The desert has always been a special place for me. In Montana vast areas with few people are common. Not so much here in coastal California. However the desert east of San Diego is a place of wide open spaces and not many humans. When I was first stationed in San Diego in the mid-80’s I would escape to the desert at every chance. I’d camp, explore, hunt, and enjoy the open country, despite the heat. It was and is always an adventure.
One such adventure occurred before our border with Mexico was fenced and I didn’t know I was in Mexico until I found paved roads and the signs where not English. I was pretty nervous fellow until I found my way back, given I had half a dozen guns with me. Another time I sunk my rear tires to the differential in soft sand. I ended up napping through the heat and digging my way out after dark. I had just freed the truck when Border Patrol agents found me. After they explained the canyon I was in was a highway for drug smugglers, I never returned to that canyon.
In all those adventures I saw all kinds of wildlife. Deer, coyotes, jack rabbits, rattle snakes, road runners, quail, and lizards. However one species eluded me, the desert big horn. I’d grown up with their northern cousins, but despite being their range many times, I’d never spotted one. Now to be fair, I’d never set out actively to see them either. That is until my friend Larry came to town from Rhode Island. He and his wife Debbie where visiting my wife and I for few days. The girls went to a spa and I took Larry camping in the desert. We went to the country’s 2nd largest state park, the Anza-Borrego Desert. We took our time going out along the US/Mexico border and then cut north into the heart of the park and bighorn country. Borrego is the Spanish name for bighorns and the park is home to several hundred. However, they are still elusive, so I was told, even in the safety of the park.
After checking out the visitor center, we camped out under a cloudless sky and watched the stars fill it up. Before the nearly full moon rose we saw the constellations, satellites, and meteors all put on a show while we sipped beers. Then, the moon was so bright we could almost read by it and only the brightest stars could be seen. It was quite a night. The only thing missing was a serenade from the coyotes but apparently they had the night off.
At dawn, we had coffee and breakfast before we broke camp and moved to the trail head. The day before we’d gathered some intelligence from the park rangers that did not pan out. There were no sheep in our valley, only a pair of young coyotes hunting mice. Maybe they’d been quiet the night before because they were hungry.
Plan B was to hike into Palm Canyon where some ewes and lambs had been spotted the previous day. We rolled through the camp ground to the trailhead, donned our packs and binoculars to head out. A group of four people were nearby and pointing at something. Sheep!
The elusive bighorns where 300 yards from the parking lot. No one in the group had glasses, but through mine, I counted 13 rams. Half were young half-curl or smaller but three were mature rams and three where big heavy full curl bruisers.
I set up my scope and we watched them for almost an hour as they fed and then bedded on the hill. Then, they got up and moved closer! They proceeded across the trail and into the creek bed before moving up to the north side of the canyon. How close is close? I could have hit these desert ghosts with a rock.
One photographer we talked to later said she’d been coming for years and had seen nine rams across the years, none as close as we were to this dozen. I showed her my cell phone pictures and she just shook her head. She had gone up the trail to the north of us and missed them entirely. From what we heard on the trail, most people had. For me and Larry, it was perfect.
Video of borregos
Once the sheep had moved on, we hiked the couple miles into the oasis for which the canyon is named. In the middle of a very harsh canyon filled with boulders and cactus lies an oasis. The first clues to the hidden spring are the trunks of palm trees scattered across the dry stream bed. The palms are native to this area, growing around the few springs scattered across hundreds of square miles. Next is a trickle of water that disappears into the dry sand but increases in size upstream to its source in a grove of palm trees. In a small pocket near the head of the canyon is a lush island of green in a sea of rust colored rock. Palm trees dominate the fauna, but there are grasses, shrubs, and trees mixed into a tight thatch of life on the edge. A few feet from the water, the terrain returns to plants with thorns and bare rock. It is truly a marvel of nature that these plants found water and grew to support a micro ecosystem.
We returned to the truck and headed back to San Diego. We had dinner reservations with our wives and I did not want to miss that. The beauty of San Diego is we can go from the desert to the snow and to the beach in a little over three hours. We headed west into the mountains and the scenery changed from cactus to pines. Continuing west the pines gave way to chaparral which in turn gave way to suburbs and city.
After stowing the gear, a dip in the pool, and change of clothes we were off to dinner and winding up the day admiring the San Diego skyline. It was quite the adventure, and I’ll never forget my first encounter with the desert ghosts.