I hadn’t seen this many new-to-me wildflower species in a really long time. Pinnacles National Monument, famous for its out-of-context rock formations loved by climbers and its rainbow burst of springtime flowers, is located in the hot hills between Hollister to the north and King City to the south, the rainshadow of the Coast Ranges. As such, it is one of those uber-diverse ecological edges, combining familiar coastal species (such as Coast Live Oak and Sticky Monkeyflower) with interior, valley/foothill species (such as Valley and Blue Oak, and Grey Pine).
After hitting the outlet stores in Gilroy (for all its soft-core kiddie porn on the back of our nation’s weeklies, American Apparel does make great tank tops for hiking), Kelsey and I arrived at Pinnacles just before dusk. White tufts were adrift, non-stop, like a mid-May, freak snow flurry. We looked up and realized we were in the midst of the successful, gentle reproduction of cottonwood trees.
Relieved to be out of the City, we grabbed a couple of Blue Moons and tromped along the campground roads, flitting from plant to plant just long enough to ID it or add it to our growing list of “unknowns” before another would catch our eyes. An acute experience of attention-deficit-disorder botany, obviously, and we hadn’t even smoked the fairly-traded banana peel I had drying on the dashboard during the drive down.
Pineapple weed was growing abundant in the hard, holey ground where we chose not to pitch our tent, and Kelsey made some tasty, relaxing tea from it over the fire before bedtime.
It was hard to get out of tent-bed in the morning, as it’s always a question of starting the trail early versus listening to the chattering birds a while since I normally awake to the Haight’s resident Tourette’s victims drowning out any cooing pigeons. But, once we finally made it to the Condor Gulch Trail, we took about two steps and busted out our cameras. The next five hours constituted the slowest and most behind-a-lens hike I’ve ever undertaken, and for good reason: we’d lit upon hillsides covered in ephemeral blossoms and chapparal stands in their springtime prime.
We were immediately happy to see a couple of Elegant Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata), with its arrow-shaped petals and long, beckoning stamen.
But then we glimpsed our first Mariposa Lily (Calochortus venustus) in all its art deco splendor. Really, this butterfly blossom is one of the most captivating and emotive wildflowers I’ve ever encountered. A deep white cup fringed in pink, limey-vermilion sepals with a charming curl, a dot the tinge of dried blood in the center of each petal. And then we realized there was not one but many — they covered the hillside and, as we began to inspect them, many had become the playground for some joyous-seeming insect. And really, what’s not to love for a pollinator? The Mariposa Lily has guides on its petals pointing towards its reproductive parts, which are surrounded by a thickness of golden-red, quarter-inch hairs. Additionally, this classic bowl shape offers not only nutritious pollen and energy-rich nectar, but also a cozy haven providing shelter and warmth, as the concentration of the sun’s rays can make the temperature inside a flower slightly higher than that of the surrounding air.
We wandered through a more forested section lined in a fury of orange — Western Wallflower (Erysimum capitatum var. capitatum), Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus), unnamed lichen:
Once we climbed a bit higher the terrain shifted once again, this time into drier, more chapparal, characterized by familiar, leathery-leaved, head-high shrubs like scrub oak, manzanita, chamise. The new growth on the scrub oaks is particularly stunning — soft fuzzy rose upon hard dark green:
One plant I had yet to become acquainted with was the Venus Thistle, or Cirsium occidentale var. venustrum, which looks a lot like the Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) except its petalless flowers are a lovely magenta red whereas Bull Thistle’s are the easily recognizable electric lavender. An even more important distinction is that the Venus is native and endemic (only found in that place) to California, and is a favorite nectar source for swallowtail butterflies, whereas Bull Thistle is an exotic invasive by way of Europe and is considered a noxious weed which can crowd out native plant species.
After climbing up and around some rocky scree, we turned east onto the High Peaks Trail, which wound through more green grassy meadows and mind-blowing wildflower displays.
