In southern California, the weather cycles make for wildly different rainfalls each year. In any year, most of the rain falls in the late Autumn and winter months, and in many years, long periods of rainlessness in the late Spring, Summer and early Autumn are "normal" for the area. In an El Nino year, rain falls consistently and heavily. In a la nina year, a chilly, rainless time arises. The local flora for that portion of southern California from zero to fifty miles from the coast must adjust to rain conditions which can vary from near-desert-ish to quite cup-runneth-over-ish. The resulting adaptations result in many micro-climates. Unlike some other regions, in which a micro-climate might be many miles square, southern California micro-climates can be literally little neighborhood by little neighborhood.
The transition from the coastal areas eastward is a transition towards desert. One part of the transition that always interests me is located in the Santa Clarita Valley, roughly fortysomething miles inland. It's a Los Angeles County Park named Vasquez Rocks.
Most geeks have seen Vasquez Rocks on television. It's the setting for more "desert planet" sci fi movies and television programs than one can shake a stick at. The hallmark Vasquez Rocks show is arguably "The Arena", the show from the original Star Trek in which James T. Kirk is placed by an "advanced species" on a rocky alien planet with a lizard-like captain of another ship, and required to engage in one on one combat.
I used to love to drive the forty five minutes or so from our home in La Crescenta out to Vasquez Rocks. It looks like a kind of desert place, with lots of elven little juniper trees and creosote bushes all around. When one walks Vasquez Rocks in deep Summer, the creosote bushes give off their odor, giving the place the midly comforting scent of a tire shop in Alabama in August. Creosote bushes are part of the odd Southern California ecology.
They propagate with fire in the mix. When a brush fire comes near, they emit flammable substance, in order that they might be burned, and their progeny rise in greater number from the ashes.
I liked Vasquez Rocks because it always seemed to me that in its expanse I could find places to be alone in nature without undue difficulty. The trails were not challenging, and the scenery was fascinating. Although a lot of people visit the rocks, they mostly want to hike on the huge, jutting red giant rocks which make the park so distinctive. My own route, though, was almost always into the lowlands of the park, amid the junipers and the cedars and the giant yucca whipplei. I'd see scores of lizards (of less than Star Trek size), usually a hawk or owl, and sometimes a coyote or jackrabbit. Often there was birdsong.
One El Nino year, the winter rains brought a few dozen inches of rain. This was quite a heavy rainfall indeed, and like all El Nino years it brought flowers out into bloom. In much of southern California, deep Summer is the "dormant" season for plant growth, while late Winter and early Spring is the active growing season.
I woke up one clear Winter day and drove to Vasquez Rocks. It's one of those "rules of the rocks" that during the Winter, when conditions are often ideal at the park, far fewer visitors come than during mid-Summer,when the park can be very hot indeed. I arrived quite early on a Saturday morning, and I had the entire park virtually to myself. I parked my car and walked in among the desert plants, dry chapparal shrubs and tiny trees that line the hiking trails.
When I came to one edge of the park, I suddenly was in a field of winter flowers. Now in the arid reaches of Vasquez park, one does not normally think of winter flowers in profusion. But in this heavy El Nino year, carpets of little yellow flowers, barely an inch or two high each, broken up by little blue flowers from time to time, rolled along the ground as if Vasquez Rocks were a "kept" botanical garden, created for some race of miniature beings.
I remember that morning, with a nip in the air but essentially warm, with the sun out, promising to make things quite warm. During that rain filled year, our favorite public botanical garden, with its camellia tree forest, was a festival of blooms. The canyons and hillsides of the nearby Antelope Valley were awash in spectacular golden displays of California poppies.
But for me, the highlight of that particular glorious floral winter was tiny little flowers in an odd park of jutting rocks and stunted shrubs. I felt so comforted, somehow, when I saw that sea of tiny flowers.
I don't know if there's some big point here, about how I believe in good things in tiny packages, or about how the most overlooked things are often the most glorious. I just know I loved those flowers, and I wish I could see them again.