The Tao of Anza-Borrego

I spent my teen years at the foot of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and now live on a bluff overlooking the rolling Pacific, yet it is only in the desert - with its dry, sage-scented air and spacious solitude - that I feel at home.

The desert is where I go when I need to think, or stop thinking. The desert is hidden. The desert reveals itself slowly, like a lover. It is so silent and formless that you are certain there is nothing there - until you make your mind be still and listen to the subtle music that is all around you, whistling in the slot canyons, snapping in the dry palm fronds, murmuring in an underground river beneath the sand. The desert makes you hear what you had not heard, see what you had not seen. Even though it was there all along.

That is the Tao of the desert.

I was talking about the desert as a philosophical concept to a German woman. She said, "Oh, I love the desert. I love to play golf when the sun comes up and sleep in the afternoon and shop in the evening."

No. That is not the desert. The desert is not about golf courses, shopping malls or island-themed restaurants. It is not even about water, or the lack thereof, or spiny cacti or nocturnal animals that slither. The desert, to paraphrase Willa Cather, is about something wild that whispers to the ear on the pillow and softly picks the heart's lock, releasing the imprisoned spirit of man "into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning."

For years i spent a part of every winter out in the Coachella Valley, sleeping late in air-conditioned condos, wearing crisp white shirts to elegant Italian eateries, sipping martinis around kidney-shaped pools. I liked it well enough. I took Jeep tours into palm canyons and went horseback riding through cholla flats and, wrapped in monogrammed bathrobes, watched from the balcony of my room as bighorn sheep munched pansies in the hotel garden. Like the German woman, I thought this is what it meant to go to the desert.

Then, three years ago, I found Anza-Borrego. It was October. A friend I had not seen for a while called and asked me to join her out in the desert. This is a woman with a taste for luxury, so I assumed she meant the Ritz-Carlton at Rancho Mirage or perhaps the historic La Quinta Resort, but when I asked where she was staying, she said La Casa del Zorro. I'd never heard of it. "It's in the real desert," she said.

"What's out there?" I asked her.

"Nothing . . . everything," she said. "And David, there are so many stars."

She wasn't talking about Bob Hope and Gerald Ford.

So I went. I arrived late in the afternoon after stopping for lunch in Julian and then following the weaving mountain highway that drops you several thousand feet to the desert floor. Pulling in at the luxurious Casa del Zorro, its red-tiled casitas shaded by acres of palm trees, I had just time enough to unpack my bags and have a quick dip in the pool before meeting my acquaintance and desert guide, Paul Ford, in the lobby of the hotel.

Paul, who goes by the name "Borrego Paul," is a former planned-benefit analyst from Ohio. After moving to the San Diego area in 1989, he began exploring Anza-Borrego Desert State Park's 600,000-acre expanse in the Yuha region. The Yuha is a subset of the Sonoran Desert, which spreads from Phoenix to Palm Springs and from Needles to about a third of the way down both coasts of Mexico's Gulf of California. Paul now sports a ponytail and wears a straw fedora and jeans so faded from the desert sun that they are more white than blue.

"My job was stressful, so I'd get away from it all by doing a little day hike out here or just driving around," he told us as we pulled off the highway leading east of the little town of Borrego Springs, a privately owned enclave surrounded by the state park, where Casa del Zorro and a handful of other hotels and restaurants are located. We bumped onto a sandy road that was nothing more than the corrugated dry wash of a riverbed. "I was amazed that so close to San Diego you could drive for hours and not see another soul.

"Then I started to spend weekends out here, always going someplace different - Ghost Mountain, Coyote Creek, the calcite mines. I couldn't believe it. So I started taking friends out here. They'd never seen anything like it. Next thing you know, I decided I might as well make a business out of it. Like George Burns always said, I do what I love."

Paul raced the Jeep down the dry wash, its back end fishtailing a bit in the sandy curves. He was rushing to get us to Font's Point, an escarpment about four miles off the highway, before sunset. I don't know what I expected to find at Font's Point. Some sort of pretty desert view, I suppose. Maybe some colored rocks and a sprinkling of angular cacti. Endless vistas of sheer nothingness.

Instead, walking up the short path that led to a pitted bluff several hundred feet above the valley, I felt the way I'd felt when I first saw the astonishing mud-colored cathedral, known simply as La Parroquia, in Mexico's Central Highlands. People say it was built by American Indians who took their directions from an architect who drew his design in the dirt with a stick. The sight was breathtaking. And ethereal. I couldn't have been more surprised if I'd suddenly been transported to the rutted valleys of Mars, which is what the landscape before us resembled.

