The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which lies across the Laguna Mountains on the other side of San Diego County, is the largest desert state park — 600,000 acres — in the United States. Vast and desolate, spacious and forbidding, a place of magnificent vistas and dear, star-studded nights, the desert is mystery itself.
There are 500 miles of dirt roads. July is the hottest month, with an average high temperature of 107.2. The average rainfall is low, about 6.7 inches. My entrance into the desert was as a stranger in a strange land, a moonscape empty as space, a parched, eroded landscape strewn with wildflowers and jeep roads and the titanic ramparts of the Santa Rosa Mountains. “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is,” observed Gertrude Stein. “That is what makes America what it is.”
“Hell with the fire gone out” was Union General Bill Sewell’s description of the Dakota badlands, and it seems a good general description, although far too negative, of the enchanting Anza-Borrego. The desert can be dangerous in summer if your car should break down, an uplifting spiritual force if your faith or hope should. The relative inaction and remarkably unstrenuous lives natives lead remind me of the game of baseball, dull half the time, with local people either sitting or standing around, when, suddenly, an emergency —engine breakdown, gully wash, snakebite, even intense cold, and, in summer, a desperate killing heat, sometimes reaching as high as 121 degrees—can come your way. When visiting, you are advised to tell people of your plans. You can get lost or hurt. The place can be unsettling. Sharp thorns protrude everywhere. Tarantulas are sometimes fist-sized. Certain cul-de-sac box canyons can be explored often only with a small jeep or on foot. Wood is odd and shatter, trees Giacomettian and thin. And the Brueghel-empty vastness can haunt the very soul.
I drove from San Diego through a whipping five-inch snowstorm in the mountains of Julian (signs everywhere read Carry Chains) in the winter of 1995 during the worst blizzard in 15 years, I was later told. A detour, preventing my approach through Montezuma Valley, as the road was closed around San Felipe, sent me to the desert by way of Yaqui Pass with its fat hills of purple-gray chiprock, and I descended in a heavy rain to Borrego Springs, where, although the air was cool, the sun suddenly shone down hot and restorative. I gathered that, except in summer, you never knew if it was going to be wet or dry or hot or cold or gray or sunny. Flux. But weather is not the only oddity in this strange, Heraclitean world.
Your eyes constantly play tricks on you in the desert. Or is that the desert does it to your eyes? Mountains, which seem close, are in fact far away. Hills in front seem by fractals grafted onto those behind, and so Coyote Mountain, for example, which fronts the Santa Rosas at some distance, falsely seems but a stepping stone to them. Small vistas lead to larger. Shapes, peaks, and shadows on contrasting hills and mountains have the same look, but they are on different scales. Colors of a thousand hues and tints converge, though the ranges do not, and so what initially merges to the sight up front often proves in fact to be geographically distant as a stratus cloud from the sun. Neither comforting perspectives nor balancing measurements are allowed you. Everything seems bigger and farther away and creates in the sole observer, often uneasily, weirdly, a certain humility, even a curious diffidence, as well as a respect for nature at its most unchanging and enigmatic. There are 20-mile lengths of shadow cast in the Anza-Borrego, preternatural silences, like a world holding its breath, with winds blowing in five directions, north, east, south, west, and down. There are rarely people in the landscape, in any views, almost no movement. There are no ruinous eye-breakdowns. You keep thinking you might see a farm. None exist here. There are grapefruit groves and date palms, but they are few and far between.
Hills show no fixed form, dunes shift under your feet, and there is little shade. Nothing beckons, in the sense of allowing you, as a person, a center of ease. Soft colors provide patina for sharp rocks. There is crust, coupled with biomorphic underwater forms. And each night the earth plunges into perfectly calm darkness, into a blackness aeroferic with secrets and seldom violated by lights, the pervasive silence of which takes you back to the beginnings of the world.
I began just driving aimlessly through the desert, waywardly, the way it seemed to exist, marveling over the fact, as I headed through the seemingly endless flatlands, that all the surrounding gorges, deep canyons, alpine-like boulders, unstable many of them, and sharp escarpments were the result of extensive erosion and carved up and jagged out by waters that six million years ago flooded the open plains here, just around the time, as flanked mastodons and saber-toothed cats roamed the land, that the tectonic plates, severely shifting below and pulling Baja from California, created a chasm that shot all the way to Palm Springs. The San Jacinto Fault, incidentally, running north and west, gives the area of the Anza-Borrego the dubious title “The Most Seismic Spot in North America,” the very place, they say, where the “big one” will happen. Every eight years or so, an earthquake does take place, usually registering a terrifyingly solid six or higher on the Richter scale. I was surprised that you can go almost anywhere on foot. The hiking possibilities in the desert are endless, as long as you carry enough water, during winter and fall. I drove my little rented Mazda up to Sheep Canyon Preserve, back to Borrego Springs, out through Culp Valley to Ranchita, and back.
