Borrego Springs and Julian

Dessert in the Desert

Larry McCaffrey, second from left in Borrego Springs
  • Larry McCaffrey, second from left in Borrego Springs

I was invited to a few parties that were way out east. The first one I went to was in Borrego Springs. It was raining in the morning, and I was driving through winding roads up through some mountains.

It took me two hours to get there.

The party was a semi-retirement celebration for Larry McCaffery. He's a professor of English and comparative lit at San Diego State University.

His wife explained to me at one point that because of this FERP (Faculty Early Retirement Program, in which tenured faculty are able to retire and continue teaching for a time, and they phase into retirement), he's retiring but has been hired back to teach a semester at a time. Something about the university not having to pay the state for certain things, and they still get Larry as a teacher. She added, "He would hate to retire; he loves teaching so much. This is a semi-retirement. He's been at SDSU since the mid-'70s. And the university is changing so much. One of the things they are doing is making the admission standards a lot higher, so it's harder to get in."

She later introduced me to a pretty, tall blonde who was wearing leopard-skin pants. I was told she helped Larry out on his first day at State. I always think it's funny when a woman over 50 tries to wear outfits she thinks are sexy. If you are attractive, you'll look attractive in any outfit. It doesn't have to be tight leopard-skin pants that look like something Rod Stewart wore in the 70s.

When I couldn't find Larry upon entering his house, I was told he was on the balcony. There's a beautiful view of the desert from up there.

He immediately grabbed a camcorder and asked me to state that, if anything happened to me, he wasn't liable. He said, "Do you want the one-day waiver, or the life-time?" I made some joke about my calling my lawyer first to ask him. Larry continued on, and then I realized he wasn't joking. So I opted for the daily waiver. An hour later, a woman who had him years ago as a teacher said, "Yeah, I remember I got the lifetime waiver from Larry. That was three years ago."

I wondered: If something happened to somebody and they sued, would he actually bring this tape into court?

I met a retired professor who now lives in France. He overheard this and said, "I remember some undercover cops crashed a party I had. It was way out in Santee, and we were young. We had this barn, and a friend of ours was a big-time drug dealer. He wanted to store 300 pounds of pot in

our barn. He said he'd give us a cut of the profits. Well, we had a party and we were ail smoking pot. These two guys showed up that nobody knew, and they weren't smoking. They just kept looking around. We were sure they were cops.

I got everyone to stop smoking and they quickly left. We got paranoid and went out back and started burying all this weed. We had so much; it wasn't like we could flush it down the toilets. They never did come back. They probably just thought we were a bunch of teenagers. We were scared for a few days, though."

I did smell pot later in the afternoon coming from outside. Since the sun was breaking through the clouds, Z asked somebody how it could be raining so hard on the way to Borrego Springs but sunny here. I was told, "The clouds can't get past the mountains, so we don't have to deal with the rain." Another person said, "There was a sandstorm when we drove in. We came from way out east and were driving west to get here. At one point we couldn't even see the road."

I heard tarry had written some books. I was told he wrote After Yesterday's Crash

and Across the Wounded Galaxies. I asked why he only had one bookshelf, and it was filled with a lot of music books, Rolling Stones, and five different Springsteen books. A guy named Mike said, "He's got bookshelves in his garage, and he has a trailer that is filled with shelves also."

Larry said, "You know, I used to write for the Reader. For a couple years I did a sports column. I was surprised that doing the sports column seemed to get the most feedback and letters to the editor. I even played on a Reader softball team they had." I felt bad that I didn't recognize his name or couldn't say I'd read something that he had written.

There were some pastries on the table, and as I munched a few cookies,

I asked one younger couple how they knew Larry. They told me he was their teacher at one point. And they mentioned something about a Halloween party they were at with him. I asked about their costumes and was surprised to hear they went as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton from the movie Annie Hall. I asked if the guy could do the Allen voice, and he went into it perfectly, with all the mannerisms.

