At some point in the history of North America, the Mojave Indians forged a series of trails from their homes in the Mojave region to the Pacific Ocean. This allowed trade with other tribes, and gave them a chance to get out of the arid desert region of southeastern California, traverse the mountains and explore the new terrain of the coast. It enabled them to find the edge. And it allowed them to return home, richer and more informed, and perhaps more appreciative of the very special place that is the Mojave. The Spanish Missionary Francisco Garces followed their tracks sometime later and made the same journey, and, in 1826, Jedidiah Smith became the first white man to follow this path and reach the Pacific overland from mid-America. Today, along the exact same route, tested at times by the terrain, I left the Mojave and headed west to, as Jedidiah did, reach they Pacific from mid-America.
While I would be much aided by modern conveniences and roadways, for the first four hours, I followed his route — the route of the Mojave. A simple two-track path out of the New York Mountains, across the lava fields and groves of Joshua trees, at a pace of around 10 miles an hour. Where I travelled, they had travelled, where I went, they had lead. I saw one other traveler the entire route before arriving at a paved road and making my way to Baker California and from there onward to the coast. I spend a fair amount of time appreciating the land over which I travel, but I don’t, I think, spend enough time realize how it is and why it is I am able to travel it. Other people, for other reasons, with greater burdens than mine, found it, settled it, mapped it, routed through it and made it a way forward. Today, amazed by all that I saw, I took a minute to think about them and to offer some measure of gratitude for my path to the edge.
At Baker California I was reminded of a quote my son recently sent me. I can’t vouch for the attribution, but I believe it. The quote is, or is close to, “Men argue, nature acts,” and it is attributed to Voltaire. In Baker, nature acted. 50 mph constant straight line winds blew out of the west and scattered sand, dust and soda from the dry lake at Mojave in an apocalyptic scene of chaos. Men and women scattered as well, from one lane to another in fist-shaking rage at all around us. I tried, vainly in some cases, to focus on progress and to remember previous travelers and their hardships. And I kept my focus where their’s no doubt was — on progress to the sea.
With only a little slacking of the wind, I crossed the nation’s fruit basket between Bakersfield and Mojave, mesmerized and appreciative of the rows of almond and fruit trees. I thought about the massive irrigation that kept them growing with water from the Colorado, and I thought about the signs posted saying “no water = no jobs.” And I thought about Voltaire. This year, after many years without, nature is acting in abundance when it comes to water. Not since 1983 have we seen this depth of snow pack that fuels the Colorado and other rivers that provide the water that grow our fruit. While we are arguing over who owns what water and what causes it to be more or less in abundance, nature is raining and snowing like we haven’t seen in years. I don’t know why.
What I do know is that from Mojave along the Smooth road to Paso Robles, the result is as obvious as it is glorious. The land is green. In row after row of hills as large and smooth as great pachyderms’ backs, the grass is tall and green and lush. In years of similar cycles the Mojave Indians making this trek must have thought they’d arrived in some paradise, as different from their homes as night is from day. They knew very little of other places, but by comparison, my experience is vast, and I have not seen ground and terrain as beautiful in any place. I wonder if it will be this way next year, in any years hence, and I decide that it has been before and it will be again. To think otherwise is to project a dominion over this land that I simply do not believe we possess.
Closer to Paso Robles the great beasts of hills give way to slower rolling ground transected by the the geometry of vineyards. The rhythm of the vine rows and stakes carries a tune as you pass along before the city intrudes. There is some sense of a terminus, but no evidence of one as I drop through the valley of the National Forest just south of Los Osos, draped with gum and Eucalyptus, hidden and dark and peaceful. And then it happens. The great ocean fills the scene as far and as wide as any author has ever described. The edge.
Here at Montana de Oro I am at the western edge. An edge that is so only grudgingly. A land that fought and fights to continue. Jagged and raw it cedes only to the power of thousands of miles of hydraulic force born in Asia and stenghthed with every swell until it breaks this landmass off at the Pacific cost. This is an edge wrought not by men, but by nature. This is as far as we could push, as far as we could dream. To here we could travel, from here we could trade, but we could not make more land, we could not will more opportunity. From this western edge, we would stand, turn eastward and realize that we now knew the extent of our country. But we would have to make it one. And so we have.
Tomorrow, I follow this edge north. To learn more of who and what made the travel possible, and to learn more of what it means to know limits — and how to make the most of them.