It started at night, howling across Max’s aluminum roof and slapping the cane stalks against his windows, as if keeping time to a frantic acid rock ballad. I pulled myself out of bed, ready to begin my final packing and hit the road again with Riley and Wanda. The wind whipped my hair in my face as I loaded my bag of clothes, guitar, songbooks, art bag, backpack, and Riley’s food, and transferred my food from Max’s fridge to the Engel fridge (I sure do a lot of packing and unpacking and organizing as a nomad!). I was ready to leave by 10, but a friend of Max’s offered a container of water left over from their camping trip so I would have one less stop before meeting Kathy at the edge of Anza Borrego desert. Max called the highway patrol to make sure the roads weren’t closed to high-top campers due to high winds. Waves of sand flowed across the road as Wanda shimmied and wavered while I drove as fast as I dared. Anxious to meet Kathy before dark, I also hoped to drive out of the wind fairly soon and not get stuck.
Click on this video to see what the winds were like on the drive south. You can make it full screen to see it better.
It was after 6pm when I finally turned down the road where Kathy waited—our first campsite of our 3 week trip together. Waze, my map app, told me to turn, but there was no intersection, so I kept driving, and soon I saw a figure on the side of the road, lit up like a Christmas tree with a string of lights fading from blue to fuscia to lime green to orange draped like a scarf from the shoulders, and a dog anxiously waiting on one side. Kathy flung Wanda’s door open and Viva flew up into the passenger seat, followed by Kathy, while I attempted to clear things off, competing with Riley’s excited greeting of our friends. She directed me to our site—a smooth, flat pullout surrounded by ocotillo and creosote bush and a wide, open sky. The sun had already set, but the sky was a wash of deep purple and bits of pink and fading orange, giving a dim light to our temporary home. The dogs bowed and pawed and gnawed and rolled around with each other, so happy to play with a species who liked to do those things. I set up Wanda for cooking and sleeping and went to bed early, exhausted from driving 7 hours (was supposed to be 5) in the wind, which had thankfully decreased significantly over the last couple of hours.
Not my most peaceful meditation, but my most joyful!
The changing light through Wanda’s window woke me just before dawn. I looked outside to see Kathy’s silhouette in her chair with a long strip of glowing red light hovering above the distant mountains. I slid into my fleece pants and shirt, wrapped up in a teal, purple, and fuschia wool sarape, tied a scarf around my neck, pulled my new alpaca beanie over my ears, and tucked my feet into my fuzzy sheepskin Ugg boots, then clambered outside to settle next to Kathy, who sat smiling reverently. I closed my eyes and meditated for a half hour while Riley and Viva played out their morning greeting of bowing and pawing and wrapping their mouths around each other’s body parts. They were trying to see who could occupy my lap and Riley figured out it was best to just lay himself across it while Viva tried to weave her head under my arms to give me a lick and get as close as possible. Pure love/joy ensued with Kathy and me laughing and the dogs obviously delighted in their new game. It was not my normal peaceful meditation, but I loved watching Riley get to be a dog, untied and free to run and smell whatever he wanted. Kathy and I wrote in our journals a bit and shared insights and dreams and questions for each other. One of our themes was maps—how we were examining our life maps and creating new maps to live by. And this is how our days began for the next 2 ½ weeks.
Examples of concretions. See the pregnant belly on the right?
Our first campsite was off the main road to Borrego Springs, next to a dirt road that wound across the desert before descending into a long wash which cut a steep-sided canyon through the sandy, rocky soil. As we explored the wash for a few miles, Kathy pointed out many sensuously curved stones embedded in the eroded sedimentary walls. We had fun describing what we saw in each one—many were curvy butts or pregnant bellies, but some had warts and one slope was covered in a river of cannon ball sized light-colored rocks, hence the name Cannonball Alley. Called concretions, these globular masses are created when stickier mud forms around something that becomes a nucleus (like a leaf, tooth, stick, or fossil) and it hardens into a rounded stone that wears away more slowly than the surrounding material. In the past people imagined they were dinosaur eggs, fossils, human artifacts, or something from outer space. I could understand why they were considered a geological curiosity—they sure gave us some fun entertainment and giggles as we hiked the canyon!
After 3 nights we felt settled in and rested up enough to make a move to the next, more remote site Kathy had in mind. She had often shared stories with me of going to her Secret Spot in Anza Borrego—a place she went to with her family and solo for many decades. They even celebrated holidays there sometimes. We caravanned to Borrego Springs to stock up on enough groceries and water for 2 weeks, and drove for a few more hours before turning off onto a dirt road several miles north of the Mexico border. The road was pretty hairy in a couple of places—I held my breath as I felt Wanda might tip over on one steeply-sloped curve—but finally after about a half hour Kathy veered into a pullout big enough for several cars and almost totally surrounded by large reddish boulders—a protective womb for us to call home. The rounded boulder piles reminded me of the Alabama Hills, with a gorgeous view of distant mountain ranges, except the landscape was thick with cactus. Kathy beamed as she showed me around to her favorite places to hang out, sharing memories of being there with her dad and son. I knew I was in for a special treat!
