Day Trip

Our calendar was unexpectedly blank for the day. No one was counting on us, no tasks were urgent, and our irrelevance felt like license for a field trip. We recruited our old friends Kit and Beverly and set out into the misty morning.

It’s a three-hour drive from here to the Carrizo Plain, a trip we traditionally make in winter, lured by the austerity and tranquility of the place. We like to wander in the silvery light and contemplate the sandstone rock formation with its mysterious Native American symbols. But it’s been such an extravagant springtime! Why not glimpse Carrizo in bloom, even as it fades?

The region is located in southeastern San Luis Obispo County, and it’s vast, about fifty miles long, and fifteen across, the largest remaining swath of native grassland in the state. The Temblor Range borders to the northeast, and the San Andreas Fault cuts through at the foot of the mountains, exposing that most infamous break in California’s topography. The alkaline Soda Lake, a central depression in the midst of the plain, receives all of the area runoff. We accessed the plain via Soda Lake Road and walked up to a viewing point to get oriented. Yellow-orange ribbons of bloom skirted the lake’s milky shores, and a zig-zag of mountains rose in the background.

It was the kind of day that covers your skin with kisses, not the wet, sloppy kind, but light enticing kisses. Pale sun shone through sheets of fog, promising rainbows that never materialized, but we were happy with what was. Kit drove on a narrow dirt road into the hills. It was rutted and bumpy, winding around inconclusively, and we were surprised to come head-to-head with another car, driven by a woman who looked to be our age, traveling solo. Kit has been driving backcountry roads for decades and knows the protocol. He gracefully backed up until there was a little extra space, then pulled over to let the lady pass. She was grateful. “You’ll see up ahead the ditch I almost went into,” she said. “And I still didn’t find where God spilled the paint. Have you seen it?”

We’d seen a lot already: goldfields, desert candles, owl’s clover, blazing stars, tidy tips, poppies, lupines, filaree, fiddlenecks, delphinium, daisies, snake’s head, and so many flowers we didn’t know the names for, bright natives in full glory holding their own against invasives. Yellow prevailed, which we’ve observed at home as well, but as Beverly suggested, we just had to embrace the yellow. It was its own vibrant show, brilliantly nuanced, and quite satisfactory. But we weren’t sure what the lady was referring to. “God-Spilled-the-Paint!” she shouted. “It’s somewhere around here. I’m gonna find it.” And off she went in a little wake of dust. Boomers.

We meandered, deliciously devoid of goals. Beverly demonstrated her roadrunner mating call, a talent I never knew she had. We stopped for lunch at a campground and saw an owl in a tree. The clouds were theatrical, plush and mighty, wielding great shadows that moved by swiftly. We walked up a hill along Quail Springs Road and found thickets of fragrant gray-blue salvia and bush lupine in a washed-out shade of purple, and tiny pale blue flowers, as translucent and delicate as porcelain, and always there were those yellow expanses in the distance, surrounding us like light. A patchwork of the Central Valley was visible to the east below.

There were manmade remnants, too,  all along the way: abandoned old homesteads in the far distance, eroded tanks fallen on their sides, broken fences inexplicably placed, bullet casings on the ground. Mysterious transmission towers stood on the hills like sentries, resembling stars crossed with crosses and set on stilts, almost religious.

Almost religious…as am I…or spiritual anyway, because I believe that all this glory is telling me something, even if it’s just to jolt me awake. And I know this was a pilgrimage of sorts. So much beauty, so much life. With our heartbreak in one hand, and our joy in another, we fall again and again into love.

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