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Anything but plain: The barren landscape of Carrizo Plain comes alive with color in wildflower season 

Breathing in the dust billowing off this dirt road is like smelling freedom. And as good as that feels, I’m hoping that my little powder blue Toyota is pointed in the right direction—toward Highway 166.

click to enlarge KING’S VIEW:  Goldfields stretch out toward the valley floor, looking north up the Carrizo Plain from Quail Springs Road on the southern end of the national monument. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • KING’S VIEW: Goldfields stretch out toward the valley floor, looking north up the Carrizo Plain from Quail Springs Road on the southern end of the national monument.

I’m rumbling down a stretch of unpaved backcountry on March 26, heading south-ish on Soda Lake Road, which cuts a 37-mile stretch through the Carrizo Plain National Monument. It’s not the painted rocks I’m here for, although that’s on my wish list. 

It’s the purple haze I can see off in the distance. A carpet of blue-ish glory that invaded the valley floor below the white-beige of the barren hillsides to the east. And the yellow blanket to the west, popping color over the greens of spring, miles away from where the rattling of my vehicle competes with the sounds of the Black Keys.

click to enlarge LONELY LUPINE:  The long neck of purple lupine peeks out from the yellow and white of petals of what looks like coreopsis. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • LONELY LUPINE: The long neck of purple lupine peeks out from the yellow and white of petals of what looks like coreopsis.

It’s wildflower season. There’s spotty cell reception. And for some reason, yesterday, I decided to let someone borrow my map. So, I’m sort of crossing my fingers and trusting my intuition. 

A side road appears out of nowhere, and I make a sharp left, bouncing over the bumps to a small parking area where a woman and her son are picnicking on the ground behind their Subaru. 

My dog hops out of the back seat, and we head for the purple. It’s probably about a half-mile off, and my pit bull bounds through the brush like Tigger. We duck under some barbed wire and tiny faces of phacelia start to appear, like little violet soldiers coalescing into an ambush. They multiply quickly, waving at me in the wind. 

This sea of amethyst beckons to the amateur photographer in me. I kneel down to take a picture and a streak of brindle and white breaks my reverie; my very own version of the Tasmanian Devil is tearing through the phacelia field. He apparently doesn’t appreciate it like I do. 

click to enlarge PURPLE POWER:  The violet of phacelia paints portions of the plain like a grape-juice stain spilled on the barren landscape. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PURPLE POWER: The violet of phacelia paints portions of the plain like a grape-juice stain spilled on the barren landscape.

I call him out of the flowers, and as we turn around to head back to the parking lot, I see that a line of cars had released their captives onto the makeshift trail in front of us. A woman smiles at my dog and asks me if it’s worth the walk.

“Is it beautiful?” she asks. 

“I thought so,” I say. I mean, I guess it depends on who you are and how you define that word. I think of what I’ve seen already today: the bright yellow goldfields, lavender lupine, pink owl’s clover, orange fiddleneck, tiny purple-pink filaree, and several other wildflowers I can’t pick out of the herd. A long drive along Highway 56, a slow crawl through the Shell Creek Road bloom, and out to the mystery of Soda Lake Road, where I wasn’t sure what I would find and I’m definitely not disappointed.

Awesome beauty that will soon disappear into the summer’s heat. 

- QUICK, BEFORE IT'S GONE:  Get your booty out to Carrizo Plain National Monument before this year’s bloom goes out of commission. Check on the wildflowers before you go by calling the Goodwin Education Center at 475-2131. It’s open Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. -
  • QUICK, BEFORE IT'S GONE: Get your booty out to Carrizo Plain National Monument before this year’s bloom goes out of commission. Check on the wildflowers before you go by calling the Goodwin Education Center at 475-2131. It’s open Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

I get back on the road, pointing south-ish and am determined to get to that hillside covered in a blond as bright as the day seems—wind-swept, warm, and free.

Editor Camillia Lanham is ready for more wildflower discovery at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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