In Early March the Anza Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNHA) sponsored a history weekend. There were two evening lectures—one was about the development of roads across the region and the other about the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition. Both were interesting, but I liked the daytime activities best: Saturday’s Borrego Historical Tour led by Urmi Ray and Sunday’s-Historical Hike led by Urmi Ray and Joan Malone. Both women are pretty amazing volunteers if you ask me.
Borrego Historical Tour
Stop 1–We met at the ABDNHA Library for an introductory lectures. The tour history focused on just the more recent history–the last two hundred years. The current ABDNHA building was the post office and library from 1961-86.
Stop 2–Christmas Circle and Vicinity–We began the tour with a look at Christmas Circle. That’s the giant, somewhat confusing two-lane traffic circle that surrounds a park and joins all the major roads in and out of town. It serves as a hub for all things Borrego: the winter farmer’s market, the Circle of Art and a Christmas visit from Santa. There are several theories about why it’s called “Christmas” Circle”. The one I like is this: The original street names on the maps were letter designation (probably from the brands of local ranches) and this is the spot where X, M, And S came together. Or maybe it was just the annual Santa visit. Across the street from the old post office was the bowling alley and drive-in movie theater. There was a market in what is now the Borrego Art Institute. At this point we jumped into our cars and began a caravan around the valley.
Stop 3—Old Borego–That’s NOT a typo. San Diego County maps in 1883 first designated the location of “Borego Springs”. The Homestead Act of 1862 invited folks to claim sections of unoccupied federal land. Migration began shortly thereafter fueled by the promise of “unlimited” water. That’s quite an ironic appeal given the current state of water deficit. We visited the site of the original post office (and later gas station, grocery store, and library). I’ve passed this spot numerous times and had never really known what was there. The buildings still stand and the small house is very much habitable. The current owner uses it to house family and friends when they visit the area. Since it’s now private property the owners were very generous to allow our group to tour the property. This was the townsite and in the early part of the twentieth century it served the homesteaders who gave it their best to make a living in the desert. The only road into the valley at that time was what is now Yaqui Pass Rd and mail came down from Julian only once or twice weekly.
Stop 4–Ensign Date Ranch. By the 1930s Borrego Springs was growing. Growth was interrupted by WWII but the vision of a new Palm Springs and, again, the unlimited water brought an influx of agricultural endeavors. The Ensign family grew dates as well as other crops, like alfalfa and watermelons, watered by a well that pumped 1,000 gallons per minute. They also raised livestock. The old date trees still stand and the small date stand that sold produce is now the Alano Club, a meeting center for several AA and related groups.
Stop 5–Di Giorgio Farms–This is a sad story really. In the 1930s DiGiogio began growing grapes under the brand name Verbena and because of the climate he was able to get the grapes–Thompson Seedless– to markets much earlier than other growers. It was a thriving operation according to some reports, employing lots of workers. There was housing and recreational facilities at the farm. To protect the vines from wind he planted those water-sucking Tamarisk trees that are now being removed as the aquifer sinks to the center of the earth. After several years of marginal or limited profitability DiGiorgio made the decision to cease operations when the United Farm Workers went on strike. He let the grapes go fallow and that was the end of grape growing in the Borrego Valley. The old redwood arbors still stand in the field.
Stop 6–Fortiner Glad Ranch–Remember when gladiolus were popular, especially for funerals?That’s what the Fortiner Glad Ranch provided. They also raised other crops and turkeys–hard to imagine. The ranch has just been sold and I’m looking forward to seeing what the new owners have in mind for it. To be continued…..
Stop 7–Hoberg’s Desert Resort–We stopped at the former Hoberg’s Desert Resort, now The Palms at Indian Head, for a really delicious lunch. In the 1950s Hoberg’s was THE hot spot (literally) for Hollywood celebrities who wanted to get away from the crowds and enjoy the sunshine without the paparazzi. The lobby is full of pictures of former guests–Marilyn Monroe, James, Dean, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lancaster among others.They put in an Olympic-size swimming pool and an airstrip. It must have been quite the place. In 1958 a fire destroyed the main building. It was re-opened and struggled along before it closed down in the mid 60s. It was briefly a “reform school” before it was purchased and re-opened in 1994.There’s a row of bungalows on the property that could not be brought up to code and so they were stripped of plumbing and other fixtures but the buildings still stand and the mid-century modern tiles remind me of the house I grew up in. The current owners have done a fine job of turning the main resort building back into the lovely place that it is. Visionary–I have to hand it to them.
Borrego History Hike
We met again on Sunday morning and drove out toward the horse camp at the mouth of Coyote Canyon. We parked at a historical monument that marks the path of the DeAnza expedition as it passed through the valley on its way from Mexico to San Francisco. Pause here for a short digression: This expedition set forth from Mexico in the mid-1700s in the name of the King of Spain. It was a remarkable group with women and children accompanying several hundred soldiers and migrants along with their livestock, braving hot deserts, freezing cold mountain passes, and whatever came their way. They continued on and made it to San Francisco Bay where they established the Presidio.
We ambled out into the desert bajada and as we walked the cholla balls kept jumping onto our shoes and clothing. These cacti are called “jumping cholla” for this quality. They reproduce asexually and so they make new plants by dropping these little prickly balls which blow around everywhere. It’s the reason that it’s wise to carry a pair of tweezers and a comb when hiking in the desert.
I was surprised to learn that this area was farmed for many years. There’s an old rotting car–vintage mid 30s. There’s a garbage dump full of old tin cans. The ranch houses were really quite nice, but now are off limits for your safety. They had a reservoir and you can see the marks left by growing rows and rows of alfalfa. One of the more colorful ranchers, “Doc” Beaty left his house and root cellar and they still remain.
I’ve heard it called “Superbloom” and “Flowergeddon”. Either way it means lots of beautiful flowers and hordes of people looking at flowers. We were in Borrego Springs two years ago for the last superbloom. That was an amazing experience. Flower-lookers poured in from all over the country. Grocery stores and restaurants ran out of food. No lodgings were available, not enough toilet facilities. Cars blocked the highways in and out of the valley. People just pulled over and parked—in the bike lanes. Biking became hazardous and staying home was the best idea. We couldn’t get out of our driveway anyway.
I’m happy to report that thanks to the concerted efforts of the good folks of Borrego Springs this year’s superbloom was not so crazy. Outhouses bloomed all over town. Restaurants and groceries were busy but did not run out of food. Extra San Diego County Sheriff were detailed to control traffic in and out of the valley. Our friends, Tom and Steph, like many others, spent hours volunteering at the Anza Borrego Foundation office to help direct people to the best spots to view wildflowers. Yes, it was busy and congested. Yes, there were goofy and distracted drivers, but in comparison it was way better. It seemed there were less people than last time–which may be thanks to a California poppy superbloom near Lake Elsinore that funneled some of the flower-lookers away from Borrego.
One Last Hike
Palm Canyon was finally open! It had been closed since the flooding of mid-february. It’s one of the premier hikes and when it’s full of flowers it is just pure delight. So on a sunny day in March we hiked up the canyon with Sheri, Martina, and Ed. There was water flowing down the wash deep enough to make crossing it a little tricky and it wasn’t possible to get to the oasis without actually getting your feet really wet. For me, it was just nice to be walking along with friends looking at all those flowers.