IF you fly into Southern California from Atlanta, say, or Texas, you fly over the great Colorado desert. As your plane starts its descent over the Colorado River, you may forget that, since below is the unnatural greenness of the agricultural Imperial County (one of the most staunchly conservative and antigay parts of the state) and then suddenly the landscape below looks bleak and brown as you look out on a vast expanse of desert, rippled into folds of badlands and canyons.
Most visitors don't realize they are also looking out on an expanse of North American history. Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition into California from Mexico through this region in 1774 establishing an overland route to the coast. The famed Butterfield Stage pushed a brute-force route across the southern desert during the Mexican-American War, and in the late 1850s, this was the main route into California, the great Southern Emigrant Trail, across the desert and up over the mountains before descending into the fertile farmland on the other side.
Despite its monochromatic appearance from the air, the desert floor teems with life, from the dark green creosote bush, with leaves that smell like tar if you crush them in your fingers, to the ephemeral grey-green of the smoketrees, to the branching cholla cactus, each branch topped with pale golden thorns giving it the look of a halo aglow. Animal life also survives and even thrives: insects, snakes, and at night, scorpions, doe-eyed kangaroo mice, and singing coyotes. The endangered Peninsular Mountain bighorn sheep sip water from the occasional canyon oasis shaded by the rare California desert palm. (Borrego, the Spanish for "sheep", combines with the early explorer to name Anza-Borrego Desert State Park).
Desert living is hard, and communities often are boom-or-bust. The shells of lost commuities can be see along the desert roads, sometimes with a few people still scraping out a life in the searing summer heat. Palm Springs, in the Coachella Valley, is a booming vacation community popular with rich Angelenos. Sixty years ago, developers thought that they might create another Palm Springs in the next valley down. The small community of Borrego Springs was then home to a few cattlemen and farmers raising grapefruit and dates. Surrounded by a nascent state park (soon to become the biggest in the state, and the nation), it was almost unreachable in the early days. Although roads were eventually built in to the valley the developers failed in their goal to bulldoze a superhighway up to LA, with their desired route being blocked to protect the bighorn. Thus, the drive from more coastal cities remains slow and sleepy on twisting 2-lane mountain highways. Although Borrego Springs is a vacation and retirement destination (the population quadruples in the winter as the snowbirds return, but there are fewer than 3000 year-round residents), it lacks the big glamorous and expensive resorts, and maintains a quirky, small-town feeling.
Along the edge of the valley runs a narrow and unevenly paved road called "Church Lane" where four churches sit side by side: Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist (shared with the 7th day Adventists) and Episcopal. BP and I walked to the Episcopal church, St Barnabas, on Sunday Morning. It's a pleasant building, simple and light inside. Strikingly, the wall behind the altar is a huge picture window with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.
The parish reflects the Borrego Springs demographic, being older overall, with many retired folks. It's a small community, but they were clearly involved and collaborative with each other. We felt very welcome, although they seemed a little disappointed we were just visiting, rather than new residents (the start of high tourist season is still a few weeks away). At coffee in the tidy little hall, with excellent home-made carrot cake, we were interested to see flyers about various activities, like helping at-risk youth in the grim farming town of El Centro in Imperial County, or helping farflung poorer desert residents deal with rural challenges like disposal of old appliances. There's a labyrinth laid out with rock in the sand outside the church which I bet is spectacular at sunrise. They are searching for a new rector and relying on supply clergy, although we were quite taken with their interim, Fr Juan, a retired priest. Clearly despite their small size, they are a vibrant and engaged group. So, chalk up another welcoming visit to TEC in the wanderings of IT and BP, desert rats.
The landscapes are mine, the other photos from the web. In 15 years of regular visits, I have yet to see an actual bighorn--they are very shy and hide in the up-country.