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Under the Influence of a ‘Super Bloom’
[LOS ANGELES] "At the beginning of the year, if you told me this is what we were going to be dealing with, I would have called you crazy," said Mayor Steve Manos of Lake Elsinore, a small town in southern California. He was taking a brief reprieve from dealing with the biggest crisis of his short term in office yet: an explosion of picture-perfect California poppies in the Temescal Mountains, just northwest of the center of town.
"The poppy bloom in Lake Elsinore is unlike anything I've seen in my 32 years living in Lake Elsinore," he said. "The flowers are especially vibrant in color, they are numerous, and they're covering the entire mountain."
The problem for the mayor isn't the flame-orange poppies themselves, which blossom in the springtime after heavy winter rains follow an extended drought. It's their adoring, smartphone-equipped fans, who have shown up in droves the past three weeks, bringing with them horrible traffic and occasionally horrible etiquette when they wander off the trail to pose with, trample or even pick the poppies.
The first week of March, when the buds first turned to blooms, "there were a couple of social media influencers who came out and decided to take advantage of the beautiful backdrop," Manos recalled. "We saw an explosion in interest and — all of sudden — lots and lots of visitors." As many as 100,000 during St. Patrick's Day weekend, to be more precise.
"We've never had 50,000 or 100,000 in this city all at one time," Manos added. "The city's not advertising this. It's not an event, and for those reasons it's really hard to plan for anything like that."
Perhaps no one had a better plan than Jaci Marie Smith, a 24-year-old influencer from Los Angeles with more than 400,000 Instagram followers. In a post from March 1, she is shown nestled amid poppy blossoms in an all-orange outfit of overalls and a henley, with a wide-brimmed hat atop her head. A single orange poppy pokes out of her mouth. Some 60,000 people liked that post, and on March 5, she posted more poppy content — this time, of her holding a bouquet of the flowers — as a vehicle to promote a brand of press-on nails (US$7.99 at Ulta, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid, or impressmanicure.com!").
"You'll never influence the world by trying to be like it," read Smith's first poppy photo caption. And yet, as more people posed for poppy pictures, and international news outlets picked up the story, influence the world they did. Within three weeks, so many people were influenced to come pose in the flowery hills that the city had to figure out how to intervene. After a Lake Elsinore official was hit by a car, and a visitor was bit by a rattlesnake, the city shut down access to Walker Canyon, the main trailhead, from the nearest roads and set up a US$5 shuttle service to bring visitors from the local outlet malls. But the hordes found other places to park and walk in, and the city lacked the manpower to enforce the closure.
"They're going out there with wedding dresses on, Sunday best, Easter clothes," said Sharron Tolbert, who lives 2 miles from the trailhead. "For the most part, they don't care," she said, referencing the closures that were meant to slow the traffic of influencers. "They pull over and get out of the car." (The city later surrendered control, posting on Facebook, "At this time, it is not feasible for us to keep visitors away from #WalkerCanyon.")
Then came the backlash online. Inspired by Smith, Gulin Cetin shared her own Instagram poppy post March 5 with her 49,000 followers (wearing a hat of the same make, paired with a gingham wrap dress that matched the hills and flowers). But after Los Angeles magazine included Cetin's image in a post excoriating the scourge of off-trail, poppy-picking influencers, Cetin's post began filling up with negative comments. "Stop ruining the flowers for your selfish selfies," wrote one follower. Hashtags like #Horribleperson began popping up in comments on any photos geotagged at Lake Elsinore in which it appeared someone might be mistreating the poppies.
"Every influencer started to become a target for this, basically," said Cetin, who added a disclaimer to one of her Instagram posts to indicate that she had stayed on the trail the whole time. "If you don't put a disclaimer, they attack you. If you do put a disclaimer, they attack you."
But the anger is also pronounced among locals — and not necessarily because they're worried about the poppies' well-being. "I don't care about going to see them because I have severe allergies," Tolbert said. She's more concerned with navigating three hours of traffic on the freeway just to get home from work. "I literally just broke down crying two days in a row," she said. "I just couldn't take it anymore."
The overall economic impact of super-bloom tourism has yet to be determined. At Jack's BBQ Shack, the head of human resources, Leslie Lloyd, reported that the restaurant had its "best weekend out of five years because of the poppies." Ribs were selling out before 11 a.m. But for businesses that involve moving around town, such as the plumbing company Darrell Brown works for in nearby Murrieta, California, the #PoppyApocalypse is much more dire. "I told our office, don't send people there," he said of Lake Elsinore, after hearing rumors of how bad the traffic was. "We lost somewhere between US$5,000 and US$8,000 just on Saturday alone."
Other sites that are expecting significant wildflower blooms this year, like Joshua Tree National Park, are major year-round attractions that have visitor centers and ample parking. The same goes for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, where other "super blooms" are flourishing. Walker Canyon, on the other hand, doesn't have permanent toilets or a shop to buy water.
"We are not really trying at this time to figure out how to monetize the event in any way, shape or form," said the mayor. After conferencing with the California Highway Patrol, city officials decided to ban parking near the trailhead this weekend and double the shuttle price to US$10. Forty additional deputies from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department will help guide traffic.