I constantly reflected everywhere in the desert on the endless and inhospitable terrain, as did Steinbeck in his book Travels with Charley (1962), of the early pioneers, many of whom literally walked across the country with their wagons and their families: “The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one. It is as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.”
Out on the highway I picked up a hitchhiker, a quiet Mexican named Carlo (“Ro’ronners makin’ better time as me”) who, for a ride to Borrego, cheerfully agreed to show me pictographs four miles off County Road, where the road leads to a trailhead for a relatively easy one-mile trek through cat’s claw and silver cholla, agave and brittlebush, to a boulder of some size inscribed with faded figures in red and yellow hues by desert Indians, probably Kumeyaay. Sometime later, I saw more pictographs in Blair Valley, down in the foothills of the lonely Vallecito Mountains. Driving back to town, I asked Carlo if he attended the Catholic church in Borrego. I had seen the little chapel. I wanted to talk to the priest. I thought there would be a story there.
There was nothing.
Father Simon Lefebvre was completely unhelpful and seemed nettled I was asking questions of any kind. Maybe because he had been in Borrego only five years? A Viatorian from Chicago (an order that had taught TV’s Bishop Sheen, a dubious recommendation as far as I was concerned). Father Simon ran St. Richard’s Catholic Church, the small white one-room church under the mountains. I was surprised at the 30 or so attendants at daily Mass. “Oh, it goes from roughly 8000 in winter to about 3000 or so in summer,” he snapped, giving the town’s population. I had, needless to say, asked about the church population — and very much wanted to talk about the resourceful Father Francisco Gárces, spiritual advisor to Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza’s Colorado Desert expedition to the (California missions, which centuries ago had entered the valley and which I yearned to know about. I doubted if Reverend Simon had ever heard of his precursor, Gárces. I was only wasting my time. Bugger it, I thought. I went to Sunday Mass and purposely put a button into the collection box, for spite. And I decided to look around the little capital of Anza-Borrego.
Borrego Springs, oasis-small, sits in an open valley like a tiny jewel in an elegant setting. It is nestled between the Santa Rosa and the San Ysidro Mountains and is lit with flavescent palo verde trees and lovely Mexican palms. There is a small library in town, but not a single stoplight. Parking is free. There is no hospital in Borrego, which, I’m told, militates against larger development. A U.S. post office was established in 1926, only after drinking water was found. (Real development began in the region around 1947.) There are two rainy seasons in Borrego, November to April, July and August. A lot of roads out there were originally washes, and you can still see old “tanks,” in desert terminology natural pools of water collected in rock depressions. Ironically, for desert Borrego, everyone is required to have flood insurance! Earthquake insurance, which is hard to get, not being a moneymaker for insurance companies, is very expensive, I was told, and carries a high deductible. There is only one black person in town and one Asian.
Around the town’s traffic circle, Christmas Circle, several produce stands were selling dates — the stands are seasonal — and the famous “Borrego pinks” ($2.50 for a bag of about 20), delicious grapefruit grown to perfection in this area. I had a coffee at the Crumpets (my name for them), two women who run the Coffee and Book Store on Palm Canyon Drive, the main street, daring to ask one of them, who looked up at me like a flammulated owl, if she would be kind enough to direct me to the sheriff s office. She sighed with exasperation and wordlessly pointed outside, toward’ the right. Terry O’Keefe—he is actually a California highway patrolman — to whom I introduced myself, amicably told me that, generally, he met with nothing really extraordinary in his work by way of major trouble. Saturday night fights in bars. Drunks. A few on-road emergencies in summer. Lost hikers. “There is a 4000-foot elevation drop in about ten miles on the Montezuma Grade approaching Borrego Springs,” he said, shrugging. “Before the guardrails were put up, a few cars went off the mountain between the 13- and 14-mile markers — a fall of four or five hundred feet. Some were suicides.” Five hundred feet! Surely the closest thing to flying without a plane!
Speaking of which, one of the real estate agents in town with whom I had the lucky occasion to speak when I stopped for a map had come with her husband from San Francisco to live in Borrego Springs and fallen in love with it, as I almost did with her — she is beautiful, told me she once dated Frank Sinatra Jr., and was wearing a scent sweeter than the breezes of Lotus Land (“Antonio’s Flowers?” I asked). She told me, “Borrego Springs has the first nonprofit airport in the U.S. Student pilots can get experience virtually free here.” She added impishly, “I love it when the F-18s fly over and bomb the Chocolate Mountains.” I asked her what in all of it she liked best. “The wildflowers,” she said, unhesitatingly. “There are only a few weeks for them in spring! So fragile. You can’t find them anywhere else. I love sand verbena, the way it carpets the sandy flats. Brittlebush. Trixis. Such yellows. And the whites of the dune primrose and chicory! The peach red flowers of apricot mallow. Chuparosa! Ghost flower. Scarlet bugler. There must be something like 500 species.”
