By Brett Warnke
When I lost my job, I thought about death. And there is no better place to indulge in grave thoughts than a desert. And there is no better desert in California than in Anza Borrego, the state’s first desert park and the one of the country’s largest state parks. So when I was laid off this week, I headed east to the land of cairns, bighorn sheep and the much lauded “super blooms.”
My father lost his job in real estate in 1993 in Michigan City, Indiana, my hometown. It was in August looking over Lake Michigan, its blue on blue horizon, as my sister and I sat beside him. His red shoulders roasted in the fading hours of the sun and he dug his fingers into the sand. As funny and thoughtful as my father is, he’s never been the most reflective about life’s big questions—but he let the grains and shells spill through his fingers like an hourglass.
“How many handfuls makes up a million grains?” he asked me.
Only years later, I discovered the significance of the million number. In ‘92-93, Sam Zell, a hideous gnome and crooked real estate tycoon who later ratted on his own family to keep himself out of prison, passed down orders to his real estate minions at Equity that $1 million needed to be made up on the books. Part of Zell’s cost-savings was a mass firing of middle-management—my Dad.
Now, in San Diego, I’ve lost my job, too. My sister and I packed a bag and water bottles, leaving early in the morning when the fog was thick and the traffic still thin. My sleep has been restless but I’m not alone in my worries: nearly 1,000 San Diego educators are riding the tumbrel this spring. Whether we go to new positions or to the blade, we do not know. The layoffs could be a bargaining tactic the district is using against the union. An obvious ploy. They issued similar layoff notices in 2012 before the last contract was negotiated and the union leadership bargained away raises in exchange for undoing layoffs.
I drove east in the blue gray fog and thought of résumés and cover letters and bank statements. The temperature was 56 degrees in Ocean Beach and would swing up to the mid 80s by the time I reached the Anza Borrego. The mountains of East County were a rich, almost Irish green. Climate change is causing California’s winter storms to produce rain instead of snow. This stresses thousands of miles of rivers and levees. Last month 200,000 people were evacuated in response to a hole in the emergency spillway in the Oroville Dam in Northern California and levies are weakening even as tourists and flower-peepers snap the desert bulbs.
Are they “super blooms” or “the flowers of evil”?
When my father lost his job in ’93 he warned us that it could happen again. It did. Real estate’s boom and bust left him and millions like him without a job, the thinning safety net, and the consoling fiction of self-blame. He retreated into our suburban house. Being seen without a job in a Midwestern town was pure shame. Life for a Midwesterner is work. So Dad, and millions of men like him—fired for their age, their salary, their graying hairs and full resumes—remained home while cheaper stock was hired in their place.
When I lost my job I made a private vow to do the opposite of my Dad—I’d take to the road, read poems by flashlight in the desert, be unshackled to a job and see something, do something. Nothing is more consoling than an escape into activity. I could hear my mother’s voice in the back of my mind, denouncing my Dad’s seclusion: “Be sure to stop and smell the roses,” she’d say.
I could have cut the fog Sunday morning with a knife. It thinned out toward the mountains. As we came closer to the desert, the traffic picked up; the frequent rains have let a thousand articles bloom and it seems that for every drop of rain there has been a tweet or post about the desert eruption to come.
“Super bloom, my ass!” Don, a patron of Carlee’s Place in Borrego Springs, was finishing his second Bloody Mary and felt like talking. A lot.
“It’s all advertising. There’ll be flowers next weekend and the next. And I’ve been coming out here decades…back when…”
“But is it extraordinary this year?” I asked him. “Are they super blooms?”
“Well, if it gets them to Anza Borrego, any advertising is good advertising,” he said, smiling proudly about the park he’s been traveling to from Oceanside for years. But the heat, reaching into the 80s by 11 a.m. worried him. 5,000 people had been counted at the Visitor’s Center, just on March 12. Borrego Springs is a town of only 3,400.
Don pulled at his second drink after finishing the first.
“You see, the traffic will push people into the outskirts and then they’ll get lost, see. They’ll go off-road. Like that European couple. Remember that? You saw it out front in Christmas Circle. It’s bedlam out there.”
“What happened?” I asked him, ignoring the annoying traffic. “To the Europeans.”
“I’m not going to ruin your trip. Just don’t wander off. You’ll end up…ah, hell, just enjoy the blooms! The super blooms!”
With no cell service for hours, it took me until Sunday evening to discover what had happened. A couple traveling from Europe in August, 2011 had taken a rented Dodge Charger off Black Eagle Mine Road in Joshua Tree. The soft sands had swallowed their tires, trapping them. The murderous heat rose and they panicked, going off on foot in different directions. They made it about a mile before each collapsed dead from heatstroke. Their bodies were later discovered by Sheriff’s deputies.
Desert and death.
I wanted to call my Dad and tell him the story about the Europeans, tell him how I had to get out of the house and see the desert, so different than Lake Michigan back home. But he wouldn’t understand the cost of a trip to the Colorado Desert, or anywhere else. And there was no service out there, anyhow. It was only the stones and mountains and the wide empty sky.
