Central Coast Living: Johnson Ranch

Hey there every peoples!

Sorry for the slow. I planned on writing this earlier in the week. But I was having some trouble with videos. It took a long time to render them, only to find out that youtube has a 15 minute limit (I haven’t used youtube for this purpose in a LONG time). So I had to split them up, render them again, and then they took forever to upload to Youtube. I don’t know if that’s Youtube’s fault or my computer’s but it was a pain in the ass. But in the end it was worth it. After all that, I was able to launch a new web series “Doug’s Adventures of Possible Intrigue”. It’s a chronicle of my travels, though I actually try to teach people a thing or two. The pilot episode covers Fossil Fest 2011 at the Raymond Alf Museum in Claremont, California. It’s in three sections so if got some time to kill, go check it out.

I feel a little ashamed (and not just because of my depression). I have only done two “Central Coast Living” posts. You must think this place is sucksville! Well I seek to rectify that with a nice bit of nature off Highway 101. I am talking about Johnson Ranch. It has been open to the public since 2009, but I just never got around to going there. Man was I missing out!

The property was bought by Mark Johnson, an immigrant from Denmark, and his wife Emily in 1901. They had three children and they lived at the many years after Mark died in 1916. The ranch was also home to Bellvue School, which was built in 1987. 20 to 25 students, grade 1-6, attended the one room school. It merged with another school in 1947 and moved closer to San Luis Obispo. For a short time in the 1900s a gravel quarry was opened up and operated on the ranch. All the while the Johnson family continued to live and work on the ranch. In 1981 they started renting the property to others until 2001, when the land was sold to the City of San Luis Obispo. With help from many partners, including CalTrans, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Bert and Candice Forbes, the city bought the land to provide refuge for wildlife as well as opening up rails for hikers and cyclists to enjoy the beautiful landscape surrounding San Luis Obispo.

Johnson Ranch is a rich setting not just for hikers but for nature buffs as well. The land teems with unique plants, including rare species of wildflowers. This is due in large part to the nature of the soil. The many rock outcrops dotting the ranch are serpentine, which has an unusual chemical composition that creates for soil for growing things. Native plants managed to adapt over millions of years. Because the soil is so harsh, the ranch was never farmed, providing native plants with a safe haven.  In the spring the hills burst with the colors of fritillary, soap plant, gold star, and many others.

A riparian woodland along Dry Creek

A patch of chapparal habitat on the side of a hill

Johnson Ranch may be small but it supports a wide variety of habitats. Dry Creek provides plenty of water for riparian (streamside) type woodland. Sweeping meadows of purple needlegrass and wild rye stop right at the doorstep of oak woodlands. Finally, because of serpentine outcrops, small patches of chaparral occur here, home to toyon, buckbrush, yucca, and mountain mahogany. This diversity of habitats allows for a diversity of wildlife. At least fifty species of birds are known to live or nest on the ranch. Remember the quarry mentioned earlier? It filled with water seeping in from Dry Creek. Cattails and willow began to grow around it. Soon enough it was another small ecosystem on the ranch. Named Forbes Pond after Bert and Candice Forbes (people whose donation helped the city buy the ranch), it has become a magnet for birds, especially elusive black-crowned night herons, who nest in trees beside the pond. Forbes pond has even become the home of a small population of native, endangered southern steelhead trout. Lizards and snakes scurry through the grass and underbrush. 15 species of mammals, from field mice and bats to deer and bobcats have been documented on the property. All this diversity is well and good, but an alien menace has found its way to Johnson ranch: feral pigs. Probable pig damage. Feral pigs (escaped captive pigs and their offspring) are not native to the Central Coast. They have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check. They compete for food with native herbivores. They cause erosion and disrupt habitats by tearing up the soil looking for roots and tubers.