Larry was taking people on a two-hour hike and tour of Borrego Springs. I instead decided to head out to my next party. I later asked Mike if I'd missed anything, and he said, "Somebody read a drunken poem in honor of the retirement. Half the people weren't listening to it. We went for food and karaoke at a restaurant, where a few grad students sang. And a tall guy named Wayne passed out in the potato chip bowl. He went to the bathroom to vomit and then passed out on the couch. Rumors had it he was seen wandering around the desert the next morning."

The other party I went to was right outside of Julian in Harrison Park. Lewis and Marijane were having a housewarming party for the place they'd bought. They own another home in Poway, and Lewis said, "There were 150 homes out here, and only 4 survived the fires six months ago. This was one of them. And you can see some of the windows on the side are messed up from flames. They are bent out of shape, and the glass needs to be replaced."

Once I got past the main drag in Julian, with all the shops and bakeries, I was surprised to

see these blackened trees and bushes. It looked like a war zone. Their house was right next to Whispering Winds, which is a Catholic camp run by a guy I know named Don Kojis. He's a former NBA player I used to play basketball with. I read on the Internet that 75 percent of the camp burned, including eight buildings and a large portion of their landscape, making it completely inoperable.

I asked Lewis if he got a good deal because of the fires. He said, "No, we paid about what the going rate was. It was $250,000 for this place. The person that owned this had another house they lost in the fire. And they didn't have insurance. They live in Arizona now. And the house down the street — one of the reasons it survived was because the person that owned it was a retired firefighter. He stayed and fought the fire to save his house."

I heard a few women making fun of men. One pointed to a hay bale and said, "That looks just like the hairpiece that guy had at the party last week. Why do guys get such bad hairpieces?" Another woman was saying that she works in escrow and how men are horrible at that because they don't know how to multitask. I was going to debate some issues with them, but I remembered a party I was at last month. A woman and I got into a heated argument about whether women really do make less than men in the workplace. And I was too tired from all the driving to debate these chicks.

Lewis spent most of his time at the grill. He'd announce that hamburgers were ready, and people would flock over with buns that they had prepared with their favorite condiments. One little girl ate one bite of her hotdog and threw it away. When she asked for another one an hour later, her mom said, "You shouldn't have thrown away your first one."

I was watching tractors down the street working on one burned-down place. And the neighbors showed up with a truck full of 2x4s, preparing to do some work. I heard Lewis talking about a neighbor trying to sell some property but that the new owners wouldn't be allowed to build on it because it's too close to the county roads.

Marijane was talking to one guy who I thought said he owned some kind of tree-removal business. She asked him about a big tree that had been burned. He said, "You should have it removed. It won't come back, and it could be dangerous." She asked him if his company could remove it, and he told her to call somebody else. I'm not sure why, although he spent 15 minutes explaining to her how it would be fairly easy to do. He later told me about some of the weird calls he got during the fires. He said, "One woman called me to say she wanted a tree removed. I told her all the employees were volunteering, helping out with the fires. She said, 'I need this tree removed. The top half of it is on

There were kids playing on the side of this hill, and one took a tumble all the way down. I thought for sure she'd have fire.' I told her she was calling the wrong place and maybe she should call the firemen."

I parked at what I thought was the bottom of this long driveway and was told it was somebody else's property. Another guy said, "Hey, it'll take the tow truck at least two hours to get here, so don't worry about it."

Lewis was yelling at this little white dog that kept going into a pile of ash. He said, "The dog gets into that ash, and then it ends up all over our house."

Five different people brought plants. I wondered if that is the most common housewarming gift.

There were kids playing on the side of this hill, and one took a tumble all the way down. I thought for sure she'd have a broken bone, but she only scraped her knee. She was up and running around again within minutes.

I tried to take a shortcut to my car by hiking through some bushes. That ended up being a mistake. At least I didn't find poison oak or rattlesnakes.

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