A lovely spring weekend sparked an impromptu trip to see wildflowers last Sunday. Pinnacles National Monument is about an hour and a half south of the Santa Cruz grandchildren, so it seemed like the right destination. We spent Saturday night in Santa Cruz in order to leave by 7 a.m. on Sunday, though daylight saving and the five-minute rule (add five minutes to departure time for every person in the party) got us going with our five adults and four children at about 10 instead. While we were waiting for everyone to get organized, we had an unusual opportunity to read the fat Sunday edition of the metro daily, something we usually skip because the ratio of ads to interesting content is unappealing.
Prominently featured on the front page of the travel se ction was—what luck!—a major piece on a trip to Pinnacles to see wildflowers. But although it contained some interesting information on the program which is releasing captivity-bred California condors in the area, the title (“Luxury inn softens journey to see condors soar over wildflowers at Pinnacles”) indicated that the piece wasn’t exactly a guide to the trip we were planning. The travel writer enthused that the inn where he stayed “has whirlpool tubs and gas fireplaces in nearly every room, and seems custom-made for those seeking outdoor adventure by day and high-thread-count sheets at night—the aging baby-boomer ‘soft adventure’ market…” Our motley assortment of flower-fans was variously too old, too young, or too poor to be part of that ideal demogr aphic, so we would have to forego the inn part of the program.
The drive south, when we finally got started, provided a good chance to see what was happening in the region which used to be just south of the San Jose sprawl. Our family (great-grandparent s on both sides) moved to Santa Cruz with the University of California in the mid-’60s, so we’re accustomed to thinking about the Gilroy-Salinas-Watsonville triangle served by highways 101 and 1 as farm country. Pinnacles is reached from the west by heading due east on Highway 146 from Soledad, a dusty town on 101 which is surrounded by agribusiness lettuce fields and supported mainly by the state prisons which are located there.
On 146, as we headed east, we could see that the new agribusiness in the area was commercial wine-grapes, covering hillsides in martial rows with scorched bare earth between the vines. We saw one attractive vineyard which the agricultural expert in our party identified as organic because grass was allowed to grow between the v ines, but most were clearly factory-style monocrop outfits. Our expert told us that California’s fabled wildflowers have survived mainly in areas which aren’t much good for farming. On the lush valley floors, herbicides have long-since wiped out natives in favor of food crops.
As the rocky spires of the Pinnacles’ volcanic geology came into view, regimented vineyards gave way to horse ranches. The terrain changed from flat valley floor to rocky hills with interesting trees, lots of wildflowers and the promise of fauna in arroyos running with spring water--an interesting and unusual ecosystem. The road changed from two-lane to one-lane with bumps and potholes. But then, at the end of the one-lane road, just before we expected to arrive at the park’s wes tern entrance, there was another stretch of marching grapevines and metal fences, with a new pseudo-Spanish structure on a hill beside the road, complete with paved parking lot. We were passing the inn which was written up in the Sunday paper.
The write r had described it as adjacent to a vineyard, which we’d looked up on the Internet before we left the house. The vineyard’s website said it is “perched in the remote Gavilan Mountain Range, 1,800 feet above California's Salinas Valley, at the base of an extinct volcano bordering the Pinnacles National Monument… one of the few wineries in the U.S. growing grapes in limestone-based soils, the same as in Burgundy” with “ spare, well-drained ground, limited rainfall and low crop levels” all in service of the company slogan: “Producing some of the worlds’ [sic]most hedonistic [sic] wines.”
Exactly. Hedonism is the philosophy which says that the purpose of life is the pursuit of pleasure. That little voice which started up in my head when I read the travel ar ticle began to nag again.
Line of thought: There’s nothing wrong with comfortable beds near parks, especially for the older folks. Yosemite has the Ahwanee Hotel, after all. There’s nothing wrong with nice wine. But here’s where it gets complicated.
At the park we discovered that our government no longer thinks it can afford the little printed leaflets that correspond to the numbers on the interpretive trail. And a substantial percentage of the visitors we saw on the trails were speakers of languages other than English: many of Spanish, but also of Japanese, Korean, German. The few signs and the one small pamphlet available were all English-only. Small things, perhaps, but symptoms of the way this country is being re-organized: for the pleasure-seekin g of those who can pay their way at luxury inns, while regular citizens get less and less for their tax dollars, and foreign guests are not welcomed hospitably.
And is it really right to destroy obviously unusual ecological terrain at the foot of a unique volcanic park just to produce “hedonistic wines” for a few wealthy palates? Fine, even excellent wine grapes can be grown in less-sensitive environments, leaving room for wildflowers.
On the trip back from Pinnacles, we noticed that Salinas, formerly a shabby market-town not unlike Soledad, is booming, with farm fields replaced by big housing developments for commuters to Silicon Valley, vast shopping malls with all the major chains, even its very own Walmart. But what Salinas thinks it can no longer afford, despite this apparent prosperity, is a public library. Priorities—we’re getting them all wrong lately.