By Louis Bartfield
This is dedicated to all the women in my life who bear us and who have borne us and without whom life would be tedious and barely tolerable, not to mention impossible. And to their inner and outer beauty, which is probably why the old tough-guy, private detectives who knew everything used to call them "Birds"".
--Lou planning the itinerary
Somewhere near Morro Bay on the Central Coast is the Bay of the Seven Rivers, and the Seven Cities of Gold.
These are the magical places of confluence where all of the rivers that have meandered through the hills and forests and abandoned towns of the central coast have come to their place of rest and regeneration. Here flowers live more abundantly than in Eden, and whether I have come for business or for pleasure, my wife is always at my side, even when she stays at home.
I never visit the Cities of Gold without her.
These places have been sought by adventurers for centuries. We all want to know how to obtain their riches.
Through the years many have searched for the cities without success. But, all the time those riches were in plain view. Just recently I brought my wife here for a visit. But first I told her of the failed adventurers who preceded us.
The many journeys of discovery began in the eleventh century when seven bishops left Spain and founded the cities of Cibola and Quivira, where they had seen gold, silver, turquoise, pearls and other gems. "In the 1500's," I read to her, "three Spaniards and a black North African slave named Esteban came to Mexico City after surviving a shipwreck. His companions had built five ships, eaten their horses from hunger, and used their shirts for sails. Except for Esteban, all were killed and Esteban spent eight years walking to Mexico City where he told his tale." She thought for a moment, then she reminded me of the Wizard of Oz. "The author was Frank L. Baum. He thought the golden cities were in Kansas."
"What is it about Kansas?" I said.
"Well, Oz is a dreamland," she reminded me.
"I guess Baum wanted to get out of Kansas?"
"Actually," she said, "he was working in Chicago, that's where his publisher was, the Hill Company, all business."
The Spanish Adventurers
She was just reminding me that I had left Chicago for California.Nonetheless, the fantasy of the cities of gold is probably as ancient as the Bible. Wasn't Eden a city of gold? And the famous Odyssey of the Greeks was an adventure about a man who couldn't find his way home to his wife and family for ten years because of his search for the golden city.
"Men are so foolish," she said.
I read to her from a worn old book: "In one thousand BC those excitable Greek warriors thought it was Troy, and they left their own beautiful islands to fight a war and build a Trojan horse in order to steal that city of gold. The Spanish were equally foolish when they fought and were slain by the Native Americans, they and their soldiers on horseback, their 1,000 black slaves and Mexican Indians."
"Not very practical," said Isabel.
Sometimes I feel pain for poor Esteban, eight years to get to Mexico City and he left. I've lived for a time in Mexico City and Esteban should have stayed there.
Some people think the Seven Cities of Gold are mythology, and there was even a 1955 historical adventure film about it, set in the Eighteenth century. It was based on a novel of California where men chose Gold or God. The sword or the cross.
"There's an adventure game of that name," said Isabel. How come she knows so much?
If any of these fabled explorers had asked me, I would have told them exactly where the golden cities are, and their names. Just a short time ago Isabel and I visited them.
The greatest of the seven golden cities is Morro Bay, with its incredible harbor and the dangerous pass that leads out to sea, next to massive Morro Rock, sixty stories high, home of the Peregrine Falcon, and no elevator. No one knows why they call it Morro. There are stories about the name, about as accurate as a tabloid newspaper story.
There are the fisheries and fishermen and the careening birdlife, from herons to pelicans to seagulls to hummingbirds, and others more exotic. And the grand estuary wherein flows one of the Seven Rivers.
Here are the other golden cities, each with its own astonishment of riches: San Simeon, Cambria, Harmony, Los Osos, Atascadero, and Paso Robles. All I have to do is think of these names and I begin to dream.
In these seven cities of gold are the treasures which the Spanish and Greek adventurers never found, for they were looking for the wrong kind of gold.
There are seven other cities of gold on the Central Coast: San Luis Obispo, Cayucos, Moonstone Beach, Arroyo Grande, Avila Beach, Los Olivos, and Pirate's Cove.
In a light-hearted mood, I began the drive down to the coast with Isabel at my side, at which time I was forced to refresh my memory regarding the Seven Rules of Women. The only one I remember is buy them stuff.
The Convertible is ready
During my last visit to the Masterpiece, La Serena, and the San Marcos to take care of business and to arrange for pictures of sea otters, hummingbirds and other exotics, I met with Michelle and Jill and there were the three Nicks and Christina and others, and I admired the work of the other Isabel and the valiant members of our housekeeping staff. My Isabel remained at home that time but my heart was with her, although she may have been relieved that I was away on business.
