I recently returned to Fort Ord for the first time in 30 years to participate in a trail race and arriving a day early, headed out for Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which is located just south of Monterey along the northern California coast. It’s one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever encountered.
The weather was perfect, with pleasant temperatures in the upper 60s, little wind, and not a cloud in the sky. I took off my sandals and wandered barefoot along the trails that hug the coastline, listening to waves crashing against the rocks and sea lions baying as they basked in the sun.
Thirty years ago, I took in these sights and sounds but didn’t have the time or resources to learn much about this special area. Now with so much information on the internet, I was able to grasp at least some of the basics. For example, the grey igneous rock at Point Lobos is called “granodiorite” and is similar to granite. The granodiorite originated about 80 million years ago in southern California, when the Farallon Plate collided with the North American Plate and “subducted” or was dragged underneath. As the Farallon Plate sank and melted, great masses of molten rock (called plutons) bubbled up to the surface, creating the grey granitic wall of the Sierra Nevada mountains. And a small portion of these rocks was over time dragged north along the coast by the counterclockwise rotation of the Pacific Plate against the North American Plate. These would end up 80 million years later as the bedrock of Point Lobos.
And here I was wandering along these ancient rocks, watched the waves swelling off shore and then rolling in to the coves, crashing into the craggy cliffs, spray shooting high in the air. It occurred to me that I was witnessing the collision of an unstoppable force against an unmovable object. At first, it seemed that the waves were losing the contest, because upon impacting the rocks, the water was broken apart and flung foaming in every direction. But after each impact, the water retreated, regrouped, and sustaining no permanent damage, quickly came back to repeat the onslaught, whereas the rocks were surely eroding little by little under the constant bombardment. But then again, the erosion of the rocks was so slow, occurring over millions of years, that any loss of material would likely be replaced by new rocks dragged northwards in the continued rotation of the tectonic plates. In this light, the collision of an unstoppable force against an unmovable object seemed to produce great noise and violence but no real change.
Thirty years ago, I knew that Point Lobos was graced by one of two surviving natural stands of Monterey Cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa). But honestly, I never looked closely enough at the trees to distinguish a cypress from a pine, or even from an oak for that matter. This time I took note. The young cypresses start out gangly-looking, with branches pointing up and out like a youngster with uncombed hair. The mature ones have flattened out on top and often slant in the direction of the wind. The branches are covered in tight green sprays of scale-like leaves.
Another big discovery awaited me at Point Lobos. The oak and pine trees were draped in wispy strands of grey-green lichen, which I learned is called Lace Lichen (Ramalina menziesii). Only a few weeks earlier, effective January 1, 2016, Lace Lichen became the official state lichen of California by order of Governor Jerry Brown. As far as I know, California is the only state to have designated an official lichen, apparently reflecting the effective advocacy of the California Lichen Society, which stated that “this designation as an important step in increasing public awareness of the significant roles that lichens play in our natural environment.” This is important progress, because, I would guess, there is almost zero public awareness of lichens.
I found other trees whose branches were covered in a spongy orange substance. Another lichen? Apparently not. According to the Point Lobos Foundation, this is Trentepohlia, a green algae that is a component of many lichens (which are combinations of fungus and algae), but in this case, the algae was growing on its own. There’s an interesting story associated with Trentepohlia. During July-September 2001, the Indian state of Kerala experienced red-colored rain, which came to be called Blood Rain. After first attributing the red rain to the explosion of a meteorite or possibly extraterrestrial sources, scientists eventually discovered that the coloring resulted from a high concentration of Trentepohlia spores. Weird!
After a couple of hours, it was time to go check in for the race. I need to come back and visit Point Lobos again before the next thirty years go by!
Have you been to Point Lobos? Leave a comment with your impressions!