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Faith and love in the Anza-Borrego Desert

Emptiness remains an addiction

Carrizo Gorge. The menacing tunnels are still there, with their long-deserted railroad bridges and their mass of enmeshed girders.
  • Carrizo Gorge. The menacing tunnels are still there, with their long-deserted railroad bridges and their mass of enmeshed girders.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

There is such a thing, in the White Man, as a hunger for the desert. In the days of the British Empire it was said that if you penetrated any desert on earth, you would eventually find some lone pink Britisher sitting in a tent playing Patience and listening to the wind. When, that is, he was not dressing up in Saharan robes and leading an Arab revolution. T.E. Lawrence, Paul Bowles, Rider Haggard, Nathaneal West...there is a copious library of Anglo-Saxon desert literature. What is it in these menacing, seemingly sterile landscapes that brings the hyperborean into them? Why does the desert haunt the inhabitant of a land of cool mountains, deciduous forests, and incessant rain? Could it be that the most domestically inclined civilization in history produces in its garrulous adventurers an unquenchable thirst for everything that they are not: primitive inertia, mystical delirium, solitude...a wilderness where the Noble Savage, Bedouin, or Coyote reminds him of an Eden so ancient that even its fossils can be seen in every hillside?

Blair Valley, north view. The Mormons are long forgotten there now, as are the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay Indians.

Blair Valley, north view. The Mormons are long forgotten there now, as are the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay Indians.

The Mormons loved and love the desert. Unlike the beach, where Crusoe eventually saw the imprint of a human foot, the desert is inhuman, and even inanimate, and therefore — it has always been assumed — close to God. The eremites of Late Antiquity loved the desert as much as the followers of Joseph Smith, and where could that archetypal anchorite Simon the Stylite have had his column but the desert? The mystics wanted a place that was vegetative and mineral, that is, where all animal lust was mocked. Where they felt as small as insects.

The Grand Canyon produces in the spectator just this sense of panic. The dinosaurs are down there in the clefts; aeons are suddenly palpable, condensed into a single panorama; and the visitor feels crushed, terrified by his own microscopic status. Such is the narcotic effect of deserts. They are the ultimate reflection of masochistic self-loathing, and thus from the beginning they have been the natural habitat of Christianity and of Christians. The latter began in the desert, and to deserts they always gravitate.

Anza-Borrego Desert. The Spanish hated the desert. For them it was a vision of Hell.

Anza-Borrego Desert. The Spanish hated the desert. For them it was a vision of Hell.

The first European Americans saw in the desert, therefore, a place of miracles. Like the moralists of medieval Islam such as Ibn Khaldun, they saw it as a source of purgative purity. The people of the desert were purer. And their greater closeness to God could only be rewarded in the end with a correspondingly greater number of beatific visions. Visions and deserts go hand in hand, for — as in the Old Testament — God only reveals Himself in certain parched locations. Beyond and behind every Sodom and every Gomorrah lies the desert and its avenging God. And the latter, as every believer knows only too well, will eventually swallow everything up. For the desert, and not suburbia, is the true abode of Moses and the only source of God’s revenge. And why should the deserts of America, the greatest abode of sinners, be different from any other?


Marshal South house ruins. South, the reclusive bard of the badlands, used to live on top of Ghost Mountain overlooking the Butterfield Stage route.

Marshal South house ruins. South, the reclusive bard of the badlands, used to live on top of Ghost Mountain overlooking the Butterfield Stage route.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the American deserts should be so thickly covered with the nomenclature of the Book. Joshua, Zion, Carmel, Sinai, etc. (and, yes, there is even a Mecca for good measure and, more expressively, an Oh My God Hot Springs). There are whispers of visions: Oriflamme Mountain, Inspiration Point. And there are the memories of Sinai and the wastes of Syria and Mesopotamia in the tamarisks, desert willows, and the Washingtonia palms.

