Road Trip to Anza-Borrego Desert

Venturing into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (Note: A slideshow of photos is at the bottom of this post. It will automatically start and advance so if you want to manually advance the photos, just hover over a photo and you'll see arrows pop up.)

Land For Sale

The large plywood sign on the side of the road was the handmade kind with spray-painted stenciled lettering in black on a faded yellow background. It said 119.5 acres of land were for sale by some guy named Jim and gave a number to call. It wasn’t the first such sign we came across on this road trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Sometimes the offerings were much smaller (three acres, quarter acre) or a point of differentiation was made (includes well, zoned commercial, legal easement).

“There’s always land for sale in the desert,” I said to Emmett, recalling our visits to Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Mojave over the past couple of years. This was our first time to Anza-Borrego and as I watched the landscape whiz by from my vantage point on the passenger side of the Rav4 we rented, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud, “What makes people want to buy it in the first place if all they are going to do is sell it?”

Anza-Borrego is the largest of California’s state parks, clocking in at an astounding 600,000 acres in the Colorado Desert. Its 500 miles of dirt roads and 12 wilderness areas span from 16 feet in elevation to 6,193 feet. To say we were about to visit the mother lode of all California parks would be an understatement. Even though we would explore the park from its very north and south boundaries to its very east and west boundaries, returning the rental car with 700 additional miles, we didn’t even come close to scratching the surface of all that this place had to offer. Then again, I’m not sure I could have handled much more than what we did see in the four days we were there. My mind would have exploded. My senses would have imploded. It’s an area that needs to be absorbed—slowly, over time—and not simply “done” the way some parks we have been to can.

Anza-Borrego is similar to other desert areas in that if all you do is drive by, you miss the point. You have to get up and personal with the desert, bury your nose in plants to see if that is the smell that keeps wafting by, use the zoom lens on your camera or the object of your attention will get lost in the background, stand still while holding your breath to catch where a sound is coming from and what is making it, and reach out to touch something you aren’t sure is going to be hard or soft. But that is where the similarities end. Anza-Borrego is the only place in California where the elephant tree grows. With 27 snake and 31 lizard species, it is home to the most diverse reptile population in North America. The endangered desert pupfish, thought to be remnants from the Ice Age river system, survives only in San Sebastian Marsh. The desert fan palm, the only palm native to the western United States, can be found in oases throughout the park’s myriad of canyons. Anza-Borrego is the last viable habitat for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep (or “borrego” in Spanish). The take-your-breath-away badlands contain the largest amount of Pliocene and Pleistocene megafauna in the United States. And that’s only what plays out on the stage before us today. Pull back the curtain of time and you’ll find mastodons, camels, and sabertooths wandering alongside ocean, streams, and lakes before earthquakes and volcanoes pushed the land higher and higher creating a barrier that blocked the moisture-laden coastal breezes and turned it into the arid land we see before us now. Yes, Anza-Borrego is definitely the mother lode when it comes to state parks, if not mother earth herself.

As we drove out of Anza-Borrego—four days, eight hikes, and three miles-long canyon drives later—I thought about those 119.5 acres of land for sale and wondered if I called Jim and made him an offer, what that land would hold. Would it have the ridiculous number of wildflowers we saw in various stages of bloom throughout the park—desert lily, popcorn, barrel and fishhook cactus, golden poppy, and lupine among my favorites? Would the cream-colored desert iguana, like the one I jumped out of our moving car for in order to get a closer look at it, scamper across my newly purchased dusty earth floor and duck into the protection of a creosote bush? If I only bought half of Jim’s plot, would there still be roadrunners dashing across it like the ones we saw on the west side of the park or the always seemingly spastic California quail making mad dashes between sagebrush bushes? Would I see tracks from a bighorn sheep making its way across a wash like we did on our Bow Willow Canyon hike? Would my purchase still come with my beloved ocotillo shooting out of the land every few feet, sending up its spear-like trunks covered in Kelly green, shamrock-size leaves and topped with clusters of orange flowers dangling like limp wrists in the desert breeze? What if I only bought an acre or a half acre? Would it have a slot canyon that got as narrow as only a foot wide and then open up into towering 50-foot walls that were hosts to huge hawks’ nests and ravens’ nests high above? Or would the land be on a long, lingering stretch of alluvial fan that spread far and wide along the base of mountains and created the illusion that you could see the curvature of the earth right before your eyes? If I only bought a square inch or just a footprint worth of land, would it hold a surprise for me one morning, a light dusting of snow late in the season, just as the Laguna Mountains did our last day there? Would the harvester ants be busy at work, the blister beetle ungracefully stumble its way to the next flower, or the Scott’s Oriole fly by in a streak of bright yellow and black that always takes me by surprise? Would I see more kangaroo rats and their delightfully long tails with a puff of fur at the very tip? Or finally catch a glimpse of the non-venomous hairy scorpion or the coachwhip snake I so want to see?

When we moved from Minnesota to California nearly eight years ago, I never in a million years (back in the day when Teratornis—a vulture with a 17-foot wing span—rode the thermals in Anza-Borrego) would have seen myself fall so head over heels for the desert. Growing up in lush Minnesota green and always around, on, or in lakes, I thought I would naturally gravitate toward the ocean, being pulled toward the coast like a car with bad alignment. I was taken by surprise when it was the mountains that first captured my heart. I couldn’t get enough of the hikes that took me from chaparral to alpine in eight miles and 3,000 feet in elevation gain. I found myself swooning over mountain sunrises and sunsets much more than ocean ones. And then one day, Emmett said he wanted to visit Death Valley. I agreed to go only because I love the man immeasurably and because it would give me leverage for the expensive Kauai vacation I wanted to take. “But we went to Death Valley for you,” I could hear myself argue. “Isn’t it only fair that we go where I want to go?” Next thing I knew, I was the one planning our desert trips, checking off destinations and adding new ones to our list faster than our mountain adventures.

I always learn something new about myself and the land after visiting the desert. It constantly challenges my perception of what is possible by redefining what is impossible (ladybugs and hummingbirds live here?!! There are how many waterfalls in this park?!!). This trip wasn’t any different. At home, after washing off the dust and pollen and sunscreen, after spending the next day in a haze of memories filled with vistas and colors and vast space and layers of sound, I realized that no matter how many land-for-sale signs there are out there, no matter how many deeds are written up and boundaries staked out, one never truly owns a piece of the desert. Maybe Jim and all those others sellers have finally figured out what I have felt for a long time but never understood completely until now: it is the desert that owns you.