Category Archives: Hiking

Last Flutter of Point Lobos?

Within these most evocative of earthen footfalls, two rare, picturesque species of conifers roof the trails, and the impact points of ocean and human vision are incomparable.  Then the monarch butterflies come and turn the depths of winter orange at Point Lobos, northern head of California’s Big Sur.

Closest Big Sur outpost to dense settlement, at Carmel, removed from the mountain aesthetics to the south, Point Lobos is civilized Big Sur, a technical boundary, but its scenery is counter-technical, theatrical.

I first visited this place with the less-than-lofty intention of using its acreage as a mushroom gathering ground.  On the transforming interface of the Cypress Grove Trail, Point Lobos became a soft mushroom cap of eloquent land atop the stem of a Pacific promontory.

I returned me to childhood days.  Footfalls were soft and obstruction-free.  Here the ocean crashed behind wind-graced tree outlines; there it crashed again; there at a third commanding angle, again.

The light falls in shafts, as through the filtered pane of a grade school classroom.  From still and humid shadow comes the old scent of pencils from fragrant cypress logs stacked by the trail-keeper.   Don’t lose your pencils, your teacher’s voice warns:  The Monterey Cypress grows in only this one locality on earth.

The word Monterey serves for County, Peninsula, Cypress and Pines.  The field trip ascends beyond the cypress into Monterey Pine forest.  The trees appear endless, but they occur in only three locations on this planet and demonstrate a misleading abundance.

We are going to a peaceful place to see pieces of orange stained glass and to watch them come to life as monarch butterfly wings.  The stained glass wings move in a kind of flutter that advertises the occurrence of an event, a stationary performance rather than a flitting journey.

The wings multiply.  The fluttering graces pine needles dangling with moss, the washed blue of Pacific sky as backdrop.  This forest has hosted the flutter dance for thousands of years.

The character-filled topography of the Point Lobos coves features slopes sheltered from ocean wind where the still air remains mild.  Point Lobos is the entry point for an indented Big Sur coastline that stretches for 85 miles and provides 7 flutter sites for wintering monarchs.  Like the Monterey Pines, the monarchs lend an idyllic quality to the landscape.  Again, the apparent abundance of the wings is a tragic illusion.

The social reality is that wherever the people of the Pacific coast migrate from, they tend to carry with them the exchange scheme of manicured lawn for monarch butterflies.  The fragrant, uncouth jumble of milkweeds, essential to monarch reproduction, has disappeared from untold thousands of sites, cancelling out new butterfly generations.

This eloquent decline is addressed with an equation.  Do we agree that the sacrifice of 10 square feet of manicured lawn or closely plowed farmland, multiplied by millions, equals a monarch flutter on this sea-sheltered hillside?  Do we mow our life’s lawn with precisely identical strokes, vision absolutely level, or look upward for these memorable moments?









Big Sur’s Ancient Dining Room

“The Indians knew all the cool places,” Cindy, Ragged Point Inn Gift Shop manager, told me.  Her voice trailed off wistfully.

The resort’s restaurant is adjacent, and I was enjoying the Small Stack of gourmet pancakes one morning.  As I poured maple syrup, sun beat down through the glass ceiling amidst the wood beams and stone.  Dining there is at once indoor and outdoor.  Waiting for me, in the sea-washed air through the abundant glass, behind the outdoor tables, was an exhibit of modern/ancient fusion.  It was a lesson offered in an outdoor classroom leading to a superb Pacific view.

Four circular holes pocked a hard serpentine outcropping jutting above the manicured lawn and garden path.  Called “grinding holes,” not uncommon here yet largely unknown to tourists, they formed as native Americans ground foodstuffs.  Right here along Route 1, I found the California spirit, that lost and longed-for land connection.

Anthropological research at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo established the Ragged Point grinding holes as Salinan in origin.  Such sites can be as recent as 150 years or can be much, much older.  The Salinans who fashioned them were a division of the tribe called Playano — “beach people” — by Spanish explorers.  Salinan villages stretched from Morro Rock to Dolan Rock, Salinas to Cuesta Grade Summit, and as far as 70 miles eastward to the Diablo Range, Temblor Range and the Painted Rock of Carrizo Plain.  Today, the Salinan Tribe, which once numbered 3,000 souls, consists of about 800.

Salinan Tribal Administrator Patti Dunton explained how the tribe “mapped” the territory of the beach people.  Their map was one of existential poetry: a Western Gate facing a Great Fire.

I wondered if the Salinans were making acorn pancakes 1,000 years ago out back of the resort restaurant.  They ground this staple in these rock mortars and then leached out the tannin in water, making acorn meal that they baked into cakes.

I learned the complex lore of these grinding holes when Tribal Chair John Burch honored me with his insights on Ragged Point.  That outcropping was actually a long-ago organic kitchen.

“Tegula shellfish were as important a food as acorns,” he explained, as I recalled the whorled snails washed up on the Big Sur beach.  “They ground them up shell and all and mixed them with acorns or other meats.”  Their high salt content not only lent food flavor but preserved their tiny meats on long journeys.  He continued, “They ground herbs there.”  As hunter-gatherers, they made use of unusual foods such as tree lichens.

Then John Burch told me the age of the Ragged Point rock mortars.

Whatever they were grinding, they ground it long ago — 10,000 years ago.  He could tell the age by the convex form of the mortars, created in an ancient process using a wooden implement.  They first broke the rock apart with an agate drill and then smoothed the contours through the circular grinding motion.  He reminded me that this mortar site, when in use, was a clifftop 25 miles inland from the ocean.  It was still a cool place, but bereft of crashing ocean sound, which approached over the intervening ages.  Time tends to smooth over boundaries.

