Herb Benham

Monday, May 10 2010 03:47 PM

Herb Benham: The empty desert not as empty as you think

By Herb Benham

Question:

Without Googling, what is the largest state park in California?

The only reason I know is that I visited my parents recently in Borrego Springs (think Imperial Valley and Coachella and keep your foot on the accelerator) and learned that Anza-Borrego State Park, at more than 800,000 acres, is the largest state park in California.

This is not Yosemite, with waterfalls pouring into the valley floor. Nor is it the big trees in Sequoia.

Spring in the desert is subtle and if subtle is not your thing, then you're going to wonder why people are waving their arms about being in the middle of the puckerbrush.

The desert is about quiet, absence, taking everything away at first, then filling in unobtrusively. The desert is empty but not as empty as you think.

Saturday morning, my dad scheduled a wildflower walk with Hank Barber, a real estate agent, who is an amateur botanist as well as a volunteer in the state park.

They love their park in Borrego. There are more than 1,000 members and 200 volunteers. They like empty, and Anza-Borrego is the emptiest -- yet fullest -- place you'll ever see.

Hank, three older couples, my mom and I started up Nolina Wash. I love a good wash; it's the next best thing to a nice draw.

"Stay behind the guide," one of the women warned her husband, who was feeling his oats and bounding ahead.

Hank stopped to look at some white sage and everyone stopped with him. White sage gave away to agave and a thoughtful conversation about how often it blooms and why.

The next thing I knew, Hank had sunk to his knees to examine the thick-leaved Ground Cherry.

The desert party had begun. One of the husbands spotted a common grackle. The late columnist Jack Smith would have given his Sibley Guide to Birds to see a common grackle. He would have give his Sibley and one of our companions would have taken it.

"We forget our Sibley," said the woman, who had two new hips and two new knees.

She had everything but her Sibley.

"I think we have a narrow-leaved Dudleya," she said with great excitement.

A narrow-leaved Dudleya?

"Why can't we find one in bloom," another woman wailed.

She was so upset that a gentleman would have offered her his handkerchief. I was not that gentleman. A gentleman would have been able to contain his excitement had he found a narrow-leaved Dudleya in bloom, which I'm not sure I would have been able to do.

We had been on the sloping uphill trail for an hour and had gone 300 yards. The desert people are not in a hurry. They don't want to miss a rock daisy or a Spanish needle.

Barrel Cactus, Fishhook Cactus, Brittlebush, this gave way to another discussion about the difference between succulents and cactus. The desert people are unusually thoughtful.

Suddenly, Hank spotted a bunch of Canterbury Bells growing from a rock. Six people, including the ex-hippy with two knees and two hips, crowded around. This was almost as exciting as finding an Apricot Mallow.

I thought I heard the word "butterbutt," at one point. I wasn't sure whether it was a flower or a pet name used by one of the couples.

Finally, at the top of the draw and the turn-around point, it was snack time. I had my mom's fanny pack -- "This is the best fanny pack of all time," she had said.

I took out a sleeve of Fig Newtons. I learned that a fresh Fig Newton will make the desert people forget all about a Cheesebush or a Beavertail Cactus.

"Look, there's a blooming Hedgehog," said Karen, the woman with the new hips, who was becoming my favorite. "And blooming not in the British sense."

Twenty minutes later we were at the car, surrounded by Ocotillo, the startling-looking cactus with the long arms.

It's hard to miss these things in the desert. The desert is full. What needs emptying is the blooming insides of our minds. I mean that in the British sense.

Have something to share? Comment on this story

Bakersfield.com Daily Deal!

El Tazumal

Daily Deal

$20 worth of Salvadorian food for $10

Value
$20
% Off
50%
You Save
$10
0 Bought
Buy Now! See more deals