When people ask why I love little watered landscapes, I often quote Isak Dineson. She was speaking of Kenya, but she could have been describing any semi-arid land.
There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.
I know exactly what she means. In the American Southwest, especially, you can see all the forces of Nature. Without the camoflauge of lush grass, you see where the Earth has been thrust up, folded in on itself, eroded down, and shaped by sudden but infrequent flash floods. I’m told no place is a better object lesson in Geology than Anza-Borrego State Park. It’s a massive stretch of badlands, buttes, mountains and washes. Anza-Borrego started its life millions of years ago when it was an inland sea, actually part of the Pacific, then an upward branch of the Gulf of California. Then followed years of geologic upheaval that eventually pushed the land thousands of feet up including surrounding mountains that blocked the moisture-laden winds from the ocean and caused the water to drain out. Millions more years followed with more squeezing of the land upward between the tectonic plates, while at the same time seasonal flash floods and fierce winds wore down the mountains exposing a rich geological history.
Well, that’s what they told me I’d see. But the first and only time I went to Anza-Borrego, it was in the midst of a 50 year superbloom. (See that adventure here.) The entire desert was covered with flowers, insects and birds in an explosion of life and color. So I didn’t pay proper attention to the geology. I knew this visit would not be the same. Not only are we on the cusp of another drought after a pretty dry winter, but I’m headed to this low and blisteringly hot desert months after any sane person leaves. Sure enough, I wound my way down the steep mountains that block coastal breezes and into 101 degree low desert temperatures. Within five minutes of arriving in the tiny town of Borrego Springs, which is completely surrounded by the park, and I realized I needed to scrap most of my plans. Anza-Borrego is famous for having hundreds of turn outs and areas for free camping, and I’d expected to boondock for three days. I was hardly on the desert floor when I realized my little 12 volt refrigerator was just not up to chilling food safely at that temperature. Not to mention that, without hooking up to electricity, I would have limited ability to run my A/C or even my 12 volt fan. I pulled into the first RV “resort” I saw and realized I could have my pick of places. No one else was foolish enough to come here on the cusp of summer. In fact, half the businesses and restaurants in town were closed for the season. But the resort was open for three more days, it had two swimming pools and the all important hook-ups. Even better: on check-in, they gave me two mini bottles of Prosecco and a chocolate chip cookie. I spent the rest of that day lounging by the pool and wondering how all this ambitious cooking I had planned to do was going to be possible. In the end, I opted for a trip to a locals spot to luxuriate in air conditioning.
But I’d come here for the desert and a deep dive into Geology. So I called the most excellent California Overland. I took two tours with them on my last visit, a sunset and stargazing tour and a sort of secret life of plants tour they were offering during the Super Bloom. This trip topped them both. I think I was the last tourist on the last day they are open for regular tours. So I got a private tour. Which is what you get when it’s only you. But that meant the vehicle was a great CJ-7 Jeep with the rollbars and the full Right Stuff harnesses. My tour guide Joe offered to pick me up early so we could do some hiking around before it was blisteringly hot. A big section of Anza-Borrego is a large bowl, so we ended up driving through dry washes, looking at the uplifted layers of ancient ocean floors, then motoring and hiking up goat trails to the tops of buttes to see the geology in macro.
Joe has an incredible knowledge of the local geology, flora, and fauna. He also has a profitable side gig scouting locations for movies. One intriguing movie he helped scout was one I hadn’t heard of called “Last Days in the Desert”, starring Ewan McGregor and Ciaran Hinds (who Joe says are both great guys.) The basic plot has Jesus (McGregor) leaving his 40 days in the desert, but stopping to help an isolated family in crisis, all while being taunted by the devil (also McGregor). It’s got great reviews, but more importantly, Joe says it has incredible cinematography of Anza-Borrego. So if you want to see this desert wonder from the comfort of your air conditioning, check it out.
Another of Joe’s stories, unfortunately, is one that I’ll never get out of my head. I won’t repeat it here, but look up the egg-laying strategies of the Tarantula Hawk Wasp. The adult form is a gentle nectar eater. The pupate form is somewhere between Dracula and Alien. Read at your own risk.
So that’s my trip of alternate sweating, pool lounging and desert excursion exhilaration executed ridiculously out of season. I’m cutting my trip short to spend an extra day up in Joshua Tree National Park, where I’m hoping the high desert will offer milder temperatures. After all, I have that fridge full of ingredients for gourmet meals I was planning to cook. Yeah, that may not happen.