#4 THE CALIFORNIA DESERT (February 2013)


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park at Borrego Springs, California
Ah, to hear the sound of paper crinkle again; to be rid of the constant cool-weather condensation problem in our cab-over camper closets; to again have our quick-drying travel bath towels dry overnight--those are the things that draw these NW snowbirds to the desert in February. Those from the upper midwest and east come to escape the burdens of massive snow storms and persistent sub-zero temperatures but our pleasures are more simple and we found them at Anza-Borrego/Borrego Springs.

The community of Borrego Springs was an odd blend of just-getting-by'ers, snow-birds, and philanthropists in its 2,500 citizens. It's unincorporated and has no traffic light but the new little park in the middle of its traffic circle seemed like the hub of town. The community's perimeter is tightly bounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest desert park in US. And one road into town is adorned with larger-than-life metal sculptures of dragons, saber-toothed tigers, other animals, and a few noted humans, all of which were commissioned by a wealthy resident with a passion for paleontology. The works are sited on his own plots of land that are open to the public. To top it off, the efforts of 6 local people resulted in Borrego Springs becoming the 2nd community in the world to be named an “International Dark Sky Community". There wasn't a lot to the town but it clearly wasn't your ordinary wide-spot-in-the-road town either.

We arrived at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California under sunny skies with temperatures in the high 70’s and experienced a full day of relatively scorching heat and then it was over. Another winter storm somewhere north of us drove the high temperatures down into the mid-40's and mid-50’s--the same temperatures we’d been experiencing for several weeks on the coast. We weren’t pleased and yet we knew that the humidity wouldn’t soar to 95% at night like on the coast and we'd be able to work-around the intermittently high winds. The paper would still crinkle, the gear in the closet wouldn’t get damp, our towels would be dry in the morning, and that was good enough.

Gotcha! We were impressed but he wasn't.
Hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
After seeing a Mojave Green rattlesnake on the trail in Arizona last April I somehow now feel entitled to a trophy sighting of something everywhere we go. Unrealistic, but true, and I’m still disappointed that we didn’t see a pink rattlesnake at the Grand Canyon, a snake that has evolved to blend with the Canyon's red rocks. But on our first hike at Anza-Borrego we scored: we spotted 7 Peninsular Big Horn Sheep, an endangered species that was seen in the Park fewer than 300 times in all of 2012. It wasn’t hard: 3 males were munching in the afternoon shade right on the alternate trail from the popular Palm Oasis. Presumably the 4 that we saw much farther away were ewes. But despite no great story to go with the spotting, we felt privileged to watch them for 5 minutes. “Livin’s easy” must have been in the air that day because we also spied a number of hummingbirds that actually sat still on branches rather than being in constant motion. Costa’s and Anna’s are the only 2 species in the Park and our best guess was that we were seeing the smaller Costa’s.

Day 2 in the Park was wildly different. The mid-day high on Day 1 was in the high 70’s, Day 2 it was in the mid-40’s. Day 2 brought snow as low as 2,000’ to the mountains that were right out our door and we were forewarned of wind gusts to 55 mph. The wind prediction was easy to believe as our previous night’s sleep was chopped into bits by bouts of strong winds relentlessly rocking our camper. The persistent winds made it easy for Bill to shift his planned hike from being part way up the nearby, cloud-enshrouded mountains to the opposite end of the Park, thereby missing most of the daytime rain. And lucky us, he caught sight of a ewe and 2 big horn fawns poising above us on a ridge during the gusty hike.

Our 3rd hike was the premier event in the Park: a real ‘go thrash yourself’ trail with areas of vegetation that would make landscape designers take notice of the pleasing compositions. We completed a 9 mile round trip segment on the long-distance “California Riding & Hiking Trail” which garnered 2,800’ in elevation gain--the most gain we’d accumulated since late fall. There were no big horn sheep or hummingbirds in sight but going from 600’ elevation to 3,400’ sliced through a number of distinct vegetation and geologic zones, which kept our eyes busy.

