Desert Pictograph Boulder

The thermometer bounces between 108 and 111 degrees as I drive into the Mojave Desert on a recent June afternoon.

Several days earlier in 115 degree heat, not all that far away, a middle-aged man had left a tour bus in Death Valley National Park to take a few photos. An hour later he was found dead just several hundred yards from the bus. (Mammoth Times)

The conditions outside my thin panes of glass are deadly serious, yet have been described as “relatively moderate” compared to times past.

Moderate, they say.

These moderate conditions have existed for about the last 6,000 years. Prior to this, about 8,000 years ago and earlier for some time, the climate was one of “extreme aridity.”

Atacama I suppose.

Obsidian projectile points found at the place I’m driving to have been roughly dated to about 4,200 to 7,100 years ago. While it is unclear if human occupation at this particular site occurred this long ago, the evidence suggests that it is not unlikely.

At 110 degrees the Mojave is hellish. It seems like a great day to experience a desert site to gain some modicum of understanding about how it felt to exist here in ancient times. Yet funnily enough, the land today may well be more hospitable than it was during those times.

The gravel flat and resting stone beneath the huge painted boulder.

Here amid the barren desert mountains the granite monolith sits, a dominant feature before a hill of jumbled boulders. It is not lost in the jumble but stands apart, visually dominating, beckoning upon first sight, an attractive destination seen from the surrounding wastes.

I walk up in the brutal mid-afternoon sun seeking refuge in the shelter of its shadow. In the hottest hours of the day the shadow covers a smooth, sloping granite outcrop that appears at first sight to be a great resting place.

Sure enough a large polished slick is evident on the surface of the outcrop where people have been lounging for a very long time. Laying down and pressing a sweaty hot back against the cool shady slick of granite no doubt provides a much welcome respite from the brutal desert swelter.

I notice my five year old son sits exactly at this resting spot without any word from me.

No doubt the stone has taken on greater patina in modern times from the rumps of many visitors through the years, but it seems readily evident that people have been lounging there for much longer.

There is a striking connection made between humans separated by 5,000 years of time and wildly different cultures as my son sits to rest. For all the differences between the peoples in ways and means, the little boy of today is naturally drawn by the same brain to the same spot for the same reason as the ancient people had been.

A portion of the boulder’s painted wall that’s aside the gravel flat.

This polished resting stone is fronted by a small gravel flat which runs up against the painted wall of the looming monolith. To one side of the flat lies a large tabletop slab with several shallow, well-polished grinding slicks worn into the granite. From the gravel flat one enjoys long views of the surrounding land. Thousands of obsidian shards litter the area everywhere, lithic scatter cast off by the hands of ancient craftsmen fashioning stone tools.

The pictographs are rendered in hues of red, white and black. Several rock shelters are found nearby the painted boulder wherein scores of arrowheads have been recovered by scholars. Items of interest found in the area include cordage, basketry, ceramics, stone artifacts and human remains.

The components of nature come together here in remarkable form to create an exceptional place for a human to spend time in a harsh land. This was quickly evident to me as I walked up. It’s no wonder ancient people made it their own. I would have as well.

Standing on the gravel flat before the painted wall I am stunned to discover a remarkable acoustical phenomenon that I had not noticed on a previous visit several years ago.

When I speak my voice booms back at me in a deeper tone that seems amplified. I don’t want to make too much of this occurrence or hype it, but I was taken aback. Surely this meant something to somebody at sometime.

There is without question a naturally occurring acoustics here due to the manner in which the rocks are shaped and sit together on the land and it noticeably alters the human voice as noted.

As I experiment with the phenomenon for a moment I notice that it seems to be limited to a rather small area whereupon one can notice the effect. This spot is located beside the resting stone, which must play some role in the acoustics, and in front of the large pictograph panel on the boulder.

I have no doubt the ancient people that were here knew of this phenomenon, but I wonder if it played any notable role in their lives. Who now could possibly know?

Ungulates of some sort, perhaps deer.

