Riding the unexpected Carrizo Plain

by Andrew Maness

This story originally appeared in Vol.6 “The Outdoor Issue”

For as much motivation to “get out and go” as the internet can provide, it can also be a powerful factor in the dissuasion to not go, by way of overthinking the multitude of options. The more I’ve gotten caught up in meticulous planning, seeking the perfect spot to create a vibe that’s just right in hopes of getting content that’s sure to grab eyeballs on the ’gram, the more I’ve felt the need to just pick a spot on the map and go see what it’s like. Some buddies, a couple of dirt scooters, open space, and extra gas in the can just in case: I’d say that’s the recipe for a good time, and a good time is just the thing to break the vicious cycle the internet does its damndest to keep us in. It reminds me that the joy is in the doing of the thing, not the result. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when the result is excellent and well received. To that point, it’s not an accident that the buddies in this story, Mr. Tyler Emond and Mr. Dallin Jolley, are as stylish on the saddle as they are off it, or that I enlisted the premier lensman of the moment for all things two-wheeled, Mr. John Ryan Hebert, to come shoot it. The trucks, bikes, and gear are all ours. Nothing cutting edge or particularly fancy — just reliable, quality equipment all the way around.

Spending as much time testing new stuff as I do, it’s refreshing to get out in the field with something that’s mine, something familiar and that I’ve had time to connect with. My RAM 1500 Bighorn isn’t a highly optioned pickup — hell, it has cloth seats — but that’s how I wanted it, because at the end of the day, it’s just a truck meant for doing truck stuff. In the next 10 to 15 years, will we even be able to buy a new pickup with cloth on a front bench seat? How about one with a naturally aspirated V8 engine? Hard to imagine that brands will offer much more than a basic work truck as an option below the luxe trucks that have replaced the full-size luxury sedan as America’s favorite mode of transportation. I know I’m in the minority of pickup people who are fine with a quad cab versus a crew cab, prefer nice cloth to just-OK leather, and would rather have a 6'4" bed instead of one that’s 5'7". That’s just fine, because it’s a great truck and it’s good transportation. That’s all I can ask for. When I see a place like Carrizo Plain on the map, I know I can load up a couple of dirt bikes, toss gear in the rear of the cab, and head right on out — no prep necessary, no lingering concerns about making it there and back. What’s more, the drive won’t be an exercise in patience; I know it’ll be enjoyable because even though my truck is but a lowly Bighorn, it rides smooth as can be, even on chunky Toyo AT III tires. Kudos to RAM for figuring out how to make a forgiving pickup chassis and dialing in a suspension that comes together for a better ride than many high-dollar SUVs and cars.

One of the many wonderful benefits of being familiar with and confident in your transportation on an outing is that it frees your mind up to focus on other things. Things like the history of where you’re headed, for example, which is usually what I end up thinking about regardless of where I am, but especially in California. It took me years of living here to understand why, but eventually I came to the conclusion that my idea of “visible history” was limited to much of what I had grown up around in New England: colonial buildings, monuments, and walls. History in California and indeed the Western United States looks much different; it’s often harder to spot — sometimes it’s nothing at all — yet it’s somehow easier to connect with. There are simply fewer of modern man’s distractions to contend with out here. Sure, it’s virtually impossible to stand in Los Angeles and picture what it looked like 250 years ago, but standing on the glistening alkali wonder that is Soda Lake, a mere two and a half hours away from LA, it’s easy to lose yourself in that moment and be transported to another time. That’s the beauty of the outdoors in California: Much of it is unspoiled by humans, and often it doesn’t just feel like you’re in a place with a great deal of history, but rather a place that’s not far off from how it would have appeared before we thought to write things down. Pondering the prehistory of the roughly 50 miles of enclosed grassland in which Carrizo Plain National Monument was established in 2001 doesn’t require much imagination — merely open eyes and ears. Between bouts of throttle-twisting excitement on the many dirt roads that weave their way across the plain, the boys and I walked around just taking it all in, only a welcome gentle breeze or the occasional bird disturbing the otherwise profound silence. We had hoped to check out the key attraction in the southwest corner of the plain, Painted Rock, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012, but, sadly, the path out was closed due to it being raptor nesting season. (OK, maybe a little advance planning isn’t the worst thing in the world.) It’s believed that the Chumash people were the first to inhabit the Carrizo Plain, around 2000 BCE, before moving on, likely due to drought, in about 600 CE. Following their departure, the Yokuts people frequently occupied parts of the plain area and created their own rock art, which typically included large, colorful figures and motifs, whereas the Chumash pictographs were usually composed of small elements, circular mandala-type shapes, and complex panels of red, black, and white yucca pigments. Over thousands of years, the Chumash, Yokuts, and Salinan peoples adorned the interior of the horseshoe-shaped sandstone rock formation with pictographs, and their meanings can be interpreted only as best as our modern worldview will allow. Were they made in association with ceremonies that involved shamanic trance or hallucination? There’s plenty of literature to support that line of thinking, but we can infer only so much. What is well understood is that rancheros of Portuguese descent left carvings on the rock in the late 19th century and that heavy damage has since been done to them by gunshots and graffiti, mostly in the early 20th century, when white settlers passed through. Fortunately, Painted Rock is well surveilled and protected these days.

While we were disappointed to not have been able to lay eyes on the pictographs at Painted Rock or to have been greeted by hills bursting with color, as they often do during the superblooms of the spring, we did have a good ol’ time scooting around the park on our bikes. There wasn’t any particularly dynamic terrain to be ridden, although the final traverse back to the trucks did get pretty dicey at times given the soggy nature of some of the land south of Soda Lake, but overall it was enjoyable just to be out in the great expanse that is the valley where Carrizo sits. There are no other places like it in California left to enjoy, and hardly better ways to see it than on two wheels. A return visit will be planned, one that will hopefully include seeing wildflowers at their peak as well as the pictographs, but, as John’s photos show, the outing was not all bad. Any day spent outside with friends makes for a good one indeed — even better when it’s a day of messing around in the dirt and then capping things off with burgers and cold ones at a favorite roadhouse.