Upper Coyote Canyon

Upper Coyote Canyon

It was perhaps appropriate that the first wagon route of the southern road to California was created at Box Canyon in the Anza-Borrego desert by the Mormon Battalion of Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke during the Mexican War in 1847. The route later became the road for the Butterfield Express from 1858 to 1861, and it crossed one of the most desolate, unnerving, and delirium-inducing wastelands of the West. The Butterfield Overland Mail road, which once reached as far as San Francisco, has become S-2, or the Imperial Highway, and traverses the southern half of the Anza-Borrego between the dusty desert town of Ocotillo and the Buena Vista Creek near San Felipe. The Mormons are long forgotten there now, as are the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay Indians who once roamed the shores of what is now the Salton Sea but what was once, with utterly different shorelines, Lake Cahuilla.

But the road itself, lonely, flanked with strange and haunting landscapes, with dazzling arroyos or dry washes, with brilliant sand pastures of cholla and Smoke Tree, retains the dim imprint of ephemeral human life. Not in monuments or successful, teeming settlements, but in stubbed ruins, ghost towns like Little Borrego, their Main Streets and Broadways swept with tumbleweed, and a topography named for the dead. A race of dead people has given to the timeless canyons and creeks their names: Collins, Henderson, Butler, Pegleg Smith, Martinez. One wonders how many centuries those names will last.

Ocotillo, that eerie half-town of trailers, blooming gardens, and desert avenues named after the red-flowered spiny plant, sits on Interstate 8 a few miles east of Jacumba. On one side of the freeway are the four or five rectilinear streets that make up the town, all with names lovelier than their aspect — Opal, Sage Brush — and sanctified by serious Virgins in sky-blue niches. On the other is the Desert Kitchen diner, sitting silently under the rippled, ash-colored mountains, all glass globe lamps, potted cacti, and fly-speckled windows. Huge desert men with sloganed caps love to eat the Tomato Stuffed with Crab-Shrimp Salad here. And the air conditioning makes the ring of desert with its smattering of red ocotillo blooms momentarily distant. The soft, Ming-blue sky, suddenly more vast than any other, loses its venom. And the bare white hills, the eroded hummocks of rock, the rivulets of gentle white sand, and the blue shimmer of flowering sagebrush remind you not so much of the unforgiving fastnesses of Job as of the sunlit landscapes of Greek myth.

The Imperial Highway strikes north out of Ocotillo, as straight as any Roman legionnaires’ road, and in moments the Interstate, the scrambled habitations and makeshift greenery of Ocotillo, disappear. Between the desolate masses of Sugarloaf Mountain and the first of the Coyote range, the road runs through the Palm Canyon and mortero washes, across hot sandy plains carpeted with the yellowish needles of jumping cholla and spiked purple bloomrape. The Mormons, disposed to see the hand of Providence in the domain of sand, made of the spray-shaped bushes that grow by the road a tannin-rich tea and so left, in addition to the desert’s holy names, one of their own: Mormon Tea.

As the road enters the Anza-Borrego a few miles further on, rising slightly as it approaches the Carrizo Badlands and the Jojoba Wash, iron-wood and palo verde appear, verbena flowers and desert primroses. In the spaces between each cholla and ocotillo (whose sinister, thorned tentacles seem the ideal disguising bush not for Moses but for some Satanic emissary), a sprinkling of tiny petals, blue and yellow, cover the sand. The air, perfectly still, is scented with sage. Insects hum with equal density over the whole land. The silence that goes with them is terrifying. If a bush burst into flames spontaneously and gave rise to a stentorian, Jehovan God, the onlooker would not be surprised.

At the Carrizo Badlands Overlook, near to where the 21 tunnels of the Arizona Eastern Railroad were blasted through fossil-rich rock in 1912 — the menacing tunnels are still there, with their long-deserted railroad bridges and their mass of enmeshed girders — the silent Canyon Sin Nombre dips steeply down through groves of ocotillo and wooly daisies until it arrives at high, eroded walls of rust-colored volcanic stone.