Plants, rocks, mountains. How they endure, forever fixed, voiceless but immutable, expressing themselves in mute entreaty and unshakable calm! A feeling of primitivism is borne in on anyone who, with any insight, correctly responds to desert life. There is no movement in nature besides extension. Nothing shines, flashes. The restraint, felt everywhere, recalls French novelist Francis Ponge, who once wrote, “All rocks are offsprings through fission of the same enormous forebear.” As playwright Frank Wedekind observed in Pandora's Box, “The animal is the only genuine thing in man. What you have experienced as an animal no misfortune can ever wrest from you. It remains yours for life.” The elemental in nature is what best speaks to us of ourselves, I think he’s saying, a pagan perhaps but forceful truth.
“There’s no nightlife here, really,” a plump, dark-haired waitress confided to me at a small restaurant in Borrego’s Mall. (There is, indeed, a mall.) “I’m 30, single, and loving it. This is a great place to be free and happy in anything you do,” she said. She reminded me of one of those out-front, look-you-in-the-eye types found in country music, hay-bright and realistic. I asked about several tough drinking spots I’d heard of, places like the Row Boat in Salton City and the Iron Door in Ocotillo Wells. “I used to work at the ‘Boat’ on weekends,” she delightfully cried. “Oh, it’s not tough. What, maybe there’s a Mexican/American standoff once in a while with a fist or two flying, but, shoot, nothing to talk about. We have a jukebox there that still plays 45 rpm records.” We talked a little about visitors who had come to Borrego. “Dennis Weaver’s been here. And James Arness.”
“It looks like Gunsmoke territory,” I said. “The Long Branch. A hoosegow. Corrals. Have any of those TV episodes ever been filmed around here?”
“No,” said the waitress, “but Damnation Alley was. Remember that? And Dying Room Only. Let’s see, oh, parts of The Andromeda Strain. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Some scenes from Bugsy. I’m sure there are a lot more. A lot of car commercials have been shot here. Don’t you think Borrego is just a great place to make a movie? Unconventional. So beautiful. On your way to Ocotillo, hey, stop at Vallecito Pass in Shelter Valley — it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. Course,” she added, with a wink, “I haven’t seen every place, to compare. I’ll tell you, though. I’d live nowhere else.” A lot of famous people have come here to live, seeking peace, no doubt, and wishing to escape noise and lunacies and violence. Gale Gordon, the actor, lived here before he died. Erie Stanley Gardner made solitary forays to Borrego, getting away from the bustle of the city and, by the way, giving up a professional income — he was also a lawyer — to write his Perry Mason books. Burgess Meredith’s daughter, a painter, lives here. So does Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, who lives in an area called Tubb Canyon, southwest of Borrego Springs.
Friends of mine, Larry McCaffery and his wife Sinda, who teach literature at San Diego State and have lived in Borrego for years, were deeply interested in obliging me when I asked about the kind of people who, for whatever reason — were they strange? antisocial? solemn? spiritual? — had decided to make living in the outback of the Anza-Borrego their way of life. Larry’s own explanation for living out there seemed as solid as any, as we talked driving back one evening from Salton City in his ’92 Mustang convertible through the almost Sheol-black darkness but under a full, magical canescent moon: “There are many little things I like about it. The clarity of light and sound in a place that’s not awash in the city’s white noise and white light. The decelerated rhythms of small-town life, having a vantage point that lets you watch storm clouds gathering way off in the far distance. The pungent smell of creosote permeating everything after a rainfall. The childish pleasures of driving a car or going for a walk where there are no great lines of traffic to worry about, that sort of thing.”
We were traveling Erosion Road; they were showing me mind-boggling, lovely, snowcapped 8700-foot Toro Peak going putty to purple in the distance beyond the carious shadows of night falling down from the sky—we were also following California’s most active fault line — and I could see they wouldn’t have been happier in Paris. “Night,” I said. “The romantic’s play time. You enjoy the cloak of darkness here.”
“The truth is, many nights driving home,” Larry told me, “you can begin to feel overwhelmed with the darkness all around you. It can engulf you at times, I don’t know, when you can actually feel relieved seeing in the far distance the few flickering lights of Borrego Springs. But I like the exposure. My best thoughts about the desert result directly from the vast, violent physical forces that isolated Borrego in the first place and that are constantly and very nakedly exposed in a desert world. What can scare you by surrounding you, boxing you in and around, can also buoy you up. You begin to realize that all these little things are really part of something much larger.”
“Fractals again,” I laughed.
“I guess the simplest way to put it is that living out here is a profoundly humbling experience that helps me keep a sense of perspective about things. Just as importantly, it renews my sense of awe on a daily basis, my sense of appreciation. And without that, what am I?”
