Crowing about desert life

“There is always something tremendously exciting about beginning a New Year…  It is the beginning of a new page; a page of some fascinating, illumined parchment. An ancient page, but to us still unread. What will it hold? The desert is full of mystery and surprise.”**  Thus begins poet, author, and artist Marshal South‘s* account of his family’s 17-year experiment in living a primitive lifestyle at their home, Yaquitepec, on Ghost Mountain in the Anza-Borrego Desert.  Some might see this area as desolate, but Marshal saw and wrote about the desert’s cornucopia of animals, plants, weather, stars, and peaceful beauty.  Escaping the stress of urban living for 5 days each month through spring and relaxing in the desert helps restore our sanity.

Our desert mornings typically begin with a beautiful sunrise that bathes the nearby mountains with an ever-changing array of dusty pastel colors.  We delight in watching and listening to the birds that emerge and feed on birdseed that Larry placed in the bird feeder or scattered about.

DSC_0035 Gambel's quail, White-winged doves

Gambel’s quail and White-winged doves feast on wild birdseed scattered on our nearby embankment, while White-crowned sparrows land and spin around on the hanging bird feeder.

DSC_0102 White-crowned sparrows

After my morning coffee and toast, listening to the news and weather, and watching the sun rise, it was time to send out our Nutcracker to survey the prospects for a good morning hike.  He reported that prospects were good for me, but he’d stay behind due to his stiff legs.

DSC_0031 Nutcracker in the desert 2

So with camera in one hand and walking stick in another, water bottle on my waist belt, and Tilley hat* on my head, I ventured forth on the Moonlight Canyon Trail.  I traveled slowly and quietly in hopes of seeing the bighorn sheep that I first encountered four years ago.  I wasn’t disappointed as I rounded a curve in the trail before entering the canyon and spotted two bighorn sheep grazing on new vegetative growth after recent rains.

DSC_0046 Bighorn sheep

They seemed to recognize me, and came down off the small ridge, walked across the trail, and scampered up the ridge on the other side.  They paused and took another look at me before going over the ridge and galloping across a relatively flat watershed area to the east of the campground.

DSC_0059 Bighorn sheep 12:9:14

I then entered the shaded portion of Moonlight Canyon with its refreshingly cool air chilled by granite walls that retained the previous night’s cold.  The trail then opened up into warm, full sun with cholla, barrel cacti, and ocotillo piercing a deep blue sky.

DSC_0070 Moonlight Canyon Trail

No further sheep were spotted, but desert plants like the agave were beautiful to see and have inspired us to begin replacing some of our water-needy plants at home with desert plants that help us conserve water* in the face of California’s ongoing extreme drought.*

DSC_0077 Agave along Moonlight Canyon

I always enjoy a shower after a good hike before lunch, so I returned to the trailer, changed and grabbed a towel, and called out to a raven* that recognized me and circled about while calling back* to me as I made my way to the campground’s shower.

DSC_0026 Strutting raven

This common raven and the crow are both in the same genus (Corvus) of birds, and they and the beauty and diversity of the desert are something to crow about.*

*This is a link to a YouTube video.

**Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living, 2005, Edited and with a Foreword by Diana Lindsay and Introduction by Rider and Lucile South, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA.

Desert flowers and devils

Just before departing on our last desert trip this spring, a late winter storm was bringing wind, rain and snow to our local mountains and much needed moisture to the desert.  I wore long johns during our first night at Agua Caliente County Park, but by mid-afternoon the following day we had the air conditioner running as outside temperatures soared into the 90’s and continued to do so throughout the week.  I got on the park’s Moonlight Canyon Trail early before temperatures peaked and was pleased to find Desert Agave and ocotillo in bloom.

According to Wikipedia, Desert Agave, Agave deserti, also known as Mescal and Century Plant, was used by desert dwelling Indians to make cloth, bowstrings, and rope.  It also provided author Marshal South and his family with materials for fuel, food and clothing in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Ocotillo (below), Fouquieria splendens, had bright crimson flowers, but its stems did not have a robust display of green leaves due to the below average spring rainfall.  Marshal South also used the ocotillo for fuel.

Upon return from my hike, I enjoyed a shower and one of Larry’s delicious sandwiches with chips and beer.  I then settled in under the patio awning for an afternoon of reading while enjoying a light breeze… and then I heard the devil coming… it seemed to come out of nowhere… but I’ve felt and heard its breath before at this site.  I immediately leapt out of my chair and held onto the front awning rafter arm as a dust devil sent the nearby table setting and hanging paper lantern up and over our trailer. It was over in 10 seconds.  “Well, I better put the awning in for the day,” I thought, and then noticed that it did not go in as easily as before because the rear rafter arm bar on was now bent!  Together, we got the awning back in and secured.