The walk along Canyon Sin Nombre takes you into the heart of a desert still littered with vestiges of a sinister and secretive past — a giant, open graveyard filled with invisible mummies. At the end of its run, the canyon turns into Carrizo Creek, a marsh overgrown with mesquite trees and salt cedars. Leading off from this marsh are the well-named Seco del Diablo and the Little Devil Wash, places where the devil has perhaps shown his face from time to time. Before the devil, sloths, mastodons, sabertooths, and the massive prehistoric vulture known enviably as Teratornis Incrediblis slouched through the burning maze of stratified rock and dry trees. Fragments of silicified wood embedded in clay-stone recall the primeval forest the desert once was. Marshal South, the reclusive bard of the badlands who used to live on top of Ghost Mountain overlooking the Butterfield Stage route, described this zone:

And down where the silence lies deepest

Like a lone, crumbling head on a thread

In the mesquite-grown sands the old stage-station stands

Hushed with memories — and ghosts of the dead.

The stage-station is the Carrizo site, the first station to be encountered after crossing the frequently lethal Colorado Desert (the crossing was known as La Jornada del muerto). Today, it stands on the southwestern edge of the now-disused naval gunnery range known as the Carrizo Impact Area, a desolate emptiness littered with deadly unexploded shells. In the 19th Century, however, it was one of the stations that sustained the first overland mail and passenger service between San Francisco and St. Louis, which Congress established in 1856. The following year, the San Antonio-San Diego line began operating through Carrizo, and the Butterfield followed it.

Fort Yuma, Pilot Knob, Alamo Mocha, Indian Wells, Carrizo... The desert stage-stations are now names without realities. The emigrants poured through them. California populated itself through Carrizo, and the landscape around it was disfigured with wrecks, rotting corpses, and bones. An inspector who rode through Carrizo Creek in 1858 was horrified at the remains of the dead left by the traffic of migrants. The still waters of the marsh added to the atmosphere of death. And so did actual events. In 1886, the cattle thief Frank Fox fled from Arizona and was tracked down to Carrizo Creek by a deputy sheriff, who shot him dead in the creek and left his body where it lay. The cowboys on the drive Fox was with buried him under a mound of boulders on the bank of the creek, where they still stand. Fox is one of few names actually remembered.

Other, anonymous dead wander along the Carrizo-Vallecito trail in the form of a phantomic stage, a white horse and a lady (following the correct supernatural convention) dressed in white who wander the desert trails a hundred years after their violent deaths. The stage was apparently robbed and the driver shot dead. And the white horse? The white horse belonged to one of four outlaws who quarreled over the proceeds of a robbery. Two of them were killed in the flight. The remaining two shot each other during their avaricious dispute. Now, despite the advent of rationalism, the horse of the leader appears when any of the living approach the hidden treasure. And once he does, the desert crones say (and without much skepticism), the treasure becomes unfindable.

At Vallecito, a few miles up along the Imperial Highway, the ghost of the young woman who died there en route to Sacramento roams around on moonlit nights in the white wedding dress that was found in her traveling ottoman after her death. And as late as 1977, a motorcyclist’s body was found here. A phantom motorbike has not yet appeared hut surely will.

The trail was closed down in 1861 by the Civil War and became a (literal?) ghost trail. The spikey tules and greasewood of the marsh remind you of a diabolically ordained funeral grove, and after a shower of rain, the greasewood’s resinous, sickly smell pervades the air, recalling not so much the sap of a plant as the sugary scent of ptomaine, the chemical of decomposing corpses.


From the Carrizo Badlands Overlook, the Imperial Highway heads into igneous landscapes even more forbidding and barren. Past the Well of Eight Echoes, the Jacumba Mountains, past the Canebrake Conglomerate (a mass of granitic debris dating back two million years), Mountain Palm Springs, and the Tierra Blanca range. Whereas before the odd wooden cathouse turned into a tourist relic might have floated by, now there is nothing but fossils and sculpted arrays of rock.

The road also passes by Palm Spring, the first palm-tree oasis to be described in California. Spanish explorer Pedro Fages stumbled onto it during his crossing of the then-unnamed Anza-Borrego in 1782, on his way to the mission at San Diego. What he found was an Indian watering hole, which is ringed even now with scattered shards of pottery.