This time she came with me. I had been telling her of the great water birds that swooped over and stalked the waters of Morro Bay, when she scoffed and scornfully said, "Warriors and Scavengers! Where are the beautiful and peaceful smallish birds that light on flowers like the bees and spread colors and life and love along the trails all the way to the estuaries that throb with creativity?"
"On the other hand," she added, " the herons and their babies are nice, as you now know."
I was listening to the 49ers' game but she didn't care, as she said, "Why don't you try the other lane?"
During a commercial I told her this was partially a working trip, and she said, "As soon as we check in, I'd like a light lunch at Dorn's, or one of the nice places on the Esplanade. "
"It's kind of a long drive."
"Maybe a glass of wine," she smiled, "and we can look at the views of the ocean and Morro Rock, and at the kayaks -- oh, look, you didn't signal on that turn -- and maybe we can jaunt up to a winery or two and maybe Hearst Castle, and I haven't been to San Luis in ever so long, it's just five minutes away."
"Fifteen or twenty.” "We have all the time in the world," she said. "Oh, and look at all the fishing boats and the cheerful fishermen" "That guy doesn't look cheerful. He just looks like he was up early in the morning."
Toward nightfall, Isabel surprised me by pulling some candles out of her luggage. "That increased the weight I carried," I said."It's romantic," she said. “Just think, with the lights out in the room, we might see the moonlight glowing on Morro rock” and she added that perhaps we might see some pelicans or a falcon.
"It's dark," I said."Maybe a hummingbird?""Not without flowers.""No flowers?" she murmured.“Did you forget flowers?”I was drowsy."Can I blow out the candle? What if we fall asleep with the candle burning? It's dangerous.""But pretty," she whispered."Like women. Pretty and dangerous.""It's only money."
In the morning, not too early, we began to explore the Seven Rivers. I never saw so many unusual birds in my life. We followed the first river as it snaked its way down to the great basin of Los Osos and Morro Bay, and at one point where the rocky terrain was steep and almost barren above we spotted a giant Andean condor, Vultur gryphus, a thirty pounder with a ten-foot wingspan.
He was surprised by us and said, "I am old, ancient, almost fifty years of age have I, and I have come to California from South America to tell you we are in trouble. Sadly, we only produce one child every year, but there is hope. We, of the Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito in Cordoba in the tango land of Argentina, have joined with Pinnacles, and we hope to be protected. I like these rugged, stony mountains, I don't need flowers."
At his feet were a dead, half-eaten fish and an egg that looked as though he'd set it there for a delicacy.
The great bird spread his ancient wings and for a while we were in forgiveness of his somewhat parasitic trade. Beauty can be forgiven almost anything. We thanked him and left and strolled down the rest of the river to the Esplanade and had some ice cold coffee. As we watched the fishing boats, Isabel said, "Actually, that Condor was a little boring, you men always like the ones with big wings, what did you need the binoculars for, he was right there in front of you. Personally, I like the ones with different dabs of color here and there." "Maybe we'll find one in the next golden city," I said.
"The Morro Bay Esplanade is really charming," she said. "Can we go shopping now?""There's a wonderful golf course just on the edge of town," I hinted, but it got me nowhere. I looked forward to the next river and city where there might be a lot of charm with fewer shops."There's a wonderful golf course just on the edge of town," I hinted, but it got me nowhere. I looked forward to the next river and city where there might be a lot of charm with fewer shops.
We were both quite excited when we saw a boat named Amanda B, which is the name of our daughter, at least it was before she married Steve Allen and he planted his last name on her. Isabel noticed a sea otter pup frolicking and spinning around the boat, putting on a show, waiting for the fisherman to throw him something. Then we headed for the second of the Seven Rivers. This one went straight through the amazing place named Harmony and it was quite something to see a river roiling down the main street of this little town a few miles south of 46 and Highway One near Cambria.
Harmony is the most unusual town I have ever seen, and you need to look below the surface to spot the gold. Aside from the river frothing its way down the main street--which I admit may be somewhat of an exaggeration--I counted a population of sixteen people. I was told that two were off on errands.
Founded around a dairy in 1869, Harmony was somewhat unharmonious in the early days, when feuds and rivalries among the dairy farmers caused chaos in the valley, until a truce was called and they decided to call their town “Harmony”. What could be more golden than that? William Randolph Hearst often visited with his movie star friends, including, they say, Barbra Streisand, who often visited with Rudolph Valentino. My wife reminded me that this was in the 1930s and Streisand was at best a child at the time.
Well, Babs always was precocious.