According to Wikipedia, “Dust devils form when hot air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler, low-pressure air above it.”  Certain conditions increased the likelihood of dust devil formation on that day, including clear skies, light wind, cool atmospheric temperatures, hot near surface air, and the flat desert terrain that stretched out to the east of our trailer.  It seems our favorite site here is located in dust devil alley! (See this BBC video clip on YouTube, “Dust Devil Blows Away Campsite.”)

Upon return home, I called Awnings By Zip Dee to order a replacement for the bent arm and they asked me for the model and year of my trailer and then guided me to their Parts List on their web site and asked me to click on the PDF, “Contour Hardware Installed 1989 to Present Parts,” where I identified the needed Part #5, Satin Rafter Arm Bar.  Several days later, I noticed the Rafter Arm Tube had a bow in it, so I also ordered Part #6, Satin Rafter Arm Tube Assembly.  They also encouraged me to see one of their excellent Instructional Videos, “Straightening a Bent Arm on a Zip Dee Awning.”  The parts arrived one week later, as promised.

Before installing the new parts, I lubricated them as shown in their Instructional Video, “How To Lubricate a Zip Dee Awning.”  As it turned out, the bow in the Rafter Arm Tube disappeared when it was removed from the bent arm bar, so now I have a spare part for the next encounter with a dust devil… or Mariah.

Holiday fun with Bert and Janie

There were rainbows over San Diego and snow fell on the Laguna Mountains, but the Anza-Borrego desert night sky was filled with stars the night before Bert and Janie drove down from their winter camping spot at Pegleg Smith Monument to visit us at Agua Caliente County Park in Southern California.  Writer/photographer/Airstreamer Bert Gildart and his wife Janie are from Montana and have produced a number of guide and nature books such as Bighorn Sheep: Mountain Monarchs. His beautiful articles are seen in most issues of Airstream Life magazine.  Our last hike together was New Year’s Day 2010 for an evening photo shoot of Marshal South’s home, Yaquitepec, on Ghost Mountain.

The nights were chilly but our Safari Airstream trailer was warm and cozy inside and festively decorated for the holidays.  Before we left San Diego, Larry had made a Christmas tree (in the style of ones seen in Pennsylvanian German settlements in 1747) for Bert and Janie using materials from our garden, including Juniper, Rose hips, and Bromeliad bloom spikes.

It was a glorious sunny morning when Bert and Janie arrived with good cheer, smiles, and a large bottle of California Chardonnay wine.

We happily chatted as Larry served hot cider, homemade panettone and carrot-raisin oatmeal cookies.  This is Bert and Janie’s first time here, so I had fun introducing them to the park, the Marshal South connection and its beautiful hiking trails.  They joined me on a late morning hike on Moonlight Canyon Trail, where I photographed Peninsular Bighorn sheep last January.  A third of the way into the hike, Bert pointed up and smiled.

We spent the next 30 minutes at this spot photographing 5 Bighorn sheep that were grazing on the nearby ridge.

Bert was in his element. See his photo of the above scene in his posting, “Christmas at Bill & Larry’s.”

Seeing these mountain monarchs this close is like finding gold.  Perhaps Janie helped our fortune by recently adding 10 rocks to the Pegleg Smith Monument, honoring the legend of Pegleg Smith’s lost gold.  Bert turned to me with an expression of true joy.

After a two-hour hike, we returned to camp and enjoyed Larry’s homemade Cajun pork stew while conversing over myriad subjects of interest.  At a certain point, Bert got up to stretch and whispered to me with a boyish smile, “Do you think we could go back out on that trail… I could bring my bigger lenses and strobe light equipment and photograph the California Fuchsia we saw… and maybe the Bighorn sheep might still be there!”  So Bert and I took off like a couple of school kids on vacation.  I saw and photographed more of Bert’s photographic artistry, which will be seen in an upcoming post.  We returned just as the sun went down behind our nearby mountain ridge, quickly bringing cooler temperatures.

We thanked Bert and Janie for their good cheer, insight, company, genuine warmth and understanding… especially as we approached the shortest and darkest day of the year, winter solstice… and for helping us drive the cold winter away.

Desert points of color

Desert blooms are not as profuse in some places of the Anza-Borrego Desert this spring due to three straight nights of freezing temperatures in February, but magnificent points of color can still be treasured.  Avoiding nails, I carefully backed our Airstream Safari into our Agua Caliente County Park campsite, right up to two spectacular ocotillo plants lush with small green leaves and profuse crimson flowers.


Every morning we opened our door to wonderful displays of color.


