October 22, 2017
A HIDDEN GEM OF A PARK
PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK, CA – Driving south from the San Francisco airport is pretty much what you’d expect: dense high-speed traffic gradually thinning out beyond San Jose; becoming Route 25 at Hollister; and sharing a valley with the San Andreas Fault the whole distance. About 30 miles south of Hollister is a modest turn onto Route 146 at the east entrance to the park. There’s almost nothing fresh and green or familiar here. The huge oaks are blue oaks and the tall pines gray pines. The watercourses are dry this time of year, and the chaparral yellow-brown.
We pulled into the parking lot at the visitors’ center. I struggled out on legs grown stiff from riding and noticed instantly something I hadn’t heard for months: silence. Nestled beside the dry bed of Bear Gulch between beetling yellow walls, the valley was utterly devoid of background noise. I felt like whispering to preserve the unfamiliar peace.
The crew – Steve, Phil, and I – are here to shoot video and conduct interviews for a one-hour special about the restoration of the California condor and the people making it possible. It’s my new thing for this week. In fact, there’s so much new and fascinating about it that it’s probably going to occupy two weeks. The park itself, aside from the condors, needs talking about. Not at all on the scale of Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Great Smoky Mountains parks, it’s about the size of the Dartmouth College Grant in New Hampshire – a northern New England township.
No four-star hotels here. Overnight visitors set up tents or sleep in motor homes in a park near the east entrance. There’s a swimming pool there that’s very popular during the summer, when daytime temperatures here soar regularly above 100º. Steve and I are keeping house in a little cabin on the hill behind the Condor Recovery Program office building – also quite small. Phil, who prefers private sleeping quarters, is paying for the privilege by sleeping in a bunkhouse on the opposite side of the park, and being a runner, anyway, will walk or jog the three miles back and forth daily, along with the program’s director, Rachel Wolstenholme, who looks at least equally fit.
As an amateur geologizer, I’m finding the place fascinating. The Pinnacles, for which the park is named, started out about 23 million years ago as a large volcano that sprang up along the collision line between the Pacific tectonic plate and the North American plate. As we’re frequently reminded (most notably in 1906), those two plates are still grinding against each other, creating almost daily minor temblors – we had one this morning about four o’clock; I thought it was Steve rolling over in the top bunk – and in the process sliding slowly past each other. When the volcano that’s now the Pinnacles subsided into (apparent) dormancy, the northwesterly movement of the Pacific plate sheared off about two-thirds of it and took it along with it. Thus today the western portion of the remains of the volcano sits about 195 miles northwest of the eastern. It’s still on the move, and this Yankee boy is hoping it won’t take a major jump this week.
Over the millennia the originally 8000-foot-high volcano has been eroded down to a 3300-foot summit at the park’s highest point. Wind and frost erosion have left its original bulk carved into spectacular spires. We hiked today up Bear Gulch and into a surprisingly extensive talus cave, formed when earthquakes dislodged huge boulders and toppled towers down into the narrow walls of the valley. We clambered and squeezed through with headlamps. During breeding, nurturing, and hibernating seasons of the resident bats – several species – the cave is closed. Today we saw only one bat, and a formerly endangered California red-legged frog, who was not happy to see us.
Those of us who grew up with Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” a description of California during the Great Depression, remember the words, “California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see; but believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do re mi.” Despite its fertility, California was in many ways as afflicted as Oklahoma by the Depression. In response, the Roosevelt Administration went into high gear with infrastructure projects, most noticeably the Civilian Conservation Corps. I’ve seen CCC constructions all over the United States, and notice that they invariably feature bulky masonry. Our cabin and most of the other buildings here are at least half-walled in volcanic rhyolite. Ascending the gulch, you hike trails beefed up on the downhill side by stone walls; and above the caves the corpsmen dammed up the stream to impound a reservoir whose purpose, beyond providing a pile of make-work, seems obscure.
Down around the little buildings in the deep shade of the massive blue oaks, Steller’s jays are constantly on the lookout for affairs to meddle in. Coveys of California quail feed through the underbrush and scoot across the open spaces. The Acorn Woodpecker new to me, lives in noisy groups that pepper trees with holes which they then fill with acorns against the winter. They are an affront to my prissy New England morals, living in community in completely open marriages; none of them knows who is whose, I guess, or seems to care. Black-tailed does and their fawns browse the hillside and all around the offices; one doe stuck her head in through the open door of the cabin as I was reading and left quickly, but without alarm.
Dan Ryan, the mammal biologist here, assures me there are no bears in the park, although the welcome mat is out and immigration is not unlikely. There seem to be several pumas on the premises – some of the staff have spotted one now and then – but they wisely keep to themselves.
Over it all hang occasional specks in the sky: North America’s largest birds, the condors, effortlessly riding the thermals and updrafts. More of them, and their guardians, next week.