“Poison Oak” Pictographs (Santa Monica Mountains)

It is somewhat often that I receive requests to go hiking from complete strangers, people who feel as if they know me from the words that I type out across the screen, yet I know them only by a screen name or email address. While I appreciate folks thinking of me, I more often than not find myself declining these invites. It isn’t a matter of being snarky or rude, it is a matter of my comfort level in meeting new people. Those of you that know me, or have met me, may be surprised by that. I’m able to pull off comfortable in social settings relatively easy, while my guts scream at me to run and hide. It is also a matter of personal safety, the idea of traipsing through the wilderness with someone you barely know, is usually not the best idea.

For whatever reason after exchanging a few emails with Jim, it was a different story. He invited me to go on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, I was planning to be in the vicinity within a few weeks anyway. I figured, why the hell not. Jim promised a short, yet chaotic hike into the park’s backcountry where we would visit a seldom seen Chumash pictograph panel. Maybe the key to getting me to go hiking with you is to offer up some “rock art.”

In the days leading up to the hike we exchanged several emails. Mostly Jim wanting to remind me of daylight savings time (which I had forgotten about – Thanks, Jim!), to wear both long pants, and long sleeves (which I had already planned to), and to warn me about wet conditions, possible rock climbing along the route, and a shit ton of poison oak. In other words, everything that you don’t want to hear before entering the wilderness with someone who you’ve never met!

Never-the-less, the morning of the hike arrived. I dragged my buddy Ryan along despite some strict time restrains that he had that morning because of family obligations. After a little confusion on the meeting place we met up with Jim at the trailhead about 10 minutes late.

Jim was a middle-aged man, tall and skinny. He was wearing blue jeans and a collared polo shirt, he definitely didn’t fit my idea of the stereotypical hiker. But who am I to talk with my blue mohawk, tattoos, and facial piercing? Besides that I brought my buddy Ryan, who looks like he could be rolling with the Bloods or Crips, and slinging mad dope on the street while rocking some Suicidal Tendencies. We were an odd-looking group, but we all shared the same interests in nature, and archaeological wonders.

 

Death Valley Jim and Bushwacking Jim at "Poison Oak" Pictographs. You'll just have to imagine what Ryan looks like based on my totally accurate description of him.

Death Valley Jim and Bushwacking Jim at “Poison Oak” Pictographs. You’ll just have to imagine what Ryan looks like based on my totally accurate description of him.

 

An undisturbed mortar with pestles sit just feet away from a busy trail.

An undisturbed mortar with pestles sit just feet away from a busy trail.

 

We set off along a well maintained trail across rolling green hills before soon disappearing into the forest. Somewhere along the way Jim showed us a mortar site just off of the trail complete with two pestles. What a beautiful thing to find sitting just feet away from a busy trail system.

At this point I was thinking to myself, wow…this hike is going to be a cinch. It was soon after that my new buddy Jim began to throw me for a loop. We entered a tight canyon, everything was wet and muddy from the rain two days prior. The canyon had several large sandstone boulder obstacles that wouldn’t have been an issue if the conditions were dry, however with mud caked to the bottom of my shoes every step had to be taken with extra precaution. Once through the short canyon we again entered a grass land, this time with massive, and beautiful oak trees. Along the tops of the mountains a fog hovered giving the impression that we had entered a tropical paradise.

It wasn’t long before the hike turned into a layer of hell. Upon arriving at a sandstone outcropping, Jim explained that the site we were looking for was on the other side. The only problem was that the canyon to get there was an overgrown jungle of poison oak, and satan himself. Jim led the way, ducking, pushing, and crunching his way through a forest of everything that sucks in life. We emerged from forest hell, and soon entered muddy shoes and slippery sandstone cliff hell. Imagine walking along a slanted balancing beam after having just stepped in a fresh steaming pile of dog shit. Yeah, you get the idea.

 

A crazy little canyon with lots of bouldering. I snapped this picture once past the worst part.

A crazy little canyon with lots of bouldering. I snapped this picture once past the worst part.

 

Unfortunately I managed to fail miserably at photographing the hike into the site, and only stopped briefly for a few landscape shots. Hence you aren't seeing the thick of it.

