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Saturday, February 13, 2016

"You might as well be walkin' on the sun"

Anza Borrego State Park is 913 square miles of scorched earth desert. Most casual passers-through find it uninspiring, if not downright hostile. Nothing worth photographing. Nothing to write home about. Nothing to wax poetic over. Just a bleak, sunburnt, sparsely vegetated desert, something to squint at through tinted windshields of luxury SUVs and wonder if Govie was playing a little fast and loose with the word "Park."

Anza Borrego is a land of extremes. Here it is, barely February, and the sun is brutal… relentless. Temperatures soar into the 80's, not one merciful cloud in the sky, not a single tree under which to seek shade. By noon Goldie is more dry sauna than camper, it's thermostat thermometer pegged.

Bobbie's edgy. I play "Middle Man" every day, till finally, minutes short of being a solo Rv'er, the sun settles behind a range of purple mountains ("Majesty" implied). We shuffle over for Happy Hour with our Gang of "Crips and Bleeders." Not thirty minutes later, Bobbie and I shiver and whine for blankets. WTF? 

Deserts, like people and rattlesnakes, have a range of personalities. As with the whims of God, they can be anywhere from agreeable to deadly. Unfortunately, deserts get lumped together under one catchall word—my guess, due to limitations of modern language. 

SUV's and tour busses come heated and air conditioned, motorhomes (seemingly all but ours) have onboard power plants to rescue us from bad judgment with the flip of a switch. To those who choose to live in such a macabre climate as Borrego Springs, "the grid" stands ready to keep residents and Fido within comfort zones. Nope, we don't need a dozen words for "desert" anymore. A desert is a desert is a desert. But it's my guess that roving bands of Native Americans had at least a dozen words for "desert," each conveying vital life-and-death information about climate, water, food, and seasonal habitability. In matters of life and death, vocabulary counts. 

I think about the difference between the Sonoran desert around Tucson—a lush, green, diverse, and densely vegetated environment with over 11 inches of annual rainfall—and its antithetical Sonoran "step-brother" around Borrego Springs—a barren, nearly mono-specied playa of creosote bush interspersed with the occasional ocotillo. Tucson is three thousand feet higher, and fortunate to lie within a relatively narrow bandwidth of monsoonal moisture—a six-week mid-summer phenomenon where tropical moisture is siphoned north from Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and released in summer cloudbursts. 

Little ol' Borrego Springs, on the other hand, is barely above sea level and surrounded by mountains that strip all but a "french kiss" of moisture from Pacific storms… half the rainfall of Tucson. In matters of desert and western politics, the difference between friendly and hostile, not to mention, Life and Death, is all about water and power.
The Lovely Sonoran Desert near Tucson… 

It's easy to fall in love with Tucson's version of the Sonoran Desert. She's the comely cheerleader/prom queen from high school (who didn't know you existed), while Borrego Springs is the homely nerd sitting next to you in American Lit… the gal stamped with a kiss of death by having "a good personality." You remember, the one who's beauty lies hidden beneath her skin; the one you should have given the time of day to and maybe even married. 

There's more to sink your eyes into around Tucson's Sonoran Desert. Forests of statuesque saguaro pierce the sky; lime green palo verde trees glow with nary a leaf; long-limbed ocotillos shoot thorny stems skyward in bunched formation, only to splay off in all directions in graceful arcs like contrails at a Blue Angels air show. At the tips of limbs are unlikely torches, red blossoms of miniature flowers that stop you in your tracks. And the birds. People come from the world around to ogle the avian diversity found in southern Arizona.

Unless date palms and citrus orchards count, there are no "forests" of anything in Anza Borrego. And except for a lone coyote crossing the road, wildlife escapes us… not even a Bighorn ewe clamoring up rocky cliffs. 

9 days and nights we are held hostage in Anza Borrego at opposite ends of our comfort zones… shivering by night, sunstroke by day. This stark, barren desert takes getting used to.

We take stop-and-go hikes, pleasuring in the "bling" of colorful, sparkly rocks interspersed with massive granite boulders, frequently encouraged to pause by hook-thorned "wait-a-minute" bush that bloodies bare legs. Each sunset, large patches of deep maroon colored cliffs radiate from mountains that surround our boondock. Foothill bajadas reach out, as if to grip the dry-lake basin like forelegs and paws of the Egyptian Sphinx.

