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Twelve Hours in the Desert!

Light In the Desert! Anza Borrego Desert State Park. CA.

It was always going to be a quick strike. Not the winter months that so many of our friends are now spending in the Southwest soaking up the sun, and photographing birds, amphibians, and cacti. Fly into Los Angeles, drive to San Diego, then to Palm Springs, dive into the nearby desert and back home. A few days away in Southern California, time to see a Western Washington Woman’s basketball game, visit with friends, and spend time with the soft textures and colors of sand, clay and maybe -- orange, yellow and purple from the first start of spring blooms?

Dissipating Marine Layer. SoCal.

We had to factor in weather as the California coast, foothills, and mountains are weather central right now. Heavy rains, flooding, and grey clouds were the norm at this time, so different than what we usually think of when we think of sunny Southern California. In fact, it was warmer and less wet in Bellingham while we were away.

Unfortunately, the woman’s team made a rare early exit from the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division II Championships West Regional. A bummer after a sterling season and watching these women grow as both athletes and role-models.

Desert Bloom! Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

So, after visiting with old and good friends we headed east. From San Diego, just under a three-hour drive to Joshua Tree National Park – at least for normal drivers. For Stephanie and me, based on experience, we figured closer to six hours as we drove down new roads and made multiple stops to see the scenery. We crossed over low passes within the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains (and National Monument), drove along the Salton Sea (something I’m not sure I knew existed!), through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and, by evening, arriving for Sunset in Joshua Tree and the Mojave Desert.

Desert Bloom 2. Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

We were hoping to be in time for an early start of that rare botanical explosion, the “super bloom.” Fueled by years of drought and dormant seeds, and now deluged by two successive atmospheric rivers (vast airborne corridors of water vapor) that brought record rain, snow and winds across the state, we anticipated full displays of brickellbush, lupines, ocotillos, phacelia, evening primrose, desert lilies, goldfields and poppies. We were a bit early but caught the start at both Anza-Borrego and at Joshua Tree.

Fading Light! Joshua Tree National Park. CA.

It has been more than thirty years since we last spent time in Joshua Tree, before our daughter was born, and we remember watching coyotes chase jackrabbits through the pinyon pine and cholla and hiking a number of its hidden canyons. This time we had just one evening and wanted to make the very best of it. And while we saw no wildlife on our brief visit (not even a lonely Gambel’s quail), sunset and nighttime in the desert is, to use my granddaughter’s favorite word – wonderful!

End of Day! Joshua Tree National Park. CA.

We came in through the west entrance, above three-thousand feet and into the Mojave Desert. Mojave yuccas, prickly pear cacti, and of course Joshua trees were everywhere. We did not make it further East, into the lower elevation of the Colorado Desert, a part of the larger Sonoran Desert that spreads into southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. Home to the jumping or teddy bear cholla.

Late Afternoon. Joshua Tree National Park.

I too rarely get to spend time in the desert, but I do love it. On this trip we spent our one evening at Quail Rocks and Hidden Valley, as far as we could get in the fading light. We watched piles of red and tan rock backlit by the setting sun, and the slow creep of darkness spreading over the desert sand. All too quickly, the sun was just an orange beam along the horizon, with fading rays highlighting the arms of the Joshua Trees and spines of the cholla. Mere seconds later, alone in the dark with the night sky, its stars and planets glittering above us, and the winter constellations of Orion, Sirius, Gemini, and Taurus.

Cholla! Joshua Tree National Park.

We couldn’t see them, but in our imaginations, we envisioned the desert nightlife, black-tailed jackrabbits, kit foxes, and desert wood rat, come out to share the nocturnal environment and to enjoy watching the skies along with us.

All too soon, we were headed back to Los Angeles to beat the traffic and make an early morning flight home – discussing once again an earlier (and now far too late) conversation about needing a few more days for our trip. Thinking about our desert night as we managed multiple lanes of highway, wind, and heavy trucks. Life is so much simpler in the desert!

If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self.”

Terry Tempest Williams


· California’s largest inland lake, the Salton Sea, is a not-so-wonderful study in climate change, stream flow, and the agricultural use of water. Now considered the state’s most polluted endorheic inland lake (meaning water comes in but does not go out), the pollution is affecting birds, fish and humans as respiratory issues increase from the lakebed turning to dust. Also, it has, over the last two decades, lost a third of its water. Theories for this range from heat to irrigation and other diversions, to far less water coming into the sea from the Colorado River.

· Boasting some of the darkest nights in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is an International Dark Sky Park.

And, not the desert:

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