Unfortunately I managed to fail miserably at photographing the hike into the site, and only stopped briefly for a few landscape shots. Hence you aren’t seeing the thick of it.

 

A field of wild flowers.

A field of wild flowers.

 

Approaching the site I asked Jim if anyone had ever given him a trail name, which he replied “no”. I then christened him with the well deserving name of, “Bushwacking Jim.” I think that he liked it, but can’t be too sure. It was definitely a name applied out of endearment for this man’s pure badassery.

The pictograph panel was larger than I imagined.¬† I hadn’t seen any images of it prior, and really didn’t know what to expect. All of the designs were painted in orange ochre, and covered a significant portion of a recession in the rock.

My first impression was that they didn’t look like your typical Chumash designs. The Chumash are the people who have inhabited this area for many several thousands of years. They are known for elaborate and detailed designs, often incorporating images of fish like people, and aquatic animals. There was none of that here, just simple diamond patterned zig-zag lines, and an assortment of shapes. The designs reminded me of panels that are often associated with female puberty rituals in the California desert regions, where the Cahuilla, Serrano, and Chemehuevi each were known to perform these ritual around painting these types of designs on rock.

 

Wide angle color enhanced image of the entire panel.

Wide angle color enhanced image of the entire panel.

 

Close up of diamond patterns, and zig-zag lines.

Close up of diamond patterns, and zig-zag lines.

 

Miscellaneous shapes, and patterns, creating a net like design.

Miscellaneous shapes, and patterns, creating a net like design.

 

A lot is going on here. While these images have all been slightly enhanced, the colors on site remain surprisingly vibrant.

A lot is going on here. While these images have all been slightly enhanced, the colors on site remain surprisingly vibrant.

 

Could that be what this site was, a Chumash female puberty ritual site? It is known that the Chumash had their own rituals for girls coming of age, and they too incorporated “rock art” into these rituals. I however find it surprising that they would share so closely the imagery of the desert tribes that lived hundreds of miles in land. But I am no expert by any means, simply someone with a passion for photographing, and documenting my findings, occasionally throwing an idea or a concept out there.

We spent about twenty minutes at the site before making our way back the way that we came. I’d like to think that “Bushwacking Jim” will soon come along with me on another journey, as I believe that a good time was had by all.

I now sit here writing this with poison oak blisters on my right hand, left arm, right leg, and a big patch on my back. I’m still trying to figure out how I was compromised in so many locations considering I was well covered. Ah well, it comes with the territory, I can’t think of a time in the last year that I’ve hiked in this region without getting poison oak. Whatever, it is worth it.

 

 

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About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

2 Comments

  • Poor Jim. Get out the Burt’s Bees soap.

    But a better idea would be to stock up on Hylands Poison Ivy pills. No, I haven’t tried them but Amazon carries them for around $7 for a bottle of 50 pills. Lots of 5 star reviews so many miserable scratching folks appear to swear by them.

    Love the pics; the colors are surprisingly bright and the designs amazing.

  • It’s a good thing that you got photos of this important historical site. It appears that the story being depicted was written with the clever use of the rock features. Possibly a trail map of the region? A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a small ancient Native American cliff digging. The sandstone was embedded with shards of a light blue-green malachite. The cliff side, some 700 feet high and a mile long. was fully visible from our campsite below.. But, there were no trails or different rock features that would lead a person to explore this small feature. We were on a reservation that has been occupied by the locals for thousands of years. I took a native official to see this before that day ended. In addition to the evident past malachite collecting, a layer of a white chalk-like stone was discovered to have also been collected. My native friend told me that his people had long wondered where their ancestors had found the material to make the colors found in old pottery and tapestries in the area. Upon close examination, we saw the remnants of a pictograph on a stone face right above the digs. That pictograph would have stood out as a marker that could be seen from far below long ago. The site would have been difficult to locate without it. We took photos only. Next trip we will hike into examine some apparent prehistoric dinosaur fossils that I found. They will also not be disturbed. We must preserve these things. They are the heritage and the history of the world.

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