I frankly considered the McCafferys, in their basic lifestyle and with their historical interests, no less intrepid than Lt. Pedro Fages, who in 1772, a time when only scattered bands of nomadic Indians had ever seen Borrego, traveled Coyote Canyon in pursuit of deserters, or Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza who two years later followed the same route from Mexico to Alta California in search of an overland route, which he found in 1775 leading a large group of soldiers and colonists, along with a thousand head of cattle, over the wild trail to San Francisco. (Fie camped at three locations in the park, following the edge of Borrego Badlands, then across the valley, and up Coyote Creek.) When the Butterfield Overland Mail coaches from St. Louis sped through the desert over the southern route toward Pueblo de Los Angeles in the 1850s, the hot lowlands and rugged mountains that are now part of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park stood as the final barrier in the vast Colorado Desert. Stagecoach passengers were only too happy to leave this arid wilderness. Let me add, it is a wilderness to some, not to everybody, for a few days later I had the chance to meet the Henry Thoreau of Borrego.
At 36, Wallace Mutt has lived alone at Oh-My-God Hot Springs (its real name) for five years. An eccentric and isolato extraordinaire, he fills a tiny space on this earth entirely in the middle of nowhere. He has no car. There is no radio. He has no electricity. A trailer, tin and broken down and sitting in the middle of the desert, is his home. I saw two ripped sofas, holding several uninflated inner tubes. There were piles everywhere — for he fixes, and makes, things: “found art”—of rattraps, tin kettles, egg weighers, queensware, jew’s-harps, half-broken knives, wire, nozzles, upended empty computer cases, ratchets, wheels, springs, empty drums, broken sinks, spoons, rakes, bike lights, electric bulbs, telephone pole insulators, refrigerator gaskets, magnets, sprockets, old toothbrushes, coat hangers, boxes, cord pulleys, metal aglets, rusty winches, reflectors, old knobs, flexes window-box ledges porcelain, shards, nails and screws, and no end of unserviceable bric-a-brac.
Oh-My-God Hot Springs once a hot water well, due east on S22 on the way to Salton City but unlisted on virtually every map of the desert, was once a nudist camp. A lot of gas drilling also went on out there. Yet now, but for a few small mobile homes miles apart, it is again as old and empty as Chaos, a badlands of ancient clast and stone skeletons and the crumbling of God’s footwalls.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, with a too-rapid voice. Wallace was rail-thin, bearded, and wore a loose dungaree jacket. Remember John Donne’s famous pronouncement, “No man is an island”? Let me tell you, Wallace Mutt is the exception. He had just eaten a small meal of macaroni with powdered cheese sauce, which gave his squirrel-like beard an orange stain. I had heard he had a devoted sister who brought him food once a week. He loved Pepsi. “Last night was freezing,” said Wallace. “It never gets that cold. What a storm. I don’t understand it. I got up. I walked around. I’m still tired.” I sensed a kind of saintliness in his odd, uncompromising individuality that seemed to fit the fusillade of sharp staccato sentences he spoke. I was told friends looked in on him. He’d need that, camped outside even isolated Salton City about six or seven miles and living under the dome of the sky with only the constellations for friends. He was impractical, I was told, and had given away all his money. Rumor has it that his grandparents were wealthy La Jolla people. But it was his money and his desert and his sky and his constellations and his camp and his loneliness and his own being. I thought of Stephen Crane’s poem “The Heart,” which goes,
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?"
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
“You love it out here,” I said. “I can see that. But don’t you get lonesome?”
“I couldn’t be in San Diego. I can’t be in crowds.” Nor could he survive, I thought. He would be in danger. He would capsize. He would die. Here he functioned and even created. I asked him what he did all day. “I build assemblages. I make things. I create things. I put things together,” he said, proudly holding up a piece of painted plastic, an object that looked like the carburetor of a very old car engine, with a sort of nailed caplet on its head, slathered red. He grubbed around for another one and another one and set them all in a row.
“They’re, um, collages.”
He responded quick as a whippet.
“That’s the point. Taking a thing in one context and marrying it to another.” With that confidence expressed, Wallace suddenly galumphed to the nearest old sofa and, having sat down, affectionately pulled one of the large inner tubes toward him and, hugging it, by gently squeezing it in the middle, quickly fashioned a bubble head. He nuzzled the tube, saying, “Let me introduce you to Miss Wog.” Without saying anything further, for I could see, and I mean this seriously, that this was a rapprochement of note, that he had in fact personalized a woman, a real friend, out of this cold rubber thing, I thanked him and headed back onto the main road, realizing that once again I had not only seen something in the desert I could literally never have imagined but very probably would never in a lifetime see again.