The stage-station built here has vanished, leaving the oasis much as it was then. Fages may not have noticed the distinctly Mesopotamian feel these outbursts of palms in the desert have, but he could not have failed to be struck by the impulse to otherworldliness this tortured landscape inflicts upon its intruders. Greenish saucer-plants and gold poppies burst into life as soon as water surfaces, and from out of nowhere homed larks swoop over a horizontal plane of dust stubbed with the hollow, webbed tubes of burnt chollas. Strange orange fishnets partially cover the sagebrush, dulling its tough blue flowers and giving it the appearance of something spellbound by decay.

Just before the route touches Vallecito, the sign for the hot springs of Agua Caliente appears. The campground itself, shaded by dusty mesquites, is nothing more than a mobile, open-air motel, demonstrating with awful clarity the desert culture of the RV. In the covered spa pool, boiling with mineral-enriched water at 98 degrees, sulky pale schoolgirls on enforced suburban holidays and arthritic satellite-dish salesmen dying for a bona fide lawn to mow sit half-dazed in the unbearable water. A Californian has to go to a desert spa to do what every Korean cab driver in Seoul does every afternoon.

But — such is the insidious effect that the desert imposes — you cannot help feeling powerful misanthropy gnawing at your insides as soon as you are among the trailers and outdoor TV sets and the groomed poodles having their nails clipped. You understand in an instant the man-hatred of Simon the Stylite and the lust to he hoisted onto a 100-foot column and fed with nothing but baskets of dried fish raised and lowered on ropes. You understand at once why half-crazed anchorites had themselves walled into desert caves. How long will it be before California’s reborn mysticisms revert to a similar desire and begin erecting their columns in the Anza-Borrego? What else should they use their desert for? For RV parks?

But other memories and primitive feelings rise to the surface of the long-lost Christian’s mind. Whatever his distance from the civilization that nurtured him, whatever his contempt for its exhausted iconography, the sight of greenery exploding in the desert fills him with a kind of anguished nostalgia, a series of powerful emotions that he cannot control. We are brought up with surrogate memories of Eden. “Eden” is a word that means “delight,” and the word Paradise — which it is, of course, intended to evoke — comes from the Old Persian paradaiza, meaning a walled enclosure. These “walled enclosures” were the first primitive gardens of the Mesopotamians, erected in the middle of hostile deserts, privilege of the aristocracy whose sons wrote the first mystic texts. The garden, the paradaiza, was the image of Paradise. Irrigation and flowers in the desert. The first miracle. And therefore the benchmark of all perfection, the memory to which we are all tied.

Only a desert culture could have a Garden as its founding myth, and Europeans have become — through their ingestion of Christianity — a desert people. And with that, a people obsessed with the expulsion from the Garden, with the loss of innocence. In wildernesses, that innocence is partially, though incompletely, regained. And for this reason, too, we idolize the Noble Savages who live, or lived, in them.

San Diego’s video stores are filled with shelves of documentaries on autochthonous nations of the desert, the Navajo, the Apache, and the Hopi. We see them as peoples naked in Eden before being disturbed by a Fall: resplendent in imaginary virtues. And even in the Anza-Borrego, home of the lesser-known Kumeyaays and Cahuillas, the presence of Eden-dwellers — their ghosts — are part of the land’s irrational charisma.

From Palm Spring, where the Indians have left their trace, the road continues northward around the Sawtooth Mountains and swings under the shadow of Ghost Mountain, where Marshal South and his wife Tanya, a poetess, lived at a place called Yaquitepec in the 1930s and 1940s. The Souths took this nostalgia to its logical extreme when the Depression cut off Marshal’s writing income, and they turned to a quasi-Indian existence in a self-built adobe house, adopting the kind of morteros, or Indian grinding holes, which can be found everywhere nearby and abandoning, in unconscious anticipation of a more sentimental generation, the props of technology.

The house is a ruin today, overgrown with brittle-bush and wildflowers, and seems as ancient, as fixed in its place as the Luiseño pictographs painted by shamans in the Smuggler Canyon nearby. For all the powerful and uncontrollable nostalgia that impels them, these experiments with the primitive, these flirtations with pre-history (before the Fall from the Garden had set foul history in motion) — or rather these attempts to evade history — are always doomed. The desert is not Eden. It is not a locus of miracles except for a tough and ruthless bunch of pragmatists like the Mormons: master engineers, propagandists, and irrigators. As the mystics understood only too well, the desert is a place where you go to die.


