Deserting The Desert

It’s easy to be seduced by California (and we were). Keeping in mind that we stayed two months in this one, of 17 states visited, we were able to see and experience more, here, than others. In light of that, it’s easy to understand why we were so taken by it. Even with the extraordinary price of gas (coming from BC we know that story) and the lack of buying power in our CA dollar, we had an endless list of compliments for this laid back, not-so-little corner of the USA. Having now stepped on this soap box, we can see the merit of supporters for an independent California Republic. Oh, it’s unlikely that will ever be a reality but there are people who like to trot out that idle threat-fantasy when under pressure. When you think of what the encompassing state borders contain and how self-sufficient this state could be, there appears to be nothing they lack. They seem to have it all. This state has every type of climate, huge diversity of plant and animal life, plus extensive beaches, snow-capped mountains, any food staple can be farmed, highly desirable and varied tourism niches, a global leader in wine production (the world’s 4th largest producer), forestry, oil, mining, Silicon Valley, music and HOLLYWOOD!! Not to belabor the point but if Calif. was a country it would be the 59th largest in the world (by size – 423,970 square kilometers).

The magical Ocotillo beginning to bloom. It starts by looking dead, grows leaves, then the fiery blossoms.

California has exceeded our expectations. It is expensive, but surprisingly it has been the least expensive part of our long journey. We found lots of free, beautiful camping in the deserts that augmented our budget. We have found parking lots, Harvest Host wineries, and highway rest stops between LA and Northern California that were more than pleasant places to stop overnight saving $50 on a campsite. Mexican grocery stores with excellent delicacies in produce, meat and dairy at affordable prices. Booze is generally abundant and priced unbearably cheap (Costco seemed to have the edge on this). We rarely lacked for ideas and options in these categories. Contributing to our bottom-line savings was the fact that we had reached our westerly travel destination and were not preoccupied with constantly travelling from east to west while pulling a 4000 lb. trailer. While traveling in January and February you run the risk of wide-ranging climate extremes, but we experienced comfortable temperatures and, luckily, avoided rain since Christmas (up to our re-entry to Canada).

Blossoms in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It was a noisy bush filled with buzzing honey bees.

Back to the adventures – the Anza Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP) was our favorite sand-box out of many desert playgrounds visited during the 8 months we were away. This desert (within two desert areas, The Mojave and Colorado) with its beautiful mountainous back drop never failed to provide a rewarding setting for exploration. Our trailer was the perfect base station for bike rides and hikes. It is equipped with solar for electricity and ensuring our water tank was full, we were self-contained for a week or so. It is an easy chore to regularly top up the freshwater tank in 5-gallon increments during the stay before requiring a visit to a sani-dump to flush out grey and black holding tanks. Even short showers in the trailer could be accommodated but if we were boon-docking somewhere remote, and setting up an outside shower was also an easy alternative too. Usually the park campgrounds had showers for those times you craved the luxury of a sustained wash and rinse.

There were many places outside of the organized campgrounds that we could park the trailer within ABDSP with no charge to stay. These locations had maximum 30-day duration rules. Our first boon-docking week was just off the Borrego/Salton Sea Highway, east of the town of Borrego Springs, at a site known as Arroyo Salada. We found a quiet and private site at the top of a “wash” with a public pit toilet nearby and a few neighboring campers behind other hills. A “wash” is a dry creek, stream bed or gulch that temporarily or seasonally fills and flows after sufficient rain. It was quiet and peaceful except for the infrequent car through the night and distant coyotes yipping and yowling. There were a number of hiking and biking opportunities from this site as well, so we did!! We met a couple, Ian and Valerie, from Vancouver, BC, that were camped in one of the neighbouring campsites. They were avid hikers returning yearly for the past 27 years. They invited us to join them for a 10-mile trek up into the surrounding mountains that began and ended a circuit located quite close to our camp. It was a spectacular beginner/ intermediate hike and we felt quite satisfied with our efforts. The scenery and overall environment seem bleak, moon-like and dead at first glance but by immersing yourself in it you did gain a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance that exists between intolerable summer heat and adaptations of the surprisingly abundant flora and fauna.

