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Taking it Slow, in SLO
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Taking it Slow, in SLO

Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2010 - 2017

Day One: Wild Flowers

We got off an hour late again, but we had a more leisurely schedule this time, so it was OK. We headed north first on I-5 through the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley with wild flowers all around. At Highway 166 we turned west and traveled through more of Kern County. There are two main industries in Kern County and we saw both as we traveled. There was an abundance of fields and orchards growing food for our bodies while oil pumps harvested fuel for our cars. A little past Maricopa, we turned north onto Soda Lake Road.

Within a few minutes we were in Carrizo Plain National Monument, stopping beside Sag Pond, a small depression along the San Andreas Fault with a shallow soda lake. It is along this section of Soda Lake Road that the road runs close and parallel to the fault. The east side of the park and the Temblor Range are on the North American Plate, and everything west of the base of the mountains is on the Pacific Plate and moving northeast about 1.3 inches per year. It doesn't slide gradually, but in sudden earthquakes about every 150 years. We will get back to this in a few paragraphs.

I had traveled through Carrizo Plain twice before, once in May and the other in the fall. Neither of those times were there many, or any, wild flowers. Today the plain was carpeted with several varieties and colors. While many of the hills were bathed in yellow, there were areas of gold, pale yellow, purple, pastel blue, pink, and lavender. We stopped every few minutes to photograph the display. I also had to be careful as I drove to avoid as many as possible of the little black shapes moving quickly across the road. Someday these little caterpillar will be butterflies or moths, assuming they are not run over.

Not too long ago, this area was private ranches. Slowly more are being added but there are still several private ranches with the monument boundaries like islands in the sea. One ranch that is no longer private is the Traver Ranch. Unfortunately you can only see it from a distance as bats live inside the house, but there is a walking path past many pieces of farm equipment with a guide as to their uses. It was quiet and uncrowded as even at its peak, the park is underused. President Clinton created this monument to preserve a piece of what California's Central Valley looked like before the Europeans came.

We stopped a few minutes at KCL Campground, a small camping area with a stable and pit toilets. I don't think there is running water anywhere in the monument. We continued on, stopping to photograph more wild flowers, slowly moving toward Goodwin Education Center. Goodwin Education Center is basically the park headquarters. There are small exhibits, information, and people to answer questions. Hanging from the ceiling is a taxidermied juvenile California Condor that had been raised in captivity and released, only to run afoul of power lines. A road leading west takes visitors to Painted Rock, a petroglyph site, but it's closed this time of year to protect nesting birds.

It didn't take long to reach Overlook Hill which looks down on Soda Lake as well as the surrounding plain. Soda Lake is a terminal lake which means that rivers and streams flow into it, but there is no outlet and the water only leaves by evaporation. This leaves thick layers of salts and other minerals behind. Although it looks like a dry lake, water lies just below the surface and it's easy to get stuck. We skipped the board walk out into the lake as were had spent so much time admiring the wild flowers that we were now behind schedule.

A few miles north we exited the park and turned right onto Seven Mile Road which is, seven miles long, and connects to Highway 58. Then we drove south on Elkhorn Road back into the park a few miles to Wallace Creek. At Wallace Creek there is a small parking area and a short hike to the base of the hills. The San Andreas Fault runs along the base of these hills as it did a few paragraphs above. What is special about this spot is that it is one of the best places to see the displacement of the landscape that the fault produces. At trail marker #1, it is easy to see where a small canyon has been displaced a few hundred feet by years of tectonic action, slowly sliding the west side north about sixteen feet every 150 years. The dry creek makes a sharp right turn to the north and a short distance later, a sharp turn to the left. This was once a straight canyon. It's been about 150 years since the last major earthquake, so any cracks that formed then have been filled in with erosion, but come back and visit after the "big one."

We drove back along Seven Mile Road to Soda Lake Road and through California Valley to Highway 58 west. We passed through Santa Margarita where a Mission Assistencia ruins lies on private ranch lands (but I would love to visit it one day.

We arrived in San Luis Obispo a little before 5:00 and things were starting to close. I took a quick look at Murray Adobe, one of the oldest homes in San Luis Obispo County. I had visited Mission San Luis Obispo several times before so we took only a quick look at the preparations for Easter Mass in two days. A short distance beyond is China Town and the Ah Louis Store, one of the oldest businesses in the county. On Wong, better known as Ah Louis, was an important figure in banking and commerce in late 19th Century San Luis Obispo. We next walked to Bubble Gum Alley, a narrow pedestrian alley between 733 and 734 Higuera Street, between Garden and Broad Streets. The history of this gum covered wall is a little sketchy and its future is uncertain, it is a major tourist stop in the heart of San Luis Obispo. Some people just stick another piece of gum on the wall, others are creative using the gun to write things or stick business cards to it (a no-no). I even saw a feathered earring. A woman was photographing others in her group and said, "backup, but don't touch the wall." I informed her that she was just half an inch from the other wall.

I noticed Dallidet Adobe on the map and fond the site but it was closed. In fact, the hours are limited and I doubt I will ever be able to visit. From here we headed to our accommodations, disappointed that we didn't have more time.

We checked into the famed Madonna Inn, possibly the best know motel on the Central Coast. Alex Madonna and his wife, Phillis, started a modest 12 room motel in 1958. It now contains 109 rooms, each in a completely different interior design. We stayed in the Captain's Bridge with shades of blue and nautical themes. In a previous visit we stayed in a room with a southwest theme. We enjoyed dinner at Madonna Inn's café and settled off to sleep.