Nevertheless, hopes never die. At the Butterfield trailer park grocery store, with its Hamm’s Beer globe-lamps and its folksy talismans (a little scroll behind the cash register, showing a lurid aquamarine lake, proclaims: “Born in the Region of the Deep Blue Lakes,” as if in defiance of the present surroundings), the newspaper rack holds a copy of the World Weekly News with the sensational (and hopeful) headline: BONES OF ADAM AND EVE FOUND IN COLORADO DESERT! “Garden of Eden story proved!” the story continues, and promises, to whet the most jaded of appetites. Photos Inside...

The timeless desolation of Mason’s Valley, a little further on„ does nothing to dissuade you from believing this luscious story. If not here, then where? Medieval mapmakers used to love putting Eden on maps. There are 17th-century maps of the Middle East in which you can make out, sandwiched between Babylon and the Persian Gulf on the river Tigris, a tiny, irregularly shaped territory clearly marked “Eden.” Did it have recognized borders and immigration controls? And why is it more likely that the unfortunate ample wiled away their time on the Tigris or the mountains of Southern Armenia rather than here, in the West, which is after all where the Gardens of the Hesperides were reputed to be?

Mason's Valley signals the beginning of Oriflamme Canyon, which is marked on the far side, on Sunrise Highway, by a monument to Pedro Fages that reads as follows:

On October 29, 1772, Colonel Pedro Fages headed east from San Diego searching for army deserters. It was the first entry of a European into Oriflamme Canyon. From there Fages and his men traveled through Cajon Pass, around the Mojave and the Central Valley, and eventually reached Mission San Luis Obispo. As a result, he discovered the Colorado Desert and the San Joaquin Valley. Two years later Juan Batista de Anza followed...

No one knows what these desert navigators, chasing not territories or gold but deserters, could have made of the land where Adam and Eve were buried. The chocolate and lavender chasms, the austere clusters of elephant-trees, the immense skies filled with cither the depthless blue of azure tiles or the near-transparence of ice, the sudden darts of color from a hummingbird pursuing a jay (Nathanael West saw just that explosive pursuit in The Day of the Locust: “The gaudy birds burst the colored air into a thousand glittering particles like metal confetti”), and the shimmering tips of baby’s breath receding, wave after wave, over endless undulations of quivering sand.

The trailblazer Anza (the desert is named after him and the Spanish word for the bighorn sheep) did not come here to gawk at visions. By the 1770s, the Spanish Hold on Alta California was still faltering; a land route connecting the capital at Monterey and Mexico was needed. The Russians and the English were already threatening to snatch the new colony from them, and Anza intended to force a new road inland, well away from British sea-power. He set off on January 9, 1774, with two priests, 21 soldiers, and two Indian translators from Tubac in Sonora.

The success of his journey, which reached San Gabriel on March 22, 1774, prompted the Viceroy of Mexico to order Anza to retrace his steps with a colonizing party of women and children and take possession of San Francisco. This he did, arriving at San Francisco Bay on March 28, 1776. The route he had created through the Anza-Borrego was the key to the Spanish colonization of Alta California: the Spanish census of 1790 showed that 50 percent of all colonists in California by that time had come by way of the Anza Trail.

But the Spanish hated the desert. For them it was a vision of Hell. What they had loved in California was the coastlands, so European in climate and form, in every way reminiscent if the shores of the Mediterranean from which they had come and for which they felt such intense nostalgia. It was the Spanish who named so many of its dry washes after the devil. Could they ever have guessed that one day the bones of Adam and Eve would be dug up from this pitiless landscape by reporters for the World Weekly News or that puritans suffering from delirium and thirst would see in it a setting for mystic passions? But the Spanish, so close to the Sahara and its vehement denizens, could never have sentimentalized a desert; they would never have built anything like Salt Lake City, or for that matter Borrego Springs, where Methodist churches seem to outnumber any possible quantity of residents.

It needed a puritan people filled with a love of Biblical metaphors to infiltrate it. A people in search of moral solitude and a peculiar, displaced image of the Holy Land.