Harmony is filled with milk and cream and butter and cheese and even a winery and a glass blower. Along the magical second river Isabel spotted a Bald Eagle and became quite indignant because he looked so arrogant. "I would prefer a hummer for the national symbol," she said, "they do more good", and she reminded me that Benjamin Franklin agreed with her. She was right, Franklin never thought the eagle was a good national symbol, he even thought maybe it ought to be a rattlesnake. Nobody seems to remember the real Benjamin Franklin was a very orginal thinker.
Then we spotted two Phalaropes, one a rather dull gray and white, while the other had a magnificent red underbelly. "Phalaropus fulicarius,"
I said, showing off.
"The pretty one " she said, "is the female."
I tried to impress her. "I think Phalarope means military in Latin."
"Yes," she said. "More and more women in charge. Some are generals."
Before we left we saw a swamp sparrow, some Lovebirds, and a Red-tailed Hawk.
"Our granddaughter loves quail," said Isabel.
We took a small boat down the river, picked up a bottle of wine, and left, wondering why quaint and charming Harmony was so undiscovered. Sometimes the most profound treasures are at your feet.We were staying in one of the tremendous suites at La Serena, which I helped the decorator design, and where I even hung some wallpaper myself so badly it had to be replaced. La Serena is a marvelous lodging, much like a small grand hotel, even if I say so myself.
Everybody loves it, or so I've noticed by the comment letters I’ve written, and it's a great location for bird lovers, bird watchers and photographers, and even very ordinary people like me.The next day Isabel wanted some big city life--you know, theater, concerts, night clubs, and Fifth Avenue and Times Square, so we headed for San Luis Obispo, that truly tremendous City of Gold.
How sad it is that so few folks know that when that endlessly busy Father Serra founded the famous Mission there, he named it after Saint Louis of Toulouse, also known as the Boy Bishop, who fed the hungry and poor and died at the age of 23. This sainted lad was nephew to a Hungarian Queen, and in 1713 he was canonized and venerated by Franciscans with a day in their calendar, and there was even a polyphonic motet written in his honor. Obispo means Bishop.
"Quit showing off what you know," Isabel said.
"I'm just reading the San Luis Historical society stuff," I said.
Now, San Luis Obispo is not necessarily where you go for birding because there are a million other things to do, especially great dining, a secret place I know for Margaritas, and it is a joy to walk the main street shops. Everyone knows about Cal Poly, that magnificent college, and I am proud to say my son-in-law graduated from there, but he's never shown me his grades.
I had hoped that some of the shops would be closed on a Monday, but this was not the case. When I reminded my wife we were in a recession she told me it was important to the economy to keep the cash flowing, and to support the merchants. I believe she quoted a University of Chicago economist.
Right through the center of this City of Gold flows a lovely river: all these rivers travel in the direction of the famous Seven Cities of Gold that have been the grand destinations of adventurers to the Central Coast.
Upon the San Luis River Walk, my wife and I engaged upon our own adventure as we followed these paths, these rivers, and saw the amazing life that flowered here so abundantly. Through the quarries of limestone and ore-rich rock, glittering with copper and gold, the Salinas River gently caresses the banks of the town.
Garden of Eden
We walked, amazed by the beauty everywhere, for in less than an hour or two we saw trees of orange and grape, peaches, cherries, plums, apricots, and pomegranates; they were all around us and we chose and picked what we wanted. There were also luxuriously purple orchids from Costa Rica.We were told to be careful and to have the camera ready, for at any moment we might see a bobcat, a pronghorn antelope, or a California red-legged frog.A guide ran up and said, "The San Joaquin kit fox, the pond turtle, and even the coastal sage shrub and the Monterey pine forest are all at risk. Enjoy this paradise. The very river you walk along is also called the Upside Down River, for it meanders from the Los Padres National Forest down to the bay in Monterey two hundred miles away.”As we strolled past many riverfront restaurants, and the Mission itself, we were aware that the strangely primitive Santa Lucia mountains could be seen everywhere, and that there had once been volcanic eruptions that formed the wonderland surrounding this City of Gold.
"It was time for complimentary wine at La Serena, and we shared a chat or two with other wanderers, and then we rested.
The next day we headed out to the golden City of the Bears, Los Osos.
"Oso means bear," Isabel said.
"Not too big, I hope."
The river through Los Osos spreads vastly to form the incredible series of estuaries, which for some reason have many names. Sometimes called
Osos by Audubon
the Valley of the Bears, there are so many coastal plains: Guadalupe, Oso Flaco, the endless Montano de Oro, Laguna and the Atascadero Lakes, streams, canyons and hills, that we got lost.
