Desert flowers and fancy at Anza-Borrego

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A couple of days ago, I headed into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in hopes of catching the vanguard of what promises to be the best wildflower display in decades, thanks to prodigious rain.

A day spent rambling where there is no cell service and is mostly unalloyed by human noise is always a good day. Mine was. But it wasn't a day filled with fields of flowers or the company of creatures. Neither blooms nor reptiles will appear in abundance for another couple of weeks, when the soil dries and the temperatures rise a few more degrees.


But one thing I've learned from regular expeditions into the Southern California wilderness is that just because you don't see what you hope to see, that doesn't mean you don't see something remarkable every single time. You just have to look.

The winter weather has left parts of State Route 22 west of Salton City a mess. No problem for the scores of OHV enthusiasts who populate the eastern stretch of the road until it enters the state park. OHV, shorthand for "off-highway vehicle," signifies all manner of motorized transport that destroys sensitive habitat, corrodes peace and quiet and, I'm pretty sure, rots brains.

But that's me. And, apparently, some park service workers. At the visitor center in Borrego Springs, about 30 miles from Salton City, I asked why all the off-roaders were clustered at the eastern end of SR22. A volunteer ranger said that although the mission within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was "to protect and preserve," the adjacent State Vehicle Recreation Area was about letting people do what they want to tear up the desert. That's not actually what she said, but it's what I heard.

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Within state park boundaries, you are welcome to perch a trailer the size of Trump Tower at the edge of a Borrego Badlands canyon, you just can't fire up your ATV for a beer run across the hardscrabble. A few the RVs parked along Truckhaven Trail/Salton Seaway were powered by portable solar arrays. I struggle with the cognitive dissonance of finding such an appurtenance in this setting both thrilling and depressing.

Since I was last in Borrego Springs, about 125 new sunburned residents have moved into town. The fact that they're not alive is irrelevant. Here courtesy of Dennis Avery, heir to the peel-off label fortune, huge creatures both prehistoric and contemporary have settled onto his massive landholdings. Avery died five years ago, but not before commissioning sculptor Ricardo Breceda to create the sculptures established in several broad swaths of land collectively known as Galleta Meadows.

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The land formerly owned by Avery and now administered by a trust is open to the public. The woolly mammoths, horses, insects, reptiles and farmworkers represent all that Avery loved about the place, and he cultivated his whimsical garden all around the town for everyone to enjoy.

Just before Borrego Springs Road intersects with Highway 78, it traverses San Felipe Wash, the largest such channel in the park. It drains into the Salton Sea, and is known, for obvious reasons, as the "Texas Dip." By month's end, it should be awash in floral color, but today it's primarily a gorgeous ribbon of road back-dropped by the Santa Rosa Mountains and the expanse of desert that flirts with the Salton Sea.

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The geologic character of this part of California was forged from the fact that it just can't sit still. Seismologists will tell you that Anza-Borrego experiences an earthquake even more often than a Trump administration official crafts an alternative fact. The evidence presents nicely along the Narrows Earth Trail, where the older sedimentary rock is constantly, incrementally being supplanted by newer granite as it emerges from its magma origins deep within the planet. Here the contact zone is drawn clearly by a fault line.

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Although the late and significant rain has delayed the desert bloom, the pebbly ground covering the still-moist undersoil offers a sweet concession to the observant hiker.

Animal tracks abound, in varying degrees of clarity. I think this is a raven's footprint, but it could be the smeary evidence of the smaller quail. Or something that scurries.

Farther along here in Mine Wash, I thought for sure, per my handy guide, I had identified the hemi spheres of the cloven-hoofed javelin. But later a park ranger told me they don't live here.

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Neither do I. But I'll be back.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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