At about 6 a.m. on April 2, I feel like I'm the only thing awake for miles. Yellow goldfields, tidy tips, and green grass on the Caliente Range across the valley are starting to pick up that special blend of orange and red as the sun's first rays rise behind me.
Below, Soda Lake Road is carless, a lone dirt road stretching 37 miles down the center of the monument, connecting highways 58 and 166 in the southeastern corner of San Luis Obispo County. The dust that hung in the air during yesterday's tourist assault on the "super bloom" faded hours ago. It's just me in this place, breathing in the peace I discovered after a chilly night spent blanketed in stars.
But I'm a newbie. This largely undeveloped 250,000-acre remnant of the San Joaquin Valley grasslands has always been this way. Archaeological studies show that Native Americans such as the Chumash used the plains going back at least 10,000 years. And for about 100 years, the quiet beauty of the Carrizo was dry-farmed and ranched by families like Steven Beck's. They knew it was special before President Bill Clinton, who designated it as the Carrizo Plain National Monument in 2001, officially declared it so. The wildflowers, endangered species, cavernous stretch of the San Andreas Fault, and weird, white alkali lake were there before people discovered its worth as an environmentally sensitive area that needed protection.
"All those things were there; it's just that nobody knew about them," Beck said. "It's just so ironic."
He remembers when it was just him, his horse, his cattle, and the wildflowers. For him, the place he called home for so long has definitely changed. He certainly didn't feel that familiar sense of solitude when he visited the monument this spring.
"I just couldn't get over how many people were out there," he said.
On April 15, Elkhorn Road is a mini highway filled with flower gawkers like me. Here, with views of a water-filled Soda Lake (that doesn't happen every year) and a valley floor that's a sea of yellow (also doesn't happen every year), cars dodge each other along a narrow dirt road, smartphones are out, and Go-Pros are pointed straight ahead. As my nose fills with dust, I'm shocked. Last year was not like this. Even two weeks ago it wasn't like this, but then again, neither was the display from Mother Nature.
But as the peak of what a winter full of atmospheric rivers brings started to fade, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that changed the conversation about Carrizo Plain National Monument. On April 26, U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke was directed to review the status of at least two dozen national monuments designated by previous presidents under the Antiquities Act of 1906, including the Carrizo Plain.
Instantly, Twitter posts about breathtaking blooms turned into pleas to save the monument from losing its protected status.
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