There are as many eccentrics in the desert as there are — you explain it—Chinese restaurants in Mexicali. Desert rats. UFO abductees. Contactees. Pilgrims of the Absolute. Out by the Fish Creek Badlands, at the end of a primitive road, badly subject to washouts and where a four-wheel drive is pretty much mandatory — and, believe me, not having one let me feel the need — I ran across an old man who looked like one of those strange, long-boned, shovel-chinned, steel-trap-mouthed, stiff-maned ancestors of ours, John Brown or Elijah or Ben Gunn or the Ancient Mariner, who with burning eyes stared out of daguerreotypes, and he wouldn’t talk to me but with a baleful wagging finger only waved me away, as if to say with Amos (5:21), “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” I saw a scary young couple down in the Jacumba Mountains outside Ocotillo presiding over a “carbecue,” watching an old black Chevy go up in flames, which reminded me of the poster for Bonnie and Clyde: “They’re young, they’re in love — they kill people!” And from a grocery store bulletin board in Borrego Springs I wrote down the following notice:
Colorado license #QAC2-416
My fellow humans:
I encountered UFOs; I was with other humans at the time and I was doing SOS signals with light. Think...Help me to speak to the nation; I will present new, constructive ideas; yours and mine. We will then vote on these ideas, yes or no; beyond my ego and yours.
Help me and we will go beyond the collective psychosis. Tell your friends, family, in-laws, and those out from you; we must find a center, of yours and mine. “Save Our Souls"
Can you imagine?
I checked my map, and, seeing as I was in the Font’s Point area, which I’d been told in the splendor of its isolation and the matchless majesty of view, could not be touched, except for maybe the view from Lookout Point in Culp Valley, I swerved off the road.
I tried to be careful in the approach, halting in places, pausing as I drove on the way in — judiciously using a lateral road of hard sand that was only car-wide and dangerously soft on either side, a perfect place to get stuck — to look at the barrel cacti, the creosote bushes, the wagging red-tipped ocotillo, primordial plants resembling those at the bottom of the sea (the desert was once covered by water!), so to keep an open eye for scorpions, some five inches long, although they mainly come out at night, I was told, like tarantulas. Running through vegetation in the desert can maim you, I could see. Cholla will rip you into shreds. And even ocotillo, with its face-tearing thorns, look almost fatal.
The breathtaking moonscape of this fantastic panorama the jagged and fretted rock upheavals of the Borrego Badlands, a sienna-colored maze of seemingly endless, barren, steep-sided ravines and dry creek beds running out as far as the eye can see and almost totally devoid of vegetation, is not so much land as terrain, an impossibly vast and desolate overlook that seems as you stand there literally unreal, empty, spare in the way of enchantment, a far, far different kind of desolation than the empty houses along the Borrego-Salton Seaway. I could see for miles and miles. It was a blustery late afternoon, as I leaned into the wind, like the Spirit of Ecstasy on the hood of a Rolls-Royce, a wind that, tearing at my hair and jacket, took the breath from my very mouth, stolen at the moments of my open astonishment.
The 380-square-mile Salton Sea, which lies 228 feet below sea level, is said to be noted for its excellent water sports and corbina and sargo fishing. I walked by the water’s edge, however, next to the ruined, bombed-out empty shell of a once-flourishing, now deserted casino, its broken windows and sunken On the Beach look suggesting nuclear disaster, and saw the lifeless corpses of thousands of tiny white fish all along the shore. Just west of that vast sea flows the New River, which is said to be the most polluted river in North America. (It is actually the 16th most polluted, which is a real big comfort, don’t you think?) They say if you sit by the New River long enough, you can see just about anything float by. “Whenever we get an ill wind, we say it’s the Salton Sea,” a waitress in Fish Creek told me. “If they could clean it up, they say it’d be worth something, but don’t expect nothing soon, okay?” Didn’t I detect the unmistakable signs in this remark of the basic Sunbelt real estate dream, a dull grid of vacant lots owned by absentee landlords, each waiting for the other guy to build a house? A lot of money in the 1950s went into resort development here, LA. money, for water-skiing, boating, fishing. Since then a vigorous real estate boom has been in the offing for years, a hot spa community at Bombay Beach, on Salton Bay— a long row of trees still lines, as it mocks, the remnants of a triumphal main road — but this place is nothing but a Dead Miami, a Failed Vegas, an Atlantic City, not merely on its uppers, but gone utterly bust.
It is a place of grim irony and oddities and scarcely believable paradox. “Wood sinks here, fish have gizzards like birds, rocks float, and vapors of dry ice at a minus-temperature bubble up through warm water,” writes Choral Pepper in Desert Lore of Southern California. And have I mentioned it is a manmade sea? An ancient 150-mile-long lake, Cahuilla, existed here hundreds of years ago. (Its ancient shoreline is still visible on the mountains to the west!) The echo of that lake, today known as the Salton Sea, covers much of that sink, which was dry for many years. In 1901 water was diverted from the Colorado (“Old Red”) near Yuma and carried in canals to irrigate lands in Imperial Valley. In 1904 Old Red broke through and rushed headlong into the Salton Sink for a year and a half, filling it to the elevation of 195 feet below sea level, an elevation today 228 feet below sea level. “Since then,” note Lowell and Diana Lindsay in The Anza-Borrego Desert Region, “Hoover Dam and other dams have supposedly tamed the rampages of the Southwest’s mightiest river.”
