Desert Southwest

View of oilfields near Buttonwillow

Reef of Pollen on the Carrizo Plain

Notes on the wildflower season in California's central valley.

Oil machinery near Buttonwillow, California, at the edge of the Carrizo Plain.


he signs on the man’s van say, “No Gas, No Job, No Home, Nowhere to Go.”

Inside the gas station, the girl at the register takes my order for gasoline.  Her face is made up in a way that makes her look like a plastic toy.  She is thumbing through a Cosmetology textbook. 

At the gas station, while en route to the Carrizo Plain, I am reminded of the importance Southern California had in evolving my very simple rule for life.

So many of the world’s challenges are a product of us having rushed so quickly into this modern world of ours, and not really realizing that we are living under a set of circumstances that our grandparents could not have fathomed.

For most of my life, I’ve tried to make decisions about things based on whether it makes sense within the evolutionary context of our species.  This simple rule has always done me well with regards to how I should live and act in the modern world. 

I became an adult when I was living in Southern California, and that is the time that you start to make decisions about how you intend to stay healthy throughout your life, regardless of how well you follow through.  The dominant question for a twenty-year old in Los Angeles during the mid-1990’s was: what type of gym do you want to join or what kind of exercise machine should you buy from the television?

One-hundred thousand years ago, when our species foraged and scavenged on the savannahs of eastern Africa, we may not have had long life expectancies, but we were very, very fit, and we did things the way we were evolved to do them.

Blooms, Carrizo Plain, California

Goldfields blooms on the Carrizo Plain

We walked, we picked things up, we carried things.  As the seasons changed, we made long treks along the rims of cliffs and through swamps to the Indian Ocean, where we spent long hours in the shallows, pulling up crustaceans from the bottom of fresh tidal zones.

Now, I am in the car and driving north.  The rental has an ipod usb port, which is a magnificent gadget, but it doesn’t work, so I turn on the radio, looking for National Public Radio.  A man on the radio with a friendly but demanding voice is telling me that I can buy a computer even if I have bad credit.  I can buy the computer right here in the Bakersfield area, without even paying a dime upfront. 

After this commercial, another one comes on, and this is an old man’s voice, and he sounds friendly enough, and he is talking about home mortgages.  And the deal he is offering sounds pretty good, especially if I don’t have very good credit.  I turn the channel.

Now a man with a deep, deep southern accent is talking to me.  He is almost yelling at me through the radio.  He is talking about the immutable laws of the bible forbidding certain types of sexual behavior.  He says, “I know that relationships outside of marriage ruin people!  I know that in this very church right here, there are thousands of emotional wrecks created by the actions of you very people!”

I think, wow, this guy is telling his own congregation they are all sluts.  Where is that public radio channel?

So I turn the station, and now I hear the voice of another guy.  His voice is not deep and booming, but rather thin, with a strange cadence, as if he were a magician from the 1930’s.  He is not so much as yelling, but lecturing.  And his lecture further keeps me from my mission to find public radio.  He is explaining the biggest conspiracy of the Catholic Church, which, he claims, was that they changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, because they were led by Satan.  His favorite way to refer to Satan is as “The Little Horn of Daniel’s Sea Beast” which he says in this real peculiar way, like he’s squishing his lips together to say it.

This lecture goes on not for minutes, but hours.  And when I thumb at the dial some more, it feels like everybody is after me for my ear.  But what does it take to actually be drawn into these types of messages? 

This is what’s on my mind, as I pull into the Super 8 Motel in Buttonwillow, a small agricultural town with a motorist stopover along the side of the interstate.

I’ve come to Buttonwillow because there have been reports of wildflower blooms to the west of here.  And there is just something nice about being out in the open California sun.

I spend my afternoons on the Carrizo Plain, which is a nationally protected valley about half-way between Bakersfield and the coast.  The wildflower blooms here are vast and diverse.  Miles of pure yellow, islands of orange and blue and white.  The whole valley has a deep, penetrating smell, like a flower shop packaged in a pill. 

A few days pass, and I have explored different parts of the Carrizo plain – along the mud of soda lake, and around the ponds of near seven-mile road. 

This afternoon, my goal is to walk east around a giant field of phacelia and towards the Temblor range.  I will jump over three sets of barbed-wire fences to get to the edge of the blue field. 

From the road, the field of phacelia flowers appear so blue that some cannot distinguish it from a lake.  And this lake of blooms, surrounded by seas of goldfields, holds a temptation that is nearly irrestistable.

But at the same time, I have been walking and driving all day.  And part of the reason that I came out here in the first place is that too many long hours at the computer have meant neck pain and tennis elbow.  Maybe I should just return to the hotel?  I will have to walk 3 miles out with a heavy pack, and then 3 miles back in the dark.  Will I even find the rental car in the dark?

This is that little traveler’s devil sitting on my shoulder, telling me not to go, telling me it would be much easier to end the day early, get something to eat and fall asleep.  This Little Horn of Daniel’s Sea Beast has always sat on my shoulder at such moments, telling me to go home. 

