Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pater: Boulder Creek Road...

Pater: Boulder Creek Road...  At right, my dad at Rice Creek, near Mt. Lassen National Park, in June 2007...
Boulder Creek Road...

Stretching from Descanso to Julian along the west-facing slopes of Cuyamaca Mountain is a mostly gravel road, Boulder Creek Road.  The map at left shows one stretch of the road; you can expand it to see the rest of it.

Debbie and I took a drive along this road yesterday afternoon, curious to see if our recent rains had started the creek flowing (they had) and if the deer had moved down to the lower elevations yet (they had not).  Taking that drive brought back some memories of the drives we took along this same road with my dad.  It was a favorite destination for us in the spring or summer because there are several particularly nice wildflower patches along it.  I don't have records of our first trip with him out here, but it was probably in the late '90s.  When he last visited us, in 2007, we also made the trip, for perhaps the 3rd or 4th time with my dad.

I have several very vivid memories of these trips.

On the very first trip we took along that road, my dad was still physically in good shape, and could still easily out-hike me.  At one particular point along the road, he spotted some unusual looking shrubs and trees on a little ridge, about a half mile from the road.  We stopped and bushwhacked our way over to these unexpected plants, and my dad went into “botanical detective” mode.  First he was able to identify some of the plants from memory, and knew that they weren't native plants – which meant that someone must have planted them.  I might have noticed that a few of them looked out of place, but I couldn't have identified any of them.  Then he spotted two overgrown shrubs, about 8 feet high and planted about 10 feet apart, and identified them as something often planted alongside stairways or porches, and speculated that there used to be a stairway between these two (now grown together, but would have been much smaller in the past).  I've forgotten what any of those plants were, but I remember that I was skeptical at that point.  Then he noticed that some of the other non-native bushes (and some irises) we'd found formed a rough rectangle, with the two “porch bushes” in the center of one of the small sides.  That was definitely suggestive of a man-made building here, and even I could see it.  My dad kicked at the dirt in the center of this rectangle, and immediately turned up a few man-made artifacts: an old bolt, an old piece of broken green glass, and some other junk.  One of the prominent trees nearby my dad identified as a species often planted for shade, but it needed more water than we had – but it was thriving, so he speculated that there was a well nearby its trunk.  We walked over to it (maybe 50' from the rectangle), and within a couple of minutes we found the remains of a circular stonework about 4' in diameter.  It was certainly suggestive of a well, albeit a filled-in one.  Then for a grand finale, he spotted a couple other non-native shrubs that were larger than they normally got.  These were about 100' from the rectangle, and my dad immediately speculated that they were on the site of an outhouse, and the extra “fertilizer” there accounted for the bushes' unusual size.  He concluded from all this that someone had once built a home there, probably in the 1800s.  It was a beautiful site for a home, with a gorgeous view of both Cuyamaca Mountain and the large valley just to the south.

When we got home that night, I dragged out my topo map (this was before the days of topo maps on iPads :) of the area, and we pored over it looking for a clue.  We didn't have to look long: exactly where we'd found the rectangle, there was a building marked (from a survey in the '20s).  It was a one-room schoolhouse, probably much like the different one at right, not a home – but otherwise my dad had it right.  The well was marked on the topo map as well, also exactly where we found it.  The outhouse wasn't marked, but I have no doubt he was correct.  Later, in a book I have on the history of Cuyamaca Mountain, I discovered that this schoolhouse was established in the 1870s, and that it served the children of the ranchers then in the area (there were many more people living there then than today).  That was pretty impressive detective work on my dad's part, and almost entirely from his knowledge of the plants we saw.

On another trip, we hiked for a mile or so upstream along Boulder Creek from where it crosses Boulder Creek Road.  This must have been in April or May, because the wildflowers were prime.  We clambered together all over that valley and its sides, seeking out wildflowers we'd spied from a distance.  Many of those wildflowers were new to my dad, and in a few cases they were ones that I could identify.  I suspect you'd have to grow up in my family to know what an unusual occurrence that was – between my dad and my mom, it seemed like they could identify anything with chlorophyll – and my Uncle Donald (my dad's brother) could identify all the fungi.  It was a rare occasion indeed for me to be able to identify a plant that my dad could not :)

There's one visual memory I have of my dad on that hike.  He was sitting on a nice flat rock, with Boulder Creek burbling along at his feet, the sun pouring down like butterscotch (thank you, Joni Mitchell), and beautiful blue wildflowers growing alongside up to the height of his head while he was sitting.  He was pulling one of the plants toward him and inhaling deeply of its perfume.  A happy dad...

On one of our earlier trips along Boulder Creek Road, as we were driving north near the Inaja Indian Reservation, my dad cried out “Blagh!” (or something much like that :), and asked me to stop.  Anyone who has traveled with my dad (or with me, for that matter) is very familiar with this behavior.  It meant that he had spotted something interesting, and wanted to get out and go see it.  In this case my dad had spotted some heather, growing in and around a large exposed piece of rock.  As you can see at the preceding link, there are a lot of heather species, and some of them are native to the Americas.  The one my dad spotted, though, was a European heather, almost certainly one of the Erica genus.  It was definitely not a native plant, which meant that someone had planted it.  It was thriving in a shady, west-facing spot; the rock it was on or near was wet from a nearby seep.

If the heather had been in bloom (as in the photo at right, not mine), I'd certainly have spotted it – but I would never have been able to identify it as a non-native heather.  Once he pointed it out to me, and we walked over to the patch, it was obvious – different than anything around it.  My dad had picked it out of the understory growth flying by his window when it wasn't in bloom, as we drove through at perhaps 15 or 20 MPH.  He was incredibly good at doing this: plants that to me formed a green blur were as good as an illustrated book from his perspective.  He routinely picked out interesting plants, often at a great distance, when I saw nothing interesting at all.  That's a lifetime of plant-hunting experience at work, and very impressive to watch if you were paying attention.

On every single drive I've subsequently made along Boulder Creek Road (dozens by this point), including yesterday afternoon, I've searched for that patch of heather.  I've never found it again...

1 comment:

  1. I remember him talking about that heather discovery!

    And that "bleahgh" sound; yes! Usually uttered with a body dance = four or five rapid-fire shakes of the head, arm and shoulder gestures, too!

    You bring him to life wonderfully through your stories, Tom.

    Again, thank you.

    ~ appreciative sisterly one