A Trip to the Desert — Wildflowers, Rattlesnakes, and Homemade Pie

I didn’t know anything about Anza-Borrego. I mean, I didn’t even know it existed.

We traveled from Columbia, MD to San Diego the first week in April, to spend the month with our son, his wife, and our grandchildren. The unusually large amount of rain in California had been in the news this winter, and I had read about the amazingly beautiful ‘desert bloom.’

“Go to the desert,” our children encouraged us. “You’ll like it.”

“I don’t know,” my wife said. “We came here to be with you, and I’m afraid it might be very crowded and hot.”

“It’s hotter in the summer,” our son said.

“Drive on a week day,” our daughter-in-law chimed in. “You’ll need less than three hours to get there, and the kids are in school anyway.”

“Have you two been out there?” I asked.

“No,” our son said.

“Not recently, but I’ve been in the desert as a young girl, with my father,” our daughter-in-law, a California native, said.

“It’s hard for us to find the time,” my son added. Then he pointed at the children playing on living room floor strewn with toys. “These two don’t yet value the wilderness.”

We decided to check our options. By this, I mean that my wife went on line and researched state parks and deserts. Anza Borrego Desert State Park was the closest, about 85 miles from San Diego. There were many trails through the park, some originating near the Visitor Center, and we chose to hike a short circular one, only about a mile and a half. When we can, we like to hike and observe — experience — nature at close range. We also decided to drive there one way, and return by another route, to see more of the surroundings, and understand the geography of the area.

That evening during dinner, I announced our plans.

“You realize there could be rattle snakes?” our son asked casually chewing his barbequed baby ribs.

“Rattlesnakes?” my wife said and dropped her fork.

“Yeah,” said my daughter-in-law. “When I went to the desert with my dad, we saw one coiled up on a rock, but before I could scream in fear, his gun was out of its sling and, POW! POW! — he shot it.” She pushed her plate aside with an abrupt gesture. “Dead,” she added, with a satisfied smile.

“Shot it?!” my wife exclaimed.

“I don’t own a gun,” I added apologetically.

The next day my wife called the Visitor Center.

“The flower season is over,” the lady at the other end said.

“Over?” my wife said.

“Yes. They bloom in March, and it’s almost the middle of April.”

“Then there is no reason to visit.”

“Fewer people visit, for sure,” the woman said. “But the desert is still wonderful.”

“And can we hike?”

“Certainly.”

“But we heard there are snakes,” my wife said, the timber of her voice dropping slightly, as if to impart gravity to her statement.

“It’s the desert, honey, of course there are snakes,” the woman responded happily. “Just pay attention, and stay clear of rocks. And bring water.”

My wife was nervous about this trip, but in the end, I said, “What the heck, I’ll put on my blue jeans.”

“Me too,” my wife said. “And let’s buy hiking boots. It is safer.”

“Yes, the tall ones that protect your ankles.”

I wore jeans over my boots, a long-sleeve shirt, sunglasses, and a baseball hat. Besides her jeans and boots, my wife sported a multi-pocketed safari shirt, shades, and an off-white cotton sun hat, with back drape and chin strap. We packed a small duffle bag with oranges, bananas, cashews, salted peanuts, and a selection of chocolate chip cookies, Band-Aids, a compass, a Swiss army knife, a flash light, a few area maps, and a whistle. We poured coffee into a thermos bottle, and placed a light lunch of ham and Swiss on fresh French baguette, as well as six plastic bottles of spring water in a cooler. We filled the tank with gas, programmed the GPS, and left at about nine, after the morning rush hour.

From the 125 freeway, I turned east on S22, drove through a small town, and stopped at a McDonald’s.

“I’d like some French fries,” I said to my wife.

“We have plenty of food,” she told me.

“I know, but I still would like some. When is the last time we stopped at a McDonald’s?”

I parked the car and went in, only to find out they didn’t sell French fries until after breakfast starting with 10:30. It was 9:55, and I had no idea that there were unbreakable rules at McDonald’s.

Route S22 winded its way through mountains covered with dense vegetation. Coming from the East Coast, we marveled at the luxuriant, exotic plants and shrubs.

“I don’t believe how green everything is,” I told my wife. “I thought we were approaching the desert.”

“It’s only because of all the rain this winter,” my wife said. “I bet you in other years it’s dryer.”

