Sounds of Silence in the Desert
MY favorite thing to do in the Anza-Borrego desert is to stop -- stop hiking, stop cycling, stop driving, stop thinking -- and immerse myself in silence. It pours down the mountains and into the sandy washes and canyons. The gorges of these California badlands are flooded with a silence so thick that standing in the midst of it feels like a tactile experience.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, situated in south-central California some 50 miles east of San Diego, is the largest contiguous state park in the Southwest. Last March, timing our visit to the wildflower spring bloom, my boyfriend, John, and I flew to San Diego, rented a car and made the two-hour drive to Borrego Springs, a friendly town sitting in a valley of privately owned land in the midst of the park.
It was my fifth visit to this desert. Each time I stay a little longer -- 10 days this trip -- and each time I gaze at cactus-studded acreage on the outskirts of the town and wonder. Could I do it? Build a small house, sink a well, and wake up each morning to the visual thunder of the San Ysidro Mountains that loom behind Borrego Springs and keep Pacific Ocean storms at bay?
Permanent residents of Borrego Springs number around 2,500, citrus farms in the valley grow phenomenally sweet grapefruit, and the pace feels desert slow. Previously I've stayed at the classy Casa del Zorro and in the inexpensive cottages at the Hacienda del Sol. This time we stayed in a casita that my parents recently bought in Rams Hill, a resort community where houses are available for rental at a two-day minimum.
Palm Canyon Drive, the town's main street, is home to a few stores and restaurants -- easy-going Carlee's Place, where the locals gather, is one of my favorites -- and there's not much to do after 9 p.m. The main attraction is the desert.
Anza-Borrego derives its name from Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who forged an inland route from the Mexican mainland to the California coast in 1774, and borrego, the Spanish word for lamb and a reference to the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep roaming the park.
The desert is not as well known as Joshua Tree or Death Valley but the 600,000-plus acre park, with its 110 miles of riding and hiking trails, includes several imposing mountain ranges, groves of native California fan palms, and stunning badlands -- tortured, inhospitable-looking landscapes formed by flash flooding in weak rock.
Five hundred miles of dirt roads take one into the back country, and since I first visited the park a decade ago I've wanted to traverse the badlands. John and I decided that for part of our visit we would rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and explore. But first there were the wildflowers.
More than five inches of rain had fallen for the season and spring was moving -- sometimes shyly, sometimes flamboyantly -- through the desert. Depending on a variety of factors including temperature and wind, wildflowers usually appear in Anza-Borrego between February and April. Cactuses and certain shrubs and trees often bloom into May and June. And there is always the possibility of a fall bloom; during one December visit I happened to see purple sand verbena and yellow brittlebush in flower.
We spent several mornings looking for flowers and exploring the desert in the vicinity of the massive Truckhaven Rocks, 17 miles east of Borrego Springs on Route S22. A milelong hike up a wash called Arroyo Salado leads to the unusual reddish-brown sandstone formations that were eroded from the Santa Rosa Mountains and are now tilted at a 45-degree angle. Close by are many smaller washes and secretive salmon pink-colored canyons, including a few short slot canyons. We never encountered another person, rarely saw another human track; the only sounds rippling across the silence were the whispered wing beats of ravens flying overhead.
The wildflowers were not in the profusion I had anticipated, but the setting of each plant was a study in perfection. Arizona lupines in a wash sculptured by a recent torrent of water; papery yellow poppies standing sturdy in a jumble of rock; desert lilies emerging from the seemingly barren spine of a hill separating two canyons. And the most striking plants in Anza-Borrego, the spindly ocotillos with their multitude of spiny stems that often grow to be 15 feet tall, were in bloom. Ocotillos spend much of the year leafless but produce small scarlet flowers at their tips after rain, spring through fall.
Come midday, we'd emerge from the shady canyons to find hazy sunshine bleaching Anza-Borrego. The vistas, so clear at dawn, lost their definition and the desert felt overwhelming. It was time to seek refuge.
Ignoring the resort swimming pools, we made frequent afternoon visits to the mineral hot springs at the campground in Agua Caliente County Park, situated in the southern half of the state park an hour's drive from Borrego Springs. The waters in the two spring-fed pools are reputed to have therapeutic benefits, and an atmosphere of desert quirkiness prevails.
A veil of privacy drops over each bather at the indoor pool and conversation is quiet; a local man we met reads Zane Grey novels while soaking in the 96-degree water. The smaller outdoor pool is livelier; one afternoon an elderly couple regaled us with charming tales of the desert critters that skulk around the campground, especially on Thanksgiving when the smells of roasting turkeys waft out of the RVs.
In the late afternoon, when the sinking sun brought depth and clarity back to the landscape, we often took long slow drives along the smooth highways that traverse the park. I'd let my eyes roam across the desert. Once in a while the road would crest and we'd catch a glimpse of the wrinkled, tempting badlands.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles can be rented in Borrego Springs but they're pricey, and so we drove a few hours back to San Diego for a better deal, returned our car and picked up a 4-by-4. We made it back in time for a sunset drive down a sandy wash -- reached by taking the S22 some 10 1/2 miles east of Borrego Springs -- to Fonts Point, a jagged cliff overlooking the vast Borrego Badlands.
The overlook is named after Pedro Font, the grumbling Spanish priest who served as diarist on Anza's expedition of 1775 and described the vista of eroded canyons as the ''sweepings of the earth.'' Embedded in the canyons are fossils of extinct creatures like giant camels, mastodons, short-faced bears and sabertooth cats. The brown-tinged haze above the southern horizon tells a 21st-century story -- pollution rising from factories clustered on the border with Mexico.
