In the heart of the dry Galiban Mountains of Central California, lava once flowed out of the earth. When it cooled, the lava formed an abstract battlement. Aki’s other human and I head toward it, winding our way between colliding boulders and under vertical walls of rough surfaced stone. As often happens while traveling away from Alaska, I find familar things in an unfamilar place. Here. along a shrinking stream, just before it enters a boulder field, is a patch of larkspur, one of my favorite flowers.
Perhaps it’s Aki’s Absence or just that we are in California, but it has been a strange, if wonderful day. It started with a visit to Hearst’s Castle—the best 20th Century American example of wealth gone amuck. On the bus ride down from the castle we passed a California condor (a species once on the verge of extinction) posing on top of a roadside rock. It could have eyeing our bus load of tourists for possible carrion. But for a large plastic tag stapled to its wing, the bird would have been scary.
We ate lunch outside of the visitor’s center, sharing our table with three very forward crows. One snatched the paper lining our sandwich basket and jerked it away leaving it’s contents undisturbed, like a magician pulling away a table cloth without disturbing the table settings. Cheeky.
Later we drove through a line of sand dunes to reach the ocean where surfers fought through heavy surf before launching themselves on waves. The road in was so plagued by drifting sand that it had to be constantly cleared by sand plows.
Just before sunset we returned to the sea elephant haul out where the immature males bickered over who could sleep in top of their puppy piles.
The six-year-old male should be dozing on the beach along side hundreds of other female and immature male sea elephants. But he wades in shallow water just offshore, trumpeting to no one in particular. The mothers, just back from a post-pupping migration and most of the immature males are molting. They must grow new skin and hair before starting off on their annual migration to Alaska. It would be counterproductive for them to swim so they melt into the beach. When too hot, they use their flippers to cover themselves and their neighbors with sand.
All is calm on the beach until the six-year-old swims ashore and picks a fight with a slightly smaller male. Both raise up their heads, show teeth, and then collapse into sleep on top of each other.
A small group of loners have staked out an empty beach for themselves away from the group hug on Piedras Blancas beach. I’d probably spend my molt with them rather than join the rowdies around the corner.
To enrich her visit to Pacific Grove Aki’s other human and I invite a friend on a walk across the Point Lobos marine refuge. Yesterday’s sun and wind dried out the trails. but the surf crashing against the headlands may make it hard to see otters.
From the path to bird rock, we spot a score of harbor seals scattered on the China Cove beach. Some of the pups still wear the wrinkled skin of new borns. Those not sleeping on the beach play in the aquamarine water of the cove like kindergarteners at recess.
Around the corner, just on the other side of some nesting cormorants, female sea otters and their pups have formed an interwoven raft, the pups reclining on their mother’s stomach.
Today the fog comes and goes from Asilomar Beach. Around Pinos Point harbor seals suckle their pups. By the Coast Guard dock, California Seal lions bicker for haul out space on a bouldered breakwater. Brandt Comorants seem to ignore the big mammals, moving only when hungary for more fish. The same wealth of Monterey Bay that draws all this wild life also attracts and holds my fellow humans who take selfies with the seals and laugh at the rotond sea lions.
It’s ironic that the same Pacific that sloshed against the North Douglas beach that Aki and I last visited slams against temperate California. Here the harbor seals have to shelter near the beach where they wean their pups. At home their cousins will birth their young on icebergs . There, the eagles will watch for a chance to capture a meal. Here, only tourists spy on the pups.
Neither Aki nor I speak the language but I still enjoy the locals’ conversations. Along he forested part of the trail we thrushes, robins, wrens share their work songs. Eagles bitch at each other. Gulls bicker. Ducks warn others raft members of our approach to the beach.
In spite of all the forest noise, the beach is empty. A strip of fog forms a funny hat on Benjamin Island. Most of the action is at Shaman Island where the gulls and eagles linger. Close in a small collection of harlequin ducks make quick dives on baitfish.
Back in the forest, it’s more bird song and the occasional squirrel chatter. Near the car two red-breasted sapsuckers hammer the parallel parking sign. One flushes away. The other climbs to the top of a sign and gives up a hard look.
Aki doesn’t want to be here. She lags behind as I try to lead her deeper into the Treadwell ruins. Each time I turn around she freezes and tries to stop me with a stare. Only when the invisible band that attaches us stretches too far does she slowly shorten the distance.
Maybe it’s the rain, which marks the end of a long, sunny stretch. It could be ghosts of those that lived and worked the mines before a cave in one hundred years ago shut everything down. If she is like me, she is displeased by the recent efforts with chainsaws to push the forest back from ruins that would otherwise crumble into earth.
Aki and I are on a pilgrimage. Today’s light snow won’t stop us, nor will the climb toward the Perseverance Basin. We do stop to watch a small group of mountain goats feeding along a Mt. Juneau waterfall. One is gone after two short leaps. The others are still feeding when the little dog and I return to the pilgrim business.
We climb the old mining road, skirting recent rockslides, leaning into the wind, when we round a point where birch trees sport swelling leaf buds. In minutes we arrive at our prize: a small patch of flowering purple saxifrage with roots jammed into a cliff-side crack. They provide the only joyful color in a muted landscape. In a week the flowers will shrivel to brown and, hopefully, wild columbines will already be building toward their showy bloom.
Today’s harsh, mid-day sun backlights Juneau’s homeless people and ravens to simple silhouettes. The same bright light makes Aki squint. But with a strong west wind blowing, no one can feel the warmth of the sun. This makes the ravens and the little dog cranky and the homeless subdued. A dozen of the latter gather together like a church community in Marine Park, wearing winter gear with sleeping bags over their legs. For them April might be the cruelest month for it’s tendency to deliver warm days followed by cold, never letting the vulnerable accept that the worst of winter is over. The forecast for tonight calls for snow.