Soon the switch-backs increased, and the terrain became more rugged. Boulders were strewn everywhere, huge smooth grey mounds surrounded by vegetation. It looked extra-terrestrial, lunar. It looked as if God himself had played with the landscape, and had sprinkled it with boulders the way my grandchildren would top their vanilla ice cream with chopped peanuts. Far away in the background, a new mountain chain rose against the blue sky, murky and bare.

I was taking my time driving, my elbow out the window. The locals were catching up to me, and queuing behind me. Every time I had room to pull off the road, I did so, and a small armada of pickup trucks, SUVs, and motorcycles passed us swishing like a punctured balloon, leaving us with our wonderment, and in a cloud of exhaust. By the time I reached county road number 2, the desert was upon us. Everything was yellow and brown. Scorched. Bare. Even the rocks looked sandy. Only the sky arched infinite and silvery-blue, like a dagger.

I stopped at a lookout carved in the side of the mountain. An immense valley opened below, totally flat to the south, flanked by tall mountains on three sides. The small town of Borrego Springs was in the foreground, a few buildings barely visible between clusters of palm trees, and beds of greenery. Crisscrossing streets looked like a loose weave of gray ribbons. The mountainside was covered by rough desert weeds, and dotted with red Chuparosa and yellow brittlebush, much like the ones we saw at the Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma. A few other tourists had stopped at the lookout: three teenage girls, one of them at least sixteen because she was driving, a young, recently married couple, judging by the affectionate way they held each other, and took pictures of each other with the desert view in the background, a man alone, silent, in shorts and flip-flops, near his black convertible, and two or three older couples, nostalgically scrutinizing the horizons.

Heat hung like a curtain. While I was unbuttoning my shirt, and rolling up my sleeves, a lizard darted across the pavement.

“Look!” I called to my wife. “Snakes must be near.”

“That’s not funny,” my wife protested.

“It wasn’t meant to be funny,” I clarified jokingly.

From Borrego Springs, I took a left and after about a mile we reached the Visitor Center. The parking lot was half empty. The surrounding area was beautifully maintained as a friendly and informative desert garden. Gravel trails looped throughout. Information boards described the mountain peaks and the vegetation — trees and palms, bushes, cacti, and wildflowers. Benches were positioned in the shade. The building’s roof was a terraced bridge that blended with the environment and provided an elevated observation point. Inside we talked to a volunteer guide in a khaki uniform, wearing a wide brimmed hat. He explained that most trails started from points in the park accessible only by four-wheel drive. My wife asked about rattlesnakes and he smiled: “All snakes are out at this hour, ma’am,” he assured us, and suggested we spend our time walking around the building and watch a short video about the desert which was about to start.

Except for a couple of small lizards, the only reptiles we saw that day were in the video. We learned that we were in the largest state park in California, that in the summer temperatures rise to 125 degrees F while the ground itself can reach 180; that it can snow in the winter, and the desert is often subjected to flash floods. We saw pictures of bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and coyotes. The word ‘borrego’ means ‘lamb’ in Spanish, and Anza (Juan Bautista de Anza) is the name of the Spanish explorer, the first white man to have traversed the area, going in the direction of today’s San Francisco, at the end of the 18th century.

We ate our sandwiches in the shade, and I felt the heat pressing down on me like air escaping out of a pizza oven. I wondered at the vastness and the ruggedness around me, and the extraordinary courage of the pioneers that traversed this space.

On the way back, I took route 79, through Julian and the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Dizzy from navigating too many switch-backs, I stopped at a restaurant on scenic Cuyamaca lake. We tried sitting on the porch, but it was too cold and windy at over 4,000 feet, so we quickly grabbed a table inside. The restaurant was full of locals. They were loud and had loaded plates and beer mugs in front of them.

“The best pies you’ll ever eat. I made them myself this morning” the proud restaurant owner told us, as she served us a small chicken pot pie, and an apple and berry pie. My wife had read about the famous Julian pies, and asked her if she used the same recipe.

“No, no!” the owner said. “These have nothing to do with Julian pies. Theirs are good, but I bake ours fresh every morning. Have a taste and tell me what you think it is that makes them so special.”

The pies were delicious.

“It’s the crust,” she revealed to us, “and I don’t add any sugar to the fruit.”

We weren’t hungry, but we finished every last bite on our plates, and, on our way out, we bought two large pies to take home. The owner escorted us out the door, with a big smile: “They’re the best, aren’t they? Your children will love them!”

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.