We're a messy species. Only Marie Kondo cares if you haven't cleaned your closet since the Clinton administration. But everyone should care when the mess is made on public lands as in Joshua Tree National Park, where the criminally messy recently defiled flora, fauna and the civilized concept of shared resources people use to restore their sense of wonder and perspective.
Nature is messy, too. Like everywhere in Southern California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has been pounded by rain this year. Vast areas of the park are washed out, and inaccessible. But unlike the human vandals, nature offers recompense. In Anza-Borrego, nature makes us whole with a super bloom of desert wildflowers. They're peaking now in Ocotillo Wells, southeast of the park, and, depending on the weather, probably will peak in Anza-Borrego over the next couple of weeks.
Borrego Springs, the town surrounded by the park, is home to about 3,000 souls. It has two gas stations. It has 15 restaurants, many of them tiny. In a typical year, the spring bloom draws about 54,000 seasonal visitors. Two years ago, Anza-Borrego had the first super bloom in 12 years. From February through April 2017, 147,000 people poured into the park; many got stuck along the way in massive traffic jams. When they finally arrived, they encountered shortages of food, gas and supplies. It was like Coachella without the music and the drugs.
Anticipating the onslaught this year, park and civic officials have been preparing, to the degree anyone can, to welcome huge numbers of people over the next month. They have reached out to the media in hopes that they will spread the word. Even if they do, that doesn't mean people will listen.
Even in a typical year some desert visitors arrive unprepared for the heat, the cold, the terrain, the paucity of services... Some visitors are unfamiliar with a product known as sunscreen, some don't bring water or maps, hats or visors. Some hike along rocky trails wearing flip-flops. Too many visitors don't seem to realize that nature does not offer table service, much less cell service from which to summon AAA when you run out of gas or sink in mud up to your axle.
Multiply the usual numbers of the clueless by a factor of three, and you have a problem. The park service has a problem. The first responders have a problem.
But Anza-Borregans are hospitable people who still want you to come and smell the flowers, hike the trails, buy post cards at the park's Visitor Center. They want you to commune with the nature god gave to all of us, because we're a better species when we connect.
This year, local officials have ordered extra Porta Potties; restaurants have stocked up on staples and are prepared to offer boxed meals to people they can't serve. Locals want drivers to consider entering the park from the east entrance, off state highway 86 in Salton City, in order to relieve the congestion in the west on state highways 78 and 79 and county routes 2 and 22.
That's about all they can do -- unlike lupine, verbena and brown-eyed primrose, Shell stations and 7-Elevens do not pop up in the aftermath of rain.
Three things are new this year in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. A limited number of behind-the-scenes tours of the archaeology and paleontology labs are worth the $25 if you're a giant sloth bones geek. Bike Borrego, a new park concession, hosts tours and offers individual rentals aboard fat-tired e-bikes, good alternatives in areas where 4-wheel drive is required. And now, it's 10 bucks to park at the Visitor Center, where everyone, but especially first-timers, should go before launching into the 650,000 acres of California's largest state park.
If you're lucky on your visit, Toro Peak to the north and the San Ysidro Mountains to the west will still be wearing their winter white. If you're lucky, your park path will lead to ranger Luann Thompson, who can show you how a comb and needle-nose pliers will remove the painful spine of a cholla cactus that jumped through your sock. If you're lucky, you will encounter Larry Hendrickson, the park's resident botanist.
He won't laugh if you don't know the difference between a chuparosa and cholla, but he'll go granular on demand about the EDRR program (Early Detection and Rapid Response) that identifies and removes the non-native flora that threaten rightful residents. He'll tell you about sighting the rare Carlowrightia Arizonica shrub, but he won't tell you where it is, because then he'd have to shoot you.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park resources
Park map: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638
Wildflower update: www.parks.ca.gov/pages/638/files/2.19.19WildflowerUpdate.pdf
Bike Borrego: bikeborrego.com, 760-767-4255
Photos: Ellen Alperstein