Rural Ramblings – Spring 1978
Ralph C. Miller
“Riding down the canyon – at the close of day – to watch the desert sun go down…”
Those who think of Gene Autry as either just the crusty old owner of a Major League Baseball Club, or hold him responsible for saddling us with that sorry jingle about the Reindeer with the shiny nose, may be surprised to learn that the above lines are from one of my all time sentimental favorites. Not for Gene’s monotonously nasal delivery so much as because it fostered my earliest romantic notions of Canyons in the American Southwest.
All too many of the distant images we build for ourselves turn into frustrating disappointments up close. On the whole I can’t say that about canyons. I can think of many that have even exceeded expectations. I am glad I have some fine canyon recollections tucked away; with PROGRESS hard on their heels many of my wild canyons are fading like that desert sun.
I was a farm boy from Northern Wisconsin (had never even seen a palm tree) fleeing from the cold and snow of winter when I first arrived in California. I had been corresponding with a young man with the unusual name of Ralph Miller and his Father picked me up in Los Angeles a few days later for the 40 odd mile trip out to Corona.
I had been asleep on the bus when I arrived so this was my first visit to the California countryside. There is almost no way now to tell what it was like, especially to those who only know that area as one gigantic suburb of Disneyland. So I’ll pass the rest and get to the Canyon.
I remember that as we rounded a corner and looked across the broad fertile acres at the canyon mouth Mr. Miller showed me the old Yorba Cemetery and pointed out the site of the famed Don Bernardo Yorba Adobe. This was exciting – I pictured the good Don Bernardo on the veranda of the hacienda. Down there was that Ramona and Alessandro under the olive trees?
The canyon was green and growing under the midwinter sun. The silver ribbon that was the Santa Ana River peeked through great spreading trees. We threaded through just enough rocky walls to satisfy me that this was a true canyon without worrying too much about them tumbling down. (Yes, I knew this was the land of all those violent earthquakes.)
The Santa Ana was my first Canyon experience and became to me the best known and most cherished. We lived for many years in an area not far from that canyon mouth. We drove through it often to the mountains. (When the Editor of the SFJ ran away as a boy that’s the way he went – and so did his Father when he went after him.) We picnicked there, picked up rocks for the garden; I led Boy Scouts up the gravelly sand bars and waded with them through the shallows. Always here it seemed to me I was closer to the early Dons; to the California that was my Lodestone.
If a writer can still say “Alas,” this is the place for it. I have been painfully aware that the old canyon was disappearing under the developer’s dozer blade. Let this be it’s requiem. On our latest trip I couldn’t find it. Wall to wall housing – and on up to the hills on top. Huge factories choke it’s mouth. One Freeway roars down what was the heart of it, 3 more criss cross where it once spilled out on the plain. The river has disappeared into aqueducts and pipes and even the ghosts must long since have departed in disgust.
This latest trip South should have been something of an anniversary too; forty years to the month since that first happy glimpse of the canyon. For that and because it seemed to happen that way this column is mainly about canyons. I don’t feel they are in any way inappropriate either in SFJ. Many small farms and ranches are hidden in the folds of Nature’s blankets. The size of canyons often precludes anything else.
I suppose a whole book could be written on the art and skill of getting the most out of farming in canyons. The soil tends to be more fertile and often in the Southwest they are the best or only source of water. Sometimes too much water; check dams, brushy cross-fencing or hedges can help but if real flooding comes the farmer and his stock better seek high ground.
That hasn’t been the problem in either Alta or Baja California these last few years. However the canyons do stay greener when all the uplands are burnt up. It was like that in San Miguel Canyon just north of Ensenada, Mexico, in December. El Tigre, a small ranch and dairy was the only bright spot in miles of arid terrain. The river bed showed dry but there is obviously underground water there as is often the case in canyons.
I have known this section of the Baja for nearly 20 years and have never seen it so dry in winter. They are learning a little more about dry land farming down there perhaps. Up on the plateau out of the canyon nearly all the fields had been plowed. This is mostly pasture usually but if rain did come they had a better chance that the finely pulverized soil would retain any moisture that fell. Of course they were gambling that water would come before wind. (I believe it has, some at least since we were there.)
