Sick of the city, you wake the family early and hit the road. The countryside in San Benito County is green and empty. The land opens out below Gilroy and the asphalt is submerged in a lake of grass that fills the bowl between the eastern and western hills. Highway 25 skirts the miserable strip malls and tract-housing of Hollister, then slips into the long chiseled groove that marks the San Andreas Rift Zone between the Diablo and Gabilan ranges. South of Paicines oaks press the verge of the road and you pass through territory held by a colony of Yellow-billed Magpies (Pica nutalli). Crow-like with patches of white, their primaries and tertials flash an iridescent seaweed blue. The yellow muzzle is unmistakable.
Pinnacles National Monument is best avoided in summer. The isolated inland hills flare up infernally, even when not actually burning, and afternoons above 110 degrees are common. All the creeks run dry. In spring, however, the brook at Bear Gulch tinkles below a stone and timber ranger station built in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. You follow a hiking trail up the canyon through oak groves and weird vaults of rock. There’s a low buzzing of bees or wasps, but you can’t find their nest. A Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) in his black Robin Hood cap follows through the undergrowth. The trail leads into a cave where a flashlight shows little waterfalls purling through gaps in the rocks. Looking down into the dark your daughter spots (she says) some dinosaur bones. The far end of the cave is closed so that no one will disturb the weeks-long drowsy intercourse of bats.
The ‘pinnacles’ themselves are the fossil bones of a primeval volcano whose flesh has long ago rotted away. From an igneous shelf above the reservoir, where you eat a picnic lunch, there’s a nice vista of the high peaks: boulders and broken ribs of rusted stone that rear up from amid the chaparral and the few scattered pines. It’s about here that your son misplaces his one perfect walking stick in the world and insists on retracing his steps. Your daughter runs the other way to chase an Orangetip butterfly through blood-barked manzanitas. Overhead, lucky you, a massive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) slides past, soundless and assured, its finger feathers splayed and ten-foot arms stretched wide, a shipless rudder in the sky. Hold your breath. You have just seen one of Earth’s rarest birds.
Driving north on Highway 25 the weather shifts and clouds run in from the Pacific. You begin to dread that portion of the road ahead where the horrid strip malls start again, and the ugly houses, and the acres of concrete. You hope, in a way, that Mencken was right when he called mankind nothing more consequential than “a local disease of the cosmos.” Here is Paicines again, and now the little hamlet of Tres Pinos. Outside a sheet-metal warehouse some meat-headed kid is marching weighted barbells down the street, while a friend shouts encouragement. Thank God for birds and boulders, you think. It may be that we are nothing better than a rash on the leg of dame Nature, but what a gam!