As March approaches, the California desert guessing game begins: What will the flower bloom be like this year? The desert explosion of colorful blossoms is one of the state’s great natural attractions, except you can’t always count on it. Depending on how much it rains, when it rains, and when you can get a weekend off, you might see a magnificent explosion of colors — or you just might just see the desert. Like my son says, “It’s all good.”
However, last year’s bloom was colossal and lasted for weeks. I went out to Anza-Borrego, the remote desert region in eastern San Diego County, and took some so-so pictures, but this month’s Sunset Magazine has an article about Borrego that is illustrated with the incredible shot of desert sand verbena, at right.
Matthew Jaffe writes (in a story behind the subscriber wall) about the desert journey he took during last year’s flower season that nicely captures the evanescence of peak moments in that other-wordly landscape:
The wind picks up, and we decide to make another visit to the dunes. Despite strong gusts, the blossoms seem to be holding up. But wandering around, I notice some less densely flowered areas before a flash of gold catches my eye. It is the almost metallic stripe on the back of a sphinx moth caterpillar, and I realize that the verbena all around me is being devoured by hordes of these binging creatures. Back down on my belly, a closer look reveals mandibles in perpetual motion as stalks, leaves, and blossoms disappear with frightening speed.
So it goes with desert wildflowers. I feel darn fortunate to have caught this rapidly vanishing display — and so, I suspect, do the caterpillars. Just about every other time I’ve visited Anza-Borrego, there’s been some guy who’ll say, “Oh, you should have been here a few days ago” or a few years ago or whatever. Listening to such boasts, I vowed that if I ever got lucky enough to catch Anza-Borrego at its peak, I’d never taunt anyone with such what-coulda-beens. But you know what? You definitely should have been here.
There really is no rhythm to it. Just because last year was a great year for flowers doesn’t mean this year can’t be just as great. Even if you miss the flowers, you’ll definitely be able to enjoy the other features: The incredible night skies (best enjoyed when there’s no moon out), the sweet California grapefruits for only $3/bag, the constant play of light and shadow on the mountains in the early morning and late afternoon, and the comfortable temperatures typical for this time of year.
I’m very partial to Anza-Borrego because it is everything Palm Springs is not. There isn’t one chain restaurant or store, and no outlets. There are no movie theaters. You can shop, but mostly what you’ll find is either desert clothes and supplies, or curious second-hand stuff. Saturday night is still, I believe, karaoke night at Carlee’s, a roadhouse bar and grill with a superb seafood gazpacho. If you go, you’ll almost certainly hear a retired engineer named Dusty sing his signature song: “Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny, Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.”
You could hunt for that legendary shipwreck full of pearls. And maybe the elusive flowers.