We loved the look of & views from the California Riding & Hiking Trail.
The trail began in a granite-grit wash and quickly ascended a rocky slope sprinkled with cholla cactus and brittlebush perennials. As we moved higher, the mix of cacti, agave, ocotillo, and unknown brushy plants shifted until we started seeing a few junipers. In addition to the color contrasts that ranged from the sage-green globemallows to the forest-green junipers, we delighted in the shape/height variations of the plants. The dried flower stalks of the yucca and fountain-like, upward spray of ocotillos kept drawing our eyes up with the occasional old barrel cactus or mature cholla filling in the middle range.

Our last hike at Anza-Borrego was on a segment of the long-distance Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) after a second hike on a different stretch of the California Riding and Hiking Trail, which had some snowy patches from the recent storm. It was on the PCT that I heard myself saying “We’re trail snobs...no, no, we’re trail connoisseurs". Our friends savor fine wines, special coffee blends, and limited production olive oils while we delight in the best of budget chocolates and exquisite trails. Being on a boring trail like that part of the PCT highlighted what makes an exquisite trail for us. Top honors for a trail are reserved for those that provide a feast for our eyes, get our hearts pounding, provide serious challenges for our lightly clad feet, and perhaps stir some intellectual stimulation as well. The California Riding and Hiking Trail in this area had done all of that whereas the nearby PCT had come up short.

Hiking the Imperial Dunes
Two days later at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area (named for the Imperial Valley & County, not former royalty in the area) we had another, very different example of a stellar hiking experience by our standards. These dunes, like all the dunes we’ve been on, had a fraction of the biomass of the Pacific Crest Trail but it was phenomenally more interesting. We had such a delightful time in the Dunes that we went back for a second walk.

What fun to discover that we could make it up such steep dunes.
Being on the top of each of a series of dunes provided interesting panoramas of the immediate area as well as the distant peaks. At our feet, we inspected lizard, bird, beetle, and kit fox tracks as well as had brief glimpses of darting, sand-colored lizards. And we finally tumbled to the understanding that some of the mystifying tracks in the sand were really odd patterns formed by wind blown grasses and other vegetation. The bonus was a soaking rain 2 weeks prior which had triggered some wild flowers to bloom, a few of which were already going to seed.

The main event in the dunes however was the excitement for our feet. The Pacific Crest Trail had been a ‘tromper’s trail,’ one that was so smooth and regular you could practically tromp along with your eyes closed though the surface texture was too coarse for barefooting. No technical challenges on that part of the PCT--just putting in the time. The dunes however were safe for bare feet and delighted them with an especially finely textured sand. Some areas of sand were so firm that we could walk without sinking whereas the steep faces often had us sinking mid-calf as we descended. It was a hiking event that kept our minds and our bodies engaged.

We were fascinated to discover on these dunes that we could walk up what looked to be an impossibly steep face. Some of the dunes had faces steeper than we’d seen before--they were sometimes so steep that the lap marks normally formed by the wind gave way to ‘sags’ or melted-wax patterns in the sand. Charging up these dunes was terrific interval training and helped us master some new sand dune skills.


Circling the Wagons
We unknowingly arrived at the desolate expanse of California desert, the Imperial Sand Dunes, a few days before the close of Sand Season and the tribal groups were already gathering in intimidating numbers. They were literally circling their enormous painted wagons on the edge of the sand-blown, one lane road and had set out their wares like they wouldn’t budge for anything or anybody. They were using cones and banners to stake out territory far in excess of what they needed, illegally reserving space for latecomers in their tribe. We however understood the message and kept on moving deeper into the compound on the narrowing, dead end road.

Many tribal units had big piles of wood to chop.
Men chopping wood, men cooking game over open flames, children playing within their circle, and few if any women in sight. It was like rival tribes were coming together for an annual festival in which there was tolerance but little trust of “other.” At any moment I expected to see men marking their territory like animals but that wouldn't be until another day.

I had my instinctive reaction to being an outsider in such situations which is “I don’t feel safe.” But like any good traveler, I pressed deeper into the encampment, giving time for my nerves to recalibrate to the unexpected scene, hoping to find a space respectfully removed from the most aggressively positioned groups. Our nearest neighbor carefully avoided looking our way as I parked our rig just outside his encoded sphere of control.

