Anza-Where? Desert State Park

  Jerome Shea       November 3, 2007      Weekend Wonk

A couple of weeks ago, Shea hit the road again, back to Southern California on his Fall Break at UNM. (Readers of this space know that SoCal is one of his favorite haunts.) My plan this time was to spend a couple of days in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But there was time beforehand to hang out with Dan Shea (yes, that Dan Shea) in San Diego, visit a high school classmate in Del Mar, beg hospitality with my old friends Bob and Brenda in South Laguna (in return I lectured to a couple of Cosgrove’s classes at Saddleback College), and run up to Los Angeles to see my friend and mentor Dick Lanham and his wife.

All these things I did. Chickenlegs Shea even ran in Balboa Park a couple of mornings, trying to atone for a scandalous lack of training lately. I also discovered yet more wonderful twisty California mountain roads, like CA 78 and CA 79 (I wonder if “7” designates mountains in their road system; I have previously celebrated CA 74 between Palm Desert and the coast).

A curiosity of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—hence this wonk’s title–is that while it is the second largest state park in the country, hardly anyone, even its neighbors, has ever heard of it. Queries to Cos’s students consistently drew blanks. So in case you are ever asked, “Anza-Borrego” refers to 1) Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who crossed it in 1774 while blazing a route from Mexico to present day California, and 2) the bighorn mountain sheep (“borrego” in Spanish) that are its most celebrated fauna. Technically desert, I suppose because of its aridity, A-B is mostly mountains and badlands. The big draw is hiking, especially in the spring when brief rains make the desert bloom. It takes up the eastern edge of San Diego county and almost abuts the Salton Sea. The center is hollowed out into private land, the site of Borrego Springs, where one can eat and sleep.

Cos tagged along, so it was me in my Miata, the Little Red Beast, and he in the Bronze Behemoth, his Mercedes convertible. An odd automotive couple we made, Mutt and Jeff on the road. But it was a pleasant two days. We took only one short hike, up Palm Canyon to a pretty oasis. On the way back down we did see several sheep, handsome animals that did not seem overly spooked by humans. We explored Borrego Springs, although the attractions are few save for Tumbleweeds, a boisterously cluttered curio shop or junk shop, depending on your mood.

And we hopped over to the Salton Sea, a big below-sea-level body of brackish water and dashed dreams. I have written of the Salton Sea before. Forty years ago, developers had high hopes for it as an inland recreation spot just down the road from Palm Springs. I showed Cos what I discovered a few years ago: a brave attempt to exploit this inland sea with, specifically, a huge three-storey motel, boarded up lo these many decades, and “Aces and Spades,” a supposed den of iniquity more sinned against than sinning in the intervening years. Built to resemble a cruise ship (portholes for windows and so forth), it is now stripped of hardware and wiring. There is sordid evidence inside of the homeless or the amorous or both. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” the Bard reminds us. (“Oh, give it a rest,” I remind Shea, the cheesy moralist). Word is, though, that plans are again afoot to exploit the Salton Sea. I imagine that the pelicans—thousands of them—have mixed feelings about that.

Sunday morning I fired up the Little Red Beast and screamed on home, stopping only for nature’s call. I mention this to brag on the Beast: 12 hours at 80+ miles an hour without a whimper. Toughest little car I have ever owned.

Three days later, the fires started.

California dreamin’ became, as it has become all too often lately, California burnin’. The Beast and I had just been on those roads and through those towns—Julian, Ramona, Poway, Del Mar—that were now in harm’s way or past it. Time for phone calls and emails. Dan was ok, the fires nowhere near Mission Bay. Likewise Bob and Brenda. McCafferty, close to the beach in Del Mar, had received the evacuation order but ignored it and his hunch proved right. I think he stared the fire into retreat. I was most concerned for Dick and Carol up in their canyon just over the hills from the Malibu fire. But they, too, were spared. This time.

By now everybody has heard everything about the fires—all the numbers and all the theories, all the miraculous anecdotes and all the tragic ones. Late in the game, one of the networks ran a teaser across the bottom of the screen that read “Arsony?” So even the language was not spared. Anyway, the fires will come again and be even more devastating. Everyone knows that, but still they rebuild. Again I tell the moralist in me to give it a rest.

When I was a kid growing up in New England, any place with palm trees, any place where winter was like summer, represented the earthly paradise. That, of course, meant either Florida or SoCal (Hawaii wasn’t a state yet, didn’t count). Well, both places have a history of massive fires. For variety, Florida throws in hurricanes and SoCal, earthquakes.

Paradise, alas, ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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