A short while later, we found a clearing big enough for a tent, a place for dinner and a modest game of soccer. Our little patch of Anza-Borrego even came pre-decorated with a yellow brittlebush and pretty red chuparosas.
The tent was pitched, the quesadillas were cooked and the air mattresses and sleeping bags were rolled out. Once the stars — so, so many stars and shooting stars! — blinked to life, we settled into our sleeping bags, and Devin read “The Hobbit” to the children. At last, we were camping.
No one camps in a desert to get a good night’s sleep — and ours felt more like trying to rest on a pile of rubble during a windstorm. Nevertheless, 5 a.m. eventually came, and with it, this question from my husband:
“Did you forget to inflate the air mattresses?”
“They can be inflated?!”
Generously, my camping skills are a C minus. Hiking, on the other hand, was a different story. After pancakes (that tasted vaguely like quesadillas) and instant coffee, we were on our way to Hellhole Canyon. It’s a nearly six-mile, out-and-back hike that will reward you with blooms, views and ultimately, a real desert oasis. We shook off our fatigue — and a layer of sand — and we were ready.
Do not touch the flowers!
The desert, as so many BBC specials espouse, is alive. It might look barren and sound like the inside of a whistle, but there are all kinds of creatures in an endless loop of living, growing and dying. And Hellhole Canyon was the place to see it. As we made our way through the snaking incline toward the mountains, the kids were tempted, more than once, to take fallen flowers as souvenirs. But I had Professor Faulstich and Sally Theriault in my head. Stay on the trail! Do not touch the flowers! Take only pictures! Leave only footprints!
“The danger of going off the path is that you will disrupt seedlings, damage the soil, break off stems,” Professor Faulstich had told me. “You may even be bringing in non-native seeds, which could do a lot of damage.”
The trail was about two and a half miles (one way) of mild, and occasionally moderate, hiking, rock climbing and flower identifying. It was easy to forget that this was late February: cloudless, shadeless, blazing hot. But just when you are about to consider heading back to the car, you turn into the canyon and head up into the crease of the mountain. Sand turns to actual grass, cactuses turn to unlikely palm trees, and monotones turn to rewardingly verdant color. That’s how you know you’re at the oasis, a kind of permanent, year-round super bloom.
The children took off their hats and dunked them in the stream. They took off their shoes and sat in the grass. Finally, unfortunately, it was time to leave.