How to describe it? We were standing on a gray-colored bluff several hundred feet above a landscape marked by hundreds of disorderly rows of weather-worn hills twisting in all directions, as if there'd been a cataclysmic crash between uplifting continental plates right in the middle of the desert. The hills absorbed the dark desert shadows and radiated muted earth tones, mimicking the sky, which was layered like a torte in hues from washed-out blue to glowing orange to sated purple. But it was the juxtaposition of the violent-looking scenery with the absolute stillness that was most jarring. It was as if we had happened upon a battlefield after the last cannon was fired and there was nothing left but a deathly silence.

These are the Borrego Badlands, which stretch along the Peninsular range. They once were the bottom of the ocean and then, as Baja California was dragged northward along the San Andreas fault 5 million years ago and the Gulf of California emptied, an ancient flood plain. A million years ago it was home to ground sloths and saber-toothed cats and camels. Paul - whispering as if we were inside a church - told us that not far from here, to the north, a paleontologist discovered an almost-whole skeleton of a mammoth. "The skull was so big they had to haul it out with a helicopter," he said.

Out here in the desert.

We sat on the bluff and watched the light slowly change colors, watched as the rutted hills, carved by a million years of sudden, violent rainstorms and scouring winds, grew moody in the darkness. A photographer with a weathered straw hat and a large, boxy Leica on a tripod patiently sat in a folding chair, waiting for the shadows in the Badlands to deepen even more before carefully squeezing off just two or three photos and then packing up. He had come here every night at sunset for a week, he told me later, and every night the mood was different.

"The desert is like a woman," he said. "But the Badlands are like a capricious woman. You must be patient if you want to understand her."

There was also a small pod of well-groomed seniors sitting in a semicircle of director's chairs, drinking martinis from a sweating glass pitcher that sat on a folding table along with two votive candles and a little bouquet of desert lavender. They sipped their drinks quietly; no one spoke. We acknowledged one another with half-smiles, a slight nod of the head. Nothing more. It took almost an hour before the Badlands were completely dark. Then, one by one, we tiptoed away from the bluff, heads bowed in silence, like old women in black rebozos leaving vespers.

Paul drove us for miles down a dry riverbed far away from Borrego Springs. Suddenly, he stopped and we got out of the car. I had no idea where we were. Somewhere out in the desert. No lights. No noise, not even the faint sounds of automobiles or music or airplanes. The silence was extraordinary. Almost scary. I kept listening - for what, I'm not sure - and there was nothing. Nothing. And then I stopped listening and settled into one of the beach chairs Paul brought along and tilted my head back to look at a sky I had never really seen before, and that was when I began to hear the desert.

The burbling of the river that runs deep underground, the shifting of a far-off sand dune, the blooming of an ocotillo. If you can keep your mind still enough, you can hear all this. This, too, is the Tao of the desert.

About those desert stars above us: millions of tiny lights thrown across a black velvet background like a spilled bucket of diamonds. Here the Milky Way is milky; Ursa Major - not just the Big Dipper - obvious. We spotted the red ink dot that is Mars and with low-power binoculars made out the hazy colored bands around Jupiter. But most amazing to me was watching the satellites - like celestial school buses - moving slowly across the desert's night sky. They were so visible, so distinctive that I kept insisting to Paul that they must, in fact, be airplanes. Paul just laughed. "That's an intelligence-gathering satellite," he said. "They're the easiest to see because they're the biggest." Paul suggested that those satellites use radar-imaging to take pictures of the Earth at night. "Right now it's probably got an eye on us here in the desert. Just like a sky god."

Maybe he was making this stuff up. I had no way of knowing. But it made me think of ancient people looking up into a dark, silent sky thousands of years ago. Is it any wonder so many of the rockets we send into space, like the Titan, are named after ancient mythological characters?

Paul likes to tell stories. "All desert guides are trained liars," he told us the next morning. We were on our way to a slot canyon where, Paul said, there are Yoni stones where Kumeyaay shamans carved female genitals in the rock and performed fertility rites. "At the end of the ceremony, the shaman would carve off some of the stone and young women would swallow it to make them more fertile," he said. He smiled at us and gave us the look of a poker player who had just doubled the pot.

This followed a story Paul had told earlier about Pegleg Smith. "Oh, there's gold out here somewhere, that's for sure," he'd said when I asked him about an abandoned mine I'd seen just off the highway. "There are people who come out here every weekend looking for it. It'll turn up sooner or later."

And then he told us about Thomas Long Smith, a part-time adventurer who reportedly found a good-sized gold nugget somewhere in Anza-Borrego in 1829 while traveling from Utah to California, then returned several years later to reclaim his fortune but couldn't find it. "He spent the rest of his life sitting on a bar stool and spinnin' yarns about his desert gold mine for the price of a drink."

