Tuesday, Nov 26 2013 06:00 AM

Pen in Hand: Traces of ancient culture in the rugged El Paso Mountains

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An ancient rock ring in the El Paso Mountains.

Retired state park ranger Mark Faull, who served as head ranger at Red Rock Canyon State Park for many years. Hardly anyone knows this portion of Eastern Kern County better than Mark does.

These rock circles may once have had brush walls or even roofs.

Rock art documentarian Jack Sprague and Mark Faull head upslope in the rugged El Paso Mountains.

A Pallid-winged Grasshopper rests concealed by camouflage in the El Paso Mountains.

About 50 miles northeast of Tehachapi, in the Mojave Desert near Red Rock Canyon State Park, is the rocky, arid and rugged El Paso Mountains. This formidable desert mountain range is about 18 miles long and includes some remote but storied locations, including Last Chance Canyon, Walter Bickel's Camp, Burro Schmidt's Tunnel, the Old Dutch Cleanser Mine and others. It is also home to some ancient rock rings that are believed to have been made by the Coso People, a tribe of bighorn sheep hunters who may have been the ancestors of the Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indians of the Tehachapi Mountains and Mojave Desert.

Large portions of the El Paso Mountains are covered with volcanic boulders and rocks of basalt, a jumbled landscape of dark brown stone and sparse soil. The Coso People, who famously left thousands of petroglyph rock carvings and etchings in Big and Little Petrogylph Canyons on the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, were apparently attracted to the El Pasos to hunt desert bighorn sheep and gather spring wildflower bulbs and other vegetative food sources. Though the desert slopes are barren and appear particularly lifeless during dry years, a wet winter can bring forth a profusion of plant life.

During more recent times, the El Paso Mountains drew miners in search of gold and other mineral wealth, and shepherds who grazed their flocks on the meager but nutritionally potent desert vegetation, and that's about it -- this is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Kern County, and in the past century the number of permanent residents has ranged from a few dozen to only a few. And people probably still outnumbered the handful of trees in this windswept range of creosote bush and hopsage.

Last week I hiked in the El Pasos to view some of the rock rings, on an informal trip led by retired state park ranger Mark Faull. Most of the region is Bureau of Land Management property, with numerous mining claims and a few private inholdings. There is also a 23,000-acre portion that is designated the El Paso Mountains Wilderness, where no motorized vehicles are permitted. There are no paved roads in the El Paso Range, just miles and miles of dirt roads, most of them which the BLM has designated as "EP15," "EP18," or "EP26" and others, with the EP standing for El Paso.

We reached some rock rings after a couple of miles of arduous hiking. It is not known if these stone circles also featured a dome-like wooden roof of poles and thatching, or if they served as simple windbreak shelters. If they did have roofs or walls, the materials would have to be carried a considerable distance. These ancient structures have long been viewed as somewhat enigmatic, since they are so remote and were constructed in such an unlikely location for housing, at least to modern perspectives.

Interestingly, I'm not the first person in my family to view these remnants of a vanished culture -- my grandfather, Phil Hand, was a shepherd in the desert and visited them more than 110 years ago. In a letter dated March 28, 1900, he references them: "Almost at the tops of some of these highest hills, where the Indians had their lodges, there are little circles of stones that they used to hold down the ends of the brush or reeds or whatever they built their lodges with, still to be seen although the house itself has long ago fallen to pieces and the material decayed and its dust blown in as many directions as the wind can carry them. On the mountain just across the valley may still be seen the rock walls erected by them for wind breaks or it may be for corrals or even houses." My grandfather was only 22 years old when he made these observations in a letter home to his mother.

These stone circles are likely to have been first constructed thousands of years ago, and their exact origins are lost in the mists of time. They constitute one more fascinating feature in the El Paso Mountains, which are themselves a remote and interesting part of the vastness of Kern County, which few people have ever thoroughly explored.

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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