Probable pig damage on the banks of Dry Creek

Despite the swine problem, Johnson Ranch is a wonderful natural treasure. I find little more soothing than the babbling of Dry Creek or the grass waving in the wind. The ranch has over four miles of hiking trails. You can walk or ride a bike, and rover can even come as long as you keep him on a leash. It is definitely worth carving out a couple hours for if you ever stop by the Central Coast. It may not have the epic forests of the Pacific Northwest or the stunning geology of Death Valley or the breathtaking beauty of Denali. But you know what? I wouldn’t trade Johnson Ranch for any of them. They may be grand in scale, but Johnson Ranch has that special charm that only the Central Coast can offer.

Till next time!

Ancient Egyptian Ruins in… Guadalupe?

Hey there every peoples!

There are few tales in fiction more epic than the search for a lost city. There is a fascination with traveling off to faraway lands, braving the elements and dangerous critters to find the ruins of a civilization long gone. While this ideal is rooted in the archaeology of the 19th century, it has been romanticized in modern fiction. But sometimes the ruins aren’t so far away. Sometimes the ancient ruins come to you. And they might not be so ancient to begin with.

1923 saw the release of Cecil B DeMille’s silent epic “The Ten Commandments”. It was the grandest show audiences had ever seen and was produced on a scale unthinkable at the time. It featured one of the largest movie sets ever built at 120 feet tall and 720 feet wide. It took 1500 workers, 500,000 feet of lumber and 12.5 tons of nails to build and featured 500 tons of statuary (including 21 sphinxes). There were a staggering 3500 actors on the site as well as 5000 animals along with 125 cooks. DeMille had truly built a city, a production that perhaps has never been matched since. But where did he build such a set? And what became of it?

A picture of DeMille's "City of the Pharoahs"

Being set in Egypt, he needs a place that looked like a desert. After looking around, he found the immense, rolling dunes near Guadalupe, California to be an excellent match. But once production was completed, what was he to do with his gargantuan set piece? He couldn’t leave it standing: if he did, other film companies would move in like hermit crabs and make cheep knock offs of his masterpiece. It was too big to take away piecemeal. So he had workers secretly use dynamite to bury the set beneath the sands of the Guadalupe dunes. And nobody would know where it went for decades to come.

In the 1980’s film buffs followed a vague hint in DeMille’s autobiography in an effort to locate the legendary film set. They made their way to the Guadalupe dunes to find DeMille’s “Lost City”. And sure enough, they did. Lucky for them, though, that the dunes are never static. Wind is constantly reshaping the dunes, moving sand around, laying it down and blowing it away. This constant movement had exposed the set’s location. Considering its age and importance, the set became a registered archaeological site. Excavations uncovered loads of artifacts, including pieces of the set’s massive façade. Today it is nothing but a debris field, strewn with small chunks of concrete and the odd bit of metal. Many artifacts can be seen on display at the Dune Center in Guadalupe. They stand as a testament to the ambitions of a film maker from the glory days of Hollywood. The artifacts and the site they once occupied may have been crafted as movie props, but what they created was no less breathtaking and astonishing than the ancient ruins that inspired them.

A display of artifacts from the set on display at the Dune Center

A massive hand ecavated at the site


The site as it is today

Till next time!

Central Coast Living: Aikido

Hey there very peoples!

Yet again I find myself erecting a post long after my target date (this time: psychological turmoil and a stomach bug). But I’m back now so here we go.

For better or for worse I have always had a fascination with ancient warfare but haven’t always found a way to learn about it. But in the last couple years I have found several books and programs that have helped flesh out my understanding. After learning about various fighting methods and martial arts, I thought maybe I’d ought to take up one of them. What better way to exercise my fascination with ancient warriors than to learn how they fought? Plus, it’d get me out of the house and give me a means of exercise.

