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.
Ruins of the Bank Building in Rhyolite, Nevada
In January 2008, Martine and I spent a few days in Death Valley. It is a totally fascinating place, surrounded by ghost towns (such as Rhyolite, above) and mining shafts. The fascination wears off somewhat if you should try to visit in the summer, as the rangers tell us that German tourists tend to do. When the thermometer hits 130° Fahrenheit (54° Celsius), tourism is secondary to survival. Crawling up the mountain pass of the Panamint Range, your car will pass several water tanks to replenish the fluid in your radiator. Should you not pay attention to your radiator temperature, you had best just pull over and crawl under your car with several gallons of water, preferably cool—at least to start with.
Death Valley was the site of my first ever camping trip, back in 1979. We made it to Furnace Creek campground after midnight. Too weary to pitch our tents, we just lay our sleeping bags over groundcloths and dropped off, only to be awakened by early by a overactive flock of birds that landed in the campground or circled above our heads. The desert was starkly beautiful, and I fell in love with it from the start.
Ubehebe Crater in the Northern Part of Death Valley
I got an altogether different picture of the desert around 1995. Martine was working at the Twentynine Palms Marine Combat Center as a civilian employee. I would visit her several times during the summer, when it was REALLY, REALLY hot. I had to use an oven mitt to open my car door, lest my hand merge with the handle. I don’t know how Martine stuck it out there as long as she did. Eventually, she quit and moved in with me.
Now my brother lives in the desert, in Palm Desert, to be exact. Of course, he has air conditioning and a swimming pool to take some of the sting out of the climate. But I will likely not visit him until the temperature cools.
A Place Onto Its Own
Until late in 1966, when I took a train from Cleveland to Los Angeles, I had never been farther west than Detroit. My only notion of the American Southwest came from watching Roadrunner cartoons. Then, early one morning late in December of that year, the El Capitan went through the Mojave Desert. It was d-r-y, yet there were little puddles beside the track that were frozen over. It was the beginning of my adjustment.
More than half a century later, I am still adjusting. Where back East, rain was a frequent occurrence, here it was rare, though occasionally tumultuous. In our last rain, some 17 people in Santa Barbara County were buried in mudslides when a heavy rain hit an area that had been affected by the Thomas Fire.
If you have never been “Out West,” you won’t get the picture over a short weekend. There is an element of time in the deserts of this Earth that has to be experienced. It’s not like Woody Allen breezing into town and complaining about mashed yeast and the legality of making right turns at stoplights. Experiencing L.A. will probably involve some discomfort. This ain’t no Paradise, nor yet is it Valhalla.
Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park
What helps is to travel around the Southwest to see the variety of strange scenery, from the Grand Canyon to many of the other National Parks—one vastly different from the other.
After all these years, I’m just getting started on the road to understanding what life here is all about.
Palm Desert, CA
Next weekend, I will leave town for the weekend and spend some time with my brother in Palm Desert while Martine holds down the fort in L.A. The desert is nice this time of year, and I look forward to spending some time with Dan. I’d like to see the houses he is building and just spend some quality family time. While I am there, I will hold off on posting new blogs.
I need a short respite from my problems with Martine. Things may wind up all right in the long run (I hope). Over the last eight weeks, however, I have been stressed mostly by worrying about what would happen to Martine if she decided to be homeless by choice. In our culture, I see nothing good coming out of that. Even when this country pays lip service to the homeless, that’s about all they can expect. A large percentage of them are violent bums (what the Elizabethans called “sturdy beggars,” who commit all sorts of crimes—especially on the persons of helpless homeless women).
Restaurant in Old Town Albuquerque
There was a good chance that this was going to happen—and it did! Each day we were in New Mexico, the thermometer went over 100º (Celsius 38º). I had been hoping that the summer thunderstorms would have started, but they couldn’t because of a gigantic and persistent high-pressure area over the Southwest. It didn’t exactly ruin our vacation, but it made us change our plans frequently. We tended to visit outdoor sights in the cool of the morning, reserving the afternoons for air-conditioned museums, if possible. Thus we couldn’t see the Very Large Array west of Socorro because it involved a 120-mile detour through the dread Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) Desert on a particularly fiery day.
But then, one should always take chance into account. I remember one trip to Yucatán in the 1980s when the temperature in Mérida was super hot and humid, such that I came down with some fever and chills. I called in a local doctor, who made a house call and cured me within a few hours. At that point, I resolved to get out of Mérida and fly to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where the temp was quite bearable.
Another complication is that the one thing we could have done—namely, to seek higher ground in Colorado—was not an option because Martine started coming down with altitude sickness at around 7,500 feet altitude. So we had to go down to a lower elevation and higher temperatures.
Even so, I had a good time. I cannot say that Martine did. She continues to have a problem with a punched nerve in her back (which first manifested itself four years ago) and cannot get a good night’s sleep on a soft hotel mattress. We took an air mattress with us, but it turned out it could not hold air as one of the valves was broken.
The whole vacation was an exercise in how to survive in difficult situations without falling prey to negativity. The high points were our visits to the Smokey Bear village of Capitan; the UFO Museum in Roswell; the old cavalry station at Fort Stanton; and the town of Lincoln with its Billy the Kid associations. The low point was the steam train ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, during which the lurching of the cars led to spasms of pain affecting Martine’s pinched nerve.
This Camino Real Was Nowhere Near the Ocean
If you drive north on U.S. 101, you will see scads of quaint mission bell markers identifying it as El Camino Real—and so it was! But it was not the only one. There is another one, every bit as picturesque but far deadlier, through the heart of New Mexico. It is called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, “The Royal Road to the Interior Lands.” These interior lands consisted primarily of the city of Santa Fe together with its constellation of pueblos.
Picture New Mexico as being divided into six roughly equal size vertical rectangles, three in the north and three in the south. The south central one is the northern reach of the Chihuahuan Desert, usually referred to as the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead. The Chihuahuan Desert proper extends for 1,200 miles south to the Mexican State of Zacatecas. The rightmost two-thirds of the rectangle is occupied by the White Sands Missile Range.
The leftmost one-third of that rectangle includes the Rio Grande River, the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, and a lot of desolate, searing nothingness.
The Jornada del Muerto
Martine and I will probably intersect the Jornada del Muerto from East to West as we travel along U.S. 380, right past where the first atomic bomb explosion occurred at the now (mostly) closed Trinity Site. We will be leaving Capitan, New Mexico, and heading northwest to Albuquerque, where we will stay for a few days.
I am now reading Alan Boye’s Tales from the Journey of the Dead: Ten Thousand Years of an American Desert (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), which examines the route along the Rio Grande to Mexico throughout history from Clovis and Folsom Man through to the Manhattan Project. In addition, the author describes his own jaunts through the Jornada today in an effort to give a feeling for the fierceness and beauty of the land.
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.