Some remarkably different looking ungulates compared to the predominant form given bighorn sheep in pictographs and petroglyphs in this region. The long curved horns extending over their back makes them resemble ibex more than sheep, though ibex are not California natives.

Something that appears to be anthropomorphic figures.

Several well-polished, shallow grinding slicks.

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The Wondrous Orange-Bellied Newt

California orange bellied newt (Taricha torosa).

One of the great indicators of seasonal change in the Santa Ynez Range of Santa Barbara is the arrival of orange bellied newts to mountain streams. They don’t always live in water.

Newts spend most of their lives on land crawling through the forest or avoiding desiccation holed up in subterranean shelters waiting out long dry summers. The first three years of a young newt’s life can be spent entirely on land.

Following winter rains when the creeks run anew, newts migrate from their terrestrial shelters to mate in the seasonal flush of runoff, temporarily inhabiting the streams before returning to land. They have been known to trek up to five miles to reach their breeding sites.

To accomplish this migratory feat, Kate Marianchild writes in her book, “Secrets of Oak Woodlands,” it is thought that a newt “apparently relies on magnetic iron oxide crystals lodged in her brain to sense the earth’s geomagnetic field and acquire an internal ‘map.'”

Along with an ability to recognize landmarks and smell the familiar scents of riparian habitat, newts are thought to have something like a “‘celestial compass’ that uses special photoreceptors.” These receptors are sensitive to “patterns created by the polarization of sunlight, moonlight, and starlight when it hits the earth’s atmosphere.”

Marianchild writes of newts taken twenty-eight miles from a stream and when placed in a tank of water they immediately turned to face their natal waters.

Newts have thin permeable skin that allows oxygen to be absorbed directly from the water into their bloodstream and extends the amount of time they can remain underwater, which is about twenty to thirty minutes.

Taricha torosa are extremely toxic and can kill a person if eaten. They are loaded with tetrodotoxin, which is “one of the most powerful neurotoxins known, it is about 1200 times more toxic to humans than cyanide and it has no known antidote.” (National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine)

People that have been poisoned with tetrodotoxin from pufferfish and other creatures have suffered such things as nausea, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, vertigo, slurred speech, inability to speak, difficulty swallowing, blurred vision, a burning or prickling sensation all over the body, ascending paralysis of the limbs, altered consciousness with unreactive dilated pupils, respiratory paralysis and death in less then twenty minutes.

One story tells of a few guys camping and while making coffee one unknowingly scooped up a newt in the pot while getting water from a stream. All three men were found dead with no signs of anything having happened but for the boiled newt in the coffee pot.

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Widow’s Tears Falls, Santa Ynez Mountains

“Out around Glen Annie and Cathedral Oaks if you look toward the Front Range after a pretty good rainstorm you can sometimes see a tiny little set of falls that has a vertical drop of circa 100.’ It is set against an outcropping of rock and drains a quite small drainage. With good optics, it will appear as just a small thread of sparkling water and, if the wind is blowing, mist.

I’ve always known it by the name ‘Widow’s Tears.’ The name that old timers used…My main source for the name was Chuck Begg from a pioneer Goleta family. He pronounced it ‘Widda’s Tears.’

There seem to be a lot of Widow’s Tears falls around the US so I think the stories are probably apocryphal. After Chuck told me the name years and years ago, I heard it from other old timers.”

—woodman40 on (2005)

Widow’s Tears is the one big waterfall, a cascade really, draining off the frontside of the Santa Ynez Mountains that’s seen from places throughout Goleta after heavy rains.

A blurb about Chuck Begg can be found in the Congressional Record (2002).

In an outcrop on the slope rising out of the steep and tumbling creek, not far above the falls, there is a cave with ocean and island views.

The top of “Widda’s Tears.”

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Pronghorn, Carrizo Plain National Monument

Pronghorn on the Carrizo Plain National Monument, March 1, 2017.

“We were taught how the pioneers went into the West. They opened their eyes and made up what things could be. . . .People think there aren’t frontiers anymore. They can’t see how frontiers are all around us.”