Easier said than done. My problem? I gained a fascination for these obscure and little known martial arts systems:

Lua: A brutal form of self defense invented by the ancient Hawaiians. Lua means “to strike the second blow”. It teaches that you let the enemy make the first move and then viciously counter with moves designed to break bones and dislocate joints. Lua fighters were even trained to catch and deflect oncoming spears. But, I’d have to go to Hawaii to learn that and aside from the fact that it costs an arm and a leg just to visit the place, I like it here in California.

Pankration: Originating in ancient Greece, Pankration is believed by many historians to be the first all encompassing martial art. Pankration means “all powers” and it used everything: jabs, kicks, grappling, and just about everything in-between. Pankration was adopted as a sport when the Olympics were created (albeit in a more watered down version). Needless to say, I was unable to get aboard for the same reason as Lua.

Bokator: Bokator is the fighting style that defended the Khmer Empire for 700 years. Bokator was lost to time until it was rediscovered in the 20th century by studying the reliefs on the walls of Khmer temples. As with most of Cambodia’s cultural institutions Bokator was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. But once the rouge fell and Vietnamese occupation was eliminated, Bokator was saved from a second extinction. Bokator is similar to Kung Fu in that it uses many strikes based on animals (ironically one of the most powerful moves in Bokator is the duck). Yet again I found frustration in wanting to practice a far flung martial art.

There were a few others that I wanted to try but those three were the ones I wanted to take up the most. But that was never going to happen. So I had to see what was available here. While I was desperate and was going to take whatever I could get, I did have one standard: no karate (or as Archer called it “The Dane Cook of Martial Arts.”)! That, unbelievably, really narrowed my options. I found a Krav Maga class and a Judo dojo in SLO. But Krav Maga is really intense and the Judo dojo was a little out of reach. So what was I to do? Well I found another place in the listings: Aikido of San Luis Obispo. They described themselves as open to anyone wanting to try and that they fostered a peaceful non-competitive atmosphere. Sounded like something worth checking out.

I have been enrolled in the Aikido dojo since May. I’m telling you, it is great stuff. It’s easy going, you know; it’s not about tirelessly straining your body to its limits, but slowly building up a catalogue of moves and developing fluid body motions. You see, Aikido is very different from most other martial arts. Most martial arts employ intense and active regimens to train your body in moves designed to maim and cause grave harm to your enemy or opponent. That’s the way it’s been for thousands of years. Martial arts were always a means of defending yourself during combat (that often meant killing your enemy or at least painfully disabling him). One man decided that needed to change.

Aikido was conceived in the 20s and/or 30s by Morihei Ueshiba (we refer to him as Osensei which means “Great Teacher”). Osensei was a martial arts practitioner who was dismayed by the violent nature of mankind’s fighting styles. So Osensei set out to create an art without the martial mindset. His goal was to create a fighting style that would allow the user to defend them self but not harm the attacker in the process. And thus Aikido was born.

Aikido uses the flow of energy (most often the attacker’s momentum) to disable your opponent. Aikido works from the hata or center (I’m still trying to get the lingo worked out). The hata lies where your naval is and is the source of everything in Aikido. Lots of footwork is involved, despite the fact that some moves can be implemented in a sitting position! A great many moves are like machines in that they have lots of moving parts. And take my word for it; the subtle mechanics are the hardest to learn!

But not to worry. If you take it slow and break it down move by move, you’ll get the hang of it. And that is why I like Aikido. It’s non-competitive and everyone isn’t out to prove they can kick your ass. The higher ups are willing to work with you to help you get it right at the pace your comfortable with. And that’s not all the good Aikido has done for me. I have found that it provides a balance in my life. I read so much about ancient warfare and learning about some of the most brutal and horrifying things men have ever done. That could possibly be perceived as a negative influence. And a martial art could bring that out in nasty ways. So I think learning a peaceful martial art really cancels all that out and helps me stay in a state of equilibrium.