Cozy in the Arroyo Salada
Sunset Happy Hour – January and once the sun is down, the cold arrives.
A “Wash” along our hike in the Mountains

We maximized the purpose of our drives into the town of Borrego Springs for provisions, internet use, fuel (both petrol and propane) and filled our extra 5 gal. water tank from a tap at a gas station that didn’t charge us (potable water is scarce here so buying it is common practice). When needed, we went to the park campground to use the sani-dump and fill the water tanks. The cost for this was included in the day use pass for $10. As with most public libraries, the Borrego Springs Public Library had free WIFI. This was helpful in reducing reliance on unreliable or nonexistent cell coverage. The library was new, had a great community vibe and architecturally reflected the territory, well worth a visit if you are in the area. It also had a 3D printer for public use. We didn’t “MacGyver” any solutions (but you never know). LOL.

The next boondocking site we stayed at was south of Borrego Springs in the Blair Valley. This was a popular valley for dry camping (boondocking) and there were many people nearby but not near enough to ruin the experience. We were serenaded by a Great Horned Owl every night. And of course, the requisite desert coyotes. Blair Valley has some great hiking and biking nearby.

On one of many hikes we checked out the Marshal South Experiment homestead on the top of Ghost Mountain. In the early 1900’s an interesting and resourceful fellow by the name of Marshal South and his resilient wife Tanya, decided to get back to the land in the middle of a dry desert on top of this mountain. They raised 3 children, then were given the land before they were asked to move off during wartime as the military was using the area to test weapons. Living 500 ft up a mountain, miles from a town in a sweltering desert has some challenges but set that challenge in the 1930’s and the bar is raised significantly. The South family would have had to carry 120 lb of water per person for the cistern, food staples, building materials (like cement and furnishings) up to the homestead every few days during the hot dry season until they had a functioning livable space. This infrastructure would have had to be carried up the steep switch backing trail from the valley floor. No big deal but the trail was over a mile up the hill without shade protection. Yikes!! He wrote articles about living in the desert that were published as an income for them. The lifestyle became too much for all of them and they moved back to the town of Julian. The kids were bullied by their classmates for their long hair, “Tarzan” clothes and strange upbringing. Tanya eventually filed for divorce after rumours of Marshal’s affair with the town librarian became known. He died a pauper a few years later but she lived until a few months short of 100.

Remnants of the homestead were still there, and a testament to a get-back-to-nature ideal that still has appeal today. The desert was slowly reclaiming this attempt. Not far from this hike, and still adjoining the Blair Valley was the Pictograph trail where ancient rock paintings were still visible from the first nations who lived and traveled in the area hundreds of years ago. Further along this trail were remnants of a village where we found numerous signs of Morteros (ancient mortar/pestles) in the giant granite rocks used to grind nuts and seeds into flour. The end of the valley wash was highlighted by a large, scenic rock overlook in the mountains that offered panoramic views through Smugglers Canyon to the Vallecito Valley where the Old Stagecoach and Butterfield Overland Mail routes once serviced the area.  

Ancient American Indian pictographs
Morteros at the site of a ancient village
Looking down Smugglers Canyon to Vallecito Valley

Another great discovery was Agua Caliente. This San Diego County Regional Park was built around a natural upwelling of hot springs. We decided to try out the hot pools and cool off in the outdoor plunge pool. For three dollars each we had relaxing, swims and showers. This park had camping as well so as a treat after weeks of boondocking we stayed two nights with power and water hookups and endless soaks in the pools(ahhh luxury!).  Agua Caliente, translated to Water Hot, was an oasis that had a chorus of frogs. Lots of frogs. It was so strange listening to them all night in a veritable desert. We went for a 40 Km bike ride along the old stagecoach route and up an arroyo (wash) to the Vallecito Badlands. When we emerged from our ride, we stopped to take a photo and along came a lovely gentleman, Frank, on his e-bike. He had just ridden up one wash across two others and down another to make a 44 Km loop. He was excited because he had given up mountain biking as he grew older as he didn’t have the strength and endurance anymore. Then he added a battery system to his fat tire bike, and he was able to ride the washes and hills again. We pegged him in his early 70s. As he peddled away and bade us farewell, he said “Have a great trip, by the way, I’m 85!!!” A hero with many tales, we are quite sure.

