In the middle of California's broad Central Valley, the Sutter Buttes rear up, surrounded by flatness on all sides. Because the craggy volcanic buttes just barely beat 2,000 feet, the place is sometimes called the world's smallest mountain range. On an elevation map, like this, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Buttes are that bump in the Central Valley, halfway up the northern end.
The whole of the Sutter Buttes is only 75 square miles, essentially all private property in the form of a dozen ranches. Because it doesn't have year-round water, and is apparently hell-hot in summer, it has escaped most development. The place's isolation in the middle of the lower elevation flats make it an island, with odd wildlife distribution results. It's apparently a hotbed of ringtails, for instance.
It is so small that devotees like Walt Anderson, the author of Inland Island: The Sutter Buttes, can tell you that there is exactly one ponderosa pine there, on North Butte. It is so well-documented that Anderson can also report that in 1988 a flock of 32 white pelicans, a species otherwise only seen flying far overhead, descended to a stock pond to feast on goldfish swimming there.
Some ranchers in the Buttes allow limited access for hikers. Recently I went on a hike offered by the Middle Mountain Foundation. It was a mild fall day, so clear we could see Mount Lassen 80 miles away. We could also see urban lands, starting very close by and stretching down to Sacramento.
In a place so close to intense civilization, there was no litter. None. No bags, no bottles, no cans. There were no other hikers. Aside from old stone walls running across the hills, there were no direct signs of human activity until we got to some ranch buildings on the way out. But there were indirect traces, for the land is full of cattle and wild pigs. There were two sizes of hoof prints, cow patties, and areas of torn earth where the pigs had been rooting.
The cattle are raised for profit. The pigs, introduced long ago, are popular with many California hunters as a big game species. Yes, I eat beef, and occasionally wild boar.
Those beautiful, quiet lands were uncanny. It's a place where people rarely go, yet you can turn your head and see where hundreds of thousands of people are. There's not so much as a bottle cap on the ground, yet the land is strongly marked by pastoral industry. This eerie place is a domain of meat.