Original date 3 July 1988
Copyright by Bruce F. Barber
PMB 480, P O BOX 9019
Calexico, CA 92232-9019
The Cactus Garden
Bruce F. Barber
The San Felipe Desert is a living museum. Within the confines of this museum are an infinite variety of rocks, sands, lavas, seashells and plants unique to a region like no other. Although a part of the vast Sonora Desert, the “San Felipe” is separately identified because of its distinctly different characteristics.
Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the Sea of Cortez, the San Felipe Desert lies in a pocket of superheated air where rain is as rare as gold. Oh, sure, there’s a little of each, but would you believe one-inch-per-year for the water? Every 10 or 20 years a “Chubasco” (hurricane) churns its maddening way up the Cortez to add to the overall average, but four, six or even eight extra inches over a 100-year span are meaningless in a land where plants long ago learned to absorb the moisture they need from the air.
Driving south from Mexicali, the “San Felipe” is entered through a doorway as distinct as the Laguna Salada and the Sierra Pinta. (The “Salada” is an L-shaped [50 miles long by 20 miles wide] stretch of barren former sea floor; the Sierra Pinta is a volcanic mountain range 20 miles long by 8 miles wide.)
Driving southeasterly from Ensenada, the entrance becomes San Matias Pass as the highway twists and turns its way down (from the 4,000 feet level) to the desert floor alongside a once-violent waterway.
Within the San Felipe, travelers enter an arboretum as unique and as interesting as Nature has created anywhere. The land is dotted with Bursage, Creosote Bush, Mesquite, Ocotillo, Palo Chino (Cats claw), Palo Triste (Smoke tree), Palo Verde and the rapidly disappearing Palo Fierro (Ironwood). A closer look reveals three varieties of Elephant Tree (Torote), several varieties of Cholla, frequent stands of “Candelabra” (Senita Cactus) and, occasionally, a taller cactus.
Often mistaken for the stately Saguaro (which is unique to the states of Sonora and Arizona), Cardón, the world’s tallest cactus plant, grows naturally nowhere else in the world but Baja California. One of the most beautiful stands in existence is found along the Magdalena Plain where they grow to heights of 75-feet while along the San Felipe the tallest are but 50 although even those are hard to find. Until, that is, you enter the “Cactus Garden”.
It’s hidden. It’s out of the way. It is off the beaten track, but it’s there and, according to the plants themselves, it has been there for at least 1,000 years. One day, I was puttering around in the desert, searching for new roads to travel, new things to discover when, suddenly, I rounded a curve and there they stood: 100s of them; the most stately stand I’d ever seen.
I was so struck with their numbers and their presence that I parked my buggy and started off on foot. I wanted to walk among these gentle giants to ascertain their age, their individual beauty, and to decipher the story they might tell me. While most of them ranged to 30-feet in height, I found one old timer at least 45-feet tall and four of them at 50. I found several with trunks three feet in diameter and one with more than 30 branches. I found some dead, some dying and some youngsters no more than one inch tall.
From the living I learned their age. From the dead, their structure. From the dying, a cause of death. