I love to tell people I’m going to the Anza Borrego desert. They never know where it is, even Californians, and it’s most of southern Cali, over the mountains east of San Diego. I’m not even sure how I found out about it. So, what with the lilting name and it’s complete invisibility, there’s a nice mystery to it, like I’m disappearing into a beautiful void. And to some extent that’s true. It’s a place of great desert beauty, with not much to do, not much internet or phone reception, lots of hammock-inspiring heat in the middle of the day.
There’s a town of Borrego Springs, with the state park headquarters, a library, a few stores and even fewer restaurants, mostly tilting Mexican. The place where we stay, the Leapin’ Lizard RV Ranch, is 20 miles out of town, in Ocotillo Wells, though Ocotillo Flats would seem more appropriate. It’s a vast plain between brown, stony mountains that turn blue at the end of the day, bordering on the largest off-highway vehicle park in the country. So, while much of the time you hear nothing at all — when I took the picture of this inch long beetle, it was so quiet I could hear the dry skittering of its minute feet on the sand — Friday evenings and Saturday mornings are abuzz with people going off into the reserve. I seldom hear them come back, which is interesting, and they apparently keep a Sabbath, because on Sundays quiet descends again, except for the shushing breeze, desultory traffic, the cooing of mourning doves, the nighttime yip of coyotes.
There is the occasional descent of military helicopters, who use this area for practice. I was once hiking in a canyon at the end of Split Mountain Rd, the main Ocotillo Wells road, and a huge — certainly in that context — black helicopter came swooping in, hovered not far above us, turned, flew out. I was pretty startled, but my companions simply said, ‘Practicing canyon flying,’ and on we went. They were showing me the two million year old shell and fish fossils lying casually in the sand that once was the bed of a vast sea.
The owners have created trails around and through their acreage, and that’s our morning walk, early, before it’s too hot, especially for my black dog. There are other hikes I do alone, and I sometimes join communal hikes, of which there are many, sponsored by the state park, so I don’t get lost going deeper into the desert. One Saturday I was out with a group of 15 photographers for 11 hours, in heat that hit 94. It was a magical time, to places I would never find, but required a full hammock day to recover.
The top picture isn’t from the AB desert. It’s from neighboring Painted Canyon, about an hour from here, which has the only road into the Mecca Wilderness, another evocative, almost biblical name, though Mecca, in this incarnation, is a small farming town at the north end of the Salton Sea, smelling strongly of things I suspect are sprayed on the citrus trees.
Anza Borrego is named after two unrelated entities, though they presumably eyed each other as they passed. Juan Francisco de Anza was an early Spanish explorer, of some note and intrepidity. Borrego is the local wild sheep, with graceful curling horns, native to this area. I don’t really approve of naming places after conquistadores, and the combination is slightly ridiculous, like naming a state park in New York the Hudson White Tailed Deer Preserve. However, that’s all left brain caviling. The right brain loves all those musical syllables, as well as the silence and beauty of the desert, and revels in being here.
I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.