“Look, we’re travelling on water, reason for another blog,” proclaimed the Captain from the rear of Joe’s yellow jeep.
We had made a return trip into the Anza-Borrego Desert
and were on the first of two days exploration of the region with Joe of California Overland Desert Tours.
It was Tuesday 10th December. In the desert, travelling on water? Well, this was a drive up Coyote Canyon, heading for Sheep Canyon. There’s not much water in a desert but here we were fording a river in the open-sided yellow jeep.
Last year air temperatures had been comfortable in the 70s Fahrenheit (20s Centigrade). This year it was about ten days later in the season and Southern California had been experiencing an extended cold snap. Before leaving San Marcos, on Cal Mom’s recommendation, there had been another trip into that vast emporium, Bed, Bath and Beyond. ”Ask for thermal leggings,” she had said. “They are supposed to be very good.” And so they were, a comfortable extra layer under trousers, welcome when dashing along a paved highway at 55mph in an open-sided vehicle.
Once off-road, and the jeep converted to its four-wheel drive mode, headway was much slower. On dirt tracks, over rocks and boulders, bouncing at wild angles along rutted tracks, with internal organs being given an involuntary workout, the yellow jeep made its way up towards Sheep Canyon. The sky was an unbroken blue, the surrounding mountains breathtakingly rugged and the plant life astonishing. There were a few trumpet-like blooms on an ocotillo tree.
There was a clump of verbena in bloom. Occasionally plump barrel cacti
and agave plants with huge spikes twenty feet up into the air were seen. But it was the close encounter with a cholla cactus
that caused some consternation.
The jeep had stopped. “”We’ll try a hike up there,” Joe had said, indicating some sycamore trees higher up the mountainside. Just twenty yards into the hike Boatwif found herself under attack: spines from a “teddy-bear cactus” clashed with the lower leg, working their way through her top trousers – and through the thick thermal leggings. From his emergency pack Joe produced an antiseptic wash and made an assurance that the plant contained no toxins. Then on the expedition went.
A quaint pair we may have looked – fleece tops, sunhats, boots and walking poles. Billed as a hike progress was via boulder hopping, rock scrambling,
crevice clambering, slot squeezing, stream fording… Further up we clambered and squeezed, Joe helping to haul one or both up the really steep sections. Hints were dropped: “if you’re OK we could go a bit further, it’s worth looking at.” The sycamores and palm trees
were reached, compressed into a hanging valley high above our starting point. Water trickled by and several pools had formed. “My fiancée and I come up here for overnight camping,” was Joe’s next hint. On went the scrambling, the lurching from rock to boulder to soft beds of fallen leaves.
And then we reached it, a shower of waterfall tumbling off the mountainside into a large pool.
How Joe grinned: “You did great, guys,” he praised. “Hardly any of my customers ever get this far.” Eight hundred feet we had climbed above the yellow jeep – and it was an eight hundred feet scramble back down to the jeep for a picnic lunch in the deep silence of the desert.
We jiggled our way back to the paved road. There was another treat in store. On various sites around Borrego Springs are huge metalwork sculptures,
created by Ricardo Breceda whose work is supported by a generous benefactor.
This day trip was a foray into the south east of the Anza-Borrego Desert. There was quite a distance on paved road. Joe was zipped into his padded jacket, the Captain and Boatwif were wearing their extra layers and sporting their other emergency purchases, fleece-lined caps. Ex-army blankets were wedged around passenger legs. Steadily the jeep climbed from the desert floor, gaining about three thousand feet in altitude. Then the jeep was swung off the road and onto a sandy trail. “Look at that gap there,” said Joe, indicating a narrow shoulder between steep hillsides. “Foot and Walker, it was where the stagecoach passengers had to get off the coach and Walk on Foot!” This terrain is tough, what determination those stagecoach travellers must have had to embark on a 22 day trip from St Louis across this vast country to San Francisco.
We had arrived in Blair Valley,
at a site used as a seasonal camp by Native Americans until about 120 years ago. Here a trail led to a village settlement. High boulders defined the area. As you get closer you see that many of the rocks or boulders have circular indentations in them,
made by pounding into the surface, perhaps where seeds and desert plants were pounded into edible foodstuffs. There were deeper cavities too, (morteros) though fewer of them; perhaps these were a sort of pestle and mortar.
It is in this area that pictographs are found,
strange markings on boulders,
the meaning of which can only be guessed at.
On to Oriflamme Canyon for a late lunch picnic in a cottonwood and sycamore oasis.
The reddening leaves shivered overhead and a dirt creek indicated an occasional water source. In a place so large, so empty of human intrusion, it was a concrete floor,
all that remained of a 1930s road workers’ mess hall that was a truly unexpected sighting.
Time ticks on – and darkness comes quickly at this latitude.
Just a two hour drive back to San Diego – but through what scenic variety – from flat desert valley bottom, up hillsides, through mountain passes, above the tree line, round hairpin bends, down through forestry, past lakes, into orchard country, past horse pastures and single storey dwellings, into larger developments, along freeways, drawn towards the city and its stunning skyline, to its cultural heart, where the cool colonnades of Balboa Park’s magnificent buildings
are just a stroll from the colours and crafts in Spanish Village…
It was all a fine farewell to a small corner of the vastness that is Southern California.