The Imperial Highway goes on northward as far as San Felipe by the Montezuma Valley, but its soul expires at the old Scissors Crossing, where it crosses with Route 78 and where the San-Felipe stage-station used to stand. Only a few miles from here, the road rises quickly to the green, sub-alpine pasture land and California oaks of Banner and then the gold-mining mountains around Julian. The desert seems at an end here, or almost, for San Felipe Station was the last true desert stop for the westbound stages.

To the east, however, the desert continues, flattening out and developing a scrub of palo verde trees and indigo bushes. Route 78 passes the Yaqui Pass, built by General Patton during World War II, which takes you to the vacation town of Borrego Springs and eventually reaches the Salton Sea. In the middle of the night, you might pass a “town" called Ocotillo Wells (“Pop. 100,” the sign says), the only settlement between Banner and the Sea. But when you get out of your car to investigate, you will find nothing but a circle of trailers in the middle of the desert, a corral of lights like the lanterns hung in a circle of pioneer wagons.

In the enormous flat emptiness of the Ocotillo Badlands, even this seems like a vast and gleaming city. And in the same way, the fierce red neon of the Red Barn Cafe, burning in the middle of nowhere, can be seen from miles away, looking not so much like the red-lit roadside diner it is, but like the flaming, combustible bash from behind which a tetchy Yaweh spoke to His prophet.


The long road from the end of Route 78 — where it crosses Route 86 near the Salton Sea to Westmoreland and then El Centro — briefly brushes the San Felipe hills and then goes on through monotonous flats littered with factories and processing plants, lit up at night like demonic wedding cakes. In its way El Centro itself is the ultimate desert town, a favorite of West himself and the town he was driving to from nearby Mexicali when he was killed in his car on Route 111 on December 22, 1940 (he was hurrying to Los Angeles after Scott Fitzgerald’s death there the day before).

Today, the town is probably what it was then: dusty, hot, desultory. Its suburbs fade out westwards into Dixieland and almost into the Coyote Wash, putting it within a stone’s throw of the Anza-Borrego. There seem to be few streets that would justify the name, rather, blinding expanses of tarmac bordered with flimsy motels, diners, donut shops, bail-bond and Mexinsurance shops (We Take Pink Slips for Collateral), and — in the calm little downtown — quaint neo-Mayan facades overhung with a mass of sagging cables.

At sunset, when the crepuscular desert equivalent of the Northern Lights sends fantastic spectra of tropical colors across the sky — primrose, banana, gold — the messy skyline of satellite dishes, pylons, and wires is turned into an inky spider’s web of junk metal. By eight o’clock everything is quiet. The desert night sky closes in. Along the length of Adams Avenue, the only boulevard in El Centro that doesn’t seem to obey the rhythms (if Nature, Mexican prostitutes patrol the sidewalks for a mile outside the garish motels — the Kontiki, the Western, the Siesta. A blue neon cross bums over them from the local Baptist ministry, with the words JESUS SAVES alongside. In the ramshackle units along the road, Mexican families sit exit in the grass squares in their vests, enjoying the retreat of the solar curse.

The whole city seems reduced to a few neon palm trees in the brothel-motels, the 24-hour stores, and the vegetative secrecy of boundless rectangles of gardened houses. Here and there, sand spills onto the sidewalk. The strip-lights hardly seem destined to escape their fate at the hands of the Anza-Borrego. If the desert could bury Nineveh, it can certainly bury El Centro. Little by little it seems to be advancing, threatening the irrigated grids of greenery.

The desert is filled with ghost towns, as if eventually all towns here must become empty shells. On Interstate 8, a few miles towards Ocotillo, you might well see, on certain rare evenings of the year, clouds of mating butterflies drifting over the road. Thousands of little hymena splatter against the windshield. The sky seems filled with nothing but amorous lepidoptera. The following day there is nothing there, not even a dead pair of yellow wings. The desert has no memory at all, not even of its fanciest butterflies. Like the immemorial African bush described by Conrad or V.S. Naipaul, it is indifferent, historyless, null. And for that reason, if for no other, its emptiness remains an indispensable addiction.

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