Later when I was inside our camper, the elder in the neighbor’s group approached Bill with an outstretched hand. He was the first in his tribe to arrive he said, others would be coming. John seemed to need to assure himself that we were OK because we conspicuously lacked the proper tribal credentials for the close of Sand Season: we had no dune buggy in or on a trailer.

The In's & Out's of Duning
Neighbor John explained to Bill that being in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area mid-week in the middle of February as we were put us squarely in the build-up to the last weekend of the unofficial Sand Season, the President’s Day 3-day weekend. Sand Season, the preferred season for dune buggy riding, was between Halloween and President’s Day, so this would be a busy weekend. On big holiday weekends like Thanksgiving, there would easily be a quarter of a million people or more camped on this Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property with a few pit toilets and a cluster of dumpsters for services.

He explained to Bill what was immediately obvious: that this was a very expensive hobby. John bought his current dune buggy used for $8,000 and before he knew it, it was up to $20,000 because of the roll bar he added, new tires, and other odds and ends. Then there was the trailer to haul it on and often the huge RV with big water tanks and big generators to allow them to dry camp or boondock for a long weekend or a week or 2. In addition, there were ATV's for the kids to drive, free-standing barbecues, satellite dishes, outfits, helmets, googles, boots, and all the rest.

We wondered how much one of these babies cost.
John commented that his friend's dune buggy was so wide that it wouldn't fit on a standard trailer as is. Special, small tires were mounted on it for the sole purpose of loading and transporting the buggy on the trailer. Once at the dunes, the buggy was rolled off the trailer and 4 monster tires hauled in the back of a pick-up truck were mounted on the buggy. Webbing also had to be used to cinch the suspension into a tighter position for his friend's rig to fit on the trailer. Needless to say, air compressors for inflating tires were among the standard accessories carried.

Our neighbor said the peak season for duning is in the winter, though some will push the season until April. But it is the heat that defines the prime time. Hardcore duners will come in the summer and sleep all day in their trailers with their generators and air conditioners running and then rip around in the sand all night. Scorpions can be a problem for them if they run into mechanical trouble as they seem to come out of nowhere when people are in the dunes at night, based on John's personal experience.

John added that he preferred to get his roaring-engine-fix in the summer with Lake Season. He and his brother-in-law each have big boats on a nearby lake in which they rip around in during the summer months. He didn’t quite know what to say when Bill explained that we had no engine in tow because we came to the area to walk on the dunes, which was indeed the case. An area of the dunes is designated as Wilderness and is off limits to the duners, though curiously, we found no convenient parking for the Wilderness visitors.

In the morning we got a glimpse of the other side of mass boondocking, which is the mobile services it attracts. An ice cream truck was making the rounds by 9 am. I didn’t see him selling any ice cream but the bagged ice he also carried was a hit with one nearby RV’er. He was still making his rounds with his classic ice-cream-truck jingle when we returned before dinner time. After the first morning pass by the ice cream man, it was a steady stream of sanitation trucks that would pump out your sewage holding tanks and/or deliver fresh water. We both agreed that the onsite dump service was appealing but we’d be pretty desperate before we bought water from a sewage crew. Our area had a 14 day limit on camping but we imagined that the mobile sewage service would be especially appealing to those staying in BLM long stay areas that have a 6 month pass for $180.

Completely absent at the massive encampment were tents--it looked like you didn’t come to the duner scene without a proper metal box to live in. There were a couple conspicuously labeled rental RV’s and a few old timer trailers but that was as low brow as it got. Apparently a tent was as un-cool as showing up without a sand vehicle like we had done.

A Peak Experience
Chatting with a BLM ranger later in the day we learned that people come from all over the US to spend their annual vacation ‘duning’ in this area. Some will blow all of their time and money budgeted for vacation on a 2 week stay in these particular sand dunes. Duning holidays at Imperial are a longstanding family tradition, especially for those from the nearby cities of San Diego and LA. Many of today’s duners grew-up spending their holidays at Imperial Sand Dunes, just as their children are now doing. There were 3 generations of males on ATV’s in the Hispanic family parked next to us; they and others had taken their children out of school for this particular sand dune vacation.

