There’s a valley north of Los Angeles, tucked between the Temblor and Caliente ranges, the teeth of their ridges bare and jagged. It was farmland, once. Before the depression. Before irrigation and industrialization made its way to California crops in earnest. And when the plows had gone, the cattle and the sheep came. Long miles of barbed wire, too. Slowly, the plain between the peaks forgot all about the humans that went.
Carrizo Plain National Monument is the last place to see California as it was before the coast belonged to Mexico. Before the Spanish built their string of missions like adobe pearls along the Camino Real. It’s the wild heart of the state’s dusty southern bones, the largest patch of native grassland left in the Bear Republic.
The whole of the place is split down the middle by the San Andreas Fault, the land to the west all working its way north, tearing and grinding at the rest of the continent. The two slip past each other some four inches each year. The land shows the scar of it, rippled with the pressure of our changing Earth. Creek beds that cross the fault sit disjointed or offset like poorly healed bones.
We come in from the north, driving past the plain’s sprawling dry lake, its white expanse a blot of strangeness in the dusty grass. We’re still early for the main season. The summer months are dry and hot enough to be dangerous, but it’s mild come winter when the snakes bed down and the temperature drops. The information center’s still boarded up for a few weeks still, and the only ranger around points us towards one of two campgrounds in the area.
There are shadows of the land’s past everywhere. We slip by an ancient, rusting water tank on our way to Selby Campground. The cylinder sits on a massive cement pad, decorated here and there with the remains of a rusting straight six, the engine used to pump water up out of the dry soil, or push it out to fields or tanks long since vanished. We stay the night on all that’s left of a sprawling oil platform, where men once drilled miles into the earth in search of the oil that was so pervasive just over the hills to the east. They found nothing, and all that’s left of their hope is a wide, flat spot in the rippled hills.
The campground is a mess. There’s the usual smattering of trash: plastic bags and broken glass, bullet casings and shotgun shells. But unlike the open spaces out east, the soil has no interest in claiming these things. The desert leaves it. The dry air preservers every scrap of paper, every bottle cap. It’s a place that forgives nothing. Forgets nothing.
And again, I can’t stand it. We have a view of the valley below us, and when the sun begins to set, the hills light orange and red in the dusk. It’s quiet, too. The only sound out here is the tumble-roar of an airliner heading for LAX. This is a cruel place. Home for determined creatures. Night foxes and mid-day rattlesnakes. But it’s beautiful enough to hurt, as different as it is from the rest of California, a state that’s been tamped down by human twiddling. The trash on the ground here is a blasphemy.
We go for a walk, letting Kiddo get her boots dusty in the setting sun. And when we’re done, I unfold a bag, put on some gloves, and go about picking up all I can. Maybe this is what it means to have public lands. That there will always be people to destroy what’s there for others. That you pick your place. Do the damage or fix the mess.
There’s dispersed camping across the monument, and we spend the next day roaming the network of dirt roads there. The stillness is amazing. We see one other vehicle, and when we set up camp, I walk out the road to our east. There are bones here and there. The thin ribs of deer, but cattle, mostly. The thick columns of their spines and the clubs of their femurs. No skulls, though. All taken for trophies or washed away by some long gone flash flood. I can’t see what killed them. Drought or famine or the fangs of some hidden predator.
How hard the men and women who settled here must have been. How determined or desperate. Looking at L.A. now, with it’s paved rivers and web of gridded streets, it’s easy to forget that most of the state’s southern miles were this way, once. And that it would take so little to become so again. That humanity has borrowed that place for a spell.