If you’re ever interested in trying it out, by all means stop by. We have a little observation area that you can sit in and watch more experienced people practice. And if you think it’s something you want to try, intro classes (at least for now it seems) are every Tuesday at either 7 or 7:15 (I can’t remember). And if you already do Aikido and are visiting from out of town, you are more than welcome to drop by and practice with us (we’ve had many people do so already). For more information visit the dojo website at

Till next time!

Central Coast Living: Charles Paddock Zoo

Hey there every peoples!

Been a long time since I put up a post. First I got bronchitis which crippled me for a while. And then the girlfriend came and visited. Now that she has left I do have some down time to write (though I do miss her something fierce). Today’s post is inspired by her visit. She really liked it here on the Central Coast and was sad to go. So I am starting these posts to help explain why the Central Coast is so unique, why I love living here, and why I want to give back to it by founding a museum here. So I wish to start this series with what has been an integral part of my life here: The Charles Paddock Zoo.

The only zoo between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, the Charles Paddock Zoo was established in 1955 by, you guessed it, Charles Paddock. Mr. Paddock was a park ranger running a shelter to rehabilitate wildlife. By 1959, he had over 125 animals in his care. Because of the growing collection of animals, the zoo was moved from the County animal shelter to its present location in Atascadero Lake Park. For a while it carried the title of “Atascadero Children’s Zoo” but in 1980 the name was changed to “Charles Paddock Zoo” to commemorate its founder.

Today it is a fully accredited zoo home to over one hundred animals in a five acre section of the park. While small they do display a wide variety of animals ranging from hissing cockroaches and pond turtles to monkeys and pigs. One of the newest critters to join the zoo is Menderu, a two year-old Malayan tiger born at the San Diego Zoo. He came here last fall after the zoo’s previous tiger died for some reason after some exploratory surgery. Now here are a few of the other animals who call this fun little place home:

Inca tern

Mara, or Patagonian Cavy

Gila monster

The zoo may not seem like much to most people, but it has heart. They are involved with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan. They also run many education programs to teach both young and old about animals and the perils they face (in fact, we caught a presentation by a member of a summer camp where he talked about the Zoo’s two Prevost’s squirrels. He didn’t just talk about the species but also about the two individual animals. Maybe someday kids will be doing the same with brontotheres and Mayan monuments). And they really do want to make the best of their small space to make it as comfortable as possible for the animals and intriguing as possible for visitors. They have formulated a master plan that would leave little of the original zoo intact. They will expand the zoo a few acres and give it a massive overhaul:

The Charles Paddock Zoo as we see it today

What the Zoo might one day become

Their goal is to organize the zoo based on five of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots: California Floristic Province, Madagascar and Indian Ocean Islands, Indo-Burma, Guinean Forests of West Africa, and Tropical Andes. Some current animals would return (tigers, red river hogs, marmosets, Channel Island fox) with plenty of new ones moving in (tapirs, gibbons, okapi, pygmy hippo, sifakas). The first phase of this very ambitious plan is Indo-Burma. Renderings at the zoo’s website show that Indo-Burma will recreate the many ruins found in Southeast Asia with modern Asian architecture. Animals planned to occupy Indo-Burma include Sumatran tigers, gibbons, red pandas, mouse deer, and assorted reptiles.

It sounds very exciting but it’s uncertain how long it will take to become reality. Funding for these sorts of things is always hard to come by, especially in this economy. They are currently improving the bathrooms and building a new Admission building and gift shop. I wish I had some money to give them to help in their endeavor. I have always loved visiting that zoo and still do today. It goes to show that you don’t have to be a big fancy zoo to help teach people about wildlife and conservation. If I ever get my museum off the ground, I hope to help promote the zoo in its media. You know, something along the lines of “Want to learn about life today? Visit the Charles Paddock Zoo, just up the highway in Atascadero!” How’s that sound? Of course I would actually need a museum to do such a thing. Let us hope for the best, not just for my idea, but for one of the great jewels of the Central Coast: The Charles Paddock Zoo.

Till next time!