In the two and half hours it takes to drive to the Carrizo Plain, you go back in time about 300 years. Maybe 10,000, should you be lucky enough to check out the Chumash pictographs and rock paintings, said to be some of the most dazzling on the planet. Reservations, by the way, are required and for good reason. Back in the 1920s, much of the rock paintings were vandalized by gun-toting visitors who apparently believed the best way to appreciate native art was by shooting it.
Such insanity aside, there’s something reassuringly prehistoric about the Carrizo Plain. Big. Vast. Immense. Sweeping, powder-blue skies. Oceanic stretches of uninterrupted grasslands. The hills there don’t just roll; they roll their hips. They dance. They dip. There’s a geological friskiness to the land, however quiet, that makes you want to play. It invites you to get your nose up into the face of the San Andreas Fault, which runs along the backside of monument. The sense of sweltering stillness—so overpowering—is in some ways a great optical illusion.
There’s only one main drive—Soda Lake Road—that runs the length of the valley floor, named after a globular lake with such a high alkaline content it looks packed with snow. Maybe half of that 37-mile stretch is paved. The drivability of the rest depends on when it last rained and what kind of vehicle you’re driving. To one side stand Caliente Mountain; to the other, the Temblor Range. Both are best absorbed in the light of dawn or dusk. The Tremblors, in particular, have been carved and sculpted over time; all that detail dances in the sway of evening shadows.
The solitude and silence are all enveloping. On the low end of the subliminal sound spectrum is the cotton candy thrum of wind, nonstop and ubiquitous. On the higher end is the zing of passing flies — sharp and stinging — drawn by the occasional cow patties. Then there’s the silence of the big ropey waves of heat rolling through. Somehow, the enormous All Thisness of the Carrizo Plain does not crush the spirit. It does not suggest — as other vast places do — “You do not matter.” Instead, this landscape — uncompromisingly austere — somehow manages to be inviting. Hang out. Visit. But upon departure, understand better the keen with which Planet Earth tolerates members of the Homo sapiens cult.
Even at 246,000 acres, the Carrizo Plain National Monument qualifies as a small but significant remnant of what was once one of the world’s great grasslands — an American Serengeti — that for many millennia defined California’s San Joaquin Valley. To preserve what’s left was the impetus behind former president Bill Clinton’s decision to designate it a National monument in 2001. But two months ago, President Donald Trump issued an executive order empowering Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to thoroughly review all 27 national monuments that were designated since 1996 and span at least 100,000 acres to determine whether the existing boundaries be maintained, pared down, or eliminated altogether. That review is still ongoing.
The national monument law known as the Antiquities Act, created in 1906 at the instigation of then-president Teddy Roosevelt, gave the president power to bypass Congress and unilaterally protect wildlife and wilderness treasures. Zinke, who claims to be an enthusiastic adherent of Teddy Roosevelt’s outdoors-loving tradition, has complained that the amount of acreage being designated has recently increased at an alarming rate.
The National monument law turned 111 on June 8, and to celebrate, Santa Barbara Congressmember Salud Carbajal mailed a stern letter to Zinke warning that any effort to adjust the boundaries of Carrizo Plain National Monument “will be vigorously opposed.” “It’s a real-deal threat,” he later said, and he intends to meet with Zinke — whose wife grew up in Santa Barbara and whose family owns property here — to discuss the matter. The boundaries for Carrizo Plain, Carbajal said, had been carefully vetted and an environmental review conducted well before Clinton’s executive action. Congressmember Lois Capps — Carbajal’s predecessor — had introduced legislation in 1999 to declare the Carrizo Plain a national monument. Although that bill failed, it had been endorsed by Republicans Jerry Lewis and Bill Thomas, who represented Kern County, where large portions of the Carrizo Plain are located. Carbajal cited that bipartisan support in his letter to Zinke. He also cited the economic benefit to surrounding communities from the increased tourism generated by Carrizo Plain.
By Richie DeMaria