaphors were born of the comparatively thorn-less and gleaming glacier-carved granite of the high Sierra.

Vallecitos in the distance.
Vallecitos in the distance.

“Tourists, visitors, and newcomers” to California see chaparral and “get the idea that Nature has treated Southern California very shabbily” (Fultz 23). But once you make the effort to “get acquainted” with these these neighbors, as Fultz did, something akin to affection emerges and you can see what he saw when he characterized chaparral as “the elfin forest”—a rather romantic adjustment to sensibilities attuned to other, faraway, greener, and hospitable landscapes. Chaparral is indeed a forest in miniature, characterized by small or even tiny trees or high shrubs that represent a far greater diversity than the most stately and monumental forests, which tend to be rather low in diversity.

The first stage of this chaparral forest as we leave Rancho Meling behind us is chamise and buckwheat—two shrubs that to a novice look pretty similar, though are obviously different once you get used to them. Both are evergreen, long-stemmed, with tiny, pudgy 1-2 cm elongated lobed leaves that might be mistaken for succulents up close, or blunt needles from afar. But the chamise has a white flower and the buckwheat a pink, both of which come in small dense clusters. The buckwheat’s are packaged in small, compact heads, while the chamise’s extend along the ends of branches. The chamise grows taller than the buckwheat, and tends to crowd its landscape, while the buckwheat, seemingly more gregarious, shares its environment more readily, often with cholla and prickly pear cactus.


However, the diamond cholla so abundant at Rancho Meling quickly disappears the higher we drive, and both chamise and buckwheat give way to redshank, chaparral’s stateliest and most dominating resident. Redshank is in the same genus as chamise and is sometimes called Chamiso de Colorado, or Hierbo del Pasmo—”the astonishing herb.” For good reason: Much taller than chamise, redshank is a tree of twisting branches with a distinctive red bark that exfoliates, like manzanita, in long shreds that accumulate at the base of the plant. It has deep green elongated leaves on green stems that appear more vibrant in contrast to its red bark—the same color palette as a manzanita. It seems sometimes chaparral plants are painted with the most complementary colors—another reason I find them so attractive. The redshank community here is an apex forest, a monoculture that has secured its place and won’t give it up again until fire reduces it to the ash that will feed the fire-following ephemerals waiting patiently in the soil to restart the cycle of succession.


Farther up slope the deep green leaves of the comparatively massive laurel sumac stand out against the dry, otherwise dusty character of many other chaparral plants. The apparent “dustiness” of chaparral plants is the cumulative effect of minutely hairy leaves. An adaptation to dry conditions, the hairs help gather and retain moisture from the air. Sumac leaves, however, are not hairy, owing to the plant’s own secret, hidden adaptation: a deep, sometimes 15′ tap root that easily manages to find water all year long. Sumac is common along the Observatory Road between Rancho Meling and the condor lookout. It rather suddenly gives way to an impenetrable forest of broom baccharis (Baccharis sarothroides)—tall (6-8’) and a vibrant green and seemingly completely covering the landscape. This forest seems to act like a buffer between the buckwheat chaparral of Rancho Meling and the pine forests of the Sierra San Pedro at higher elevations.


Here and here along the roadside, orange-cream-colored desert mallows and Matilija (“fried egg”) poppies make a show.


The first pines to appear are pinyon pines (Pinus monophylla), or Single-Leaf Pinyon, that live only at mid-elevation, between around four and seven and a half thousand feet. Its upper elevation limit heralds the end of the chaparral. These are smaller leaved than the Jeffreys, and cut a more distinctive “tree-like” figure: rounder, fuller, and shorter than other pines. There are a few varieties of pinyon in these mountains: 4-leaf (Parry), single-leaf, and the Mexican piñon. The single-leaf (monophylla) has a less determinate shape, while the Parry Pinyon (quadrifolia) has a more stately and determinate shape. All present a “gray-green” aspect rather than the more vivid green of higher-elevation pines, and possess cones that present very distinctly, like dark spots against the trees’ comparatively light and open branch structure.


The pinyons produce fatty, caloric pine nuts—the same you’d use in pesto today—that were much sought after by Native Americans. John Muir described Indians in Yosemite that “climb trees like bears and beat off the cones or recklessly cut off the more fruitful branches with hatchets, while the squaws gather and roast them until the scales open sufficiently to allow the hard-shell seeds to be beaten out.” He didn’t talk about the role that these practices played in the cultivation of these nuts: the cutting of branches was not “reckless” but a form of pruning; the “beating off” of cones “fostered the production of…new growth buds” that would lead to greater yields in subsequent years (Anderson, Tending 284). California Indians cultivated pinyons through such practices, as well as through intentional burning of undergrowth. Burning kept the ground clear, allowing California Indians more easily to collect the cones they knocked off the trees with hooked poles. But burning undergrowth also prevented harmful insect infestations and reduced the intensity and likelihood of tree-damaging fires. Muir was witnessing indigenous land management practices dating back thousands of years and mistaking it for vandalism.