There was some yellow:
And some purple:
One last highlight of this overwhelmingly photogenic hike was finding a pair of unidentified beetles feasting on the nectar of bright blue delphinium.
I’m assuming the flower’s nectary is inside the spur, and the beetles are using their mandibles to gnaw into it and access the nutritious sugar-water.
Beetles are also important pollinators, as seen in the earlier photos where another unidentified insect species was snug in the sex parts of the Mariposa Lily. And though we mainly saw beetles and a few butterflies, according to the National Park Service brochure, Pinnacles is home to 400 species of bees, an astounding number constituting the largest diversity of bees in one place on the entire North American continent. Makes sense, considering Pinnacles also supports over 100 species of wildflowers.
After hiking along the riparian Bench Trail and then the Bear Gulch Trail, Kelsey and I left Pinnacles, heading out the pastoral Highway 25 in the golden glare of the early evening, excited to pursue the couple of pints we’d been looking forward to between yapping about tomentose leaves and serpentine outcrops. We soon arrived at the bar in Tres Pinos, population 500. The walls were covered with rifles and mounted buck heads — typical small town watering-hole decor, and a far cry from the ironic hipster hangouts in the Mission (unless they were being….ironic!). A cowboy-hatted regular quickly bought our with-an-orange-wedge beers. He then immediately chatted with us about hiking in Pinnacles, and then nearly as immediately initiated a conversation with another regular about how many rattlesnakes they’d killed so far this season, prompted by the fact that the venomous reptiles had recently awoken from their winter torpor and Pinnacles hikers were warned to be wary. And I immediately got mutely pissed, as I am more in agreement with my beloved late author and champion of the southwest’s canyon country, Edward Abbey, who once wrote a short chapter about living with rattlesnakes in his classic, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. (In fact, it was this book that got me out into the southeastern Utah wilderness in the first place nearly a decade ago, and it was there that I first tore apart unknown blossoms to discover and draw their anatomy.)
A couple excerpts:
“There’s a revolver inside the trailer, a huge British Webley .45, loaded, but it’s out of reach. Even if I had it in my hands I’d hesitate to blast a fellow creature at such close range, shooting between my own legs at a living target flat on a solid rock thirty inches away. It would be like murder; and where would I set my coffee?”
“Other considerations come to mind….I have personal convictions to uphold. Ideals, you might say. I prefer not to kill animals. I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake.” (italics his)
And finally, the last, beautiful paragraph:
“All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.” (italics mine)
But of course, being the non-confrontational person I am, rather than announcing that I’d rather kill a man than a snake (at least, theoretically….), I weakly mentioned I’d heard that rattlesnake’s are evolving to have even stronger venom due to population pressures instigated by marauding and murderous humans. This pseudo-assertion was quickly shot down as a myth by Rattlesnake Hunter Numero Uno. Though convinced I was right, I let the matter go, and Kelsey and I left for the sunny porch to peacefully go through our 200-plus wildflower photos. Turns out, upon some research, he was indeed right, and I was indeed wrong. Many, many thanks to the generous help from Chris Giorni of the local Treefrog Treks for passing my inquiry into this matter along to Harry Greene, a herpetologist at Cornell University, and for Dr. Greene for further passing it on to Dr. William Hayes of Lomalinda University. Dr. Hayes’s paper dispelling this notion is worth a read, as is Dr. Greene’s essay “Appreciating Rattlesnakes” about how to share the habits of this much-feared creature with the public to encourage empathy and conservation (if you’re interested in reading this short and thoughtful essay, I’ll send you the pdf).
And so we continued our drive north, accompanied by the groovy disco rock of Physical Graffiti, onward toward the darkening skies of our fog-laden City. The sun dropped bright and blazing behind my beloved Coast Ranges and into Big Sur’s Pacific waters waiting beyond; we were somewhere between the monks of Tassajara and the viper hunters of San Benito County, in all ways.