These days, as Tribal Chair, John Burch deals with the politics of boundaries.  The ancient neighbors of the Salinans, the Chumash to the south, overlapped with the Salinans around Ragged Point.  The Salinans objected to Ragged Point’s inclusion in the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.  Millennia ago, Salinans packed their shellfish on foot over the proposed sanctuary’s seabed.

The grinding holes behind the restaurant establish the clifftop as Salinan, but the Chair prefers to look at it in an older way.  “It doesn’t matter whether those grinding holes were Chumash or Salinan,” he says.  “What matters is that they offer a window into learning.”  Through the Ragged Point Inn restaurant windows, I looked out at a 10,000-year-old kitchen classroom facing a Great, Sacred Fire.





Point of Rocks Raven Nest

Hikers along Maryland’s C&O Canal National Historical Park who look up at the rugged cliffs at Point of Rocks, Milepost 48.2, now see an unusual sight:  an active raven nest.  Sticks and grass from the huge nest spill over a flat niche in the cliffs.

Ravens typically avoid heavily populated settings such as the Washington, D.C. region, but the C&O Canal trail offers them ideal food and cover conditions.  The Potomac River, paralleling the trail, provides fish.  The swampy bed of the old canal holds turtles and frogs.  The cliffs shelter the nest from predators.

The high cliffs here, namesake for the tiny community of Point of Rocks, mark an historic 19th-century event.  After his invasion of the north ended unsuccessfully at Gettysburg in 1863, Robert E. Lee led his army across the river back to Virginia near the overlooking cliffs, never to cross again.

The raven nest is about 200 yards north of a large day use parking lot.  Restroom facilities and a boat launch make it an attractive contact point for C&O visitors.



Fragrant Frederick Mountains

For those who love fragrances, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Frederick County, Maryland offer a storehouse of essential oils.  They are best sampled on the blue ridges themselves, high up, where their source plants best grow; and in spring, when the oils surge to life.

A short walk, whether on the Blue Trail through the Frederick Watershed or the Catoctin Trail in Catoctin Mountain Park, exposes a curious wanderer to a coalition of fragrant botanical agents. There is sassafras, sweet fern,  sweet birch, trailing arbutus, wild azalea, mountain pine, wintergreen; and later on in summer, hayscented fern and blue mountain tea.

These essential oils await everywhere underfoot and overhead.  A deer rubs its horns on a pine and sweet sap oozes out.  An icestorm breaks open the wintergreen scent of sweet birch or uproots a sassafras tree, unearthing root beer fragrance.  Boots flatten the outdoor moss terrarium hosting the classic perfume of trailing arbutus.

This is the nursery of the informed person who truly experiences nature.  This is the escape from a bland world where pesticide odor overwhelms the faint fragrance of high-tech flowers in parking lot garden centers.


Virgin Pines Press News: Upcoming Mushroom Walk

Join Bill Rozday for an informative look at mushrooms in the central Pennsylvania Appalachians on June 25th.

Meet at the information kiosk at Fuller Lake in Pine Grove Furnace State Park at 10:00 AM.  The walk will last for 2 hours, during which time we hope to find as many as a dozen different species of fungi.2015-07-22 17.39.22

The Brown Ponderosa of Yosemite

Fourth in our intermittent series on climate change in California


The picture is of a dead Ponderosa Pine.  The waterfall is Yosemite Falls.  The debate is whether bark beetles, drought or climate change caused the tree’s demise.  It is a debate we should not be having, and it highlights the divorce within our culture of literate, clear-thinking people from a scientific community that grows a lot of low-hanging thought branches and obscures the forest.

Of course climate change killed this tree.  When we speak of climate, we speak of something fixed and indeterminate; a condition or state, if you will.  This is as opposed to weather, which consists of events.  Consider climate the enabler of weather and natural events such as droughts and beetles — dictionary material.

By definition, climate implies a lengthy time period.  This Ponderosa, as a species, has several hundred if not 500 years of potential life.  Were it a transplanted sapling from a nursery, we would say a weather or insect event killed it.  However, it takes hundreds of years of corresponding destructive force to kill a tree with a 500-year lifespan.

That destructive force is rising forest temperature over a protracted period.  The earth warms and hence combusts more readily, as with Yosemite’s tragic Rim Fire.  Vegetation stews in increased heat and draws insects, as with bark beetles.

This is not an isolated pine death.  Entire mountain slopes in the surrounding Sierra stand brown, with the destructive force no respecter of species.  Both Ponderosa and Sugar Pines — another long-lived species — are victimized.  An observant tourist notes the orientation — foresters would say “aspect”  — of this spectacle.  The orientation of those slopes is south and west, toward the Mojave Desert and the hot Central Valley.

Scientists have no instruments capable of measuring conditions 500 years ago.  They only have reasoning and instinct, which must be sharpened by immersion in the forests through walking or camping.  A reading of John Muir’s The Mountains of California reveals how his glorious paragraphs of nature appreciation are commingled with deductions about the forces behind landscapes and their relation to one another.  We lack John Muirs.

Oak trees are supplanting these lost conifers — not succeeding them, which is a natural process; but replacing them, since the conifers represent the climax forest.  Muir’s conifers might exist today as stumps within oak woods, proof that a life zone is shifting in elevation.  It would only require a forest walk to find out.  Then again, that would be too sensible a means to satisfy the conservation organizations who profit from circular thinking.

Meanwhile, I understand that the Yosemite Ponderosa may have been cut by now, ostensibly to protect visitors from windfall.  The credit card companies at the gift store also benefit.  Who would want to visit a park victimized by climate change?  Worse, who wants to admit that the park itself is a mere event within a matrix of millennia and that larger forces govern its very existence?DSC_0229