Research: Cuyama Valley

The Cuyama Valley is a between place.

It sits between the Central Valley and the coast, in a strange circle of non-civilization I’d scarce realized existed even after staring at maps for months. The vegetation is between valley and desert, with sharply-pointed slopes covered in sometimes dense scrub, sometimes nothing but dirt. The ground is between cultivation and abandonment, with some massive swaths drowning beneath sprinklers in the fierce afternoon sun, others left fallow by the hands of the owners who freely admitted to me that little can be done here.

Arriving in the Cuyama Valley.

Logic and I had sites just 3 miles apart, but they couldn’t have been more different. She was out on the valley floor, alternately scaling steep bluffs along the busy highway and gazing at the last remaining stand of cottonwoods in the dry Cuyama Creek wash.

Sunrise from the valley floor.

I was in the hills, at the far end of School House Canyon. And past two more locked gates. My life is gates now.

At least I knew the code.

The original school house is long gone – the land was too harsh for the first homesteaders, and all of them either starved or moved on within a decade of their settlement in the 1890s. But the current property owner told me stories of when he was a boy, and remembered the deliberate path still carved into a shrubby hill where the students once walked to school each day. The second school in the valley, built in 1930, served as his grandfather’s house for many years after he bought the property.

These and many other stories of the valley filled the air as the owner and I hiked through the backcountry of his property, him having graciously offered to help me find the locations of a few historic photographs.

Same hills, over 100 years apart.

On my own time, I met one of his horses.


A very friendly horse.


The brush has grown far less dense over the last century, but it is impressive nonetheless, particularly here where it is overseen by an obviously caring owner. The thick stands of buckwheat, broom, Yerba Santa, and chamise were all in full bloom. The birds were less ostentatious, as chaparral communities are prone to be. But 30 species in a day was still a much appreciated improvement from my last site.

Blooming Yerba Santa.

Less appreciated were the flies. During surveys I could run from them. Back at camp there was little escape. Even a generous coating of bug spray kept them at bay for only about ten minutes, and taught me an unexpected lesson: Deet applied to the face will turn your lips numb about as quick as a trip to the dentist. Fortunately Logic was able to learn from my mistakes, and a thorough wash with our limited water thankfully gave me relief.

Lunchtime necessities.

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