The plain truth

Much of Soda Lake Road is unpaved, but wide and well maintained.
Much of Soda Lake Road is unpaved, but wide and well maintained. The Tribune

In 1962, an investor from Arizona placed an ad in a local promotional publication, hoping to draw people to his proposed development in the California Valley.

Relying on the lure of California as a place to start anew, the ellipsis-heavy ad proclaimed, “For only $20 down . . . You can share the boundless future of this State and its golden land . . . have a place to settle down when your own living space becomes too crowded, too noisy, too smoggy . . . provide a solid stake for your children.”

Such hype seemed to generate interest in the valley, located in the far eastern corner of San Luis Obispo County. At one point, thousands of people showed up to the valley for a pitch thinly disguised as a barbecue. But actually living in the valley, they would eventually learn, had a huge drawback:

No water.

And while the would-be developers promised water would come to the valley, their rain dance didn’t work, and the State Water Project wound up elsewhere.

Their loss was nature’s gain, though, and 40 years later, the crown jewel of the valley — Carrizo Plain — would be awarded National Monument status, meaning it would be protected by the federal government as an important research tool.

Known for extreme heat in the summer — averaging around 94 degrees in July and August — and stark desolation year-round, I’d driven through the area on accident when we moved to California 12 years ago. Tired after four days of traveling, the valley seemed like a No Man’s Land I didn’t particularly care to revisit. But with the promise of flourishing wildflowers, I recently returned with photographer Joe Johnston, hoping to see it from a new perspective.

Taking Highway 58 from Santa Margarita, we knew there’d be no food or gas options for many miles, so we loaded up in San Luis Obispo. While driving on 58, we saw a curious collection of old Hawaiian shirts hung on branches, Spartacus-style. That bit of weirdness — either someone’s idea of a joke or art — set the mood for entering the valley, a desolate place with few signs of human life.

But before we reached the valley, we spotted a small gaggle of plein air painters, set up near a creek and an old windmill. One of them was John Barnard, an Atascadero painter I’d interviewed in 2006 about painting Carrizo Plain during the spring bloom.

This year, he said, the flowers weren’t as abundant.

“It’s sort of a disappointment,” he said while painting a colorful abstract.

A frequent visitor to the plain, a fellow artist once told him the area was unpaintable. But Barnard disagrees.

“The shadows on the hills are beautiful,” he said.

Entering the plain, you’ll see what the other artist meant. In between the Temblor and Caliente ranges, there’s a whole bunch of grassy flat land, with no trees, structures or other obvious landmarks. Eight hundred years ago, this area was heavily settled by Native Americans. But the climate was different then, scientists believe, and water was plentiful.

Now it’s more like a desert. In fact, its abundance of sun is part of the reason why two different solar farms have been proposed for the area located outside the designated monument boundaries. While some critics contend the solar project projects could change the look and feel of the plain, supporters say it they could help reduce dependence on foreign oil and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy.

Forty-three miles from Santa Margarita, we reached the “downtown” area of Soda Lake Road, which featured an old gas station (not in service), an old motel (didn’t appear to be in service) and a library, open one day a week (but not this day).

Joe and I had lunch at one of the three picnic tables and headed down a lonesome stretch toward Soda Lake. On Elkhorn Road, we stopped at Wallace Creek, an important place for seismic research.

As a sign beside the creek notes, “The San Andreas fault cuts across the surface of the Earth in front of you.” According to the sign, the spot is moving 1.3 inches closer to San Francisco per year. “At this rate, if you stood in this spot for 10 million years, you would be within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Not that we planned on staying that long.

Given its shaky history — it caused an 8.0 magnitude quake in 1857 — I made a point to walk onto the zig-zagging dry creek bed, thinking, “I’m standing on the San Andreas Fault.”

That little trouble-maker.

Near the fault, we got back in the car and turned onto Simmler Road, leading to the heart of Carrizo Plain — Soda Lake. There was still some water in the lake, but parts of it were already dried up, the white, powdery alkali looking like ice from a distance. By summer, this lake will be water-free.

Near the lake, we finally spotted wildflowers — gorgeous patches of yellow California coreopsis. While that represented a picturesque contrast to the rest of the grassland, the wildflowers are usually much more abundant, with many more varieties and colors. An employee at the nearby Goodwin Education Center said it recently snowed on the plain, curbing this year’s flower spectacle.

The education center is also where you’ll learn what animals live in the plains, including the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed lizard, the giant kangaroo rat, and pronghorn antelope.

We didn’t see any of those, nor did we see the Painted Rock, not far from the education center. As far back as 3,000 years ago, Native Americans began to paint sacred images within the alcove of the rock. Unfortunately, the site has sustained vandalism through the decades, so until July 15, you can only see the rock via Bureau of Land Management tours. From July to February you can see it on a self-guided tour, but you need a permit for that.

Heading toward Highway 166 on Soda Lake Road, we saw Caliente Mountain — at 5,100 feet, the largest peak in the county — which also signaled the end of our trip was near.

Leaving the plain, we passed a large herd of cattle — some of the cows staring us down as they stood in the road — before coming to an old Union 76 gas station, at the corner of highways 166/33 and Soda Lake Road. The building looked like something from the 1950s, and I assumed it had been out of business for a while.

As I went to sit on a bench in front of the old store, the front door opened, and a man who lived in the gas station chided us for trespassing. We were the seventh trespassers he’d had in a week, he said, adding, “I think people assume this is an old abandoned gas station.”

I didn’t push it. People who live in desolate places aren’t known for their love of social interaction. And sometimes it’s just a good idea — as a famous band once sang — to let it be.

So we hit the road for more populated land, keeping the valley’s serenity intact.

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