by Scott Calhoun
When I asked my friend Darrell Hussman, who grew up in Lancaster, California, about his hometown, he said, “The weather is just like Tucson’s but the wind blows 30 miles an hour all the time and they don’t get any rain in the summer. All of the friends I grew up with there have left except those who are addicted to drugs. It’s a crime-ridden bedroom community of Los Angeles. I haven’t been back in years.”
“What about the California Poppy Reserve?” I asked.
“Now that,” replied Darrell, “is freaking amazing! I remember going out there past fields full of tumbleweeds and seeing this enormous sea of orange—orange like an enormous pumpkin patch. It’s a fabulous place.”
For many Western wildflower hunters, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is mecca. Naturalists have long recognized the special qualities of the place, situated at the southern end of California’s massive central valley. Nearly a century ago, John Muir wrote what now seems a little like an epitaph, since much of this five-hundred-mile long valley has been plowed under for agriculture or developed:
On this first wildflower-chasing trip over to California, I wasn’t really planning on heading out to Antelope Valley to see wildflowers. The naysayers had nearly convinced me that the dry winter had nixed all hope for California wildflower fabulosity in 2006.
I had just spent several days in north San Diego County, scouting for garden photos, and I was a little road weary. I decided to grab a bite to eat and then head for home. I stopped at a Panera café in Carlsbad to check my e-mail and eat a panino. Out of habit, I checked out the Desert USA’s wildflower-watch website, not expecting to find any great reports. I recalled that some big Pacific storms had recently dumped rain north of Los Angeles, but how far north? I soon discovered that on April 8, someone had posted pictures of goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and California poppies (Eschscholtzia californica) blooming at an intersection near the Antelope Valley reserve—vivid yellows and oranges—on the website. I checked the date; it was April 10. All of a sudden, I had the fever: no, I would not be going home. I got in the Jetta, cut over to I-15 and pointed her north. I was determined to be standing in Antelope Valley taking pictures that day in good evening light. Even Darrell’s description of the harsh climate and tough reputation of Lancaster egged me on. In fact, there is a relationship between desolate-looking landscapes and good mass-wildflower shows. Mark Dimmitt writes that “the more arid the habitat, the greater proportion of annual species in North America… In the driest habitats, such as the sandy flats near Yuma, Arizona, up to ninety percent of the plants are annuals.” So that is why when the Algodones Dunes near Yuma bloom, they can get choked with royal purple sand verbena and spikes of Ajo lily—they have no competition.
The San Gabriel Mountains are the only thing keeping L.A. from running up hard against Lancaster. From I-15, I cut over to Palmdale on Highway 138, which is also known as the Pearblossom Highway. The highway follows the northern foothills of the San Gabriels and, as billed, orchards of carefully pruned pear trees line sections of the road; more interesting to me were Joshua-tree badlands interspersed with the pear quadrants—pears and giant yuccas make strange bedfellows indeed, I thought. I’ve made no secret of my love for agaves, yuccas, and other lily-family plants, so when I came across an excerpt from Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango, by Deanne Stillman, I thought her description of the big yucca was perfectly articulated:
When I turned north onto Highway 14, the roadside yuccas petered out, and Lancaster arose like a dusty and forgotten province of L.A. I stopped only for gas, then hurried out to the poppy preserve, which—as it turns out—is some distance out of town. All afternoon, the weather had threatened. Dark-gray clouds had gathered over the mountains and valleys, looking a lot like rain. I reached the edge of the poppy preserve as big, low, blousy clouds crept over the hills.
Then I saw it—down between the gray clumps of rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) was a carpet of goldfields, a tiny yellow daisy that sends up 500 to 800 blooms per square foot! The clumps of rabbitbrush, a plant I knew from Utah’s Great Basin, reminded me that I was in the colder Mojave Desert, a place that could top the Statue-of-Liberty-like Joshua tree spikes with crowns of snow. I pulled over, jumped out, and started snapping photos just as a light rain began to fall. I drove a bit farther west on a dirt road toward some hills covered in gold streaks, with giant Joshua trees in the foreground. When the road got too steep and muddy for the Jetta, I pulled on my favorite Picacho Peak hoodie, featuring a silkscreened silhouette of the Arizona peak renowned for its Mexican gold poppy displays, and started hiking, distracted by the lovely Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), who seemed to me like friendly roadside oracles on this stormy evening.
