Family Archeology

There were not many places in San Diego where a person could count on seeing seals, but one of them was (is) La Jolla Cove. Unfortunately on the day pictured in the featured photo there were no seals in sight. It was a fun drawing, anyway.

One afternoon soon after my mom died and her stuff came to my house in San Diego, I was cleaning out her old photos, and I found a photo of my dad. It took me a moment to register that my dad was sitting on a railing at La Jolla Cove. My dad does NOT look happy in the photo, and I would love to know the story behind his expression — other than the sun being in his eyes. Since he is facing south, I am pretty sure it was taken in the winter. He was probably 18 or 19. The historical moment would have been WW II — obviously.

I felt a little strange when I realized where he was. I was sure he’d told me he’d been stationed in San Diego — somewhere. Then I put the pieces together. I remembered him telling me about getting drunk in Tijuana, being busted down to buck private, and put in the brig while his “outfit” shipped out. I remembered he’d told me stories about being out at the Salton Sea about 100 miles east of San Diego and where, during the war, there were radio towers (all I knew). The pieces begin to click into place.

Then, I found this:

The drawing cracked me up. I’m sorry for the guy who died of thirst, though. I like the word valley in quotation marks, too.

I spent a lot of time out in that desert when I lived in California. I never saw it like THAT but I could still recognize it. Based on the little compass at the bottom I could see my dad was looking north and in that direction are the San Bernardino Mountains, Mt. San Jacinto the most visible from there when atmospheric conditions are right (winter). He’s drawn a low range in front of the San Bernardino and those are the mountains that ring the desert. His drawing is a little like these photos put together. He’s drawn the ocotillo and cholla cactus.

Only a couple hundred years ago, we couldn’t take photographs and people had to draw the scenery they encountered on their travels. I guess my dad and his fountain pen entered that tradition.

Posing with Pictographs in the Anza Borrego Desert sometime in the 1980s.

Arid Valleys = Heaven

“You call this desert? Plants grow.”

My Saudi students had a point. In their desert, that wasn’t the case. On a school field trip, we hiked up to a seasonal waterfall and oasis, a small spring in the cleft of a fault line, the kind of spring that was everywhere in this desert and everywhere in the Laguna Mountains to the west. The Anza Borrego desert east of San Diego the result a “rain shadow” created by that small range of mountains. Because of their altitude, they keep most of the years moisture for themselves. I’ve stood on mountain trails that rim the desert and have had one hand in rain and the other in sunshine. It’s a very clear line.

My student was right, really. The place is arid, but not barren. It was hard for me to call it a desert, too. In spring the bottom — the desert floor — was covered in flowers. Every living thing in that place was an opportunist, though most of the flowers had a predictable season. Not really “spring.” It was more, “after a few weeks of rain.” Some plants — the Ocotillo for one — would bloom if any water hit their roots. Their blossoms are bright red “flames” at the end of green candles.


Flash flooding is common. The thunderstorms that hit the Laguna Mountains in winter often made it over the top. One year a localized rain was so heavy that hundreds of palm trees in this very oasis — Palm Canyon — where I’d hiked with my students years before were washed down to the bottom of the valley, onto the flat. Hiking with a friend after the flood, I was stunned to see them, huge trunks wedged between boulders.

I camped in various spots in that desert many times, usually in a VW camper van my ex and I had for a while. It was fun to look at the stars — we bought a telescope — and hike through the washes and the rocky canyons.

I live in a similar place now, though several thousand feet higher in altitude. The San Luis Valley is in the rain shadow of two mountain ranges. Storms from the west get tangled in the San Juan Mountains and storms from the east get caught in the Sangre de Cristos. This valley is “littered” with springs where the two ranges pull apart. It is also arid but not barren.

Both places have been home to humans for thousands of years. Both have rocky outcroppings where ancient people left “messages.” Both are home to “borregos” — mountain sheep. In both places, a “river runs through it” — narrow feeder streams of the Colorado River thread their way along the eastern edge of the Anza Borrego, while the Rio Grande meanders through the San Luis Valley. To the far east of the Anza Borrego is a dune field where Hollywood directors have often filmed desert scenes. To the far east of the San Luis Valley there is also a dune field — Great Sand Dunes National Park


Great Sand Dunes National Park

I used to escape San Diego whenever I could to go to the desert in the winter. I like the wide vistas, the sunshine, the emptiness. And now? I live in the largest alpine valley in the world.

P.S. I also just realized that I have written a compare/contrast essay, so if you’re an English teacher and want to use it for a class, be my guest. :p