9 June, 11:30am, The Condor Lookout, Observatory Road

Just before the higher-elevation Jeffrey and Sugar pines we again pass the condor lookout. Today, we’re rewarded with quite a show: eleven of these great black undertakers, a wake of condors if you will, engaged in various ungainly activities: hopping ridiculously in the road, perched along the guardrail, or coming in for a clumsy landing. We intrude on one scene in which an adult and juvenile inexplicably grapple in the road, the adult trying to step on the head and neck of the juvenile, as if to pin it. The reason for this behavior eludes us. If they weren’t such rare and storied monsters, they might be considered hideous. They are terrifyingly ugly, but have a special, gentle charm. Their huge pink heads and giant eyes are compelling. We watch and record this carnival scene for some minutes. We learn from Felipe, the Park Ranger, that the tally of condors has increased from 34 to 37 since 2016. We spot at least one black-headed juvenile without tags, so some are born wild. In all, it is an amazing sight: at one point, we drive by 6 or so of these comic villains lined up in a row on the guardrail, as if in a police lineup. We pass by so slowly we might shake hands with them. They watch us warily but not too warily to fly off. At one point, we actually have to drive around one that refuses to give up the center of the road.

9 June, Noon, Museo Parque Nacional

We continue on to the Ranger Station, where Felipe, the only Ranger we encounter, agrees to open up the Sierra San Pedro Museum for us at 12:30pm. We kill time birding near the station for half an hour. I’m getting better at identifying nuthatches and Pacific Slope Flycatchers, which leaves House Wrens and Rock Wrens from my long list of birds I’d have trouble picking out of a lineup. Rock Wrens do actually hang out on rocks, so that’s helpful. Pygmy Nuthatches tend to congregate in small groups on branch ends, while the White-breasted Nuthatches are more solitary, hitching up and down the trunks of trees in quest of their next insect meal.

Coyote Wild Cat, Vallecitos 4816
Lamb at Old Cabin, Vallecitos 4814

Our aim here is to reshoot a cabin in one of Borell’s photographs (#4874, June 10, 1925, Lamb at old cabin), which we think is near the site of the Museum. It’s an old hunting cabin, by the looks of it: another photo depicts a rifle near a coyote and wild cat strung up (#4816). But we learn from Felipe that the cabin has been demolished, along with most of the other structures in the park that predate the creation of the Parque Nacional in 1947. The Park Service tore them all down. The Museum sits on the site of that old cabin.


It seems like a small detail—it’s a just an old cabin—until you take the wider view. The Parque Nacional is an import of the model established by the American National Park system, which is famous for setting aside huge tracks of land intended for nothing other than recreation and the preservation of wilderness. The National Parks have been cited as one of America’s best ideas, a grandiose claim substantiated by countries like Canada, Mexico, and Africa, which have modeled their parks on ours. National parks serve not only for recreation, but as baselines of biodiversity—“laboratories for the study of land-health,” as Aldo Leopold called them in 1949 (A Sand County Almanac 196)—on the assumption that they represent nature primeval: wild, untouched nature prior to human intrusion.


And undoubtedly the Parque in Baja has contributed to the astonishing integrity of the Sierra San Pedro. But the Parque’s strategic removal of human structures like cabins, suggests that, alongside recreation, preservation, and ecological study, we seem also to have exported the myth of wilderness as a place of non-habitation, a place where humans never lived. The wilderness philosophy embedded in the parks doesn’t admit of history, human or natural. Human labor and human history have no place, which sets up a stark divide between human and nature that has, in the U.S. resulted in the colonial erasure of human histories and their replacement by the narratives of dominant cultures. The troubled history of Yosemite stands as case in point: a valley cleared by violence of its Miwok inhabitants to make room for anodyne conceptions (and legal definitions) of “untrammeled” nature where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (Wilderness Act of 1964). But also Tanzania and Kenya too: as Rebecca Solnit writes, “the Masai have been displaced by the creation of national parks, and their 3,000-year-old nomadic way of life has become unsustainable without this extensive land base” (Savage Dreams 299).


