Scene I: The Hummer
Imagine a dusty Hummer, originally bright shiny yellow. Now knock the doors off and replace the roof by a canvas sheet just over the roll bars. Add rock-sized dents and take it out into the hot, hot desert driven by a chatty local named Jeff who can name each hill's tetonic plate and says "we come in peace, it's all good" to appease strangers holding loaded center-fire rifles.
The Hummer holds 10 scared tourists easily, but we were only 5 and had plenty of room to be extra scared. Seatbelts were required as doors were not. Later, MM's brother revealed his seatbelt was Missing In Action. He was sitting safely next to MM, buckled in, and then made the dubious tradeoff of a better topside view for no seatbelt. At one point he was hanging onto the canvas top and started feeling grommets popping off, one by one! He was laughing as he told us, so I'm not sure it's as dire as it sounds :)
The tour started with driving out of Palm Desert on Thousand Palms Canyon Road, a long straight flat road that took us through creosote bush, sagebrush, and dried grasses. And a lot of sand. As we drove, Jeff pointed out the mountain straight ahead. The gray mountains in the back are some of the oldest on the planet, while the sand-colored range in front are some of the youngest. Between them is the San Andreas Fault. We stopped for a while at the 29,000 acre Coachella Canyon Preserve with an oasis right on the San Andreas Fault. Apparently the action of the 5 mile deep Pacific Plate grinding away at the 50 mile deep American Plate makes the rock at the edges porous. Since the desert is sitting on the 10th largest aquafer on the planet, the porous rock draws the water to the surface.
An Oasis in our Path
The oasis was choked with enormous indigenous palm trees, shaggy with dried fronds. Some were straight and tall, others leaning, still others felled completely and rotting in the shallow water. Swimming in the water were small guppy-like fish with teeth. Jeff took all our cameras and had us stand on a bridge which spans the fault and then took our group shot picture. As you can see, the environment was pretty SPOOKY with all those huge trees! After the ritual picture-taking, we clamored back up into the hummer, via a stool, to drive down Dillon Road to the Berdoo Canyon turnoff. What a great ride! Dillon Road cuts across all the runoff gullies from rainwater erosion and it was like riding a roller coaster up and down. Wheeeeeeeee!
Scene II: Berdoo Canyon
Ten miles down the road we hooked a left onto the Berdoo Canyon turnoff (can't really call it a road, or even a track). We were now driving on a dry riverbed, rocks, boulders, and scree. The hummer bumped along past some locals who were getting ready to do some target shooting, climbed a 12" hump where the scree road met a dilapidated paved single track, on into the canyon. Such beauty! We still had some daylight and the landscape was washed to a pale sand color all around with sagebrush, creasote bush, cat claw acacia, lavender, teddy bear joya cactus, mesquite, and a whole bunch more I can't remember. Huge boulders were everywhere. Along the drive Jeff mentioned the ways local Indians used some of these plants in their daily lives:
- mesquite: used for food; the sap crumbled for a perfume
- native palm trees: used the dried fronds for thatching their homes; ate the fruit berries
- teddy bear joya cactus: ground the roots into a paste and used it as an antibiotic ointment
- creosote bush: used the creosote to line their baskets. When it was cured, they could actually carry boiling water in them.
- cat claw acacia: they used it as a black hair dye - an Indian version of "Miss Clairol".
- There were others, but I didn't have enough available neurons left to remember them!
OK, enough mental wandering. Back to the tour... So there we were, admiring the high ridges, taking in the flora, etc. Jeff casually mentioned he had seen a male big horned sheep that morning. A nice robust, healthy male. He was concerned about the animal because he hadn't seen it's harem, and usually at the lower levels, the animals tend to be scrawny. Jeff thought it might be stalked or hunted by a bobcat (bobcat?!? Now he tells us we need to watch for carnivorous toothy things!)
Suddenly, he shouted "THERE HE IS!" He turned the hummer around and drove really fast back the way we came, scanning the ridge for the beast. (Of course, I thought he should have been watching the track for those pesky rocks and other things to avoid.) He stopped the truck and got out to walk behind the last ridge the sheep was spotted, poking a walking stick into bushes and piles of gravel (for hidden rattlers)We stood and watched. Then, HOT DAMN! There they were! Two female Big Horn sheep, scampering up the mountain and finally over the ridge. No sign of the male, but we were pretty excited to see the others. Jeff said it had been 100 tours since he had the last sighting of any sheep. What a treat.
Scene IV: Desert Sunset
Back to the hummer to drive past a decommissioned presidential bunker big enough to house 92 people, food for two weeks, tanks, hummers, and army equipment. It was installed at the beginning of the Cold War, and filled in with concrete, buildings torn down, etc in 1988 when the Berlin Wall fell.
We drove to the top over broken pavement and scree to take some beautiful pictures of the sunset over the Little San Bernadino Mountains. In the fading light, the desert took on a beautiful soft quality full of color. What a difference from the daylight landscape! The mountains in the distance were rosy pink from the sunset with gray and blue ranges behind. Around us, the walls of the canyon showed pink areas of rock with gray and black features, shadows washed purple over the riverbed. Time to head back home. Suddenly the light was gone and everything around us was BLACK! I mean, we could see a whole lot of nuthin' - no way to see without the hummer's headlights, top spots, and sometimes even the interior light. Jeff seemed to know where he was going, but to me, the rocks we had driven over on our way into the canyon loomed large in our headlights.
Epilogue: Singing for our Supper?
We got home safe and sound at 8 PM, and we were a mess: hair windblown, filthy from dust, and super SWEATY. Ugh! We were also super hungry. So, we went to the only restaurant we thought would take us in that condition. It was an Italian restaurant with a big sign out front proclaiming "KARAOKE!" Now normally, I'd see that and run the other way, but I was with 4 other people who were also hungry. So I thought, "what the hey" and in we went. We had a nice dinner fortified with really big mugs of beer. Then the karaoke started. It wasn't as bad as I thought. For the most part people were really pretty good. A couple of guys sang some country songs and people were dancing the two-step and Cowboy Cha Cha around the room. Then Paula and Jane started singing and they were great. What fun - I think this was the best day of the vacation.
That's it for this trip. I finally got to see a desert - something I have looked forward to all my life. And I loved it.