Viewing badlands was not enough. We wanted to enter the heart of desolation, and so the next afternoon we packed the 4-by-4 with supplies, including plenty of water and a bag of sweet grapefruit, and drove to the Carrizo Badlands in the southern portion of the park beyond Agua Caliente.
In the forgiving light of late afternoon these badlands glow in pastel hues, thanks to mineral deposits in the rock; they're also known for their ferocious midsummer temperatures. They seemed a good place to sense the inherent danger in being a thin-skinned, water-dependent mammal in the desert.
We mapped our route using ''The Anza Borrego Desert Region,'' by Lowell and Diana Lindsay, an excellent guidebook giving detailed information on jeep roads in the park. We chose as our entry point the road into Canyon Sin Nombre -- the name slips off the tongue with just a hint of danger.
Its looming sandstone walls are made of buckled layers of sediment, some of them deposited by the ancient Colorado River. After a few miles we left the canyon and passed through a smoke tree forest. Smoke trees spend most of the year leafless, their mournful appearance enlivened in May and June when they erupt in masses of blue pea-like flowers. We then turned up wide, sandy Vallecito Creek, and followed it for about a mile to Arroyo Seco del Diablo.
The texture and colorations of the mud walls of this sinuous and slightly unsettling five-and-a-half-mile wash reminded John of buttressed forts he'd seen in Rajasthan in India. I kept thinking about the Old Testament and phrases like ''wander in the wilderness for 40 years.''
I was on the lookout for dead man's fingers, a stubby succulent plant. Instead we came across one dazzling purple-hued milkvetch, also known as locoweed.
The wash led us onto Middle Mesa, where we watched the day's last light bring the gorges snaking below us into sharp relief. Camping outside established campgrounds is permitted in Anza-Borrego, and we ate a picnic dinner, spread our sleeping bags on the ground and spent the night blanketed in silence beneath the stars. When dawn set the desert glowing we tallied up the sounds we had heard: one insect's and a distant bird's.
The Diablo drop-off, the steep descent from the mesa into the canyons below, awaited us. There are three drop-offs in the state park, all designated for one-way travel only. In their guidebook the Lindsays advise that only experienced drivers -- John is one -- should tackle the Diablo drop-off. And for a few scary moments we did indeed have three wheels on the ground. As we reached the bottom, a very narrow, extremely rocky road led into Fish Creek Wash and onto one of the more awe-inspiring sights I've seen in Anza-Borrego.
''It's Sunday morning and we're going to church,'' John said as we approached Split Mountain Gorge. Geologically the gorge is known as an antecedent stream canyon. A stream flowed through this area less than a million years ago; as the mountain slowly rose the stream cut into it, creating the split. We parked our vehicle and entered the cathedral-like splendor of the canyon. The towering walls, several hundred feet tall, look as though they're made of thousands of individual pieces of rock and as though one sneeze might bring them crashing down.
Our 24-hour, four-wheel-drive sojourn ended in bizarre desert fashion. Fifteen minutes after the silence of Split Mountain we drove beyond the boundaries of the state park and approached the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area and a Sunday celebration of dust and deafening machinery. A posse of boys, which couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 years old, drove up the side of the road on fat-wheeled ATVs while men and women in stripped-down dune buggies skittered across the sand. In the distance dirt bikes popped into the air above the hummocky dunes.
There was only one thing to do. We grabbed a sandwich in Borrego Springs, stopped briefly at the hot springs at Agua Caliente and retreated into the badlands. I cannot think of anything lovelier than to sit in the desert, as I did later on that afternoon, with a trio of small birds swooping high above me, their sweet song drizzling through the silence like liquid gold.
Wildflowers in the washes
The spring wildflower bloom usually peaks between late February and April, with cactuses and some trees and shrubs flowering into early summer. Information: (760) 767-4684.
If you mail a stamped, self-addressed postcard to the state park, it will be returned to you as notification about two weeks before the expected peak bloom. Wildflowers, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, Calif. 92004; (760) 767-5311 or www.anzaborrego.statepark.org. Additional information: www.desertusa.com.
For our drives through the badlands we relied on ''The Anza-Borrego Desert Region: a Guide to the State Park and Adjacent Areas of the Western Colorado Desert'' by Lowell and Diana Lindsay (Wilderness Press, Berkeley, Calif., 2000). We also took a detailed dirt road and topographical map.
Both guide and map can be purchased from the state park visitors center about a mile west of Borrego Springs on Palm Canyon Drive. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily October through May; weekends and holidays only June through September.
Access to the pools at Agua Caliente County Park, on Route S2, south of Borrego Springs, (858) 565-3600, costs $5 a car. The pools are open daily 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from the first weekend of September through May; closed June through August.
Carlee's Place, 660 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, (760) 767-3262, serves wonderful grilled chicken sandwiches for $5.50. Entrees are between $10 and $15. Depending on your mood, the Thursday and Saturday night karaoke sessions are either torment or sheer delight.
La Casa del Zorro, a five-minute drive from the center of Borrego Springs on the corner of Borrego Springs Road and Route S3, (800) 824-1884, is a jacket-and-tie affair for men; service is impeccable and the Continental dishes are excellent. A three-course dinner for two with a bottle of wine costs $120 or more. Reservations are recommended. LISA FUGARD