PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK – JUNE 1-4, 2020
It took 24 hours to settle down after occasional feelings of distractedness and unease. It takes time to adjust to the pace of nature and to living in the open. Eventually that wonderful feeling of coming home arose. A home, I realized, I had been longing for every day. I don’t mean Pinnacles National Park but the fragrant green surroundings, the gently moving air, the random sounds of bird and insect. I said to myself, this is all I want to do, be in natural places like this and to sit quietly. Watch. Listen. Explore.
The thing about nature is that it is always changing, revealing something fresh, surprising, wondrous. Even in the exact same spot. By contrast, human civilization is dedicated to promoting predictability and control.
Instead of sheltering at home, I was sheltering in campsite, limited to where I could go on foot since the roads beyond the campground were closed to cars. Chris had his bicycle so he adventured farther afield.
A FEW SIGHTINGS
A hummingbird visited, hovering nearby, flying off and then returning, checking me out several times, as if it were wondering if I was a giant nectar-filled flower. It decided I was not and disappeared into the bushes.
All day the acorn woodpeckers burst out of the tree canopy, grabbing insects midair and circling back into the shadows of the towering oaks. Rather than boring into bark for food they were cashing in on the wealth of flying insects. I saw scrub jays doing the same thing. I was not sure what insects were up there.
The insects I did see close at hand were the perpetually annoying gnats, the dawn and dusk mosquitoes and an occasional butterfly. The scrub jays, along with the California towhees, spotted towhees and juncos, also foraged on the ground nearby, looking for crawling creatures.
A raccoon visited us at least twice while we sat and read. It was persistent and fearless. During the night it left muddy footprints over the trunk hood as if it had used it for a dance floor. Then it slid off leaving a sloppy muddy trail down the side of the cab.
Every evening, about a half hour before sunset, I walked five minutes to a spot where I could see the ridge line of the hills to the east above the campground. It was there, given the right conditions, the California condors would congregate.
I only saw them there one night. Some of these huge birds were soaring on the thermals while others were roosting in the trees. At times I could count at least 10 to 15 birds. They were far away, but it was still thrilling to see them through binoculars or my camera’s telephoto lens.
There are over 300 California condors in the wild today. About 86 of them reside in Pinnacles National Park.
Our site was at the farthest point of a loop at the southern end of the campground. One edge of our campsite was hemmed in by an old barbwire fence. It was low in one spot so I climbed over it to explore what was beyond. The barbwire fence seemed like a relic from the past rather than a real barrier to be respected. I hopped the fence frequently. It took some careful foot placement to avoid getting scratched or hooked by the sharp wire points
Beyond the campsite, I found a long stretch of meadows and trees making up a riparian corridor. It paralleled the official trail along the main road leading to the upper trailheads. Few, if any, people leave the main trail to visit this area. A small, slow moving stream was at its heart.
The meadows I crossed were covered in dry yellowed grasses, the bright green of a few weeks earlier gone until next year. They were primarily invasive foxtails, a terrible nuisance and potentially a terrible ordeal to walk through. I was wearing running shoes that were usually comfortable for hiking. Within only a few steps the needle-like foxtail seedheads had burrowed through my shoes, through my socks and were attempting to penetrate my skin. It was painful and frustrating. I had to stop several times to pull out the offending barbs from my shoes. And, as you might imagine, they were near impossible to remove. The following morning I wore different hiking boots which were blessedly foxtail proof.
As I returned to the campsite from my first early morning expedition, scrub jays were numerous and active along the creek side. The dashes of blue attracted the eye and at times seemed out of place amid the greens and earth tones. All jays are noisy, their voices loud and harsh. But I also heard a call that stood out from the others. It was an hysterical shrieking, louder, more urgent and piercing than any of the other bird sounds. Then I thought, I know what this is, probably a young jay demanding food. Soon I spotted it, a fledgling on the ground with bright blue wings but still dark around the head and chest. It flapped its earthbound wings, hopping madly about, mouth agape. The parents were nearby and seemed unmoved by the theatrics, occasionally offering it mouthfuls of grubs.
You wouldn’t know there was a pandemic going on except that much of the park was closed. Few people wore masks, few stepped aside when they passed on the trail. There were small groups of young adults, college-aged I’d guess, who were not socially distancing or wearing masks. I am pretty sure they had not been sheltering in place together at home.
Most of the other campers were families with young kids, taking advantage of a place to get away from home and ride bicycles. It was a hard to be near so many strangers after several months with only Chris at home. I couldn’t help but think each one was a possible vector of viral doom.
I was late for this year’s wildflower party. The main event was over and most flowers had already left for the season. A variety of flowering shrubs remained, most with white blooms. Some of the still plentiful stragglers from the party were buckwheat and California wild roses.
I soon discovered one of my favorite flowers, the elegant clarkia, were still blooming. It was like finding little jewels strewn among the brittle straw of desiccated grass. These ones were small and delicate compared to the larger and more robust ones I saw here last year in April. But they had the same charming pinwheel shape and bright purple-pink color.
There were a few surprises. On a slope near the small creek were round flower heads of mini purplish small flowers. They were lovely and unknown to me; but I knew they were from the mint family, with square stems and fragrant small leaves. Later I would identify them as coyote mint.
Turning a corner on a longer hike on the second day I came across a large shrub maybe 8 feet across and 5 feet high with multiple arms ending in racemes of purplish flowers. From a distance I thought it was late blooming lupine and left the trail to get a closer look. The flower heads were something altogether different. The racemes were covered decorative fuzzy buds in a variety of colors: pink, whitish, purple. Every so often an elegant blue flower with long stamens emerged from the furry buds. These flower heads reminded me of party decorations or icing on a cake. So maybe the party wasn’t over yet! The leaves were fragrant and I guessed it was in the sage family. But it was much showier and more dazzling than anything I had seen before. I later identified as Woolly Bluecurl.