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Night of Tall Tales at Peg Leg Liars Contest

April 04, 1991|HANK GARFIELD

The verbosa tree grows in a remote corner of the Anza-Borrego Desert. Its leaves are shaped like tongues. In the spring, when the leaves are very small, they develop a sticky surface that picks up stories carried on the wind.

As the leaves grow, the stories stretch. And when a stick of verbosa wood is burned, the spirits of desert storytellers rise into the air with the smoke.

Of such stuff is the Peg Leg Smith Liars Contest made.

The contest, planned for this weekend, is held annually on the first Saturday in April at the Peg Leg Monument just east of Borrego Springs. Tall tales begin wafting into the night just after sundown, or as soon as moderator Bill Jennings can get the requisite campfire going.

Jennings, a retired journalist who lives in Hemet and still

writes a twice-weekly column on desert history for the Riverside Press Enterprise, usually arrives at the site several hours earlier. The back of his pickup truck is loaded with wood for the fire and trophies collected from obscure events of years past, which are awarded to the evening's liars.

Every contestant receives a prize. It could be a first-place plaque from the 1961 El Cajon Mother Goose Parade, or a statuette from a long-defunct bowling league. Jennings also brings a box of trophy parts. "If you don't like your prize," he says, "you can come on up and make your own."

The modern version of the Peg Leg Smith Liars Contest was started by Jennings and San Diego-based writers Lowell and Diana Lindsay, authors of several books on the desert. They and a handful of other desert buffs, calling themselves the Committee to Accumulate Curious Tales of Incredibility (CACTI), revived the contest, which had been dormant since 1950, in 1975. The event has attracted lovers of desert lore and the merely curious ever since.

"It has very intentionally stayed loose and unaffiliated with any group, and has therefore outlasted any yarn-spinning contest in the West that we know of," Lowell Lindsay says.

The original Liars Contest, according to information provided by Lindsay and Jennings, was started sometime in the 1920s by film pioneer Henry Oliver, who homesteaded a piece of land near where the monument stands today. Oliver was primarily a set designer in the early days of Hollywood, and he was nominated for an Oscar in that category for the 1927 film "Seventh Heaven."

It was Oliver who picked up and embellished the legend of the contest's namesake. Peg Leg Smith, a notorious mountain man, prospector, gambler, mule thief--and liar--is said to have discovered a rich lode of gold in the region sometime around 1840, to which he subsequently lost the directions.

According to Lindsay, Smith lost his leg to an Indian arrow in Arizona, sawed off the limb himself and replaced it with a wooden one. In the course of his prospecting, he found himself in Anza-Borrego. "This is all historical," Lindsay maintains. "From here it starts getting hysterical."

The location of Peg Leg's lost claim is the subject of many of the lies told at the contest. One year someone brought a map showing the way to the cache, which he "accidentally" dropped into the fire during his tale. Several years ago, during an airlift of feral cattle from nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of the park rangers claimed that it was all a front for the secret removal of Peg Leg's gold.

Participants in the contest show up on the appointed night, and simply tell Jennings or one of the judges they wish to lie. "It's a real cross-section," Lindsay says. "We get reporters, doctors, lawyers and people who are homeless and just crawled out from underneath a creosote bush. They just emerge out of the sand dunes that night. We never know until sundown that night whether we have a contest or not. But we always do."

Rules, as might be expected, are few. Tales need not relate to the Peg Leg legend, but must revolve around a desert theme. And liars are advised to keep their stories under five minutes, though the time limit, like the leaves of the verbosa tree, is often stretched.

The only requirement for entry is that each liar must add 10 rocks to the Peg Leg Monument, which is really nothing more than a tall, somewhat square pile of rocks. Jennings says that some contestants skirt this rule by taking rocks from the back of the monument and putting them on the front.

"One year, some guy painted his rocks with psychedelic colors that glowed in the dark," Jennings recalls. Such modernism, he adds quickly, is discouraged.

To reach the Peg Leg Monument, take County Road S-22 (the Borrego-Salton Seaway) 5 miles east from Borrego Springs to the junction of Henderson Canyon Road. Borrego Springs can be reached from Oceanside via State Highway 76 east to Lake Henshaw, State Highway 79 north to the junction of S-22, and S-22 east through Ranchita and down Montezuma Grade. From the Escondido area, take State Highway 78 east through Ramona and Julian, and County Road S-3 into Borrego. Allow at least 90 minutes for the trip.

The contest begins at about 7 p.m. Folding beach chairs will make the evening more comfortable, and warm clothing and blankets are strongly advised.

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