As you take the I-76 to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the road descends relentlessly. This is a good thing, considering there hasn’t been a gas stations for miles and my friend Dave and I are nearing empty. Down, down, down the road goes to the second largest state park in the lower 48, which is a prime lowland spot for flooding. Up until the recent storms, conditions of the California drought have not lent themselves to rain, so instead Anza-Borrego is running out of water in its underground aquifer. Just as were running out of the gas, the lowlands have us coasting down to quench the thirst of our car with the fuel that’s one components of climate change, and thus a contributor to the historic drought.
Still the parched landscape is beautiful. Completely sheltered from the light pollution of neighboring San Diego, the mountains loom over the vast park and provide clear skies for stellar stargazing. For a while we drive through the park, finding a trail that turns out to be more of a rock climb. The hike the Narrows trail until we have to ascend, then we do so until we can’t make it up any higher. We achieve a nice view of the park, the expansive flat desert with the gargantuan mountain in the distance before deciding to find a trail that is paved a little better, or at all.
Driving through the vast landscape, I catch myself thinking about Chris McCandless, the focal character of the Jon Krakaeur book Into the Wild. A nature lover that lived in the park for an extended period before hitchhiking–and dying–in Alaska, McCandless had cut himself off from the rat race and what he thought was a shallow life of modernity. He favored subsisting and reading Transcendentalists like Thoreau in isolation. Both the topography and weather here are unforgiving, and in the car watching the mountains and beautiful Ocotillo trees–long spikes covered in green leaves that stretch to the sun like a punk rocker’s gelled hair–pass by, I attempt to figure out why he chose to live here, and how he managed to survive for so long. The self-reliance and cunning he must have had were far beyond my current abilities.
Near the visitor’s center are a few trails and what the signs say is a perfect spot for stargazing. Leading up to the Palm Canyon Oasis trail, there is a pathway with to-scale representations of the sizes, and distances, of the planets. You walk for a while in between Mars and Jupiter. I make a mental note to come back here to have a nice look at the dark night’s sky.
The Palm Canyon Oasis Trail is short, easy, and provides life-saving shade from the burning sun. The rocks are piled up on one another, composing the mountains divided by the canyon. It always makes me wonder how everything got this way, how did the rocks break apart and tumble? And why?
The oasis is a cool spot to sit and rest before the hike back. The green and yellow palm trees are jumbled together, sprouting from water that flows down the canyon in a river that you cross over a fallen tree. Compared to the direct heat of high noon, the clammy shade of the oasis is a gift. On the hike back, the sun starts to go down and the rocks’ colors come out. Now I can see purple, red, and yellow, where before I could only see the beige-orange reflected in the direct sunlight.
On the way back, we decide our favorite part of the park are the Ocotillo trees, which amaze us both equally. We drive back into town, not before enjoying pizza and a few beers at Pizza Port, a much needed feast after a long day of adventure.