Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip

Field Trip: Monarch Butterflies and Elephant Seals
Trip Date: December 13-14, 2008
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: January 7, 2009

Two Milpitas Camera Club members and an associate took the three-hour drive to San Luis Obispo the weekend of December 13-14. We holed up at the Motel 6 one freeway exit south of the Madonna Inn, a long-time California landmark motel and restaurant. The place is like a late-1960s Winchester Mystery House with more of a point to its rambling architecture. People get off Highway 101 to stop by the Madonna to buy cakes and pies from its well known bakery and to gawk at the completely-over-the-top 60s decor and check out the men's restroom in the basement of the restaurant, where you can relieve yourself in a sensor-controlled waterfall urinal, that is, if you are a male. (You can take a seat in an armchair in front of the large stone fireplace near the entrance to the bar just about any day and watch people come through the doors looking like they are on a quest. More often than not, they will say to one of their companions, You gotta check out the men's bathroom!)

Why is the world so strange near the belt buckle of California? The fabric of the universe seems a bit stretched and buckled here in central California, perhaps the massive metro areas to the north and to the south are sucking in the real estate too fast. There are many oddities round these parts. Why, just up the road is the California-famous Andersons Pea Soup restaurant in Buellton, near Solvang and wine country of Santa Ynez. The winery-dotted hills nearby should be familiar to fans of the movie Sideways, where Paul Giamatti and his co-stars rambled through California's recently established middle wine ountry.

Sampling the squeezings from the grape was not high on our list, however. We had our own agenda that included the Monarch butterflies that show up annually at the same eucalyptus grove in Pismo Beach. From our appointment with the insects, we drove north on Highway One, the PCH, to a gently sloping beach near the point at Piedras Blancas (white rocks) to see the colony of Northern Elephant Seals. Both butterfly and pinniped shows were less than spectacular this year, with the cold weather keeping the ectothermic insects in clusters; and numbers of butterfly and seal populations drastically down from past years. In the case of the Monarchs, it was estimated that approximately 20,000 showed up this year (previous years counts have been as high as 200,000), a phenomenon that seems to have no clear cause. Everyone wearing patchouli-tainted tie-dyed shirts and Birkenstocks will, of course, openly proclaim: Its because of global warming. But to be fair, nobody is really certain why the numbers were down to such a low point this year.

The lack of seals seemed to be partially a matter of our poor timing, with a scant few big bulls lolling about the beach, and hardly any females to fight over. We got some great action shots of them yawing and occasionally lifting an eyelid or two.

Brooding over the top of the whole scene, of course, was Hearst Castle, which provided us relief from the cold wind and lack of seals. After warming up in the tourist lobby, and catching a bite to eat, we were lucky to find three vacancies on the last tour of the evening, the Christmas lights tour. It was well past sunset when we got in the bus to be taken to the huge mansion on the hill, built by William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate and a self-styled art-collecting tycoon. The vast number of art treasures he acquired in Europe became the decor for his huge home and showplace on one of his expansive California ranches. Working closely with California architect Julia Morgan, Hearst built a personal art museum where he entertained his high-profile guests. (You can either approach Hearst from a negative or positive tangent in trying to explain his antics, but one thing for sure is that he built a home worthy of any king.) If you haven't seen the Hearst Castle, you should treat yourself when you are in the San Luis Obispo area. Tickets are a bit pricey, but if you don't have six or seven kids, the tour is well worth the cost (in the $20 to $30 range, depending upon the tour). Our tour featured the mansion decorated with Christmas lights and docents dressed up in styles of the 1930s striking poses about the mansion, too bad flash photography and tripods were prohibited. Many of my available-light pictures were blurred, but some turned out really well with he help of a small airline pillow.

The final act in our eclectic Middle California adventure was the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, in downtown SLO. The mission was the fifth mission founded by Father Junipero Serra on September 1, 1772. Although the grounds around the mission are not expansive, they are picturesque and the museum is worth a walk-through. If you've toured more than three of the California missions, you'll find yourself having serious bouts of déjà vu, but the history is a fascinating part of our heritage as Californians. Enjoy your state, its one of the prettiest there is!

Although the mission was not the high-water mark, it provided the exclamation point on this weekend excursion. We drove back in a gathering rain storm and arrived back on a gloomy Sunday night in the Bay Area.

© 2009 S.R. Hinrichs