Why else remove the old cabins of the Sierra San Pedro except to erase the traces of activities and inhabitants we regard as anathema to “nature,” thereby reinforcing the Parque’s “pure” nature? When the Parque was made in 1947, the government grandfathered in the members of the old ejido who were granted these lands under the Mexican land reforms, as were the indigenous Kiliwa. Removal of the cabins signals the Parque’s uneasiness with sharing a vision of the region, and its land-management practices, with those other actors. It signals competition for the definition of place.


In place of older narratives about land use written on the actual landscape in the form of structures and practices, the Parque has installed an official narrative in the form of the Museo, which sits on the site of the cabin we hoped to photograph. The Museo, like the “nature” advertised in national parks, seems on the surface anodyne, even charming. The visitor is greeted by a beautiful, massive stained-glass window depicting the native mountain sheep. Inside its small space, it packs a mix of cultural and natural historical exhibits that tell fairly conventional stories of regional firsts and origins: the first peoples, the first missionaries to arrive in the area, the first photographic expedition, which includes Ford Carpenter’s Polaroid camera from his 1903 expedition (perhaps the camera in fact). There’s standard ecological lessons in educational displays devoted to the trees of the pine forest and to the climatic history and possible future, showing a trend toward increasing temperatures and regional aridity.

Stained glass window
Ford Carpenter's Poloroid

I pause to reflect on the reflexive act of photographing the instrument that produced some of the photographs we’re here to reshoot, like some endless regress of landscape representation that takes the notion of “framing the view” to another level.


Another exhibit catches my eye similarly for what it reveals not only about the landscape, but about the interpretation of landscape. This one is dedicated to “montura antigua” or antique mounts: the stiffened calfskin boxes, saddlebags, and other artifacts from the history of the mountain pack trains of the old vaqueros. The placard on one display, devoted to a complete nineteenth-century pack outfit, reads “de ascendancia kiliwa,” or artifacts of Kiliwa ancestry. These artifacts suggest labor: the labor of the vaqueros, the labor of expeditions, the international history of hired portage into the mountains. But of course this isn’t only history: it’s present. We hired Rolando and Aeda. They packed our gear into identical calfskin boxes—as useful in the 21st as in the 19th century. We walked miles into La Grulla, cameras and scientific instruments and food packed into them. Did our gear ride into La Grulla in a mobile museum? Did we walk back in time, to a land where people only used to work? Are Rolando and Aeda in fact only historical re-enactors, acting the part of old-time laborers on the landscape for the benefit of its visitors? Or are they working vaqueros and sometime paid guides for gringo scientists? From the perspective of the museum the answer is clear: the museum frames a view of wilderness in which labor and laborers are antiques–vestiges of the “old west” memorialized in the Meling Ranch’s story. This view is perhaps underscored by our findings that the high meadows really haven’t change all that much, revealing an accident of ecology that supports the official museum narrative that nothing here every changes.

Montura antigua

The museum’s official narrative contains history, ordering it and confining it within its small space so that it doesn’t spill out onto the landscape where any visitor might be free to read into it what she pleases. But the story, despite its appearance of having been told, is still in the process of telling. The park as wilderness museum still competes with the park as site of work/labor. Unlike a Yosemite, which has replaced the aboriginals entirely within its institutionalized idea of “original” nature, this park is continually embarrassed by its pre-museum originals, who still practice life and work here. It’ll take some time to understand more fully the uneasiness represented here. And while hunting may not be officially allowed in the Parque anymore, I still remember dining on venison at La Grulla.

9 June, 1:30pm, Vallecitos

We lunch on tuna outside, where we spy a Mearns’s Squirrel up in a pine. I finally manage to take a video of the little animal at its toilette.

After, we drive to Vallecitos and spend a warm, post-lunch hour and a half sleepily snapping birds. Vallecitos is another long meadow dotted with huge granite forms—though neither as open nor as wide as La Grulla and La Encantada. We take a number of panos as well as black-and-whites before departing for the Observatorio. But before we get much farther, we’re halted by a sign indicating that the Observatory Road is open only from 10-1. Disappointed, we drive back down the mountain, low gear the whole way.


We try for one more re-photo, a plant community photo of “Ceanothus and Manzanita,” between a place called La Cienega and La Corona (#4783). We don’t have enough information on either place, so we ultimately have to give it up, satisfied to get some nice panoramas from a heliotrope station on an unnamed mountain, from which we have a grand all the way to Pacific, above a plateau of fog. A Northern Flicker perching nearby is gone in the blink of an eye, but not before giving me a brilliant show of rusty red feathers.

From the heliotrope station
Ceonothus and Manzanita, 7K ft between La Cienega and La Corona 4783

We return to the Ranch to a flank steak dinner and some evening packing to get ready for Valladares tomorrow, where the Rio Santo Domingo and its trout await.