Still Life With Watered Colors

Unless you’ve actually visited one of the American Southwest’s amazing deserts, any mention
of the region probably conjures up awful images of an arid wasteland devoid of life.
Nothing could be further from the truth: The landscape is, in fact, full of life — and
when the desert blooms in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, you’ll want to be
there. This amazing transformation usually happens in mid-March, and only during the years
when winter rains have been just the right amount and springtime temperatures just the
right range of degrees. When that occurs, a seemingly dried and lifeless desert floor
springs to life in a glorious tapestry of purple, white, yellow and green. More than 600
species of flowers, plants and shrubs join the spectacle with their short-lived but profuse
blossoms. Winter nights in Anza-Borrego average a low of 43 degrees F and summer days can
reach a scorching 120 degrees. In the spring, when the flowers bloom, people come from
around the world to enjoy the beauty, bask in the sun and explore the wonders of this
enormous desert park. Some even come lured by tales of lost gold and of the ghostly
apparitions said to guard such treasure. The park’s name was derived from that of an early
Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, who came through in 1774 in search of a land route
from Sonora, Mexico, to Spanish settlements along the California coast. The explorer’s name
is combined with Borrego, the Spanish word for the bighorn sheep that live in the rocky
hillsides of this desert. Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is one of the
largest parks in North America. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and
barren — yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and
animal life. Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles
close to the surface. A multitude of birds shelter beneath the long frond skirts hanging
from the palms, and a few rare desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes. Coyotes
fill the night with their laughing song and mountain lions prowl the high country.
Two-thirds of Anza-Borrego remains pristine wilderness and, once considered a wasteland, is
now recognized as “providing one of the most remarkably complete sequences of animal life
to be found anywhere in the world.” Some archaeologists speculate man may have lived there
as long as 21,500 years ago. Early American history also holds a prominent place in the
Anza-Borrego story; between the years 1848 and 1880, a steady stream of California-bound
travelers crossed the Anza-Borrego Desert along the Southern Immigrant Trail or by way of
the Butterfield Stage Line on their way west from Missouri. This was the only all-weather
overland route across the American continent at that time. Thousands of sheep and cattle
also made the arduous journey as Arizona ranchers drove their herds across the desert to
feed the hungry miners in California gold fields. Situated northeast of San Diego and due
south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessed from anywhere in
Southern California. Our own journey took us along Interstate 10, then south on State
Highway 86 (which skirts the western shore of the Salton Sea) before we veered west on
County Highway 22, which dissects the park. A few miles down the road we encountered thick
stands of ocotillo, with their graceful wands richly tipped in deep scarlet-red blossoms. A
few miles farther, the sandy desert floor sprouted large clusters of purple sand verbena —
giving promise of the vast wildflower fields to come. Our destination was the Borrego Palm
Canyon Campground, the park’s only full-service campground. Our route took us through the
eastern side of the park and the little town of Borrego Springs. We found the campground at
the end of Palm Canyon Drive, just beyond the edge of town. Borrego Springs has a few
private campgrounds, but they tend to be very crowded, so we were pleased with our camping
choice. The wildflower bloom is a big event in Anza-Borrego; during our visit every
campground displayed no vacancy signs, so we counted ourselves fortunate that we’d made
reservations. After getting settled we drove to the visitor center and, as we walked up the
trail, we were momentarily confused: There were no buildings in sight. Then we realized
that the visitor center had been built underground, with a desert garden covering it. Open
daily 9 am-5 pm from October through May, and weekends and holidays during the summer, the
7,000-square-foot building houses exhibits, a small theater and a bookshop. Park rangers
were helpful in locating the major wildflower blooms, and we also purchased a great book on
the park, The Anza-Borrego Desert Region. In addition to a description of the sights and
trails, it contained a large map that could be removed and unfolded to help navigate
through the park. Another dollar bought us a descriptive brochure of the wildflowers we
could expect to see; at the cash register we also found an inviting list of walks and talks
given by park naturalists. This year, the most profuse wildflower blooms were on the north
side of Borrego Springs. Dawn was just beginning as we set out among the flowers with our
cameras. The blossoms along DiGiorgio Road were fresh and vibrant and at their loveliest.
