Sunday, March 27, 2005

Desert Rites of Spring

The Anza-Borrego State Park, in the southeast corner of California, is known to surprisingly few people, especially as it is California's largest state park. Most of it is completely primitive and pristine wilderness, a low desert valley surrounded by tall mountains and bordered on the east by the Salton Sea. Many people don't associate "desert" with "beauty", but that's mostly because most people haven't experienced the desert, especially in the springtime, and most especially in a year like this one when the rains have made the wildflowers extraordinarily spectacular.

The approach to Anza-Borrego from the north is along one of California's most beautiful routes. Taking Highway 79 south (and east) out of Temecula, you quickly leave the suburban sprawl behind and come into rural rolling green hills. Occasional California golden poppies and patches of mustard punctuate the green meadows, with darker green mountains beyond. The snow-capped peaks of Mount San Jacinto rise impressively on the northeastern horizon. The road goes through Aguanga and Oak Grove, "towns" you could easily miss without the little sign announcing their presence. The latter has a historical marker for being a stop on the old Butterfield stagecoach line. After a while the road begins to wind and climb, as rounded sandy-colored boulders start to dot the hillscape. The yuccas are in bloom, their white popcorn-like flower bouquets call attention to their long stalks. An occasional handmade shrine by the side of the road reminds the driver not to get too distracted by the beautiful landscape passing by. (Usually just a small cross by the side of the road, often with flowers, sometimes with a little Guadalupe virgin or other saint, these little shrines commemorate the spot where someone departed this earth. I think it's a Hispanic tradition, as I saw more of them in New Mexico. I appreciate their tender personal devotion.) Eventually, the road climbs to a mountain plateau just above 3000' elevation, where the road makes its way through verdant meadows accented by a few different flowers. One of them is absolutely brilliant yellow, very low to ground (shorter than mowed grass), but growing densely enough in certain areas that it looks like bright yellow paint has been thrown on patches of the green meadow. The other is a subtle lavender color, growing just an inch or so taller than the grass. The lavender just catches your eye at certain moments as an overtone when the angle of the light catches it just right, similar to certain fabrics that have one color but have a sheen of an entirely different color when the light catches them just right. In the middle of the plateau is the small town of Warner Springs, whose primary feature is a glider plane airport. (Apparently, this tiny airport is a premier spot for the sport. The appeal of silently coasting above this scenery is not hard to see. One of these years, we'll have to stop and give that a try.) This weekend, the yellow flowers were particularly riotous near the airport. A little further, and you turn left onto county road S2, and shortly left again onto S22. Past the "town" of Ranchita, you come to the entrance sign for Anza-Borrego State Park.

Just past the entrance sign, a huge upright boulder stands sentinel off to the right. The road starts to descend, and suddenly the vast desert valley comes into view, a couple thousand feet below, a breathtaking vista. The valley is mostly flat and brown, with the few roads evident on it by the straightness of their lines, connecting the little town of Borrego Springs to the few golf course resorts in its vicinity, demarcated by rows of palm trees. In the distance are the whiter rock canyons called the Badlands, and on the horizon, the Salton Sea. As the road winds down Montezuma Canyon, blue lupine line the side of the road, and the rocky hillsides are covered with the bright yellow cast of brittlebrush, a plant with grey-green leaves that grows in the shape of a pincushion, with a profusion of bright yellow flowers on the end of tall stems rising above the leafy base like pins in the pincushion. From some vantages, the flowers can seem to float above the leafy base, looking like they're not part of it. In a long view of the hillside, they accentuate the rocky outcrops like a hundred tiny yellow fireworks all exploding at the same time. There are a variety of cactus, some with blooms on them, and as you descend, the flora changes, sensitive to the elevation. Part way down, the yucca disappears and you start to see ocotillo, that distinctive feature of the Colorado Desert (the "low" desert, in contrast to the Mojave "high" desert). An ocotillo bush has a dozen or more shoots all originating at the base and reaching up 12 feet or more in different directions, with the general shape of a clump of grass but 100 times bigger. Each blade grows in its own direction, mostly straight though curving slightly, and then unexpectedly jagging at the end, where the cactus green color gives way to a bright red tip. The overall appearance is fantastic, like something Dr. Suess might have drawn. There are also agave (the "century" plant), which grows for many years (closer to a decade than a century) before sending up an impossibly tall flower stalk and then dying. If you watch carefully, you may see a Gila monster, a large beaded lizard, darting among the rocks.

Once reaching the valley floor, the initial impression is rather brown, dull scrub brush and occasional cactus (except of course where palm trees and other artificial plantings around Borrego Springs have been planted). But get into the right spots, and you'll suddenly notice vast sweeps of colorful blooms. Along Henderson Canyon road, just north and east of "Christmas Circle" (the center of Borrego Springs), is a good spot. There we encountered a profusion of desert sunflowers, sand verbena, and desert primrose. The yellow sunflowers, which are the tallest, have the strongest cumulative effect, but patches of the low verbena provide violet accents. The sunflowers were a favorite landing pad for butterflies, while large caterpillars were busy chomping on the white primroses. Another plant that was mostly just a mass of green twigs (similar to Scotch broom) was covered in lady bugs. The blooms were beautiful on a long view with the tall craggy mountains behind them, but they were even more fascinating to walk into and look at closely. The variety of beauty we experienced in this desert was a wonderful uniquely Californian springtime rite.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful description of your trip to Borrego Springs and its wildflowers and other plants.
One time, in the summer, I drove down the Montezuma grade, from San Diego, and it was 115 degrees F. On the left, standing on a high boulder, I was treated to the sight of
a "Borrego," spanish for the native sheep which are usually evasive. This was a large ram probably observing his territory.
Borrego Springs was supposed to be a future Palm Springs in thr 1950's, when it was subdivided.