Somehow it all reminded me of an old joke. How many Californians does it take to make a cup of instant coffee? Two. One to add the protein-enriched, simulated dairy supplement made of soybean concentrate, acidophilus culture, and brewer’s yeast. And one to steal the water. (The real joke is that Californians don’t drink instant coffee.)
I went to the Boardroom, a smoky dive in Salton City right there by the Imperial Highway (Highway 86) where crossing the four lanes almost at the cost of my life I felt in waves of hideous vibration the hot, rushing, sucking exhaust-pull of the massive semis howling along that strip of desolation, all truck traffic, the blaring mbwaaarp, mbwaaarp of their horns echoing through the empty desert as they went tooling down to El Centro and Mexicali, pedal to the metal, in what has to be one of the loneliest, most unforgivingly mournful stretches of road in the history of the world. Across the road sits the gutted Sundowner Motel with its flaking white paint and pink doors and cracked windows, where amorous customers from the Club Cha Cha and Casino (or whatever its name was) across the way, with its now-broken cupola and deserted yacht dock — a mile from the Salton Sea! — desert rats and BBQ artists and gamblers, all tipsy with love and romantic vertigo, once hoped to round off the festive evening in carnal delight.
A small crowd of men and women were inside the bar drinking beer. Several of the men, some playing darts, wore head rags and tooled belts. Over the bar itself, running the length of it, were cards with blocked-out, hand-written mottoes, like lie Kind To Smokers, We Haven’t Got Much Time Left; Don’t Steal, The Government Hates Competition; etc. An oversized, six-foot plastic bottle of Bud, frozen in a plasticene faux ice cube, hung incongruously over the pool table in an adjacent room. They say there are no two Joshua trees alike; the same goes for these people. I saw three men wearing denim vests, playing cards, slapping down bets with naked arms. I noticed one guy with a tattoo on his arm reading “Bullets Bounce Off,” carrying a regulation pig-sticker lashed to his leg and a .38 Special stuffed in his back pocket, Stout peckerwoods in black shirts and bikers in boots stood around staring, guys with names, I imagine, like Johnny Osage and Applejack and Old Bates, who wore greasy ponytails and had their wallets chained to their belts and disapprovingly watched the panhard world with dark anger and hunting eyes. A few barflies, “skanks,” shouted good-natured but witless imprecations and knotted remarks to the bartender, while a jukebox in the comer played “Her lost look and sour eyes / gave her smile a thin disguise.”
Who is surprised there are places in Anza-Borrego named Hellhole Canyon and Mud Hills and Alcoholic Pass? Writer Charles Bowden once asked a storeowner in the desert, “Why do you dose in summer?” Came the gentle and understanding reply; “Because there are 20 fucking people in eight fucking square miles of this place, okay?”
I got to chatting with a short, grizzled 68-year-old ex-trucker named Earl Mirliton, who, sipping a beer, commenced to tell me the eerie legend of the Lady in White of Vallecito. We stood together in a smoke-filled anteroom, by the door. “An Eastern beauty on her way to Sacramento to marry her fiancé had taken ill crossing the desert,” he began, “and, wilting under the murderous heat, why, she had to be taken off the stage. At Vallecito Station the woman died. They proceeded to bury her in her bridal gown, which the local folks had discovered among her goods and satchels. Folks say,” he said, wiping foam off his chin and looking closely at me for effect, “folks say that she haunts the area to this very day, a figure dressed all in white, a figure searching for her lover and wailing in the wind.” (I had heard a similar ghost story earlier, ironically enough, all about a phantom stagecoach that had been seen by many a soul in the Carrizo Wash!) “There have been lots of mysterious happenings around here, for hundreds of years,” said Earl. “Ever hear tell of the ‘ghost lights’? No, I’m sure. Well, they’ve been reported for real, all right. Spirit lights. Bright ones. Up on Oriflamme Mountain. They light up the sky. My father was from the Dakotas, two generations back. Claimed he saw them same lights. Believe what you want. They’re there.”
“Because the strange lights have been witnessed by too many sober judges to be ridiculed,” observes Choral Pepper, of the phenomenon, “scientists have searched for an explanation. One such explanation is that the lights result when dry desert winds blow sand against quartz outcroppings on the mountain to produce static electricity that flashes brightly against dark slopes.” Others disagree and insist it’s a coven of angry ghosts, Indians slaughtered by Spaniards. And Earl, who shrugged? “I heard it was prospectors looking for gold.”
Legends abound in deserts, and it’s no different in the Anza-Borrego. Stories of dead miners. Lost Spaniards. Spirits of broiled Mexicans, who tried to cross in the heat. There’s the one about “Pegleg’s Black Gold.” Pegleg Smith, a fur trader with a wooden leg, traveling from Yuma to California in 1829, found in the desert rare black nuggets covered with desert varnish, a dark mineral coating on rocks from dry heat and daylong brightness, and although he continued on to the coast, he eventually returned and tramped the desert for years looking for this black gold. You can still see him, meandering around, pan in hand. There are even tales of Viking ships having reached as far as the Anza-Borrego. I heard of one spectral quidnunc who haunts the Hank Brandt Mine. Even of some golem or other, splay-toed, large, and malevolent, who lurks in the Borrego Sink. And there are dinosaur tracks in the Fish Creek Mountains, near Split Mountain. As Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.”
