I celebrated my birthday this year with wild animals in the desert. No, not party animals, and no, I don’t mean my husband Steve or our friend Dave, but bighorn sheep and dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs! No, we didn’t go to Jurassic Park, but to San Diego’s back country, Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
My Borrego birthday weekend in March 2016 started with deciding to actually make a weekend of it, taking Friday off, and heading to the desert, hoping for wildflowers to enliven the always dramatic desert scenery. My birthday, being in early March and right after our annual end of February film festival trip to Sedona, usually gets short shrift in our household compared to Steve’s in late September, coming at a great time of year to travel just about anywhere.
Several unexpected developments conspired to make this one unusual. For starters, this would be our first trip in ages to Borrego Springs, which we used to visit quite regularly. One of the downsides of second home ownership is that it sucks up a lot of the time we used to have for short jaunts like this and engenders a definite feeling of obligation to use it on a regular basis. One of our workarounds to not feel we have to spend all of our free time in Sedona is doing home exchanges. To date, we’ve done 17, including 3 stays in NYC, 2 in Paris, 2 in Iceland, 2 in the south of France, and one each in Bali, Whistler, Chicago, Barcelona, and Isla Mujeres in the Mexican Riviera.
We had been neglecting Borrego Springs in recent years. Somehow, when you can go anytime to a place just 2 hours away, it doesn’t seem as urgent to schedule. One of the nice results of home exchanging is that it moves possible, future destinations up on your radar. When we first received an exchange request to, for example, Iceland, our reaction was: “Well, we’ve always been interested in going to Iceland, why not sooner than later?”
An unusual exchange request moved Borrego Springs back onto our radar, coming from a friend of our friend Lauren. Unusual in that the realtor couple who owned the house had never exchanged before, but Elena, talking to Lauren at the gym, was intrigued by the idea of exchanging their vacation home, which they rent out between their stays. She sent pictures and I liked the look and location of the house, slump-block California hacienda-style.
The weekend started early, with a Thursday night Fuji event at Bay City Brewery in Point Loma, near sponsor Nelson Photo Supply. Fuji reps were there with cameras and lenses to handle and play with, shooting a model with studio lights. The carnitas tacos by Spanglish were great and the beer excellent as well. By evening’s end, we had asked Nelson representatives to reserve us the new X-Pro 2 camera body for Steve and a 16 mm lens for me.
The next morning, we headed down to Nelson’s to pick up our new acquisitions. Nancy, the store owner, rushed up as soon as we walked in, apologizing profusely. The night before, Steve had told Paul from the store to hold one of two newly released camera bodies for him. Meanwhile, I asked Nancy to hold a 16 mm lens for me, and mentioned my husband had spoken for an X-Pro2 camera body. She said that was fine, one was already spoken for and he would have the second. Back at the store, Paul told her the camera was already sold. She panicked, thinking that there was no camera for Steve and had already called and apologized to his voicemail before we arrived. We were rushing around the house getting ready for the weekend and didn’t pick up the call. When we walked in and they realized we were together and that Steve was the guy who ordered the camera body from Paul, as well as my husband, there was great relief all around.
From Nelson’s, our next stop was the airport, picking up our friend Dave, arriving from Seattle to join us for the weekend, prior to attending a hospitalist meeting downtown.
We ran into owner Su-Mei while lunching at Saffron, telling her all about our recent weekend to Chihuly’s Boathouse in Seattle and seeing her longtime companion Italo’s room there.
We arrived in time to find the house at the end of the road before dark and headed out to shoot the sunset at Font’s Point.
Afterwards, we checked out the Plein Air Invitational at the Borrego Art Institute, occupying a prominent spot on Christmas Circle and new since my last visit.
We dined outside at Red Ocotillo (salmon for me, fish tacos for Dave and meat loaf for Steve), a venture new to us by the owners of The Palms at Indian Head, the mid century lodging where we usually stay.
Back at the house, I experimented, shooting some images around the house which capitalized on the incredibly star filled sky.
Shooting at night is tricky. It’s difficult to actually see the subject through the viewfinder to make sure your subject or foreground is in focus. I usually have to either prefocus during the day or choose something I can see that is at roughly the same distance away. It takes some trial and error. Usually I shoot a test, and from there, reposition: a little higher, a little more to the right from there or as needed to include or exclude foreground elements.