Paul stopped the car along the road and nodded toward a pile of rocks, where a sign read: "Let him who seeks Peg Leg Smith's gold add 10 rocks to this monument." The pile is at least 8 feet high and the circumference of a standard backyard pool.

Back in the Jeep, Paul said that if we came back the first Saturday of April, we could participate in the Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest. "There's only two rules," he said. "Your story has to be about finding gold in the desert, and it has to be absolutely untrue."

I asked Paul if he ever sees the rare desert bighorn sheep for which this state park is partly named. "Once in a while," he said. "But you have to know where to look. And you have to be patient. Most people who come out to the desert expect to just get in the car and go find them. It doesn't work like that. I know people who have looked for the borregos for years and never spotted one."

Half an hour later, after scrambling over chocolate-colored boulders and squeezing through narrow slot passages 60 feet deep, we came across an indentation in the soft sandstone canyon, a hollowed-out nave - perhaps eroded by a flash flood; perhaps, as Paul claimed, dug out by native shamans hundreds of years ago - in which we found three round stones stacked atop one another like a snowman.

"Are these the Yoni stones?" I asked.

Paul stooped down, studied them carefully, pulled at his chin. "Could be," he said, though evidence suggests otherwise. "Who's to say?"

As we continued to hike, the canyon got deeper, the passages narrower, the shadows more dense. The sensation was that of climbing down a wide hole into the center of the earth. Finally we could go no farther. We sat on separate boulders, drinking water and listening to the wind that sweeps through the canyon making a spooky noise that sounds like a choir of ghosts blowing across the top of glass bottles. He closed his eyes and smiled. "The Kumeyaay are singing to us," he said, and I think he meant it.

That afternoon i floated like a leaf in the hotel pool just outside my room. Little black birds with red markings on their wings flitted in and out of the honey mesquite trees. There was a slight afternoon breeze and I found that if I floated motionless on the water, which is drawn from a deep aquifer beneath the sands of Anza-Borrego, invariably I ended up with my head pointing north. As if I were a needle, the pool a compass.

Perhaps I was just tapping into the spirit of Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who first led an expedition through this desert in 1774. Bautista was leading a small group of soldiers and missionaries from northern Mexico to San Francisco Bay.

"They'd spent days crossing the desert and were searching for a pass north through the San Ysidro Mountains. They had no idea where to go," Paul said as a long-tailed lizard climbed the wall behind his chair at the Krazy Coyote, a restaurant at the Palms at Indian Head. "But one morning Juan wakes up and sees what looks like a human figure engraved in the face of the hill, pointing left. He decides the angels are pointing him north through the pass. So that's the way he goes. And damn if he isn't right."

The next day, before dawn, I rose and hopped in the car and followed a private road north out of Borrego Springs, through grapefruit orchards to where the pavement ended, then down a dirt road marked Coyote Canyon. After about three miles I came to a creek and could go no farther. I stepped out of the car and looked up at the hills in the distance, and I saw the faint outline of an arrow in the strata of the rock. And there on the hills were the borregos - three or four bighorn sheep - staring silently at me. As if, like the angels, they had been awaiting my arrival.

Guidebook

Oases in the Desert

Getting there: Anza-Borrego is two hours east of San Diego. California 78 and County Routes S2, S3, and S22, all access the park, though many visitors from Los Angeles or Orange County take California 78 through Julian.

The visitor center at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is open from 9-5 daily from October through May; weekends and holidays only from June through September. Park information: telephone (760) 767-4205 or www. anzaborrego.statepark.org. Back-country permits are free. The park has 144 developed campsites; tel. (800) 444-7275 for reservations.

Where to stay: Borrego Springs, a community inside park boundaries, has several hotels and B&Bs.; La Casa del Zorro, tel. (800) 824-1884; fax (760) 767-5963; www. lacasadelzorro.com; elegant casita-style rooms. Rates: $135 to $375. Borrego Valley Inn, tel. (760) 767-0311; fax (760) 767-0900; www.borregovalleyinn.com; Southwestern charm in recently opened hotel. Rates: $100 to $155, includes continental buffet breakfast. The Palms at Indian Head, tel. (800) 519-2624; fax (760) 767-767-9717; www. thepalmsatindianhead.com; is a renovated 10-room hotel on what used to be the old Hoberg Resort with great views of the valley. Rates: $79 to $159.

Where to eat: Krazy Coyote, 2220 Hoberg Rd., Borrego Springs, tel. (760) 767-7788; $40-$45. getting around: "Borrego Paul" Ford offers a number of off-road adventures through Desert Jeep Tours, tel. (888) 295-3377 or www. desertjeeptours.com, from sunset tours of the Badlands (3 hours; $89 per person) to canyon tours with guided hikes (4 hours; $89 per person).

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