Earl gestured in the direction of the highway outside. “Stage stations were set up all along out there for the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Lines, around 1857 or so. This was the first official transcontinental overland mail line in these United States. Oh yeah, this was wild country all right. And my own grandfather seen it all.”
“Stagecoaches?” I asked him, picturing overweight frog-voiced Andy Devine in Technicolor, wearing a floppy hat and outsized overalls and an outlandish grin, and cracking a whip over a bunch of intractable mules.
“Coaches! Spring wagons pulled by six-mule hitches, that’s right. Buckboards! You name it!” At Scissors Crossing, later, I stopped on my way back to San Diego just before heading up and over the mountains and saw, on the site of the original station at the intersection of Highways 78 and S-2, the plaque on an old marker of the Vallecito-Butterfield Stage Station, right out of the Old West and Republic Pictures and the dream-filled Saturday afternoon cinemas of my youth.
One sunny morning, with the air washed fresh by the glorious mountains and filled with the clean smell of creosote, I drove out to Ocotillo Wells. By noon I was almost poleaxed by the heat. I went to a bar with a sign in the window: menudo. At a side table several Hispanics, very quiet, were talking and looking down. I bought a couple of Tecates and sat by the window. A few small casitas nearby were dwarfed by the preternatural walls of the mountains in the distance, and looking at them I thought of words like swale and scarplets and hornblende and gabbro and fanglomerate. I had come out along dusty, unswerving die-straight roads, across land runneled like Merle Haggard’s cheeks, seared dry, land baked into the kind of eternal mudhardness that gave me to believe it would last longer than time itself. It was earth that seemed spiritual in its permanence and only made me wonder about impermanent man. Didn’t we live in a spiritual desert? In France only one out of ten people bothers to go to church. In Spain churchgoing, which was at 83 percent in 1970, is now at 31 percent. In England, only 3 percent of professed Anglicans attend church services. And in the United States one has the distinct impression, at least I do, that religion is not only a civic experience — and usually a right-wing one — but also a business sadly in the hands of political hamfats and lust-mongering evangelists and posturing TV phonies who’ve snatched all the mikes.
On another day, I met Larry McCaffery early in the morning for coffee at the Grumpets and we drove out past Ocotillo Wells to a desolate gypsum mine. At the end of a long road going into the mountains stood the isolated working mine, the U.S. Gypsum Co. (“Turn On Lights When Dusty”), a large corrugated rattle-tin operation, dusted white, with a conveyor belt spitting out chunks of gypsum into massive grinding wheels at the top. The workers’ clothes were covered white; so were all the trucks, the railroad head, the surrounding boulders, and the roads, all weird ghostly white. The overhead sun itself was a white force. The company sent gypsum by rail down to Plaster City, this side of El Centro, for wall-board and use in various other manufactures. It was all of it sad, godforsaken country—la locura del desierto —an archetypal landscape, dry as a handclap. Last summer in a remote area south of here, around Split Mountain, a man whose car had broken down was found dead. He was shoeless and his brain had boiled. Apparently it happened to a lot of ill-starred mojados, trying to cross the border. As we drove I thought of the relentless whiteness and sunbaked glare in Albert Camus’s story The Renegade, where, writing of the African desert near Taghâza he spoke of “the mineral whiteness of the streets when the whole town looks like a milky phantom,” where in the heat of noon “the salt walls shine dimly.” He wrote, “Under the blows of the iron sun the sky resounded at length, a sheet of white-hot tin, and it was the same silence.”
In this vicinity, Larry showed me the site of little Borrego, a boomtown in the 1920s that was killed by the Depression. We ate breakfast at the Burro Bend Cafe, a roadhouse at a crossroads looking out toward a treeless plain called a recreational park, covered over with and badly scored by the fat tire tracks of various off-road, all-terrain vehicles and dune buggies. I asked the young waitress, Karen Irons, who had been born in Clairemont but had moved here with her husband some years ago, who it was who did most of the driving and when. “Wild young guys on desert bikes, for the most part,” she said, guys, it seemed, who composed most of the population of that section of Ocotillo Wells, outside the park on Hwy. 78, guys with little to do but “burn donuts” and do “kick-stands” and “wheelies.” It was harmless, she said. She said, “They hold events here. But this is where they hang out, most of the time anyway.” She laughed. “Hey, it’s one of the few places you can get gas around here.”
