Mirror-like, my mind admires the Temblor Range while seeking the dusky dawn rising above the rain-swollen Soda Lake below. I re-orient my position, and as I awake the sun (qsi) slowly ascends behind these gaudy-orange Caliente Mountains opposite the Temblors. We hole up in tents pitched on the dirt in this tiny no-name box canyon on the Carrizo.
Almost all of the world-famous Carrizo Plain National Monument’s 204,000 acres are managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and its restrictions and guidelines are refreshingly looser than those for camping in our federal national forests.
My two colleagues and I drove the 160 miles in two 4-wheel-drive trucks on Feb. 19 and went around on sketchy tracks away from Soda Lake Road (the only main road) into canyons tucked beneath the dry Calientes, a transverse range running somewhat in parallel to the Temblors (first photo). This was only my third visit, and after recent heavy rainfall, the intriguing Soda Lake itself appeared wonderfully ginormous as the hills around prepared for a glorious spring bloom.
Hiking around on foot in the Calientes, we spied a lithe western coyote (canis latrans) chasing a speeding black-tailed jackrabbit, and obviously the canine had no chance to catch the elusive hare — perhaps both enjoyed the thrill of romping around. The Carrizo Plain is the largest remaining natural alkali wetland (grassland) in Southern California — and humans today experience a distinct remoteness and quiet quality while practicing low-impact car-camping (4.1.1). The BLM provides nothing (which we like) except a few narrow dirt roads meandering around. Just pull off, park parallel and camp out of your vehicle with tents on the ground.
Coyote — xuxa’w — can play the trickster role in several Indigenous cultures, and “he” follows the game for the thrill of it. Sky Coyote — šnilumen — however almost always ends up winning, like clever Centipede, and His cunning matches his raw energy and beauty.
A few soaring avian species floated above the shimmering lake and white salt flats, but we were unable to identify the sand hill cranes. Various threatened species live in the Plain, including blunt-nosed leopard lizard, tule elk and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel.
We camped out in the open on the dry Carrizo-facing side of the Calientes, and on the second day drove along Soda Lake Road about 35 miles to a sacred Indigenous rock art site predictably termed [Carrizo] “Painted Rock” by the anglo settlers.
Painted Rock in the Carrizo Plain — to be distinguished from the other “Painted Rock” above the Sisquoc River — stands out as a smooth, horseshoe-shaped formation of living marine sandstone measuring about 45 feet tall and 250 feet across.
The massive split being [“boulder”] is part of the Vacqueros Sandstone formation, which lines the Caliente Range’s northeastern front. Before the “Carrizo collapse,” Indigenous people would file by the gently molded vulva-like formation to experience an aura possibly like others find at Uluru in Australia (Ayer’s Rock). They often felt drawn to the dramatic and ritual powers inherent in the sentient split being itself.
Postmodern Neo-Animism accepts the Chumash and Yokuts belief that the cloven boulder is sentient and pregnant with meaning and is an ancient arena for secret rituals. The profusion of enchanting pictographic panels confirms the signal importance of this site to the Chumash and Yokuts Indigenous people.
Around 2000 BCE, about 300 Native Americans lived in a complex social arrangement encircling the then-larger Soda Lake’s fertile riparian margins. Bedrock mortars and spectacular painted pictographs also decorate salient rock art locales such as nearby Saucito and other sites.
Four thousand years ago lands us right into the Chumash “Early ya Period” (toward their Middle 1), although David Whitley calls it “Middle” and “Late Horizon.” Archaeologists like Whitley agree that this Chumash domination in the Carrizo Plain became their most northerly penetration. By the Historic Period (the Contact period), they shared the area with the encroaching Yokuts groups and merged their common pictographic ritual sites at this Painted Rock.
Whitley and his co-authors of “The Carrizo Collapse” (4.1.1.) establish that during the time of the “Medieval Climatic Anomaly” (ca. 800 CE to 1350 CE) the Soda Lake shrank drastically, the climate became more arid and “extreme dessication” occurred. The estimated Indigenous population nearly disappeared, dropping from 300 to around 30 (Whitley, pp. 7-8).
We learned from this study how important environmental history can be. The catastrophic droughts during the Medieval Anomaly wrecked the Chumash outposts in the ancient Carrizo Plain area. The population dropped by more than 90% — this outcome offers vital lessons for post-humans now as the ripening Anthropocene matures into today’s threatening ecological catastrophe. (Chapter 10 in my “Trails Into Tomorrow” explores this theme, “Painted Rock and the Swarming Anthrobscene.”)
The profusion of pictographs on the interior of this cleft rock, the inside of the horseshoe, have captured the imagination of all visitors, and these images remain sacred to Indigenous people to this day. Some of the characters in the pictograph panels appear to represent celestial entities such as sun (qsi), moon and Earth, as well as beings such as Sky Coyote (šnilumen) and roaming-the-earth coyote (xuxa’w).
Unfortunately, at one time, long before the national monument status protected it within BLM jurisdiction, “cowboys” and American hunters actually shot up many of these glorious Painted Rock panels, to the horror of more culturally aware visitors today — and to the despair of Indigenous people seeking to understand their vital cultural heritage and conduct rites at this vital site. According to some sources, these target-shooting cowboy-fools spent time during the 1920s picking off specific images to demonstrate their sharp-shooting skills.
Today, the BLM strictly regulates and restricts public access to Carrizo Painted Rock through a reservation system (4.1.1.). On Feb. 20, there were four other visitors at the site while we walked around it (no climbing on the sacred sentient being, of course).
My colleagues and I revere this entire plain and the twin transverse ranges framing it. Many and diverse species thrive here hidden away from human sight by the intense sun and lack of tree cover; more than 13 species have been listed as endangered.
While only a 160-mile drive from my Westside home, once past Santa Maria and tooling along the lonely Highway 166, you’re entering the “American Serengeti” and a remote remnant of the vast grasslands that once predominated. Mosey in with a growing sense of sanctity, respect the rock art sites, make your presence as small as you can manage, then slip away spiritually enriched and more prepared for postmodern stress and opportunities.
Special precautions for traveling in the Carrizo Plain: Avoid rainy times! Four-wheel-drive/higher clearance is important, including a tow rope; there is no water, cellphone service or fuel supplies in the entire area, and the closest assistance is more than 50 miles away. This means “adjacentcy” applies.
Driving: Highway 101 north to Highway 166 to Soda Lake Road equals 158 miles one-way.
Low-impact car-camping: Since there are no facilities at all, you must bring water, tents, trash bags and a shovel, and upon departing leave absolutely no trace of your presence there.
Books: David Whitley, “The Carrizo Collapse: Art and Politics in the Past,” in “A Festschrift Honoring the Contributions of California Archaeologist Jay von Werlhof,” edited by R.L. Kaldenberg, 2007, pp. 199-208.
Access to the Painted Rock Indigenous site: It requires a reservation from www.recreation.gov to obtain the gate code for self-guided tours. First, get the reservation, then re-contact www.recreation.gov for the gate code. The Painted Rock site is closed March 1 to July 15.