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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | No Golf. No Pools. Just You,
the Land and a Vast, Extraordinary Silence

The Tao of Anza-Borrego

March 18, 2001|DAVID LANSING

I spent my teen years at the foot of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and now live on a bluff overlooking the rolling Pacific, yet it is only in the desert - with its dry, sage-scented air and spacious solitude - that I feel at home.

The desert is where I go when I need to think, or stop thinking. The desert is hidden. The desert reveals itself slowly, like a lover. It is so silent and formless that you are certain there is nothing there - until you make your mind be still and listen to the subtle music that is all around you, whistling in the slot canyons, snapping in the dry palm fronds, murmuring in an underground river beneath the sand. The desert makes you hear what you had not heard, see what you had not seen. Even though it was there all along.

That is the Tao of the desert.

I was talking about the desert as a philosophical concept to a German woman. She said, "Oh, I love the desert. I love to play golf when the sun comes up and sleep in the afternoon and shop in the evening."

No. That is not the desert. The desert is not about golf courses, shopping malls or island-themed restaurants. It is not even about water, or the lack thereof, or spiny cacti or nocturnal animals that slither. The desert, to paraphrase Willa Cather, is about something wild that whispers to the ear on the pillow and softly picks the heart's lock, releasing the imprisoned spirit of man "into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning."

For years i spent a part of every winter out in the Coachella Valley, sleeping late in air-conditioned condos, wearing crisp white shirts to elegant Italian eateries, sipping martinis around kidney-shaped pools. I liked it well enough. I took Jeep tours into palm canyons and went horseback riding through cholla flats and, wrapped in monogrammed bathrobes, watched from the balcony of my room as bighorn sheep munched pansies in the hotel garden. Like the German woman, I thought this is what it meant to go to the desert.

Then, three years ago, I found Anza-Borrego. It was October. A friend I had not seen for a while called and asked me to join her out in the desert. This is a woman with a taste for luxury, so I assumed she meant the Ritz-Carlton at Rancho Mirage or perhaps the historic La Quinta Resort, but when I asked where she was staying, she said La Casa del Zorro. I'd never heard of it. "It's in the real desert," she said.

"What's out there?" I asked her.

"Nothing . . . everything," she said. "And David, there are so many stars."

She wasn't talking about Bob Hope and Gerald Ford.

So I went. I arrived late in the afternoon after stopping for lunch in Julian and then following the weaving mountain highway that drops you several thousand feet to the desert floor. Pulling in at the luxurious Casa del Zorro, its red-tiled casitas shaded by acres of palm trees, I had just time enough to unpack my bags and have a quick dip in the pool before meeting my acquaintance and desert guide, Paul Ford, in the lobby of the hotel.

Paul, who goes by the name "Borrego Paul," is a former planned-benefit analyst from Ohio. After moving to the San Diego area in 1989, he began exploring Anza-Borrego Desert State Park's 600,000-acre expanse in the Yuha region. The Yuha is a subset of the Sonoran Desert, which spreads from Phoenix to Palm Springs and from Needles to about a third of the way down both coasts of Mexico's Gulf of California. Paul now sports a ponytail and wears a straw fedora and jeans so faded from the desert sun that they are more white than blue.

"My job was stressful, so I'd get away from it all by doing a little day hike out here or just driving around," he told us as we pulled off the highway leading east of the little town of Borrego Springs, a privately owned enclave surrounded by the state park, where Casa del Zorro and a handful of other hotels and restaurants are located. We bumped onto a sandy road that was nothing more than the corrugated dry wash of a riverbed. "I was amazed that so close to San Diego you could drive for hours and not see another soul.

"Then I started to spend weekends out here, always going someplace different - Ghost Mountain, Coyote Creek, the calcite mines. I couldn't believe it. So I started taking friends out here. They'd never seen anything like it. Next thing you know, I decided I might as well make a business out of it. Like George Burns always said, I do what I love."

Paul raced the Jeep down the dry wash, its back end fishtailing a bit in the sandy curves. He was rushing to get us to Font's Point, an escarpment about four miles off the highway, before sunset. I don't know what I expected to find at Font's Point. Some sort of pretty desert view, I suppose. Maybe some colored rocks and a sprinkling of angular cacti. Endless vistas of sheer nothingness.

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