According to the ranger, the good news about this family tradition of duning was that the previous generation was rowdier, triggering arrests for drug and alcohol offenses. Apparently they don’t want their kids doing what they had done and had matured into a tamer crowd. Our neighbor echoed the same sentiment to Bill. He explained a favorite duner party trick of filling a special shaped glass soda bottle with gasoline, putting a cap with a hole in it on top, and then putting the bottle in the campfire. After a while the gasoline would ignite, spraying the area with particles of exploding glass. “Loads of fun” he said. But he had reconsidered this campfire tradition: he hadn’t passed it on to his son and now picks up bits of broken glass from the sand. His story explained the more than dozen glass shards we plucked from the 8' x 8' area we cleared for our sand mat for our morning exercises.

A Fevered Pitch
We were bug-eyed the first night while we took-in the duner scene but we were absolutely spell-bound the second night. Like our neighbor John had told Bill, it was going to be a busy holiday weekend and this was only Thursday. I could easily imagine that the number of parked rigs had doubled while we had been away for our dune hike. Despite a sizable increase in occupancy during the day, the huge rigs hauling long trailers shot up further at dinner time. We were mesmerized watching one after another troll through our area, many sizing up the open space across the narrow road from us that was quite sloped and had big areas of deep sand.

This guy put it in reverse & didn't stop until he was stuck.
We watched one younger man who was alone boldly back his pick-up and toy hauler trailer into the open sand across from us and instantly became stuck even though he had 4 wheel drive. He consulted with the nearby men that approached him. Eventually entering his rig and pulling out a jacket and beer, he clearly signaled that he was resigned to waiting. After more than an hour an equivalently large truck parked in front of his front bummer and its driver attached a short tow line. In moments the rescue driver had backed up, easily dislodging the stuck rig while artfully backing in an arc to stay on the very narrow asphalt road. The stuck guy first thanked 2 dog owners that had seemingly been onlookers but must have played a more pivotal role in the rescue than we understood.

We held our breath each time a massive pile of steel on wheels slowed across the road from us while scrutinizing the suitability of the spot. We desperately didn’t want any one to occupy the area because watching the show was barely enough compensation for the constant drone and revving sounds of all those engines around us. Dune buggies, ATV’s, and dirt bikes raced all around us, at times making a terrible racket. At dawn and near sunset when their activity was low, it was the roar of huge generators that filled the air. Some generators were so large that they were pulled behind vehicles as separate little trailers. Some RV’s had multiple generators running. The number of canisters of gasoline and other fuels lining some encampments made us wonder why the BLM didn’t have rules about fuel storage when they did issue citations for violating the “No glass containers” rule.

At dusk an RV pulling a trailer full of sand toys finally parked across the road from us, blocking our view of the fine sunset and the other entertainment. Fortunately, he eventually pulled forward enough to diminish our feeling of being boxed in, moving his friend’s pick-up truck with a pair of dirt bikes in the bed into the space directly across from us. It was becoming clear that someone would park there and better to have a relatively smaller vehicle than a bus-sized rig flanking us.

We cringed however when the new neighbor violated the 10‘ rule which dictated that all vehicles on this particular loop must be 10‘ off the road. As we feared, he did have 2 slide-outs, which hung over the road when he opened them. Luckily for traffic, both we and neighbor John were more than 10‘ off the road on firm sand so rigs could still pass. The almost steady stream of patrolling rangers seen during the day seemed to have turned in for the night by then so we had to wait until morning to know if the driver would be made to move. Odds were high that if the RV moved off the road as required that it would be stuck in the sand like the previous driver.

Interestingly, neighbor John had no fear of sand traps. He said the trick when bogged down in sand was to release almost all of the air from all of the tires, especially the even smaller, higher pressure trailer tires. John promised that one could easily extract their multiple rigs from a sand trap by deflating the tires to 16 lbs. He carries his scuba air tanks with him during Sand Season so as to re-inflate his tires once he has extracted himself. Based on John’s hot tip, we moved the hose that can be used to inflate our tires with our truck's air bags into our truck cab from the camper bin. We’ll be quick to try his trick if stuck where our 4 wheel drive doesn’t extract us.