I love Joshua trees; these Shaquille O’Neals of the Yucca family can reach heights of fifty feet. They are monumental, and as much as any other desert plants, including the boojums we saw in Baja, they recall modern art. Joshua trees—in a fashion that would please the late great British gardener Sir Christopher Lloyd, who liked his gardens shaggy”—have a disheveled look resulting from the skirts of dried leaves that cling to their trunks. Although their size reminds me of Shaq, their posture is more Keith Richards. Their curving trunks and spiked leaves have a hip, ancient quality and seem to say, “I’ve had a long night, sweethearts, but I’ve managed to send up these fabulous bayonets for your enjoyment. God, I need a nap.” I remembered driving through the yuccaless dunes of the Pinacate in March of 2005 with Simmons Buntin, listening to U2’s Joshua Tree album, but here was where I needed that soundtrack! The Joshuas were blooming, and their pink-and-cream stalks kept me company as I walked.
I walked by a pretty Cooper’s goldenbush (Ericameria cooperi) beside a zigzag barbed-wire fence, and then on a little sandy bank I found an architecturally thorny blue flower I didn’t know. Its silvery leaves and stem looked like a thistle, but the shape of the flowers was sagelike. Was it a sage or a thistle? When I looked it up, it turned out to be both. Technically, it was a sage (Salvia carduacea), but its common name, thistle sage, is a nod to its well-armed resemblance. On the same hillside, chia (Salvia columbariae), with its purple-blue whorls, was also in bloom. The protein-rich seeds of both of the above-mentioned salvias were important food plants for many Southwest Indian tribes, who would collect, roast, and grind the seeds to mix with water and sugar (possibly derived from a local cane grass). One story suggests that Mojave runners would make the trip from Needles, California, to the Pacific coast, fueled by nothing more than a mush of chia seeds and water.
After photographing the thistle sage and chia, I was losing my light quickly and glanced out at the valley in the distance. At the base of the mountains, I noticed a large swath of orange, as if a blimp filled with orange latex paint had gone down. “Ah ha!” I thought, “here is my destination for tomorrow.” I stood stock-still in the dying light to take one more photo of Joshua trees with a goldfields background.
Wet, bone-tired, and hungry as a bear, I drove back into Lancaster to find sustenance. I looked around, trying to read the town. At first glance, the city did not impress. Like some of the worst development in Arizona, Lancaster had its share of semi-derelict strip malls and lots of “chain” everything—motels, restaurants, electronics stores—you name it. Luckily, I wasn’t concerned with amenities, I was focused on wildflowers.
When it comes to culture, Lancaster is kind of the opposite of Vail, Colorado, and I don’t mean that in a completely negative way. I mean, Lancaster, like my home base of Tucson, is a real town where real working people live. But even more so than Tucson, Lancaster is not a place that puts on airs—it is what it is. It is a place where immigrants can settle and get a foothold. This is not a cappuccino-sipping, white wine kind of town. It is a down-to-earth city where in an old downtown you can find really good Salvadoran food—exactly what I found at a family-run place called Teclena Flores.
Although it was late, the place was bustling with Salvadorans. I got a comfy vinyl booth and enjoyed a big plate of Chuletas de Puerco Asadas (grilled pork chops) with fresh salsa, plump gorditas, and a bottle of super-sweet golden Salvadoran soda pop that tasted like the essence of bubblegum. While I ate, families watched the news about President Bush’s latest immigration-reform plan, with what to me looked like a vested interest. Whatever we do about immigration in this country, I’m sure about one thing, we should not keep people out who want come here to start good restaurants like Teclena Flores.
I pulled into the Motel 6, checked in, and slept until I was awakened by hip-hop music about 2:00 a.m. Evidently, there was a party around the pool that I hadn’t been invited to. During my quest for wildflowers, I’ve spent a lot of nights at different Motel 6s in the West, and I’ve become adept at reading them. Although they claim the “no surprises” homogeneity of a big corporate chain, there are, in fact, surprises. The hackneyed real estate axiom—location, location, location—also holds true for the Motel 6. If the place is in a dicey urban neighborhood, especially on weekends, you’re in for a house party or worse. If the place is all by its lonesome out on the Interstate and has a big parking lot, it will be filled with truckers and their attendant vices (Motel 6 walls are not well-insulated). How anyone can have an affair, or even a one-night stand, in a Motel 6 is beyond me. I honestly can’t think of anything that would kill romance faster than swinging open the door to a Motel 6 room; there is really no amount of scented candles, soft music, and even good wine that could bring an amorous mood to a Motel 6 room. Anyway you serve it, a tryst in the 6 would feel more like a conjugal visit than a sensuous weekend. I’ve noticed that it’s mostly lonely men who frequent the 6—truckers on the long haul, cheap traveling salesmen, tight writers, and wildflower photographers.
