Yokohl Valley Killer
[NOTE: Double-click the photos for a larger view]
When our group of ten riders parted Exeter that February Saturday noon, it was still foggy and gray, as is usual that time of year in the flat farmlands of Central California, but about three-quarters the way up the mile-long Rocky Hill climb, we broke into unabated, welcomed sunshine that continued as we zipped down the backside through the two 90-degree turns and into Yokohl Valley. Forming our paceline, we turned and pedaled eastward out through this spectacular rolling valley toward Blue Ridge and Springville. The remote area is dotted with a few working cattle ranches, lots of hills and increasing forest as we neared the steep Blue Ridge climb with its switchbacks. Normally, this road is little traveled by automobiles other than the ranchers’ trucks and stock trailers and the occasional adventurer. But this day we saw quite a few scattered cars (four or more — unusual) parked along the roadside, their occupants standing along the shoulders gazing at the greening hills, cattle, and birds. Clearly, humans needed a break from the fog and gloom of the San Joaquin ag-lands in winter.
Bird songs were plenteous in this beautiful upland retreat, and the chill air that brought them to us was stimulating. As we passed the old dynamite shack before the sharp curves and climbs begin, some of us stopped to watch a high-soaring Bald Eagle. It was hypnotic to watch as it soared, its white head and tail clear in the brilliant sun.
We pedaled on up the valley to the Blue Ridge crest, rested a little with our pocket snacks of Power Bars and bananas and our water bottles as we exchanged friendly cycle-banter, then turned and headed toward home via the same route. There was still one car remaining in the valley as the sun began to drop – its apparent owner a father with a large, professional-looking camera and zoom lens, accompanied by a small son who was very enthusiastic about the outdoors. We exchanged greetings as we rolled past, then settled into our usual routine of breaking the pace line and taking our own individual speeds home.
A friend and I broke off the front and gained a quarter mile or so, maintaining that pace as we entered the last long straightaway to the “T” where Yokohl Drive meets Myers Road to take us up the backside of Rocky Hill, the last barrier and endurance challenge between us and home. My buddy was about thirty feet in front of me, tracking safely down the yellow centerline, and we were cruising at about 23 mph when my peripheral vision picked up sudden movement from the right. As a rabbit darted out to the middle of the road from the grass on the right shoulder and sat down in the paralysis of fear and watchfulness, I saw a diving raptor close in with a short, ear-piercing “keeee” as it just barely cleared the top of the barbwire fence at high speed. I yelled to my friend, “Watch out!” because it looked like the bird was going to take him out, but it was closing on him rapidly at a diagonal from his right rear and only about four feet above the ground – almost a certain collision course – and my warning appeared to be too little, too late. The attacker was a big bird – a Golden Eagle – with a wingspan of over six feet. And in an amazing show of agility, its talons snatched the coney from the middle of the road just a few feet in front of my buddy’s path, then the hunter climbed and turned right in front and flew back over us.
What a stunning and exhilarating sight! It wasn’t the natural killing that was exhilarating; it was the adrenalin rush of near collision combined with the startling aggression, precision and speed of the eagle on its hunt. A timeless display of the basic course of nature, untrammeled by mankind and our late-breaking, politically-correct queasiness about anything killing anything. But this was the fine art of hunting, natural-style, and performed with facility and urgency born of a core need. All creatures have to eat, and we all kill to do so — even if it’s only a leaf stalked by an aphid. I’ve seen raptors successfully hunt before, but not from such a close and unexpected vantage point. I won’t soon forget the experience and regretted not having a video camera with me. But not many cyclists I know carry them.
The Yokohl Valley is a beautiful treasure-trove of raw, rugged nature and abundant wildlife. I’ve frequently had coyotes cross the road right in front of me (ho-hum by comparison to the hunting eagle), and I’ve often stopped to watch the work of keen-eyed, smaller raptors such as Red-Tail Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and others. Members of my riding group have twice seen bobcats cross the road.
But even without such spectacular evidences of wildlife, Yokohl Valley — albeit a “killing field” of sorts — is one of the most peaceful places on earth. Very often there’s nothing but the sound of the wind, abundant lark songs and chirping ground squirrels, the occasional lowing of cattle, and the gurgle of the streams as one climbs up through the golden summer hills toward Blue Ridge. I’ve moved away now and miss the privilege of my frequent rides there. But Yokohl Valley is about far more than just a wonderful place for a relatively few bicycle and photography enthusiasts to enjoy nature, along with the differing enjoyment and perspective of the few cattle ranchers who make their living there and whose compatible presence I especially appreciate as another last bastion against the dying of the old west. These are not feedlot operations, but open rangelands grazed by sturdy beef cattle and often dotted with beehives for harvesting the abundance of wildflower honeys produced. Another of those retreats that’s a rapidly vanishing part of the American landscape and the west, a place where parents can take their kids to introduce them to the sights, sounds, smells, feels and life cycles of largely-undisturbed nature. Oh sure, kids can watch the Discovery Channel and other sources of wildlife film footage, but those are paltry substitutes for the firsthand experience. “Nature-behind-a-zoo-fence” is little better than soup in a can.
Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© February, 2006. Michael Stubblefield