The Deserts of This Earth

Hillside with Cholla Cactus in the Anza-Borrego Desert

California has a number of distinct desert zones, ranging from Death Valley in Inyo County to the Mohave Desert around I-15 and I-40 along the route to Las Vegas and Northern Arizona to the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego. My friend Bill also tells me about the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which also seems to be a desert, one which I have not yet visited. And undoubtedly there are several I am not taking into account.

One thing they all have in common: Don’t go there in the summer if you don’t want to die of discomfort and have your car stranded on some obscure untraveled highway. In the winter, on the other hand, the desert is lovely and beguiling. Do you see those cholla cactuses in the center of the above photo? When the sun shines through their barbed needles, they look positively huggable. But don’t even try! If you brush against cholla spines, they will stick to your skin and your clothing, and you will have the devil’s own time disposing of them.

During the spring, you are likely to see that every inch of the rough desert surface seems to be covered with tiny wildflowers. The efflorescence lasts only a few weeks, and you have to time your visit carefully and call locals to see if it’s happened yet. And it generally happens only after a wet rainy season. We haven’t had many of those lately.

Because California is on the ring of fire, you can occasionally find natural hot springs in which you can bathe. There is one such in Anza-Borrego on County Road S-2 south of Scissors Crossing. To get there, one passes by the old Butterfield Stage Route; and you can even stop at one of the Butterfield Stage stations which has been restored to its 19th century glory.

When it’s too cold to go the beach, consider the desert.

 

Living in the Desert

By the Thousand Palms Oasis

By the Thousand Palms Oasis

When my brother first told me he was thinking of moving to he Coachella Valley, Martine and I both thought it wasn’t a good idea. Martine had lived for a couple of years in Twenty Nine Palms, where she worked at the Naval Hospital at the Marine Combat Center there. She hated the desert. As for me, I do not like living in a hot climate.

Of course, if anyone could make it work, it’s Dan. After all, his previous home in Paso Robles was almost as hot as Palm Desert. When he wanted to call down, he and Lori would drive to the beach along the Central Coast, which was frequently 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. Living in Palm Desert, he is surrounded by mountains. He is already working on a log home at Idyllwild in the foothills, where the elevation of 5,413 feet (1,650 meters) affords some protection from the summer blast on the floor of the Coachella Valley.

I love visiting the desert, especially in the cooler months. Dan is not far from Joshua Tree National Park and Anza-Borrego State Park, which are two favorite destinations of mine.

 

Looking for the Way Down

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“Well, How the Hell Did They Get Through Here, Then? … They Couldn’t Have!”

Apparently, my Canon PowerShot A1400 camera can shoot videos—especially when I don’t recall ever hitting the Record button. Here, you can see Martine and my attempt to get down to the remnants of the Butterfield Stage Route as it cut through Earthquake Valley in Anza Borrego. We were walking along the edge of Highway S-2 looking for a trail that would lead us down to the bottom of the canyon. Unfortunately, there did not look to be any easy way, considering that we didn’t have our hiking staffs with us, and that Martine was not wearing hiking shoes.

Eventually, we got down there by a commodious vicus of recirculation, but by then I had discovered that my camera was shooting video.

Anza Borrego is a do-it-yourself type of hiking locale. Trails are not as well marked as in the national Parks, and sometimes they are not marked at all. You just turn off the road and look for what might be a trail. Sometimes you find one. Sometimes you don’t. No matter: The whole place is magical.

Cooking with the Kumeyaay

Morteros at Kumeyaay Village Site in the Blair Valley

Morteros at Kumeyaay Village Site in the Blair Valley

It’s maybe not what you or I would like to eat, but the Kumeyaay Indians of the Anza Borrego Desert managed to survive in a highly hostile environment eating roasted yucca leaves, cakes made with the flour of ground piñon pines, and whatever else they could concoct with the highly limited plant life of the area. The Blair Valley about four miles in from Highway S22 contains an unusual concentration of plant life (see photo below).

Kumeyaay women would find a rock to use as a mano (grindstone) and grind various edible cactus and juniper parts against rocks until depressions formed in them. These depressions (as shown above) were referred to as morteros. The Mortero Trail in the Blair Valley leads to a nicely sheltered “kitchen” area where there are numerous morteros and cupules (vertical morteros, probably for ceremonial purposes).

Lush Hillside in the Immediate Vicinity of the Kumeyaay Village Site

Lush Hillside in the Immediate Vicinity of the Kumeyaay Village Site

Sometimes I wonder what use the tribe made of the creosote bushes and cholla cacti that seem to predominate in the area, but my knowledge only goes so far. Suffice it to say that the Kumeyaay still survives as a tribe in several reservations in California and Mexico’s State of Baja California.

Martine did not like the trail very much, because the pamphlet describing sights along the way was incomplete due to vandalism or some other reason. I loved it and felt that the Kumeyaay village site was probably the most beautiful corner of the whole Anza Borrego desert region.

 

Reading in the Desert

Our Patio at the Borrego Valley Inn

Our Patio at the Borrego Valley Inn

Martine and I have just returned from four days in the Anza Borrego Desert, the largest contiguous state park in the United States. Compared to the larger National Parks, it is something of a poor orphan; but there is much to be seen. The only problem is it’s very much a do-it-yourself experience. The trails are not very well marked. On Friday, we took what we thought was the Narrows Trail off State Route 78, only to find that there was no clearly defined trailhead, no clearly defined trail, and a plethora of steps leading off in every direction. On Saturday we had better luck. Nonetheless, I even enjoyed our missteps.

Because she lived in Twenty Nine Palms for three years working at the Naval Hospital there, Martine does not value the desert as much as I do: I would not live there, but I find that a visit there helps clarify my mind and brings a sense of peace.

Shown above is our private patio at the Borrego Valley Inn in Borrego Springs. On the table are my two Kindles and a tall glass of ice water. I finally managed to finish reading Tony Judt’s massive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, and I made a large dent in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. While Martine watched television, I read hundreds of pages after returning from our day trips. The combination of exercise and reading concentrates the mind nicely.

In the days to follow, I will write several postings about our desert experiences.