Nearby our two ocotillo plants is a creosote bush in full bloom.


The Creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, is an evergreen shrub with dark green leaves and yellow flowers.  According to Wikipedia, this plant was used by Native Americans in the Southwest as a treatment for a variety of illnesses and it is still used as a medicine in Mexico (the species is named after J.A. Hernandez de Larrea, a Spanish clergyman).

Another medicinal, the ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens, has bright crimson flowers that often appear after a rainfall.  According to Wikipedia, the fresh flowers are used in salads and the dried flowers are used for herbal tea.


Marshal South and family’s spirits rose when spring came to their desert home, Yaquitepec, on Ghost Mountain.  He wrote in his Desert Diary 4 (May 1940) April at Yaquitepec article:

 All the desert is awake and rejoicing in Spring. Fountains of wax-like white flowers tower above the green, bristling bayonets of the yuccas and the emerald wands of the newly-leafed ocotillos are tipped with points of flame. Color! Sharp, vivid color! That is the keynote of the wasteland’s awakening. And the knowledge that the vanished Children of the Desert found in many of these gorgeous blossoms a source of nourishing food takes nothing from their charm. Both the flowers of the yucca and the ocotillo are good to eat.

(All 102 articles and poems written by Marshal South for Desert Magazine from 1939 to 1948 can be read in Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living, 2005, Edited and with a Foreword by Diana Lindsay and Introduction by Rider and Lucile South, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA.)

After a cold, rainy winter, my spirits rose while hiking the Moonlight Canyon Trail in full sunlight and rising temperatures.  I spotted a lizard basking on granite surrounded by a sea of Bigelow Monkeyflowers, Mimulus bigelovii.


Barbed cholla spines pierced my lower pant leg and shoes as I maneuvered to take the photo of the barrel cactus below.


I returned to camp, removed the cholla spines, and enjoyed my daily noontime shower followed by savoring a cotto salami sandwich made by Larry.  Slices of cotto salami are placed in a toasted bun with finely shredded cabbage, horseradish mustard, mayonnaise, cream cheese, and onion with a side of chips and pepperoncini, Asian pickled garlic & ginger, olives and Deglet Noor dates.  This was complimented by a cold bottle of Heineken.


Then came afternoon reading, writing, walking the dogs and dining and photographing under the stars… and listening to a French song.


Bighorn Sheep revisited

Agua Caliente lies in the Anza-Borrego Desert at the eastern end of Vallecito Valley at the foot of the Tierra Blanca Mountains in Southern California where seismic activity created a spur of the Elsinore fault enabling water to come to the surface, which supports lush plant life and a wide variety of wildlife including the Bighorn Sheep.  Minerals come up in the hot springs forming mounds of natural salt licks.


Bighorn sheep are on the federal list of endangered species and seem to be making a comeback in this area.  An Agua Caliente County Park Ranger said there are about 13 of them here, so I was excited to have my first close encounter when I took a hike during our last camping trip and spotted four of them,


or more accurately, they spotted me.  They prefer to graze on rocky ridges and slopes where they can spot and escape from predators.

I stopped in my tracks and quietly prepared my camera and spent the next forty minutes in their world.  We saw eye to eye.


As long as I moved slowly and peacefully, they seemed comfortable in my presence.


They came down to feed,


and smile.


Poet, artist, and author Marshal South, along with his family, lived on Ghost Mountain for years before they spotted a great ram while hiking near here.  Marshal reported this experience in his article, Desert Refuge 41, December, 1944 issue of Desert Magazine:

As the dark body broke from the fringe of brush and leaped upon the lower rocks of a precipitous hillside not 30 yards distant, we saw that it was a great ram… a monarch among sheep.  In that flash instant in which poised upon a boulder, he glanced back at us before starting upward; he was a sight to stop the heartbeat… he halted, appraising us.  Then he started up, bounding swiftly up the almost perpendicular ridge with a sure footed skill that gave a deceptive illusion of leisurely ease… he reached the crest.  Here, silhouetted against the hard blue of the sky, the tall sharp line of a dry mescal pole rising beside him like a lifted standard he paused again.  Silence held the desert – and us – as for perhaps 20 seconds he stood outlined against space: A creature of freedom, gazing out across the rocks and ranges of his homeland in whose beetling cliffs and hidden canyons still some trace of dwindling freedom lingers.  Then he was gone.  The skyline was empty, and our hearts came back slowly to normal beating.

(All 102 articles and poems written by Marshal South for Desert Magazine from 1939 to 1948 can be read in Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living, 2005, Edited and with a Foreword by Diana Lindsay and Introduction by Rider and Lucile South, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA.)