North of Rosarita they have begun to irrigate. The dairies had both grass and hay. A curious cultural note here. Of late years Mexican Architects, decorators and designers have been leaning heavily toward the Aztec. Someone there at a dairy farm had obviously felt the influence of Merida or Cozumel. The hay bales piled near the highway had a Pyramid of the Sun stamp that was pure Mayan.
We rather inadvertently wandered into another canyon east of Rancho Santa Fe above San Diego. To the best of my knowledge the last time I was there was a week or two before Pearl Harbor in ’41. Maneuvers on the shores of Lake Hodges. There are houses creeping in among the fields that are left but it has resisted change better than most of that part of the state. For a few miles there wasn’t even any smog.
Among the many canyons on this trip was Tajiguas but as that was the chief locale for the Brotherhood of the Sun article elsewhere in this issue I won’t dwell on it. There was another I could mention in passing. Not exactly the most pleasant experience but there should be long range benefits for farmers so who am I to cavil.
I wrote in a column last summer how dry it was around Redding, California. Stayed that way on through until fall, I believe. However, it was raining hard enough when we passed through just before Christmas. Rain that far down in late December is always suspect for what it may bring to the higher levels – it was only 3:30 though and the radio kept saying, “Freezing level above 5000 feet.”
In spite of the rainslick roads and limited visibility every car and truck went rushing past our steady 50-55. Only 10 or 15 miles out and at barely 1000 feet of elevation the first flakes struck and in half a mile we were deep in a full snow storm. Strangely all those hurrying wheel jockeys fell back and almost at once we were pulling through the gathering storm alone.
The building snow was a hazard but with no place to stop there were only two choices. The next town was 30 miles ahead and I’m not foolhardy but I did grow up in snow country. With chains in the trunk and a good motor I gave little thought to turning back. Steady does it and don’t panic, still with snow building up to 3-4 inches I won’t pretend I wasn’t glad to reach sanctuary in Dunsmuir.
Dunsmuir lies in the bottom of the canyon below Mount Shasta and snow built up all night. The worst was getting out of the parking lot in the morning because the Interstate was open. We crossed the pass that day in another blinding storm but oddly enough between Shasta and the Siskiyous the 3500 foot plateau was open and spring-like under a bright sun. Fat cattle grazing on new grass where last year had been parched and sere.
I’d like to finish with another canyon tale out of the past. Granada in Andalusia rises on a hill above the fertile Vega (the plain). It was the last stronghold of the Moorish Empire in Spain conquered finally by Ferdinand and Isabella – with the aid of the mule.
If Spain did not invent the mule she made it very much her own. In the 15th Century so many rode mules that good horses languished and their blood grew thin. In battle mules won’t charge guns. (Too much sense?) If Ferdinand of Aragon was to lead Isabella’s Castillian troops into battle in the long war against the Moors they needed many horses; so they passed their curious edict. No one could ride a mule without a permiso in the name of Los Reyes.
It improved the horses undoubtedly, an infusion of Arab blood helped to create the Spanish Barb. More than that it put the mule to work. You couldn’t ride them but you could work them and after the eventual culmination of the war the farms of Spain prospered.
The edict passed into history but not the mule. We left Granada across the Vega through pomegranate orchards. (The French first dubbed them pommes de Grenate, apples of Granada.) Beyond the Vega the road winds into the canyon that leads north to Jaen.
There’s a village there – I disremember the name – a tiny village known far beyond it’s borders for the population of 300 people and 1000 mules.
It’s a farm village; there are many such in Europe where the houses are all together and the fields scattered, in this case strung along the canyon for miles. We wound up the road in the early morning and so caught up with one train loaded for the fields. The old Farmer with 3 companions (sons or hired hands) and at least a dozen mules. All of the men were mounted and leading or driving the pack animals. Up ahead in his own basket strapped to the lead mule rode the Farmer’s small dog.
“Aqui todo tienen sus mulas, hasta los perros,” said our guide. (“Here everyone has their mules, even the dogs.”) So much for your edict, Isabella. Adios.