Chris leads the "Crips and Bleeders" on a midday "Bataan Death March" to Coyote Mountain. Millions of ankle-turning booby traps lay in wait like land mines; Smashmouth sings in my head, You might as well be walkin' on the sun. 

We sweat our way upward on an old mining road, the valley falling away into nothingness. Rv's lay frittered about like maggots on a dead corpse. A green irrigated outline of Borrego Springs stands out against the surrounding pancake batter landscape. Green is so out of place here… a mirage-like desert oasis smack in the middle of one of the most arid places on earth. Square mile after square mile, tens of thousands of water intensive trees, four country club golf courses, all sucking at the tits of a single precious aquifer that surfaces courtesy of a tiny fault line in the earth's desert crust. 

The oasis of Borrego Spings

It doesn't seem like "responsible use" of water, but what do I know?
Note to self: Find out. 


  1. You made me laugh out loud this morning, Mark. This is why I love you. After listening to all those RV'rs wax poetic about hanging out in that big flat space near Borrego, it is nice to read something different. In all fairness, Mo and I camped in a funky RV park with palms when we were there, but it had power and water. We had the freedom to hike and take our little Tracker in the back country through running water and saw wildflowers like I haven't seen anywhere. No it isn't Tucson, or Virgin, but it can be truly gorgeous at the right moment. I guess you just have to catch that moment. Loved especially your discussion of the word "desert". We need more words for sure, but you captured it perfectly.

  2. A very colorful description of Anza Borrego. we just spent 4 days there, our second trip to the area and guess we are getting used to it. Hike early in the day, the afternoon shade of our coach, and inside when the sunsets behind the mountain.
    Not colorful but we find it interesting to say the least.
    Once we begin our journey north east is when really appreciate the different scenery, trees and mountains.
    Glad that sunset rescued you and are not a solo rv'er.

  3. Hey, but at least you had some fine company ;-)

    1. who's many Happy Hours only contributed to my dehydration...

  4. Golf courses don't seem like a responsible use of water to me either. There are worse things to have stuck in your head than Smashmouth, thanks for the music and the verbal imagery.

  5. Me thinks you are spoiled by red rock. Definitely need more descriptive words for 'desert' which I think you could write a book on. We're headed to Snow Canyon next week for a red rock fix.

  6. Can't say I didn't warn you. Even so, I kept waiting for you to end your indictment with "...But". Such was not to be. Our first ever journey to Borrego was last December. And, as you know, we just returned from a month touring the Sonoran areas of Aridzona. Sharon and I were talking as we were heading back, and I said "Those folks in Aridzona knew what they had. When the powers that be got to the Colorado, they said to the Kal-I-for-ny-O's "You folks take the Mojave, we'll keep our Sonoran "desert".

  7. Well said, Mark! Give it time tho, it may become addicting. For some it's Love-at-First-Sight for others it's a growing experience. But most of the folks I know are drawn back repeatedly. Are the flowers starting to bloom? May that would help.

  8. Now all you need to do is tell everyone how horrible the Tucson Sonoran desert is, maybe they won't go there...

  9. Only 2 boondock sites in or near Tucson. They are packed this year!

  10. We haven't been to Anza Borrego proper yet. We did however approach from the border of Cuyamaca many years ago. The Sonoran Desert is indeed beautiful. Great post. Hanging out at Cochise Stronghold - oh so nice and cool breeze blowing through the oaks.

  11. Haha, guess you aren't too enthralled with Anza Borrego. Yep, it's stark. Especially in comparison to the lush Sonoran Desert. Nonetheless, when the wildflowers are blooming, it is spectacular. So are the bighorn sheep. And Palm Canyon, and Ghost Mountain….

  12. I have to admit those barren landscapes speak to me...in moderation I admit, but I'm drawn to them nonetheless. That said I can't deny the lush, green of the Sonoran Desert is enchanting. I guess I'm a woman who wants it all...go figure :)


    1. I know, I "want it all" too… but I'll let you have it when it's pushing 90 degrees. Remember, we mountain folk can't take the heat. :)

  13. Hi Mark. I really like your writings and would like to follow your blog but for some reason I dont get the email feeds. And I did sign up for follow by email. Any ideas?? And I dont see them in my spam or trash either. Susan Johnson

    1. Thanks Susan… You know the "Follow by Email" works fine for some people and not at all for others. If you want to email me your email address I can sign you up. Otherwise, just bookmark Box Canyon Blog in your "Favorites." :)


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