Eating well in the desert!
By this time Kathy and I had some routines in place. We decided I would cook and she would wash dishes and buy the groceries. I loved having the role of being a camp chef! I rotated my favorite meals for breakfasts and dinners and even came up with some new inventions, incorporating produce from Kathy’s garden and stepping up to the challenge of using the more vulnerable meats and vegetables first since we had no freezer. We had hot green smoothies, greens and eggs, omelettes, almond meal pancakes, or granola and fruit (on my mornings off) for breakfast, and chicken soups (one with kelp noodles and one with a Thai coconut milk base), coconut butternut squash soup (squash from Kathy’s garden), stir-fries, polenta with chicken sausage and veggies, potatoes (from her garden) and sausage with grilled veggies, lentil pasta with pesto and sautéed squash and peppers, quinoa tabouli, and I even learned how to barbecue some beef with homemade chimichuri sauce. Gourmet camping is a delight for me!
Most afternoons we went for a walk or explore in the desert. Kathy knew all the spots to find mortars, caves, and pictographs, as well as how to look for arrowheads, pottery chards, and other artifacts left by the indigenous people of this area, the Kumeyaay. As I gazed over the countryside at the fuzzy-looking cholla cactus (with spines that are said to jump out at you), the thorny and leafless ocotillo trees, and other thick-leaved low bushes like brittle bush, I marveled at their diverse adaptions to thrive in this driest of ecosystems. By growing waxy or spiny leaves and tubular trunks that store water, having shallow roots to absorb water quickly, becoming deciduous in dry seasons, or even dying off during dry times and only growing when conditions are ideal, desert plants exhibit many amazing solutions to thrive. But I wondered what the people who lived in this environment could eat? Kathy found some buckwheat and chia, but not very much! She said the people migrated from the mountains, where there were game to hunt and acorns to harvest in the hottest times of year, and to the lowlands during the spring where they harvested cactus fruit and seeds.
Color in the late fall desert: indigo, fuschia, and one I couldn’t ID
Shades of green: ephedra (used in Mormon tea), brittle bush, and white sage
My favorite part of the day was the mornings. After my meditation we had our deepest conversations about life and explored ideas about creating a community that we might want to live in. Kathy’s perspectives are refreshing to me. She always sees the positive in me, which feels wonderful when I can be so hard on myself. She’s seen me go through several relationships, agonizing over what was not working for me in one way or another and trying to figure out if I should leave or had more work to do on my attitude. Her feedback always leaves me feeling lighter, able to see the patterns in my situations and even laugh at myself. I think she knows me better than anyone, even though for many years we only saw each other for a bike ride a few times a year. We both love being in nature, getting dirty, looking for wildlife, tracking, letting our dogs be dog-like, and neither of us are too fussy about how we camp. One of the reasons I wanted to take this year off is to do some extended camping with Kathy, and here I was!
CHOLLA AND OTHER NEIGHBORS
At first I was very cautious with the cholla. I freaked every time Riley got a cluster of spines in his paw, so I kept him on a leash where they were thickest and constantly watched where we put our feet, even kicking to the sides some of the broken off buds of spines I saw lying on the paths. Of course, they often stuck in the end of my shoe and then I had to extract spines from my own paw! Kathy and I each carried a comb and some needle-nosed pliers to pull them out, and we pulled out plenty. Riley learned to stop in his tracks and hold his paw up for me so I’d know to come help him before he got the spine in deeper. The buds liked to stick in between his toe pads with spines extending in every direction, so they were impossible for him to remove alone. Once he tried to get one out with his mouth and Kathy and I started yelling at him to stop, running toward him with our handy tools. We both held him down and pulled 3 spines out of his lip. After that he stopped cold and waited for help each time. I think we both enjoyed how much I rubbed over his entire body and gave him foot massages to feel for the tough spines—they were the same color as his coat, and hard to see. By the end of the first week I barely thought about the cholla, though I always had my tools. It became a matter of course that he would get at least one cluster somewhere on his body during each walk, but I quit scouting them out and he started prancing a certain way and sometimes he would even chase after a jackrabbit right through a cholla garden and not get a single spine. Eventually I even grew to love the cholla for their beauty. When backlit by the morning sun their cartoonish shapes were outlined in a halo of glowing light. Kathy and I tried several techniques to capture their beauty with a photo, but nothing compared to being there!
