An Esotouric Road Trip: From Taft to Painted Rock

Over the Labor Day weekend, the Esotouric gang set off to explore some gems off California's beaten paths, bound for neon signage, petrographs (so much more delicate than their cousins, the -glyphs), peculiar Victorian mansions, thrift shops, mid-century time capsules and a lesser-known residence from the office of the great Mayan Revival architect Robert Stacy-Judd. 

 

This is the first of several blog posts in which we'll share our discoveries. Check out our road trip photo sets here and here.

Due to the heat wave, we set the alarm and left Los Angeles before dawn. Our first destination was Painted Rock, a little-known Native American site in the midst of the dusty, alkaline Carizzo Plain, and we hoped to arrive before the area became completely inhospitable.  

The morning light was beautiful as we pulled into the handsome downtown of the booming Kern County oil town of Taft. We had a quick breakfast of eggs, home fries, biscuits and honey at Jo's Family Restaurant, where the petroleum-themed decor was enhanced by the lively conversations from tough old oil men and women clustered around nearby tables. Jo's, by the way, is a bullying-free zone.

We'd been admiring the back side of the old Fox Theater through the diner window, so after breakfast we stretched our legs with a stroll along Center Street. 

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The Fox is a beauty, with fine neon scrollwork and a generous exterior lobby. There has been a theater on this site for about a century.   

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Naturally, we were concerned to see the marquee sporting a message urging that we HELP SAVE THE FOX.

There was nobody on the street to ask why the Fox needed saving, but fliers in nearby shop windows expanded on the message: if they keep taking their movie-going business to Bakersfield, Tafties risk losing their hometown screen.

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The Fox has had some challenges in recent years, semi-dodging a foreclosure bullet in 2010.

Happily, just this week the theater completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to finance an upgrade to a digital projector, which will allow them to book new releases. One hopes this will cut down on the need to travel to Bakersfield on date night. Why not drop in for a show some night and help keep the Fox alive?

Next, we took advantage of a uniquely Taft photo op…

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And admired the local color in a shop window…

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Then we rolled out of town, making a couple of stops to admire the scenery before the land opened up all around us, with nothing as far as we could see.

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The Carizzo Plain is a sprawling expanse of Nationally protected land, east of Taft, nestled between the Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges. To visit Painted Rock, you need to obtain a BLM pass code, which opens the mechanical gate on the far side of Soda Lake. 

In case we didn't realize how wild things are inside the gate, a lone pronghorn antelope saw us coming, paused for a moment, then bounded across the road and into the sands beyond, all proud horns and powerful legs. His silhouette was familiar from many petroglyphs we've seen. The visitation was quick, so all we have to show for it is some blurry cell phone video, from which this screen grab comes.   

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We drove on, towards the massive rock formation rising up from the plain. The landmark called Painted Rock is a remnant from the floor of an ancient sea, and once teemed with fish and animal life.

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The walk out to Painted Rock isn't a long one, but the sun was already beating down, and we were glad for our hats and water bottles.

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The broad path was dotted with animal scat of various sizes. 

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We didn't see any burrowing owls, but found fluffy evidence of their presence. 

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Finally, we arrived at the u-shaped opening into the ritual space, then stepped into the sheltering shade. It seemed the perfect place to rest, light a fire or pray to ancient gods. 

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Unfortunately, Painted Rock is not a pristine example of the art work of pre-conquest Californians. Around the turn of the last century, Anglo visitors carved their names–some quite artfully– into the soft stone…

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…and at least one heartless pilgrim emptied his shotgun into the wall.  

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Still, some striking figures remain visible. The form below reminded us of the powerful spirit on the cave at Tomo-Khani, though without a guide, its significance remained elusive.

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Deep in the shelter of the rock, a delicate spirit object hung from a bit of hand-wrapped twine. Made of feathers, shells and hand-carved wooden beads, it swung as a mute reminder that this place is still alive in the heart of native people, and used for rituals that retain their power in this strange new world. 

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But it was getting hotter, and the road beckoned. A pair of crows wheeled off the top of the rock and shrieked at us. It was time to go.

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So we headed back down the path, with the broad Carizzo Plain before us, and a millennium of traveler's memories at our back. 

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Next stop: Santa Maria, and one of the oldest hostelries remaining in the Central Valley.

Photos by Chinta Cooper and Kim Cooper.