On Saturday morning, we intended to rise before sunrise to shoot.The alarm did go off at 5 AM, but we were both exhausted and rolled back over. At six, I looked out the window to see incredible color lighting up the sky, which woke me up. Heading into the living room, I ran into Dave sneaking out in his underwear with his iPhone for the same reason.
After picking up a latte at Bighorn Fudge Company, we headed over to the trailhead for Borrego Palm Canyon, at the campsite. The three of us had once camped here with other friends more than 20 years before, when Dave lived in San Diego. We had done this hike many times, but had never seen Borrego’s namesake desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) as other than very tiny distant dots.
There was welcome cloud cover, diffusing the light. Heading up the trail, we saw people on the alternate route back, gazing at a small herd of bighorn sheep. We took the alternate route back, but somehow, following another couple, became completely sidetracked. Steve headed cross country to rejoin the trail, while Dave and I walked further and further down, trying to avoid trampling the fragile cryptobiotic desert soil, adding another half a mile to the hike each way, before finally joining up with the trail and doubling back. Dave was nice enough to carry my heavy pack. Only after arriving back at the car did I realize that my backpack was heavy not just with camera equipment, but I had forgotten to take my laptop out of it, not a piece of equipment I usually carry on a hike.
We had an incredible shooting session with the bighorn, who were busily grazing and paid us no mind, sometimes gazing curiously at us at quite close range.
An earnest man with a French accent took me to task afterwards for approaching too closely, but I pointed out the obvious: I had a mammoth lens and had no need to approach the animals particularly closely. While sitting on a rock, they did approach me quite closely, but seemed unperturbed by my presence.
It was a great birthday gift from nature: a good opportunity to shoot a species I had never seen at close range, with a brand new, never used in the field wildlife lens which had arrived only a few weeks before.
We had an excellent Mexican food lunch at Carmelita’s, followed by a pleasant shopping experience at surprisingly well-equipped Borrego Outfitters, a store carrying gourmet snacks, outdoor essentials and desert rugged clothing and footwear.
We finished the day in The Slot canyon, a twisty and very narrow corkscrew of a canyon, down in the Badlands we had been overlooking from Font’s Point the night before.
After Saturday night birthday dinner on the terrace at the Butterfield Dining Room at La Casa del Zorro, Steve took us down a dark dirt road in search of a pair of dinosaurs he had in mind as subjects to light paint under the incredibly starry desert sky. Since my last visit, the Borrego Springs area has been overrun by large animals, which I only knew from Steve’s shots from a prior solo trip. The large scale metal sculptures are a collaboration of Galleta Meadows owner Dennis Avery and “accidental” sculptor Ricardo Breceda. Dave and I were skeptical we would even be able to locate the rusted metal sculptures, sporadically dotting the desert, at night. Dave shone a flashlight out the window of the car, shaking his head skeptically. I peered at a map of the Galleta Meadows sculptures by the light of my Iphone’s flashlight. Steve swung the car from side to side, using the car headlights as a search beam to part the inky blackness. Dave and I were astonished when 2 Tyrannosaurus Rex loomed out of the darkness, and we were all astonished to realize there was a car parked in the desert behind the dinosaurs. We can only imagine what the couple inside the car must have thought as we set up tripods, repeatedly trained a strong flashlight beam on the dinosaurs and generally disrupted their privacy.
We worked off a few calories looking for a trail to Henderson Canyon from DeAnza before meeting up with San Diego friends and fellow mid-century design enthusiasts Stacey and Doug at their home on a golf course. We had heard about their mid century modern home for years and seen it on line in Dwell , so I had texted Stacey a few days before our trip to see if they were in residence the same weekend. The house was even more beautiful in person than published, outfitted with artwork and ceramics of the period, including examples of Stacey’s parents from her childhood. We all enjoyed lunch at Ram’s Hill, another golf course community, also a favorite of our hosts Elena and John for the view.
To shake off the torpor of the drive home, we did a favorite nature walk loop, the Inaja Trail, near San Ysabel, with lovely giant boulders and trees. All too soon, we were dropping off Dave downtown, bringing a very special Borrego birthday weekend to a close, leaving us with unforgettable memories of close encounters with Borrego’s namesake sheep and dinosaurs romping the desert under a glittering canopy of stars.