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Reading Between the Signs on a Road Trip Along Highway 1


On a recent drive up Highway 1, my daughter and I passed all of the places that give the Big Sur coast its rough charm and rugged beauty--the tiny hamlet of Lucia, the hidden pocket of rock and sea called Partington Cove, the stretch of coastal bluffs and outcroppings around Garrapata Creek. What I did not know then--but I know now, thanks to "California's Geographic Names: A Gazetteer of Historic and Modern Names of the State" by David L. Durham (Word Dancer Press: $195, 1,694 pages)--is that Lucia was named after its first postmaster, Lucia Dani, who was herself named after the coastal mountains known as the Santa Lucia Range.

Partington Cove, named for the pioneering family that homesteaded in Big Sur in 1874, is an embayment where tanbark, cattle and hides were loaded aboard sailing ships, a fact that is startling to anyone who has seen the treacherous inlet and its heaving waters. And Garrapata, which lends its name to a state park along the single most scenic stretch of Highway 1 in Monterey County, actually means "sheep tick" in Spanish.

Durham compiled the gazetteer over his 20 years as a U.S. geologist and 12 years into his retirement from more than 4,000 maps and other publications. A gazetteer is a reference book so specialized that it is usually found only in libraries. Typical entries give detailed information about towns and cities, points and promontories, rivers and streams, canyons and dry washes, including common and historical names, general location and precise longitude and latitude, and references to maps and surveys. At nearly 2,000 pages and with more than 50,000 entries, "California's Geographic Names" is a definitive tool for cartographers, geographers, historians and others who seek out its abundant technical data, all of it carefully indexed and cross-referenced.

But "California Geographic Names" is so rich in detail, so full of legend and lore, that it adds a new dimension to virtually any feature on the California landscape. Thus, for example, we learn that Bull Creek in Humboldt County is so named because of an incident in the 1850s, when Indians took a bull from a white settler, slaughtered it by a creek, and were themselves slaughtered in retaliation. "Tassajara," a place name now associated with the natural hot springs and a Zen retreat at a site overlooking Big Sur, actually derives from the early cattle industry--it's an Indian or Mexican word that means "the place where meat is cured by drying." And Cambria, originally called "Santa Rosa" after a local stream, was renamed with the Latin word for Wales "because of the urgings of a single Welsh resident."

Even local place names take on new meanings when viewed in the light of history. Central Avenue in downtown L.A., for example, is sited along what was once the right-of-way of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. "Topanga Canyon" and "Old Topanga Canyon" are actually two distinct geographical formations. And La Ballona Creek, long since reduced to a concrete flood-control channel, was once a natural stream that watered a vast Spanish land grant belonging to the Machado and Talamantes families. "According to a tradition in the Talamantes family," explains Durham in the gazetteer, "the name 'Ballona' is from Bayona, a city in Spain that was the home of a family ancestor."

"California Geographic Names" won't fit into the glove compartment, but anyone who is riding shotgun and serving as navigator on a road trip can put it to good use. No matter where you wander on the highways and byways of California, the gazetteer has something enlightening and enlivening to say about places that, until now, were nothing more than a few colorful words on a road map or a road sign.


For most of us, the Sierra Nevada evokes the alpine beauty of places like Yosemite and Mammoth. Yet, as we are reminded in "Sierra East: Edge of the Great Basin," edited by Genny Smith (University of California Press: $48, 498 pages), the Sierra is much more than dense forests and snowy mountain peaks, and some of its most dramatic stretches are arid and treeless.

The mighty range actually begins to rise from the sands of the Mojave Desert and ends more than 400 miles away under the volcanic footing of Mount Lassen. Readily visible from outer space, the Sierra is a gargantuan natural feature of the North American continent, a physical barrier that marks the western boundary of the Great Basin. And, precisely because the Sierra prevents many Pacific storms from reaching beyond its high peaks, the eastern slopes of the Sierra drop off sharply into one vast desert.

"In contrast to the west slope's dense pine-fir forests and many large rivers that reach the sea," writes Smith, "the sparse forests of the east slope have little underbrush; below 7,000 feet there may be no forest at all, only Sagebrush Scrub. The small streams of the Eastern Sierra never reach the sea, ponding instead in large alkaline lakes."

"Sierra East" is the latest title in the distinguished California Natural History Guides from the University of California Press. Like the other books in the series, "Sierra East" is a work of scholarship that doubles as a field guide, and its contributors--biologists, ecologists, entomologists, geologists and meteorologists--unabashedly encourage us to explore the attractions of the "other" Sierra.

"At first acquaintance, the Eastern Sierra strikes some people as bleak, forbidding, lonely, even depressing," writes Smith, who has written extensively and memorably about the Sierra Nevada. "One can be alone with the vastness, become a part of, not apart from, the space and sky. Upon longer acquaintance with the Eastern Sierra, you, like many others, may find it starkly beautiful, dramatic, peaceful and teeming with life."


West Words looks at books related to California and the West. It runs every other Wednesday.

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