I first visited the Carrizo Plain seventeen years ago, shortly before it became a national monument in 2001. That day, in the waning light of late afternoon on the drive out of the immense plain, my friend M.G. and I came across a lone bull tule elk. I was stunned. I had no idea at that time that elk ranged a mere fifty miles, as the condor flies, from Santa Barbara.

At first glance the Carrizo Plain had appeared to my unknowing and unappreciative eyes as a wasteland devoid of life or anything of interest aside from the Native American pictographs that originally attracted me to the place. The elk opened my eyes to the fact that my extended backyard was a lot wilder than I had known.

The Temblor Range seen in the distance runs along the edge of the San Andreas Fault.

What first drew me to the plain those many years ago was the archaeological site of Painted Rock. Once on the plain it was its absence of humanity and desolation and quietude that compelled me to return. In subsequent years I made more trips to the plain than I can remember, and in that time I began to develop a deep appreciation for the subtle richness to be found there.

I’m not sure it is accurate to say that there is a lot to do out there, but I have no reservations in stating positively that there is a lot to see, although it may not appear that way at first glance. There is a difference between looking and seeing. In a moment a body may look, but in time with patient observation one may begin to truly see; take that time.

There are numerous pictograph sites, more recent historic points of interest like Saucito Ranch or the peculiar looking old wooden grain harvesters resembling some sort of bizarre insects, bountiful fields painted over by loads of wildflowers in early spring through early summer, dry creek channels rerouted at 90 degree angles by the slipping of continental plates along the San Andreas Fault, the mirrored reflections of ephemeral Soda Lake and its seasonal hosting of Sandhill cranes, and other iconic wildlife like the San Joaquin kit fox, tule elk, and pronghorn.

In my experience it is not common to see elk or pronghorn, though that is likely due to my lack of understanding in where to find them, but in those aforementioned seventeen years, in all the trips I’ve taken to the Carrizo, I still have seen far more pronghorn than I have other people.

Pronghorns are commonly said to be the fastest animals on land in all of North America and second in the world only to cheetahs. While today’s African cheetah can reach a top speed of about seventy miles per hour, pronghorn can run at about sixty miles per hour.

Spring is a great time to see pronghorn, as they stand out against the verdant backdrop of the plain during the brief eruption of annual grasses. In summer through fall and winter, the pronghorn’s creamy tan hues nearly perfectly match the dried grassland, and they can be hard or impossible to spot from a distance on a plain that measures some fifty miles long by many miles wide.

Immerse yourself within the universe of which I write and you may be rewarded. Although you very well may not see any wildlife at first, there is also the chance that you may have your eyes opened to a world out there that you never knew existed, as I have. It has enriched my life in many ways. Consider giving it at least one chance to do the same for you.

As a general principle, this may be applied by anybody living anywhere to any place. Remember, the frontier begins where one’s own personal experience ends. (Blog Post: Finding Frontier in the Forest Conquered)

How well do you know the hinterlands around where you live? What might be out there that you never knew existed or have underappreciated due to a lack of personal experience which you’ve never allowed yourself? What have you been missing? How might it enrich your life?

You never know, until you go.


Related Posts On This Blog:

The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain I: Ruminants on the Range.
The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain II: The Bedrock Mortars of Selby Rocks.
The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain III: Pictographs of the Plain
The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain IV: Soda Lake
El Saucito Ranch House, Carrizo Plain (1878)
Night on Carrizo Plain, Tule Elk and Caliente Peak
Dragon’s Back Ridge, Carrizo Plain
Wallace Creek Offset at the San Andreas Fault
Cave’s Eye View on the Carrizo Plain
Summertime Soda Lake
Soda Lake Winter Reflections
Elkhorn Plain
Selby Rocks
Carrizo Plain Wildflowers
Datura Bloom on the Carrizo
Carrizo Tom

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Tangerine Falls, Santa Ynez Mountains

Ocean and island views from Tangerine Falls.

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