Tuesday 27th – Friday 30th November, 2012
            Going out into a desert? “Boat blogs could prove a little difficult,” wrote Senior Sis in an e-mail last week.

For three days in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Boatwif and the Captain searched the wide horizons for ships, but to no avail.  Camels have always been regarded as ships of the desert, haven’t they? None here, not now… but at the State Park Visitor Center there were references to camels having once inhabited the area.  Maybe if the Captain and Boatwif had been in the desert about 11,000 years ago rather than last week they might have spotted one of several species of camel…  About 30 miles further east from the little town of Borrego Springs lies the Salton Sea, an inland lake of about five hundred square miles – and there have been proposals  to connect it to the Pacific Ocean by a canal. Who knows, one day boats could be floating towards the desert! There is one final justification for a blog with a boat theme: Joe, our desert guide for two days, had graduated as a marine biologist and his first (of three) careers involved long stretches at sea engaged in research projects on whales and tuna fish.  So, Boatwif blogs again…

What took two water-loving folk out into a mainly waterless environment?

“You’ll just love the dark skies,” insisted the Captain, “so many stars to see.” Night after night the sand and dust sparkled under the brilliant full moonlight, the planets twinkled but the stars remained mostly unseen.*

“See the mountains late in the year, the shadows are wonderful in the desert,” a keen photographer had advised during last year’s California trip. How true this is…

The Captain had identified guided tours of a desert as being available in Borrego Springs. Up rolled Joe to the Borrego Valley Inn on Wednesday morning, map in hand, his bright yellow jeep parked outside. Longer-legged Captain clambered into the back while Boatwif learned to haul herself up and strap into the four point harness in the front. First stop was out on Clark Lake, a dried out lake, used in World War 2 as a naval outlying landing field and target practice area. Seeming close, but actually more than six miles away, shimmered the pinkish coloured Santa Rosa Mountains. Next stop was a narrow twisting canyon near a calcite mine. The hike was a sort of walk and a clamber between cliffs with the tide having gone out. Fault lines, earthquakes, rock falls, flash floods: this was evidence-led interactive physical geography (plus desert botany) conducted in perfect weather conditions: blue skies and temperatures in the high seventies Fahrenheit (about 25 Celsius). Wildlife sightings are scarce in the middle of the day but Joe pointed out a black widow spider’s web, cougar paw prints, Mexican bat roosts and a very shiny, very black beetle (a stink bug). Not for us the thrill of seeing of a Desert Bighorn Sheep or even a roadrunner… but the adventure continued.

The first day’s travels covered about 53 miles, that’s 53 miles of about 500 miles of road and track throughout the park. The all-terrain jeep took us off-road along dried up river beds, over rocks and rubble, up mountain sides, between steep sided canyons. It was a workout, internal organs jiggled and shaken, brains swamped with facts, theories and opinions. The day climaxed at Font’s Point, a peak overlooking miles of Borrego Badlands and sweeping mountain vistas.

Day two required an 8am start… The jeep bumped up into Hawk Canyon (a box canyon) where a wide-spreading tree gave ample shade while Joe regaled his tale of marketing his tours on live TV – although the presenters had not realised that cell (mobile) phones do not work inside deep canyons. One tree species shoots a tap root two hundred feet down to reach its water source; another has roots just tickling the sand and dirt surface.

Next stop was Split Mountain, down in the south of the park. We bowled along dead straight public roads, passing low-lying housing for retirees (there’s no shortage of land for development) and large numbers of recreation vehicle (RV) parks. Off road then; weaving and twisting, right through the mountain split in two by plate tectonic action. In a shell reef miniscule fossils indicate long ago tropical seas. Wavy rock layers, a syncline and an anticline, hint at the mountain’s dramatic earthquake-prone past. A trek up the trail from the creek bed to the Wind Caves brings you to wind-eroded hollows and to stunning views across to Elephants’ Knees (rock formations). Back down on Fish Creek Wash (a dusty rock strewn track which becomes a river bed after mountain thunderstorms) the jeep wove on, through narrow squeezes, along wider trails, passengers mesmerised by the constantly changing views, shades  and shadows. Why is there just one tree growing here? Is that pinnacle a knight on a chess board? What has caused those regular indentations? Look up to see the slice of rock gateau… and then there was one last rocky scramble. An overhang hid a secret: fossilised paw prints, side by side, a dainty dingo – and the foot and leg stump of an early mastodon.

It had to end: sunset comes quickly at the 33°N latitude. The open-sided jeep raced back to the town and there was time for one last swim in a desert pool, the mountains casting longer and longer shadows over the valley bottom… The Captain and Boatwif, early snowbirds, a local term for seasonal winter visitors from northern states and Canada, had to pack their bags ready to leave for home.

Friday – departure day – day of contrasts. Believe this: outdoor breakfast (needlessly accompanied by an open air gas fire); a call in at the State Park Visitor Center (at 10am temperature 78F); a 40 minute drive up four thousand feet to gold-rush township Julian (into cloud, people wrapped in coats, umbrellas aloft, temperature about 46F); downhill, back to the coast, meeting Cal Son for an early dinner at an upscale mall (he waiting in the rain, smart restaurants sporting outdoor gas fireplaces and barbeques).

Then the farewells:

“Say, can I ask you something? Are you as crazy about Downton Abbey over there as we are here? And Call the Midwife?”  (Borrego Springs waitress)

“Please say hello to the Queen for me.” (German cyclist, also staying at the Borrego Valley Inn)

“Give a great big hug to England from me!” (Excitable, theatrically ambitious assistant in the Julian Tea and Cottage Arts shop)

It was indeed a full-hearted farewell – farewell to family, to ocean, to city, to mountains, to valleys, to desert.

Farewell California!

*Note to self: check moon phases before planning another visit to a Dark-Sky Community!

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