Anza-Borrego is a spot that Jerry Schad had visited eight to ten times per year since the early 1970s -- 300 times in all? -- to do fieldwork, check on trailheads, and add new trips to his guidebooks. He also regularly takes his astronomy classes out to Anza-Borrego to set up telescopes and look at the heavens.
Schad fell for the beauty of the desert when he went camping in Anza-Borrego with friends from grad school. "It happened to be one of those years with just enough rainfall," he said. "And the place was exploding in wildflowers. Entire slopes filled with desert poppies. Color everywhere. I was absolutely amazed. But what clinched it for me on that first trip was this. We came around the corner, and this is on the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail, and right in the crease of the canyon up ahead was all this bright green color. And I realized they were palm trees. I just couldn't believe that vivid color and lushness in the middle of the desert. I got hooked at that moment."
The energy of our company had converted completely after the experience in the tight, dark mud cave. There was an air among us now like the buzz of excited carnivalgoers after the rollercoaster. Our voices sounded different. Steps felt lighter. We were ready for anything. Perhaps Chong and I had gotten hooked on the desert now too.
But the trip didn't necessarily begin that way.
I mean, it was the desert. What was there to see and do that would be worth the heat of the desert?
The first time Schad saw the California desert, driving through the western Mojave, he wasn't impressed. "It was just sort of this ugly, flat, colorless, hot expanse of nothing."
The American poet Wallace Stevens, in one of his most famous poems, wrote about attuning our minds to nature. When nature and man become single-minded, Stevens stated, we might behold "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
At the eastern Anza-Borrego park boundary on S2 (the Imperial Highway), which is also the county line, and which is also an immigration checkpoint, a small stone obelisk rises by the side of the road.
The original bronze plaque in the obelisk was stolen long ago. In 1998, local sculptor Nina Karavasiles made a new plaque out of graphite. "This is the desert. There is nothing out here. Nothing."
As we passed the park boundary, discussing the nothing, and the other nothings, Schad told me that I was going to be seeing the desert in its most dried-out state. "Which is kind of good," he said, "because one of the things that's nice about the badlands is that it's so incredibly stark, so maybe you don't want to go there when there are wildflowers."
The starker the better, I thought. If the desert's true color was to have no colors, then I was happy to see it like that. The nothing at its most nothing-like.
Three miles past the obelisk, the badlands gradually came into view.
They were hills, but as you approached them, you looked down on them from the flatter country above. From the rim of the "breaks," as a descent into the badlands is called, you saw a land that was bumpy and gray -- a convoluted, lumpy quilt -- the hallmark of severe erosion.
Another mile or so down the lonely paved stretch of the Imperial Highway, the badlands tumbled to the horizon on both sides. Smoke trees, ocotillos, and cactus dotted the rockiness here and there, but mostly it was hills and grayness for miles and miles in every direction, until the Coyote Mountains rose about 2000 feet out of a blue-silver haze in the eastern distance and the Jacumba Mountain peaks punctuated the west.
Incidentally, "badlands" was never an official geographical designation for a landscape. Instead, the word commonly referred to uninhabitable terrain that was difficult to pass through and bore no practical value to humans. The term originates from dual origins: the Lakota called the topography of the Dakota Badlands "mako sica," literally "bad lands," and French trappers named it "les mauvaises terres à traverser," which means "the bad lands to cross."
Said Schad, "The badlands are a maze. The washes wind around and wind around, and it's like a maze or puzzle. But generally you can't get lost too much because all you have to do is follow the drainage."
Two areas of badlands lie in the eastern portions of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The Carrizo Badlands, where we were, stretch south of Route 78, and the Borrego Badlands extend north of the highway.
We'd turned off S2 at the Carrizo Badlands Overlook to park and have a look.
"I just love this really stark stuff," Schad said; "what some people might regard as 'ugly' I think is just beautiful."
Indeed, one man's ugly nothing for another person could be really something.
Several ocotillos clutched skyward like bare spindly fingers. Schad told me that ocotillos send out leaves and flowers up to seven times a year, depending on rainfall. (Our whole time in Anza-Borrego, I saw well over a hundred ocotillos, but only five ocotillos with flowers. More precisely, I saw five ocotillos that each had a single flower hanging forlornly from the tip of a fingerlike branch. Each flower looked almost like a dangling red sock. Two of the five had vigorous hummingbirds fluttering at them.) "The ocotillos are so defiant of their environment," Schad said. " 'I'm going to survive!' That's what they're saying.
"One of the things you get a sense of as you enter this area is you don't see the works of humankind," said Schad. "All you see is nature. You could have been out hiking centuries ago, and when we go out hiking today, we'll see exactly the same thing. So when you're talking about towers as tall as high-rises going right through one of the most spacious parks in the nation..." And his voice trailed off in seeming disbelief.