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WILD WEST CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Destruction at the oasis

Fire and rain have scarred the high country. And the desert's acting like the desert in extremes. Take it or leave it.

October 28, 2003|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Borrego Springs, Calif. — The SAGE IS BLOOMING. THE TARANTULAS ARE

copulating. The Casa del Zorro resort is again banning jacketless males from the dining room.

Clearly, fall has come to the desert.

Every year around now, as temperatures fall, the well-baked hamlet of Borrego Springs, about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles, wakes from its summer nap. Restaurants like Pablito's and the Badlands Cafe blink back to life, and the Desert Nature Center starts seeing more newcomers seeking counsel on how to find bighorn sheep while avoiding scorpions. The population, about 3,200 in July, swells on its way to more than doubling by Christmas.

I showed up about a week ahead of the fall's biggest event, Borrego Days, when a parade takes over Palm Canyon Drive and local beauties compete to be crowned Miss Borrego Springs. (This year, eight competitors.) For me, the idea was simply to soak up some reassuring desert rhythms.

That was my mistake. Even though this week's burst of wildfires avoided the town and the neighboring 610,000 acres of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, this is no easy autumn.

Last year, a high-country fire charred 17,000 acres of the park, leaving a layer of ash on vulnerably bare soil. Then in early August, rainstorms assaulted that high country and sent a pair of flash floods roaring through the canyons, followed by a smaller burst of runoff a few weeks later.

Racing through an area that had made only token concessions to human habitation in the first place, the floodwaters, mud and ash tumbled boulders, ripped cactus and brush from the earth, carved new streambeds deeper than I am tall and generally redrew the park's topography. Borrego Palm Canyon, which includes the park's most popular hiking trail, got some of the worst of it.

In a normal year, with far less mess to reckon with, the park brings on about 15 seasonal workers in October to tidy trails and return the park facilities to order. But with Sacramento suffering its own sort of flood damage -- picture torrents of red ink, upending all those government-issue desks and filing cabinets -- the rangers of Borrego have precious little to work with.

This year, the temps won't start until November, and there will probably be only six. Meanwhile, the permanent staff -- 14 rangers as recently as the spring -- is down to 10, whittled by retirements with the timetable for replacements uncertain. Basically, life gave the rangers lemons, and there's no lemonade-making equipment in the budget.

Hence, I suppose, the response of supervising ranger Fred Jee, who greeted me as if I were a scorpion with stinger extended when I approached him at the park visitor center. Once it became clear that I was unlikely to make more rain or cut his budget further, he warmed up and explained the park's "interesting conundrum" -- the debris all over, the cupboard bare and the peak visitor season approaching -- and detailed the damages.

"A 10-foot-high wall of water came down the trail," Jee told me. "We know that from a family that was up there. They saw it coming and jumped up on the nearest big boulder." About three hours later, rangers led them out through the muck. More than a dozen campsites are still unusable and most of the park's 500 miles of dirt roads are safe only for four-wheel-drive vehicles, Jee said, but the Borrego Palm Canyon trail is still open to the public. It's just different. Instead of history, it's breaking news.

"It's not the easygoing nature trail it was. I would term it an adventure trail now," said Kathy Dice, the park's other supervising ranger.

I started my adventure around 8 a.m. at the sign that said, "Follow pink flags where trail washed out." Five minutes later, I came to a stream-crossing where a bridge once stood. Now only the concrete anchors remain on each side of the trickling water. Later there's a second bridge missing. The 1.5-mile trail gains 750 feet in its approach to a natural oasis of palms in the folds of the canyon. Without the pink flags, parts of it would have been lost amid the displaced boulders and redistributed silt.

At the edge of one newly minted gully, I found a massive ocotillo, its stalks at least 12 feet long, bleached and uprooted, lying on its side like a skeletal giraffe. And on a nearby slope, I sighted my first bighorn sheep, half a dozen of them. Like the tarantulas, they have certain seasonal needs, and they often tiptoe down to lower ground to fulfill them. And this fall, with the high country scarred by fire and rain, there are more sheep at lower levels than anyone can remember.

"I've never seen it like this," said hiker Lynn Reed of San Diego, who started coming to this canyon more than 30 years ago.

"Look!" said her husband, Steve, directing the attention of their 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, to another congregation of rams, ewes and yearlings.

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