It took a pile of expensive accessories to support a long weekend in the sand.
Reminiscent about Romas
Barging in on this duner encampment reminded me of the Roma (Gypsy) camps we encountered as cyclotourists in eastern Europe. Some Roma favor white trailers pulled by cars and travel in large convoys, somewhat reminiscent of the the duner scene. While I was in the throes of being self-intimidated by the duners in much the same way that I was self-intimidated by the Roma, I recalled feeling “shopped” by the Roma men who sometimes lined the road to their camp in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

We always slowed our bikes as we approached a Roma encampment to store up a little extra energy in our legs and then pedaled robustly through their territory, not pausing for anything. The tables were turned in the duner camp however when I quickly recognized that even if these folks no longer had any cash, they certainly had good credit, and we were the ones doing the virtual shopping by saying to each other: “$60,000 for that truck, $250,000 for the RV, any idea what an ATV goes for?” We of course were running the numbers out of curiosity whereas we always felt the Roma’s were actively studying our gear for the local resale market.

Herding Cats
The relationship between the BLM rangers and the duners was a curious one. The well presented, free BLM map and brochure was full of interesting rules which John spontaneously offered were enforced. The "no glass rule" had netted one family a citation when they had a bottle of Tabasco sauce on their picnic table. The "Flag Rule" that dictated all sand vehicles must have a flag on a certain length of mast, presumably to enhance visibility in the rolling dunes, had cost John. His mast had broken while on the sand and having it with him and an explanation didn't spare him a ticket from the ranger who spotted him. Now John periodically whacks a few inches off the bottom end of his mast to prevent it from snapping in the field from flexion fatigue.

But amazingly, the rangers looked the other way when it came to our across-the-road neighbor whose rig was violating the "10' back from the road" rule. Our new neighbor was one of many constricting the road. And gosh, we sometimes saw a ranger every 10 minutes in the daylight hours but as soon as the sun went down and the outdoor speakers began blaring and the firecrackers started going off, they were nowhere to be seen. Our first night amongst the duner's had been surprisingly quiet but it was party time by the second night, with generators and outdoor music going past midnight, well into Quiet Hours. Initially we had thought about staying a third night to watch the show unfold further but messing with our sleep meant it was time for us to hit the road.

Seeing the escalation in bad behavior made me wonder about the number of guns in those rigs. They were forbidden, but so were the firecrackers. I had been surprised by the level of trust displayed by the duner's: generators, freestanding lights, shovels, air compressors, helmets, chairs, tables, barbecues, satellite dishes, and other desirable, easily heisted gear was literally strewn about and left in place overnight. Was their confidence all reliant on a code of behavior or was some of it backed by Remington?

Marking territory with cones, flags, & tape was common.
Marking Territory
When the tribal quality of the duner scene first bubbled up for me, I also imagined that territory would be marked by pissing in the corners as we’d seen some climbers do in the Red Rock campground our first season. It seemed a little far-fetched but it wasn’t long before I spotted marking behavior. The first was done by a black lab who was allowed to wander off lead, which was definitely against the rules. We and others wondered if he had been dumped, so we watched a little more carefully. A few minutes later, he marked a duner's folded fabric lawn chair and then wandered back to his family's camp a few doors down. The next morning when I was taking photos a 30-something duner obliged my story by exiting his full sized trailer that undoubtedly had a toilet, to piss on the edge of his territory, a mere 50’ from the little-used public toilet. Too funny to catch him in the act but since he had his back to me I could make-nice and pretend I hadn’t seen him.

Fleeing the Scene
We'd come to the Imperial Sand Dunes for the sole purpose of creating a special conditioning event for our feet, which we achieved, and in addition we stumbled upon a "happening." We left with our heads still on overload from what we'd witnessed by being in the center of an escalating duner event. Chats with rangers and our friendly neighbor John greatly enhanced our understanding of what we'd experienced. But one duner event short of its peak was enough for us and I made a note in my electronic files to help us avoid being caught in the middle of another duner extravaganza in the future. We'd continue traveling east into the desert in search of quieter hiking venues and still hoping to make it to Big Bend National Park in Texas before it was either too hot or time to return home.