Catalina Spa and RV Resort Desert Hot Springs, CA Clear and Sunny, Breezy, High 61F Lo 41F
Sometimes for no reason at all, I miss the desert. Most often, it is during the winter, when much of the desert near us is also in the throes of winter; high desert sage covered with snow and hunkering down under biting winds. When we arrived at Desert Hot Springs on Friday afternoon, the skies were cloudy and it was raining lightly. It wasn’t the desert that I envisioned, except perhaps for the pungent scent of creosote bush in the rain dampened air. All desert dwellers and visitors know this smell, and most of us love it.
We left San Diego in the rain that morning, choosing to drive through Julian and down highway 78 into Borrego Springs. The drive is steep and winding, but nothing too difficult to handle. Jeremy wasn’t too happy about it, though, and kept trying to figure out how to get comfortable on his dash perch while Mo negotiated the curves.
We had an especially good reason for taking this route through Anza Borrego to DHS. Laurie and Odel were camped in the state park and on this soft rainy day were hanging around at home so we could visit. What a treat it was to share some of Laurie’s great carnitas tacos and a glass of wine while we caught up a bit. It was wonderful to see old friends on the road before we continued north to our destination.
On Saturday we relaxed a bit and drove west on the freeway to check out the Premium Outlets, something I haven’t had a chance to do in the past. I am glad I didn’t think I was going to do any great shopping there. It seems that the only thing around are clothes, clothes, and more clothes, interspersed with shoes and more shoes. It was spectacularly boring. Even Chico’s was sad. It seems that the Chico’s outlet stores don’t sell overstocks of their regular stuff and have made a bunch of cheap ugly stuff for the outlet (cheaper) stores. Ugh. I got away from the mall without buying anything but a nice red silicone scraper for the kitchen. I won’t need to do that again.
Even though we come to Desert Hot Springs to stay, it isn’t particularly this part of the desert that I miss. There is traffic, there are lots of people, and there is desert garbage. There are telephone poles and windmills, cell towers camouflaged poorly as palm trees, and of course actual palm trees. There are all kinds of desert dwellers, with chain link fences around properties filled with old furniture and cars, and estates that look like something from another planet surrounded by iron fences and huge gates.
Still, this isn’t the desert I miss. But yesterday, once again, I found the desert that calls to me when I am far away in the high precipitation zone of the Cascades. With the promise of a mostly clear day ahead, we drove east to the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. From the southern entrance of the park, not far from Interstate 10, there are many miles of narrow road winding through the warmer, drier Colorado Desert before you reach the more well known areas with weathered granite boulders and the huge yucca plants that are Joshua Trees on the higher, moister Mojave Desert zone.
We were in the baby car, a nice change from our previous visits to the park in the MoHo, giving us the chance to meander, and to explore the roads designated for 4-wheelers. A stop at the Cottonwood Spring visitor center was rewarded with a printout of things to do in the park if you have a dog. That was so refreshing, since we are used to the usual restrictions against taking dogs just about anywhere in a national park except the parking lot.
We could walk our dog on any road, including the dirt roads that are in many areas of the park that are rarely frequented by everyday visitors. We decided on the Old Dale Road, exiting from the main park road about a third of the way in, and leading off into an endless vista of desert. Not a car in sight, not a telephone pole or a fence that I could see for at least 50 miles distant toward the Coxcomb and Sheep Hole Mountains. We crossed the Pinto Basin, speeding up for deeper sand, negotiating the washboards and just soaking up the open skies. This is it. This is the desert that I miss. Open space, silence, a road ahead with no cars in sight.
Mo and I both have memories of the deserts around Lancaster and Victorville, east toward Antelope Valley, and up toward Barstow when they looked as wild and empty and fresh as this desert before us. Memories of a single pair of car lights at twilight, visible at least 20 miles away as you drive down a long grade to nowhere. No More. That part of the Mojave now is filled with traffic and cars and smog and trash everywhere you look. It takes the foresight of a government willing to set aside National Parks and wilderness to keep landscapes looking like this one. Always. My children’s children can come here and see the desert as it once was. If they are lucky, it will be a clear day like this one where the smog from the south hasn’t permeated even into the wild lands of Joshua Tree.
We made it about twelve miles in before we were stopped by some serious rocks and ruts that required a bit more 4 wheel drive than we wanted to do in the tracker. Parking at the base of the Pinto Mountains, we hiked up to the park boundary. The Old Dale Road continued over these mountains and down the other side to 29 Palms, but we wouldn’t be making the round trip as originally planned.
Back to the main road to continue north toward the campgrounds, we passed Ocotillo Flats, with ocotillos looking like dead empty sticks of nothing in this time before spring bloom. A few more miles led us past the brilliantly backlit Cholla Gardens. Do you know a single photographer in the desert who can resist photographing these “teddy bear cactus” when they are backlit by the sun?? Not me!
We drove through the campgrounds, deciding that there would be plenty of room for a dry camp stay in Jumbo Rocks. We saw many more little nooks and crannies and places that we could hike and play in the rocks on a cool winter day. Even in what should be high winter season, the campgrounds were less than half full. Next time we will plan for a few nights here when we come south.
The afternoon was waning, and we decided to save our other chosen 4 wheel drive route for a later day. Instead we drove the short 20 minutes out to Keys View for a breathtaking vista of the Coachella Valley and the magnificently rugged mountain ranges all around us. The San Andreas Fault stretched below us to the west, one of the more dramatic views of this great creator of the California landscape. The sign at the the viewpoint had a photograph of the usual smog that covers the area, and a photo of what it might look like on a clear day. We had the smogless day, and even with the clouds that hid Mt San Jacinto from view, the wild ranges that we could see stretching in all directions were stunning.
Traveling the northwestern route out of the park toward Yucca Valley, we realized that it would be dark when we got home. Mo said, “How about a pizza?” I liked that idea and as we reached Joshua Tree I fired up the iPad to search for pizza. The town of Joshua Tree yielded up only one place, Sams Pizza, and Yucca Valley had only a Domino’s. We haven’t had any luck with Domino’s so Sam’s it was to be.
We drove back and forth a couple of times along the 29 Palms Highway and could only find Sam’s Market and Indian Food. Finally in the fine print, in a sign in front of a tiny strip mall we saw it, Sam’s Indian Food with pizza and subs in the fine print. Hmmmm. Indian food is great but be wanted pizza. The tiny restaurant turned out to be delightful, and the pizza was great, with a crust that was a bit more like naan than pizza crust but completely delicious.
The drive back home was short and sweet, and coming down that long grade into Desert Hot Springs was much less daunting than the first time we drove in the big rig. The twinkling lights of Palm Springs welcomed us home after a truly perfect day in the desert.