If the manager boasts about twenty-four-hour security cameras in the parking lot, you may want to reconsider. Also, a nonsmoking room in a Motel 6 means that they turn the ashtray on the nightstand over for you, and generally, but not always, the nonsmoking rooms will not have cigarette burns in the bedspreads. Perhaps Tom Bodett should record a new slogan for Motel 6; instead of “We’ll leave the light on for you,” it should be “We’ll turn the ashtray over for you.” In some “nonsmoking” rooms you’ll wake up smelling like you’ve spent a long night in a Las Vegas casino. Never accept a room for the handicapped (I won’t go into details here), and as Michael and Jane Stern emphatically note in their book Two for the Road, never, ever touch the polyester bedspread! All in all, the Holiday Inn Express, if available, is usually about $20–$30 a night more than a Motel 6, but can feel much more luxurious (in the budget hotel category) even if just for the high-speed Internet connection.
So why do I stay at Motel 6s? First, I’m cheap, and I’d rather spend my money on a great meal than an expensive hotel; second, Motel 6s are everywhere and they publish a free directory listing all of the Motel 6s in the U.S. (which I keep in the car); third, in really upscale places, like Carpinteria near Santa Barbara, they can be the only cheap deal in town.
About the time the 50 Cent music died down and the kids around the pool turned in, I was up and dressed and out the door, headed back toward the big splotch of poppies I’d sighted the previous evening in Antelope Valley. Just before dawn, I had my tripod positioned in a lush field of flowers whose petals had closed for the night—but just before the light got good, steady rain began to fall. I waited around in the car, but it didn’t seem that it would be clearing soon. I retreated to the Wee Vill Market, a little country store and café where I had a really good Spanish omelet and fresh hash browns.
When the proprietor of the Wee Vill found out I was there for the wildflowers and that I had driven out from Tucson, she sweetly said, “Now Honey, next time you just call me and I’ll tell you when the flowers are blooming, lots of folks do,” and with that she wrote down the phone number and hours of the Wee Vill Market on a napkin for me. This woman struck me as the kind of self-reliant female who could run a whole town if they let her; she was the cook, the waitress, and the cashier, and the lines on her face looked like they ended up there from smiling and being in the sun. I read a freebie local paper in the Wee Vill for about an hour until the rain stopped, and then I was back out in the flowers.
I happened on a field of orange California poppies growing with a big, red wiry Brillo pad-like plant that I couldn’t identify. It had the prodigious habit of an exotic invader, possibly from the mustard family, but I couldn’t be sure; it also looked a lot like a buckwheat or a Stephanomeria whose common name was wire lettuce. I couldn’t identify the plant for certain, but when I returned home I emailed photos to a Lancaster cooperative extension agent who was doing research with buckwheats, who told me that it looked to him like California buckwheat’s winter appearance. Cool, I thought, two native California plants staking their claim in an abandoned (I hoped) field. What a combination for a garden! This wasn’t just a little patch of poppies and a California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum var. oliolosum), it was a big-ass field of the stuff making a big flat grid of orange and red so strange that it suggested an extraterrestrial landscape. I made a mental note for the next wildflower garden I would design: orange and burgundy make an unexpected but awfully nice color combination, especially when laid out like this in a wild checkerboard fashion.
All of the online wildflower chat says to photograph poppies midday, when they are wide open to the sun. To me this seemed like a recipe for overexposure except on a somewhat overcast day. Besides, the dense clouds hanging over Antelope Valley persisted, and I was out under a big gray sky—I didn’t have a full-sun option. The poppy petals were chastely folded in cone shapes, and in the overcast light their orange was deep, saturated, and powerful. With their petals closed up, the poppies appeared both shy and defiant, but I enjoyed seeing them with the hatches battened down; the effect was more subtle, and the orange teardrop shapes of the flower heads added to their beauty.
The landscape alternated between orange poppies, yellow goldfields, and occasional hummocks of Joshua trees and rabbitbrush. The wind had picked up, and for the second day in a row I was getting wet. My mind drifted to thoughts of pork-and-bean pupusas in a warm booth at Teclena Flores, but first, I wanted a few more photos. In between squalls, I gripped the aluminum stanchions of my tripod and did my best to capture John Muir’s great rich furred valley. If I squinted, it did indeed appear like a lake of sunshine, albeit a choppy pond on a windy day. Staring at the innumerable electric-carrot-colored poppy buds, I remembered that the Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, had written, “Orange is like a man, convinced of his own powers.” I took a deep breath, hoping to inhale a large dose of poppy confidence before heading home.
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