While we were camped at Blair Valley, we reconnected with a friend from my (Deb’s) childhood. Her parents were good friends with my parents. Susan, their youngest, was closest in age to Marnie and I. Susan and her husband John, retired from the Fort Mac oil patch a few years ago and became full time RVers. The last few years they have wintered on the Colorado River in Parker, California. They brought their toy hauler trailer from Parker to Blair Valley and spent a few nights camped with us. During the days we hiked, went on a driving tour of Borrego Springs, the Salton Sea and the sketchy, weird Slab City.

While there, we walked around Salvation Mountain which is a dubious monument created by visionary founder and spiritual guru Leonard Knight (for further entertainment regarding this it is worth Googling any of the preceding titles or names). We spent the evenings laughing, eating, drinking and playing card games. Our super insulated trailer kept us comfy and warm, but they were chilled to the bone in the summer toy hauler/ camping trailer so they headed back to their much comfier Park model trailer in Parker and talked us into heading there on the slow way home. No wonder they were freezing, Parker is at a much lower altitude than where we were in Anza Borrego and it was warmer by more than ten degrees Fahrenheit! We booked a site for four nights in the River Island State Park on the Arizona side of the river right across from their RV park on the Calif. side. More about that in a bit.

On the way to Parker we decided to spend a couple of nights near Joshua Tree National Park. Rather than booking in the park we found free camping at a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) near the 29 Palms area. We drove to Joshua Tree and hiked to the top of Ryan Mountain where the summit looks out over a huge expanse of the park. That evening we went to Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown about a half hour away. Pioneertown was built as a living old west movie set with full time residents that participated as towns folk for movies starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Pappy and Harriet’s was the saloon. The town is still alive and available for use as a set for movie productions. We didn’t really spend enough time here and missed it in daylight so would like to return to explore down the road. The food was great and a performance by The Shadow Mountain Band kept the capacity audience on their feet with warm bluegrass tunes. Sunday jam sessions occasionally attract star personalities like Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Lucinda Williams for impromptu performances.

The drive from 29 Palms to Parker on Jan. 31, 2020 marked our departure from the familiarity of ABDSP and Coachella Valley. We had a month and a half to experience a wide variety of natural beauty and cultural attractions. Some highlights included hiking in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, snow covered Joshua Tree National Park, Painted Canyon & The Mecca Hills Wilderness, numerous palm oases, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, a private inside look into the studios of the NBC affiliate TV station in Palm Springs (thanks again cousin meteorologist Mike Everett) and a desert themed Christmas celebration with Deb’s family in a posh condo/timeshare. I think it is safe to say that overall the place outdid itself because expectations for the area were naively low. We will look back fondly on our many experiences here for some time to come.

We chose to drive a route to Parker that seemed less chosen but quite direct, nonetheless. Highway 62 runs east/ west from north Palm Springs to Parker which is on the Calif. / Colorado state border where the Colorado River is shared by both states. The scenery was as bleak as anything we had seen along our desert routes, but the remote desert topography is marked by interesting mountain formations that provide definition to various personalities of the overall landscape. We set up our campsite at River Island State Park on the Colorado side of the river and made plans to visit Susan and John. We were distracted by the nearness of the Colorado River and the possibilities of paddling our inflatable kayak – a plan quickly gelled. We paddled in the river, shot the rapids when the Parker Dam was open and either ferried across or used the eddies to go upstream without working too terribly hard on a high flow.  In comparison, the desert in Anza Borrego was wide and had long washy valleys. We spent a day with Susan and John off roading in the Dynamite Valley and a hidden trail to a rock art garden. We also ventured out on our own one of the four days to hike to the base of Castle Rock mountain which is a prominent feature in the scenery around the town. Parker has numerous possibilities for outdoor recreation and made an impression on us to return and explore further. We had four days, but four weeks seemed to be a better duration especially when considering that there were many interesting natural attractions within a day’s drive away.

Alas all good things must come to an end and our next entry will wind up this epic 8-month tour as the open road takes us to the largest trees, the Pacific Ocean and a meandering line north on the rugged California Coast finally reunited with our families and hound dog Fani!

3 thoughts on “Deserting The Desert

  1. Great travelogue and photos, but more important, you were enriched by your experiences beyond measure and in so many different ways!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh boy, do those photos ever bring back memories…and the travelling itch. We’re re-thinking our next RV – we’ll have to talk. In the meantime, we’re hoping the stars will align and we might just take the chance and go to Greece this fall. We have to talk!

    Liked by 1 person

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