I consider that little devil momentarily, before I set off in the sun, staining my shoes bright with the yellow of pollen.  The walking awakens me, and I revel in this bizarre trek through blooms.  After a little more than a mile, I get to the lake of phacelia, and begin to round it. 

A Ferruginous Hawk hangs above me in the air for some time, until the sun begins to go down, and in the waning light, I can’t help but to wonder why that devil ever had a place on my shoulder.

We all have the traveler’s devil, sitting on our shoulder, telling us to go home, or more often to stay home.  A lot of people write me to say that they want to travel as much as I do, but they don’t have the time, or they are unwell.  Others tell me that they are not traveling, because they are saving up for that big trip to Madagascar.  Some people tell they aren’t young anymore, but the biggest reason they tell me they can’t travel is that they can’t afford it.

Avocets on the Carrizo Plains

American Avocets land in a small pond on the Carrizo Plain.

But travel isn’t a luxury waiting for ideal circumstances in our lives.  It is what we were made to do.  When we compare ourselves to our ancestors from a hundred-thousand years ago, we like to compare our physical selves.  But actually, it is the mental part of travel that most imitates our ancestral experience.  The human brain is something that evolved the way it did – enormous, complex, capable of imagination and unimaginable achievement – because our ancestors were on an evolutionary track toward generalization.  Meaning, rather than survival by specialization, which is the rule of speciation on Earth, humans survived by generalizing – learning to find nourishment and sustenance every possible way.

That required a big brain – and a brain that could categorize the plants, differentiate the tidal species, make decisions about weather, understand the seasons, make decisions on the fly. 

These are the traits of curiousity that made us.  And so, when we are walking among a reef of blooms, our own mind begins to wander into a primeval state of categorization, and we sweat from the sun and from our own exertion, this is an experience we evolved toward.  And to say that this act costs too much money, or is something we should wait for, is a really odd devil. 

It is a devil of our modern world, where so many voices are leading us astray from the very thing that nourishes us – getting out there and wandering in our land.  There are a lot of voices out there – commercial voices, cunning voices, plotting voices – that will benefit from changing our behavior.  By getting us to listen to them, instead of ourselves.

When it's nearly dark, I find my way back to the rental car.  Stars abound in the sky.

The next day, I need to head to Los Angeles to meet some business friends.  They are in the disabilities education market, and so, during the course of the weekend, I meet a variety of exceptional people, who, through accidents or illness, lost their sight, their legs, their arms. 

Carrizo Plain blooms

Bright blooms of goldfields and phacelia.

My friend introduces me to a woman named Angela who had sustained an injury while on duty during the first Iraq war.  She became an L1 paraplegic, and suffered a life of incredible pain.  As part of her healing process, she began an adaptive rowing program.

Angela has since become a transoceanic rower.  She was the first disabled woman to row across the Atlantic.  She rowed around the United Kingdom, and was the first disabled woman to row across the Indian Ocean. 

The first thing I asked her of her oceanic journeys was, “What was the coolest wildlife you saw?”  She gave me a momentary pause, so I said, “you don’t get that question very often, do you?”  She talked about the massive sea turtles that she could see underneath her rowing craft, and the shark that stayed with her boat for several days in the Indian Ocean.

She talked about sleeping in the tiny cockpit during storms, and about the threat of falling off the boat in extreme weather.  Angela is an athlete, and a prominent member of the disabled community.  But she is also a traveler, and an adventurer who has seen a world beyond my wildest dreams.

I think about my having second thoughts about a small walk through the flowers.  I think about my tennis elbow, how the devil on my shoulder had such a feeble excuse to try to keep me back, and I vow never to forget Angela when that little devil says to stay home. 

Explore more in the Desert Southwest

While hiking in the Vermilion Cliffs, I dive into the ancient geological epochs that created these rainbows of stone

On the Road to a small desert spring, I investigate the border wall and the case for resurrecting a Transboundary Preserve.

My ongoing project to sketch every cactus in the Desert Southwest and the United States.

Notes on traveling to the Coyote Buttes during surreal winter weather.

Road trip to the Hatch Chili Festival in Southern New Mexico.

Kayaking the Salton Sea to the tiny seaside town.

Exploring the LA River by road and kayak, with notes on my 14 years living in the city.

Notes on ecological devastation and salvation along the New River in Southern California.

Notes on the rich desert tapestry of Anza-Borrego in Southern California.

You want to hear about a hotel nightmare? Notes from Panamint Valley, California.

Notes on my travels to Joshua Tree National Park and the Western Mojave of Southern California.

Notes from a desert California outpost, and the weird rocky world of the Searles lakebed.

Exploring the idea of travel and limitations during some of the amazing wildflower blooms in California history.

A few years ago, I decided to cross Las Vegas by skateboard, and then write about it.

We are walking on a hard, sandy soil when suddenly my boy shrieks in pain.

Notes on the pupfish of Death Valley and the Desert Southwest.

Notes on my frantic road trip across the dazzling desert Plateus of Utah and Arizona.