Above us at one point was the Mountain of Gold, named because of the golden wildflowers that seem to bloom year round. They don't, but in the mind's eye they do. Suddenly, for it was winter, we almost frightened a Black-Headed Grosbeak who was feeding, then Isabel saw a Painted Bunting, and she called out to me, "There, a Scarlet Tanager!" But by the time I looked up it was gone.
"I love the red with the black wings," she said, but I quickly changed the subject, for it occurred to me that she was thinking of how she might look in those colors, and I thought it might be a bit loud, not to mention expensive. I really like the tans and soft greens and leather and less-costly pants from the outdoor shops.
We ran into some folks from the Morro Coast Audubon Society, and they quietly said that they had recently seen some Harlequin ducks and even a Bullock's Oriole.
We exchanged some recommendations, and went our separate ways. By then I was tired and even the miracles of this City of Gold were hurting my feet. We had a nice dinner at a local restaurant, a sip or two of Paso Robles wine, and we went quietly to bed, dreaming of tomorrow and another mythical city.
And so on we went to the other golden cities and to the ends of the seven rivers where they poured themselves into the estuaries and into the bay and into the waters where the kayaks floated and the vacationers and bird watchers marveled at what the Universe had wrought.
We wandered again through the hills of the Nine Sisters.
Then we did another of the cities, Atascadero, with that beautiful name. "It means a place of much water," Isabel told me. "Once the home of the Salinas Indians." And there we saw a flock of forty Mountain Plovers, white and tan, and Isabel said, "How cute, I want one, or at least a jacket that color."
There's a Sandhill Crane," I said, "and “Wow, Look at that Great Blue!" and I got a shot of him with his stupendous wings against a few white clouds. "Look at that Red-Breasted Nuthatch!" she shouted, and there he was, busily scraping and digging at the bark of a tree.Every time I travel through these wonders, we are holding hands, whether she is with me or not, because sometimes I have to make a business trip without her, but she is with me nonetheless.Soon, we were in Cayucos, and again she had read up on it and she said, "The name means kayak or canoe, used by the Chumash people over ten thousand years ago, and she told about a fisherman she met near a pond who had told her of the beaches, the old pier, the tide pools, the creek, and of one of the Seven rivers which the kids called the Mississippi.And he told her about the eucalyptus trees where the monarchs would stop and rest, and we shook some of the trees and the butterflies fluttered all around us. In some places the sand was snow white and there were weathered pieces of wood that had come in with the tide to provide us with firewood.
By the time we got to Arroyo Grande, we decided to take a whaling tour and I never did learn why folks were focusing their binoculars on Pirate's Cove, which seemed a nice and pretty private beach where a few lightly-clad folks were sunbathing.
he binoculars were all taken.
At every one of the Seven Cities we had been in touch with the bounteous offerings of an environment as remarkable as any place in the world, and Isabel talked again about the green and black Least Bittern, the purple rose of the Glossy Ibis and the color of the Roseate Spoonbill that matched her corduroy outdoor vest with the nice pockets.
We had seen savannahs, riparian corridors, wetlands, mossy vernal pools, the vast Carrizo Plan. We had seen the serpentines, habitats, the junipers and oak woodland, the migration corridors.
And Isabel had wisely partaken of the civilized pleasures, ocean front restaurants, souvenir and clothing shops; she had watched the beaches, the sunsets, the surfers, the flower fields, experienced the gentle offers of the rugged, woody wine-tasting bars.
I had prayed for golf, maybe a little fishing, and for the 49ers, who hadn't had too bad a season. We had done some hiking, visited the history museums and even the giant chess board, where I lost in seven moves.
But far beyond my undisciplined imagination was the discovery that these were indeed the places of the Seven Rivers that met the sea to nourish the wetlands and the golden cities that the Spaniards had sought in vain, unaware of that for which they were truly searching. They were searching for pieces of eight while trudging heavy-footed through pieces of heaven.
Throughout these explorations, I was deeply energized, for the life force of my wife was at my side, so I could re-imagine La Serena as the Bird Friends Inn of Morro Bay, for the bird lovers and the bird watchers as they explore and contemplate the flight and color and lifestyle of the birds, and all the interconnectedness of them with the environment and the Universe.
It would take a golden pen to describe the poetry of the earth which is never dead, but John Keats, the famous romantic poet, gave us these words that seemed to tell of what we saw on our journey through the central coast
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene,
Until we voyaged in this land of old;
Then felt I like a watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
If you would like your own personal copy of this story
please contact one of our motels.