In mid May, we landed, quite by accident, in a little slice of heaven.
The location: KCB campground, Carrizo National Monument, north and a little west of Santa Barbara.
The timing: just at the very, very tail end of the bloom season – long enough afterward that, to all intents and purposes, the flowers were gone. All the SoCal retired bloom peepers and weekend campers had either seen the stunning colors and already gone home, or assumed they’d missed them and were no longer trying.
At this sweet spot in time and place, we arrived at Carrizo.
We didn’t know our luck at the time. The entrance was inauspicious – a single sign, dusty and baking in the sun, a washboarded, unpaved road beyond a cattle crossing, fields of brown tall grasses, and cows, cows, cows. It looked more like the back end of a ranch than a floral paradise. We paused and considered; it would be a long, dry drive on a bumpy road – would it be worth it? We perused the signage – it offered an old ranch inhabited by endangered bats, a couple of campsites. Well, the ranch might be interesting.
As we drove through, we passed curious cows with wide-eyed calves, salt ponds, and rolling hills, still wondering if we’d made a good choice. But as the day progressed, we began to realize we’d found a treasure. The lonely, open terrain welcomed many raptors. The wide, vast expanses of grasses were beautiful, and gave way to an uniterrupted view of the San Andreas Fault, which paralleled us in the far distance for the full length of our time in Carrizo. We stopped to hike up a hill to a water tank, and casting our eyes out across hundreds of miles, we were the only ones here. After the bumper-to-bumper humanity of greater LA, and the pretty, populated costal areas of Santa Barbara, we now had an entire chunk of California all to ourselves.
Late afternoon, we came across the turn-off for the first campground. It seemed a shame to spoil such open emptiness with the rigidity and relative populousness of a campsite, but we decided to check it out anyway. Rolling in, we saw a 6-site campground, each with its tidy picnic table, food hanging pole, and fire pit, nestled amongst a copse of trees and an old barn building. There was a fresh, bright, clean vault toilet, and a water spigot. An official sign, of the kind usually used for 100 rules and regulations, was instead filled with images of the wildlife that could be seen nearby. Not even an overnight camping price could be seen. There was just one other resident, a woman with her car and tent. We stopped to ask what she knew of the cost. “It’s free! Make yourself at home.” We could hardly believe our luck. We’d begun to learn that the more you pay, the worse – more crowded and restricting – the campsite. This had the makings of a great spot.
Indeed. Over the next three nights – the longest we’ve stayed anywhere except when with friends and family – we discovered the many joys of Carrizo National Park. A few people came and went from the campgrounds and we shared company with some fascinating individuals, the kind of folks, like us, whose stories and circumstances lead them to the road less travelled.
Some of our neighbors were of the flighted, more permanent variety. A pair of nesting owls and their two fledglings were living in the campground trees. One fledgling was well on target academically, but the other, not so much. The lessons were slower to sink in for this guy, and by the time we arrived, he’d evidently been put back in the tree twice after tumbling to the ground following attempted flight. We could see him in a low branch, wide eyed and fluffed out in healthy feathers, watching our every move. At night we could hear the parents in nearby trees, talking to him – theirs, a low hoot-hoot, his, a higher cry – and see them sweep silently from a distance, bringing food. During the day, the remains of a meal (His? Theirs? A deliberate temptation to aid flight?) could be seen – a tail and feet here, a head there, all previously parts of some furry scurrying critter not quite fast enough. It reminded me of Aldo Leopold’s writings on the mouse and the hawk, each – like us – bound up in its own view of the world:
The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.
The rough-leg [hawk] has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch mice. He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
The owls were not the only ones to keep us company and entertained: there were also orioles in riots of color – reds and oranges on breast and wing. Falcons and warblers and nighthawks and red-wing blackbirds and swallows all called the campground area home.
We watched a trio of fox kits on the hillside, frolicking and rolling, exploring and playing, always staying close to a den we could not quite see, but which they clearly knew as safe home base. We saw antelope, and broke out into song like the hokey, iPod-less travelers were were: Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play…
At night while we sat around the fire, we could hear that the campground was alive with the sound of small, busy life. I wore my red-light headlamp and attempted to follow the sound, but it was difficult. Those who live know how to move quickly; those that do not are in the belly of an owl. Just a few times, I caught a glimpse of the kangaroo rats darting from one hole to another. Katie sat watching into the dark, ears perked, transfixed by the sounds and all that they entailed.
Our human neighbors were equally fascinating. Eve was our favorite, a warm, NorCal woman in her late 50s or 60s. On the first night we got to talking over a sangria. Eve was “orbiting her father” who lived in San Fransisco. At 91, he was still independent, and Eve was taking friends’ advise to value that while it lasted. Every couple of weeks she would head back to check in with him – do his cleaning, laundry, a little cooking, stock his medications – and then leave him to it. In between, a decent social security check could be stretched to allow life on the road. San Fransisco with its high rentals was out of reach, but this itinerant exploration of California suited her. We’d see her in her shorts and hiking boots, a rucksack and binoculars, going birding. She offered suggestions on where to see the last of the wildflowers, good campsites in the area we were headed, and an admonition to wear sunscreen (“It’s Mothers Day, so here’s some good mothering advice…”).
We met a couple who had been there a week earlier, and now returned to see how the owl fledgling was getting on. The gal was warm and insightful, a vintage antiques dealer with an eye for a good story, and we talked for a while on what an object reveals about not only its own history, but about the posessor too, through their reaction to it. The guy was friendly and knew his birds well. He crossed the campgrounds with something that looked like a camouflaged bazooka – his camera, it turned out – and in between snapping photos, shared some of what he’d captured in his lens already. What an eye he had – mesmerizing moments of eye, wing, talon, and tail caught in his lens, frozen in time. Awestruck at the images and warmed by the goodness and sensitivity of the photographer, I felt, not for the first time, how very lucky I was to be on this trip – at this place, at this time, the moment itself a privilege of a lifetime.
There’s nothing like a good mini-crisis of home administration to bring you back to reality, and I spent just a little too much time those few days driving off to a very particular turning in the road (30 mph at the bend – as if anyone could even get up to that speed, let alone surpass it) where I could get a scrap of cell service. You haven’t really lived on the road until you’ve marveled at a sunset while sitting on hold, waiting for customer service to answer, with your foot out the window and your elbow cocked at just the right angle to ensure you keep the connection. It’s all part of the experience.
We woke the final morning to find that the young owl was once again out of the tree. What to do? Leave nature to do the work she does so well? Get in the middle of it and put the owl back in the tree as someone before it had done?
The fledgling looked healthy and the parents seemed willing to care for it regardless of human intervention, so we decided to step in. We considered approaches, and soon realized the little guy had some talent for survival. As we stepped forward, he clicked his beak and showed us his impressive talons. Clearly not the same tiny bird whom the other campers had put in the tree. We persisted, with care. Gently Colin extended a box, and as we got close, the owl spread his wings to some 5 feet, and flew several short distances, ending amongst a copse of trees near the old barn. We were glad to see it – the short flight and show of energy assured us, and his final location seemed safer, even if he was still grounded. We left him to it, wishing him high skies and a cornucopia of small furry creatures for his dinner.