There were a good many mobile homes around there as well. (No property taxes.) A few old joints marked the center of Ocotillo Wells. The Blowsand Cafe. The Iron Door. And of course the Burro Bend Cafe Gas Station. The rest of the town was nothing but smoke trees and salt cedars and ironwood, perennial, eternally growing, forever. On top of a hill across the way stood a tall white cross, which commemorated, according to one of the locals, the first American casualty in Vietnam— the son of Elmo, the Ocotillo Wells sheriff whose house on the corner, its yard filled with bottles, stood vacant. I tried to corroborate all of this, several times, to no avail.
“Americans hate their deserts and consider them useful only for exercises in assault,” writes Charles Bowden in one of the many polemics in Red Line. “They are places to shoot holes in cactus, slaughter tortoises, toss beer bottles, tear up hillsides with machines, settle drug deals, leave bullet-ridden bodies in the arroyo, they are places to make fires, places to curse the darkness. The hot, dry ground is the woman — the bitch, slut, whore — who must be beaten, raped, and crushed. This is of course denied, we all feel foolish when we drift into this male/female approach to our hatred of the earth, instead the deserts are called fragile by everyone and many testify how they love the dry air and appreciate the lack of snow. But our actions are inscribed all over the valleys and dunes, and I can smell our anger rising off the land.”
Speaking of exercises in assault, at several places in the Anza-Borrego, Clark’s Dry lake, for one, a particularly poached area outside Borrego Springs, General George Patton, preparing his troops for the desert harshness of remote places like Tunisia, Tobruk, Messina and the rugged Sicilian Mountains, trained them in this wilderness area — even building roads — for what it duplicated of North African terrain. (It was probably for the same reason that many scenes of The Young Lions, a film starring Marlon Brando sporting hair dyed blond and short, were also filmed here.) Patton’s first military camp in the Southwest opened in February 1942, and 11 more followed, although all of them would be closed down by 1944. A General Patton museum is located at Chiriaco on Interstate 10 between Indio and Blythe. (Call (619) 227-3483.)
Indio, incidentally, in the heart of the Coachella Valley, is considered “The Date Capital of the World.” It is not part of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, but it was nearby and I wanted to see it. Lush farmland there is said to have “the highest average yield of any farm area in America,” according to Mildred de Stanley in her book The Salton Sea. A National Date Festival is held every February for ten days (February 14 to 23, this year), with costumed celebrants, camel and ostrich races, and local pageants. On Palm Springs Highway, west of downtown Indio some two miles, Shields Date Gardens features a free movie. The Romance and Sex Life of the Date. What’s to know? Simply that each acre of 48 female palms has only one male presiding over it, what may be called the “harem syndrome.” Oddly enough, dates require hand pollination, since wind, as with other plants, does not work to inseminate them. A cultivator climbs the male tree each year, and, having collected the requisite flower spathes, proceeds, with his Cupid-like heart wildly beating, no doubt, to brush the male blossoms around each of the female flowers. Flowers appear in March, and fruit is picked in late August through December.
I had a last coffee at the Grumpets’. It was time for me to leave. I didn’t want to go. I very much felt as if I belonged there. I wanted to stay. On the way out, going back to San Diego, as I headed up over the mountains into Julian with its pies and people and prettiness, I took time to go through the Texas Dip, a huge wide wash, a mile wide — fully to comprehend it, you have to drive down, along through, and then up it, stop the car, get out, and, looking back, observe what a very strange geological oddment it is!—and, driving along, I pondered the silence. (A warning sign on Yaqui Pass read Tractor-Semis Over 30 Feet / Kingpin to Rear Axle / Not Advised.) Unpredictably, I felt a sadness, disgust, la nausée at having to reenter the world, resenting immediately the traffic I encountered, rising into the mountains, heading out on the highway, through Ramona, a town, incidentally, named after the novel, and on to the coast.
It was the silence I loved most, it occurred to me as I looked back. “The silence of the desert is a visual thing, too,” observes Jean Baudrillard, that obsessive philosopher of centerless desolation of the postmodern scene, in his peculiarly xenophobic book America. “A product of the gaze that stares out and finds nothing to reflect it. There can be no silence up in the mountains,” he adds, “since their very contours roar. And for there to be real silence, time itself has to attain a sort of horizontality, there has to be no echo of time in the future, but simply a sliding of geological strata one upon the other giving out nothing more than a fossil murmur.” He goes on to say, “ The desert is a natural extension of the inner silence of the body” — I came to see how this became its central meaning to me—“an extension of its capacity for absence, the ideal schema of all humanity's disappearance.”
“When you emerge from the desert, your eyes go on trying to create emptiness all around; in every inhabited area, every landscape they see desert beneath, like a watermark,” says Baudrillard, and he goes on to observe, “But the desert is more than merely a space from which all substance has been removed. Just as silence is not what remains when all the noise has been suppressed. There is no need to close your eyes to hear it. For it is also the silence of time.” I understood that and was glad I had experienced that time. I had reached into those contours. I had felt that emptiness. I had seen that landscape. But when I saw I had taken much of that silence away with me, the eternal pauses of those star-filled nights, I truly felt in my weightless sleep the desert of the real.