We ate lunch on top of Big Pine. It was a brilliantly clear day and from this elevation, 6,800 feet, we could look down over the Coast Range, across the Santa Barbara Channel, and see all of the Channel Islands. In the other direction, inland, the Mount Wilson group stood under December snow. Farther north loomed the white peaks of Yosemite.
We took quick bites of our sandwiches and scanned the nearer horizons with our binoculars. This was condor country. At the foot of Big Pine lies the San Rafael Primitive Area, one of our few remaining wildernesses, and at its northern edge is the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary. The Sierra Madre Ridge above the sanctuary is a major condor flyway, and has been since prehistoric times. But today there was not a condor in the sky.
The Forest Supervisor and his Assistant looked at us over their lunches with I-told-you-so expressions.
"There are practically no condors in the area anymore," said the Supervisor.
"Our observers see them all-the time," I said.
The Supervisor's Assistant said firmly: "Our observers practically never see one."
The Supervisor and his Assistant didn't seem to want to see any condors, I thought. Their reluctance would have to do with the project they were pushing at the moment: the development of a through road along the Sierra Madre Ridge. They had brought us conservationists and bird watchers along on the present expedition in an effort to persuade us that the building of the Sierra Madre road and the consequent opening of the backcountry to cars and motorcycles would damage neither the wilderness nor the condors, if any.
The Supervisor rose athletically from his rock, a handsome man, extraordinarily tall, with clipped iron-gray hair and a quick, boyish smile. His Assistant was shorter and broader, but very alert-looking. They reminded me of a brigadier general and his aide, shortly after the general has decided to run for public office.
"If you men have finished eating," the Supervisor said, "we can be on our way."
"But don't let us rush you," said the Assistant Supervisor.