Soft clouds of purple sand verbena, punctuated with white dune primrose, covered acres and
acres of sand. Desert dandelions and brittlebush traced lovely yellow lines through the
purple. Butterflies in brilliant jewel tones flitted from blossom to blossom. In places,
deceptively soft-looking green teddy bear cholla poked its thorny arms above the profusion
of flowers. Occasional spikes of lupine lined the sandy trail that served as a road, and
now and then we would find a delicate desert lily hidden among the foliage. Many other tiny
flowers of different colors added to the dazzling mosaic; for hours, we wandered through
the flowers, exploring their exquisite forms and colors. A chorus of bird song serenaded
us, and the air was deliciously perfumed with the tangy smell of citrus blossoms from
nearby orchards that flourished where water had been piped to irrigate the desert sands. As
full as the campgrounds were, we encountered few other people during our early-morning
photo session. The morning waned and the noonday sun shone through a cloudless sky. The
temperature rose sharply. Flowers began to close their petals and we knew that another day
of this kind of heat and they would fade. Climbing back into our 4-wheel-drive dinghy, we
followed the dirt road leading into beautiful Coyote Canyon. Deep magenta blossoms were
just starting to appear on the beavertail cacti and the agave were sending out their
towering spikes of creamy yellow flowers. Here, too, the ocotillos were thick and heavily
in bloom. During the heat of the afternoon we drove up the sandy wash to Fonts Point, where
the Borrego Badlands spread out to the southeast. Deep chocolate ridges twisted and turned
in convoluted patterns of crumbling sandstone where thick layers of fossilized shellfish
and coral told the story of an ancient sea that covered the area millions of years ago. The
bones of more than 100 different species of birds and animals vividly demonstrate the
tropical period that arose after the seas receded. Henderson Canyon Road was our choice for
wildflower displays the next morning, but the fragile flowers, though still beautiful, were
already suffering the effects of the heat. After lunch, we drove south of Borrego Springs
to Split Mountain, where tremendous geological pressure had rolled a sandstone cliff into a
spectacular, spiral rock face. The road wound through the middle of a sandy wash, and we
held our breath a couple of times when our tires started to spin in the deep sand. Several
jeeps pulled up and parked beside us as we stood marveling over the amazing rock
formations. Farther along Split Mountain Road we parked and hiked back to see rare elephant
trees with their thick, stubby trunks, free-form limbs and peeling yellowish bark. Early
Native Americans used the reddish-colored sap of the tree as a dye. Near the end of the
road we hiked the steep but easy trail up to the wind caves, which are strange sandstone
formations from an ancient seabed. From there, we had a splendid view out over the Carrizo
Badlands and the unique Elephant Knees formation. The next morning, we joined a small class
photographing the colorful desert gardens around the visitor center. Indigo bush, with its
deep blue flowers, was in full bloom. Rich, rose-colored fairy dusters blew softly in the
breeze and golden brittlebush covered the rocky soil. Retired botanist Suzanne Grainger,
who volunteers at the park, shared her wealth of knowledge with us as we sought to identify
some of the strange and exotic plant life. Our day’s agenda included a hike of the Borrego
Palm Canyon Nature Trail, accessible from the campground near the campfire circle. This
easy self-guiding, three-mile round trip winds through a rich variety of plant life, palm
grottos and a seasonal streambed. Numerous artifacts tell of the extensive use of this area
by early Native American cultures. Yet another dinghy side trip, this time following County
Highway 2, took us southeast along the old Southern Immigrant Trail as it wound in and out
of the park boundary. We stopped at each of the seven significant sites identified by
mileage markers, and thought about early pioneers making this difficult trek. Large
boulders had to be moved from their pathway and, in some cases, wells had to be dug by hand
to keep them and their animals from dying of thirst. Box canyons too narrow for wagons to
pass had to be chipped away with hand tools. Reaching the Blair Valley area, we pulled off
and hiked the short 1/4-mile Morteros Trail to a boulder-strewn area where a Kumeyaay
village stood centuries ago, leaving their story behind in the agave cooking pits and
metates that are still found there. Unique pictographs tell more of their story to those
who have any idea how to decipher them. The Anza-Borrego Desert, with its incredible
beauty, its mystery and legends and even its ghosts is quite a lure. We didn’t see any
apparitions — but there’s always next time.

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