There are over 500 miles of roads in Anza Borrego and once you turn off the twisted mountain chokepoints you enter the land of eerie mountain towns, crowded diners, and the odd but frequent stance of a roadside piss. Much of the state park is a hellscape, lands where a vast Imperial Sea vanished and seismic activity pieced new continents together. Marshlands bubbled into tropical seas and as I walked the valleys, I saw million-year old shells baked into mountain walls and scattered among the stones. Everywhere in Anza Borrego is the memory of water. Even without a current drop, the visible geology of the desert are the scars of water—the harsh traces of erosion. All of it prompted visions of long-vanished giants flicking their tails over smooth boulders in the ancestral Colorado River or stomping through marshy passes.
The “super blooms” were fantastically alive in a landscape of so much death. At the dead-end of DiGiorgio Road, the traffic rose steadily after 9:30 a.m. When the pavement turned to dirt I panicked and rolled down the windows to look at the tires, trying to ensure I that wouldn’t end up like the Europeans. I was safe.
From the dirt road, vague hints of color turned into a spectacle. On the mountain-sides were the frozen explosion of reaching ocotillos, their red flares at the tip of long green lashes. But on the sandy floor were pink poppies and desert dandelions, too. Others were odd. The brown-eyed primrose had long green tendrils stretching out from its petals and everywhere across the valley floor were the fragrant verbena, a pink sticky creeper with a cluster of blooms. Verbenas were often surrounded by more dramatic clusters of primroses.
As I walked over the carpet of flowers, trying to avoid crushing the petals, I thought of the cost of gas, lunch, and sunscreen. I thought of my father. The money he’d be furious I’d wasted on such a trip. Even in the desert, there were thoughts of money.
“Every step outside is an expense,” my Dad said when he lost a job at a mall in Chicago. “You get gas, it costs. Even a nasty dollar menu for lunch. It costs, too. All of it is like a meter running down until there’s nothing left. And then where are you? You’re nowhere with nothing.”
More and more people arrived. And by 10:45 a.m. the heat pressed against my neck like a red hand. I decided to turn back to the car—when I saw the dragon. I stood immobile, frightened to move a foot. A long rippling tail, like a crocodile’s, rested under the shadow of green wavy daggers reaching from bright green skin. It’s smooth neck reached up into six bright teeth shaded with yellow.
Of course, the dragon was a desert lily.
The rains have leaked inches into the sand so much that the lily’s bulbs, ones native people’s used to eat, are half-opened and glisten with moisture while the full white blooms spread widely like open and fragrant mouths.
None of it will last. In the upcoming weeks the days are longer, the afternoons hotter. The peak-bloom will end and the lily’s green tails will wither into brown straw. All life, as F. Scott Fitzgerald knew, is a process of breaking down.
The caravan down DiGiorgio offered us a high dust cloud and the voices on my walk back became louder. Conversations twenty-five yards away felt like they were beside me and when I crouched down to snap a picture of a fossilized stone, imagining the sea creatures that covered the tropical oceans, a young boy threw a chunk of baked mud at a stone.
“Boom!” he yelled out. His brother leapt off a rock and his parents chased them away from me when I growled.
My sister gave me the sign and we made our way to the car. A woman bumped into me. She apologized.
“It’s just so crowded. All the city people are coming up! The time to come is during the week,” she said. I nodded and then rolled my eyes. Retired. But, maybe I would come up again. Now I am semi-retired, too.
At the car, my sister pointed to two twenty-somethings who stupidly brought their dogs, two retrievers that, when they left the car, began hopping on their delicate paws from the sizzling heat of the sand.
As I sat in the bloom traffic, entirely aware that I had brought this aggravation on myself, I thought about the Spanish colonists who arrived down the mountains on horseback. The park actually gets its name, not from native people, but from the Spanish word for the local sheep and an even woolier Spanish colonist named Juan Bautista de Anza. While the English colonies to Mexico’s east erupted at the publishing of Paine’s Common Sense in January 1776, de Anza’s winter explorations throughout Southern California were interrupted by a revolt in San Diego.
In his January diary Anza wrote : “The corporal who has the mission under his command gives me sad news that a few days ago the heathen and converted Indians of the mission of San Diego, together with those farther inland, attacked that mission, killed one of the missionary fathers and two servants, wounded all the few soldiers of the guard, and burned the small buildings of the pueblo.”
Climate rallies have flowered in recent weeks after Trump’s election. One of the most memorable signs has been a sunflower, the wide yellow petals a signature sign of hope and possibility—a follower of light. Perhaps new revolts will come from San Diego, ones that would shake our leaders, too.
I considered these histories on the road from Anza Borrego through Julian, one choked with traffic. But by the time I returned to Ocean Beach at 3 p.m., the marine layer had erased even the hint of the desert sun. The warmth on my shoulders and neck cooled and my hamstrings screamed. I looked out over the gray water and the heavy sky. My phone shook as the service kicked back on. It was a text message from my father.
“How was the hike?” he’d texted.
I took a deep cool breath and refreshed my lungs with a bit of life; I stretched my arms and kicked the desert out of my shoes. I felt an energizing mist on my face and when I opened my eyes I looked up to the gray sky knowing the weeks ahead would be busy as a spring garden.