We remained at the Secret Spot for close to two weeks. The only time we left was when Viva developed an abscess (we never figured out what caused it, but she was licking and had a rash at the beginning of our trip) and Kathy took her to the vet where they did surgery to remove a mass from her crotch. She had to go back to have her drain removed, so we took the opportunity to go out for lunch in El Centro and pick up some fresh food and water. Later I recalled my vet tech skills and removed her stitches so we didn’t have to drive again. Most of the days we camped there we didn’t even see another car, yet we could see the lights of El Centro and the glow of San Diego off in the distance at night. The isolation and freedom from civilization was delicious! This was what I’d been craving—to be in one place for an extended period of time, to get to know it intimately and feel totally at home, to not have to set up camp and take it down or pack up for awhile so I could finally settle. We began to name the boulders surrounding us after the animals they looked like and we got to know the patterns of wildlife, like the raven couple that came to perch on top of a boulder above us right around sunrise each day while we meditated, followed by a hummingbird or two and some bushtits. We were also visited by a gorgeous tarantula and a bright rusty-orange red velvet ant (actually a wasp) appeared three times. At night it was time for the mice. The dogs went crazy just after sunset, mostly trying to capture one of the many critters skittering underneath my van and across the boulders, then hiding in the cat’s claw bushes. Cat’s claw is aptly named: I found out right away when passing a tiny-leaved bush that reached out with its curved spines and tore my skin just like my cat does when she swipes to tell me she’s had enough of my stroking her. We also heard coyotes yipping near sunrise and sunset on many days, and Riley had his first encounter when he went to see who was making this new sound: a beautiful, healthy creature that quickly pranced off through the cholla when it saw my slightly bigger dog. Riley huffed and stared, body taut with a focus I could not break with my voice. Somehow he knew not to follow for too long.
Just before our last day at the Secret Spot Kathy and I planned a ritual to mark this time in our lives, taking advantage of the sacred feel, isolation, and historical significance of this remarkable location. It felt like a follow up to our total solar eclipse experience. Since we’d been visited by the ravens every day, we looked up raven in Animal Speak, by Ted Andrews, to see if there was meaningful significance to incorporate into our ceremony. Raven symbolizes the solstice, blending humans and animals (shapeshifting), and is a messenger or omen. Governed by instinct and reflexes, as all birds, he/she can teach us to be more effective in our responses to life’s challenges, which I interpret as learning how to read our bodies, and to trust our gut feelings—something I am exploring lately. Raven stirs magic in our lives and living without fear. They are playful, intelligent, and amorous. I also considered mouse, as Wanda was invaded by mice during this trip, but Raven seemed to be a better fit for this phase of my life.
We begin a little later than sunrise because I’d been up for several hours with the mice running all over Wanda—and me once! I think maybe I’d better include them in our ritual, after all. The air is warm and sky clear, the recent smoke from fires in the San Diego and LA areas blown away by a shift in the wind. After cleansing with sage, we walk in a clockwise direction to form a circle around our chairs, then sit back-to-back and begin our own individual visualizations. I start by moving like a raven, doing a raven dance before sitting. I descend into a hole in the Earth and pass through a door. When I emerge I feel my wings lift and shiny black feathers ruffle as they absorb the warm sun’s rays, reflecting its power to others. I rise into the air, then look down and gently side to side as I marvel at what I can see with this new, broader perspective. Riley begins barking, wanting to be at my side, my trusty guard. I remember I can speak to other animals now, so I go to him and reassure him, asking him to give me this space. He is quiet for awhile, then isn’t, so I go to him again and tell him more firmly that I need this time and for him to not pull me down. It feels good to speak up for myself. I am gliding along, seeing one scene after another, gaining insight to some of my most pressing questions: selling my house (or not), where to move to next, creating the love I yearn for in my life, and how to tune in to my body’s intelligence. Instead of direct answers, I feel a sense of trust that things are unfolding in a perfect way, and all I need to do is give more credence to what my body tells me, to let go of trying to analyze and control the outcome. There is a sense of peace, ease, and delight. The whole experience lasted about a half hour, but seemed timeless—we only knew because my meditation timer bell rang softly three times.
Kathy and I spent the rest of the day sharing our experiences, writing, and relaxing. I made fruit-filled pancakes for a feast to end our ritual. We said goodbye to the Secret Spot the next day, filled up and tingling with magic. We’d been blessed with fantastic weather and having a huge area of beautiful desert mostly to ourselves for our adventures. There are more tales to tell about our time at the Secret Spot, but they will have to wait for the next blog!