Day Two: Of Castles and Seals

Saturday we started off early and had a simple early breakfast in our room then headed west. We drove past green hills and Moro Bay and on to San Simeon, better known as Hearst Castle. Five years earlier we had taken three of the five castle tours and today we were back to see the other two. We were early enough to bump to an earlier Garden Tour (Tour #4) and rushed to join it. This tour includes the largest guest house but not the main house. The Garden tour is the only tour that does not include the main house but it does include the gardens and a walk around the exterior. Mr. Hearst, AKA The Chief, put as much effort into creating a beautiful, art filled, garden as he did with the house. One item that I found interesting was the lost stairs. The original stairs on one side were not grand enough, so a new grander stair and patio was built over them, leaving a large decorated area lost and forgotten below. Both of the tours we would take today, and some or all of the others, end in the indoor swimming pool beneath the tennis courts. Glass tiles in the tennis court allows light to the pool.

The castle is five miles up the road from the Visitor Center on a twisting and scenic road with an audio presentation both ways describing the interesting points of interest along the way. Some point include the pergola, bear cages, the landing strip, reservoir, and other support buildings from the days when the castle was still owned by William Randolf Hearst. Today the family still owns most of the surrounding lands and still maintain some of the exotic animals along with the cattle. Near the Visitor Center is the former Poultry House which is now the home of the ranch foreman. Across the highway is San Simeon Village where ships of supplies landed and some of the workers lived. When the castle was built, Mac trucks would crawl up this five-mile road at one mile per hour - that's five hours. The tour busses take about fifteen minutes. We had some time before the next tour so we had lunch, watched the IMAX film, Building the Dream, shopped in the Gift Shop, and visiting the exhibits. We were still in the exhibit space when we didn't hear the announcement for our next tour and nearly missed it.

Tour #2, Upper Floors, took us back up the hill and through the upper floors of the castle that included guest room, Mr. Hearst's private suite, the towers, and the kitchen. We had seen part of this five years before as the evening tour includes parts of the others, but in early evening with living history docents acting as guests. This tour includes the huge kitchen and the back patio, an unfinished area with Julia Morgan's Architectural field office. We returned to the Visitor Center having now seen all five tours, three five years ago, and everything else, so we headed up the coast a few miles.

Point Piedras Blancas Light Station is open for tours sometimes, but not today. We took a few photos and started back. We stopped at several view points to view waves and Elephant Seals. We made a quick stop in San Simeon Village and I bought my wife some Easter candy at the 150-year-old Sebastian's Store. We enjoyed our dinner at The Hamlet Restaurant at Moonstone Gardens. By the time we finished dinner, the shops were closed so we had to put those off to another time. We drove through Cambria where we had enjoyed dinner five years earlier. Within a glass building is the old Fresnel lens from Point Piedras Blancas Light Station. We stopped in the Town of Harmony, population 18, but the only thing still open was Harmony Glassworks filled with beautiful and unique glass art. Not needing anything more for my cats to knock over, I admired the works and continued. I stopped a few minutes to photograph Moro Rock, a famous large rock rising from the sea on the edge of the coast at Moro Bay. It was only a few more minutes until we were back at Madonna Inn about 7:00 for our second and last night and we settled in.

Day Three, a Tale of Two Resurrections

We arose a bit before sunrise and finally had time to explore Madonna Inn an hour before checking out. The pool is up the hill behind the building our room was in. The two unusual design elements were a water fall against the hill beyond and that there was no definite edge to the pool. The pool is ringed by the return grates and the pool descends from there making the water lever even with the surrounding concrete. It is a nice effect. My wife took a peek at the famous Men's Restroom and we photographed the gardens. We walked to the driveway entrance to photograph the sign and an equestrian statue of Alex Madonna, the founder of the Inn. We packed, checked out, and headed north on Highway 101.

It was only a half hour until we reached our last destination for this trip, Mission San Miguel. We had been planning for some time to visit the Mission and attend Christmas Mass in 2003. An earthquake shattered my plans, and the Mission church. I had waited impatiently, and helped a little, waiting for the church to reopen which it did in the fall of 2009. So this is a story of two resurrections, that of Christ that we celebrated this Easter, and the Mission church which almost didn't happen. The "retrofitting" of the church is complete but parts of the quadrangle and other buildings still need repair and the Missions will gladly accept donations.

We arrived about 8:45 for an 11:00 Mass, so I had plenty of time to photograph the exterior of the church with the large cracks no longer visible, the interior which I had never seen before, and the adjacent cemetery that had been closed because of its proximity to the damaged church. About 10:30 the church started to fill up and by 11:00, we were all squeezed in tightly. The priest began by expressing how close the church came to being abandoned and how happy everyone was that money had been found.

After the service, we took one last look and headed for home. Back to the Central Valley and south on I-5, stopping twice at rest areas for a little rest. We arrived home about 5:00 to our three cats, two of whom met us at the door. We had taken the last two tours of Hearst Castle and finally saw the IMAX film about it (and watched the DVD a few weeks later). We finally saw the interior of the San Miguel Mission church after so many years of waiting. It was my third visit to Carrizo Plain, but my wife's first and the first time that I saw it covered with wild flowers. We also enjoyed Madonna Inn more than we had been able to years earlier during a too short visit. The Central Coast of California is a beautiful region filled with history and we hope to return soon.

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This page last updated: Friday, 28-Apr-2017 12:54:16 EDT

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