California Superbloom

California Superbloom

There’s just something about desert twilights. Just as the sun dips below the far-off mountains the sky turns rainbows from blue to yellow to a blazing shade of pink, and the air turns still as the birds and insects grow quiet. The air cools slightly in welcome contrast to the scorching heat of the day, but the sand beneath my bare feet is warm, radiating the energy of the sun. Before the light fully fades stars blink through the inky purple on the opposite horizon, free from the low-lying haze and eternal-dusk of the city. This is one of my favorite feelings in the whole world.

For the vast majority of my years alive thus far, California has either been in severe drought or having a very dry year, which in Los Angeles means several inches less than our already-paltry yearly average of fifteen inches. I believe this is the reason for my childlike enthusiasm for any type of precipitation, although if I ever live somewhere like England I’ll have to get back to you on whether this enthusiasm persists. Rain (and the even-rarer Los Angeles snowfall) has always been more of a novelty in my life than a frequent consideration. I own neither an umbrella nor galoshes, and my rain jacket makes an appearance only when I’m packing for a backpacking trip in the mountains or on the coast. No wonder why so many people live here.

This winter has been the rainiest we’ve in the last five years. Last month was the most rain I’ve seen since moving to San Diego in 2012, with flooding up and down the state. But for all the destruction, nature does eventually reward with beautiful things.

California Poppies

| California poppies under a bright blue sky. Antelope Valley, March 2017. |

Last week I blew off lab work and drove to the desert mid-week in hopes of catching the “superbloom”, this spring’s massive desert wildflower bloom brought on by these perfectly timed rains, at its peak and without the hordes of weekend tourists.

I was not the only one in Southern California with the idea to play hooky that day, and the two-lane highway snaking down to the valley floor slowed to a crawl, a line of massive RVs tentatively navigating the tight curves of the mountain road. Nevertheless, we all made it to the valley floor by mid-morning and I headed for Lower Coyote Canyon, a dirt 4x4 track north of the town of Borrego Springs. I have a rather foolish tendency to push the limits of “offroading” in my little Honda Fit, which is neither a four-wheel drive nor does it have adequate ground clearance for anything but a well-graded dirt road. But a grad student salary won’t buy a Jeep or any other 4x4 of my dreams so I tell myself it’s more about driving skill and tire placement than the car itself for anything other than “real” 4x4 trails or bad weather. I might be kidding myself, but what else is new? I haven’t yet snapped an axle or smashed my differential into a big rock, so why stop if the foolishness is working?

Bighorn Sheep

| the bighorn sheep were also enjoying the superbloom |

After taking a slow drive partway up Coyote Canyon in a line of 4WDs and walking around the valley floor photographing the multitudes of different wildflowers on display, I headed back down the road and over to Palm Canyon, a short but beautiful hiking trail just west of Borrego Springs that ends in a secluded oasis of palm trees and a shaded pool. Bighorn sheep are a frequent treat to spot on this trail, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed today. At least six bighorn sheep were just off the trail, apparently so preoccupied with their flower feasting that they weren’t too concerned with the hordes of tourists crowding around and shouting narration over iPhone videos.

Baby Bighorn Sheep

| the cutest baby bighorn sheep |

Most people, at least those who haven’t spent much time in one, seem to think that deserts are barren, lifeless, colorless places inhabited only by vultures feasting on the bones of hapless tourists. (Or maybe that’s just from a Far Side cartoon I read once.) And while it’s true that you have to look a little harder and wait a little longer to see the desert come alive, when it finally does the sight is nothing short of spectacular. Seeds that have lain dormant for years in the parched soil spring forth in neon bloom following autumn rains. Pollinators flit between the blossoms and lizards bask in the sun. The desert is very much not lifeless, it’s just adapted to scarcer resources.

Something about the desert makes me feel wild. It’s a different kind of wildness than I feel when I’m underwater or on a tropical island or at the crest of a mountain range. It’s rawer somehow, grittier, although maybe that’s just the feeling of sand between my toes. The ocean makes me feel at peace and the mountains make me love solitude, but the desert makes me restless, makes me crave civilization but just the outskirts, the rough parts, makes me want to drive through the night under the stars until my eyes are too heavy to go on and I tumble into bed in the cheapest room at the seediest roadside motel in a town whose name I’ll never remember, then get up the next morning and keep driving, possibly never to return, to start life anew in a new state and a new town.

Borrego Sunset

| sunset in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. March 2017. |

Instead, I linger for a long while after the sun goes down, watching the stars and listening to the coyotes in the distance and hoping I don’t run across a tarantula, until I realize how hungry I’ve become. I drive back to town, order a sandwich at the only open diner and eat it at the bar alone, listening to happy families of tourists share photos and tell stories of encounters with bighorn sheep. Then I commence the two hour drive back across the San Ysidro mountains and down to San Diego, where tomorrow I’ll be back to staring at robot code on a computer screen in an air conditioned lab with no windows. The wildness will have to wait another day.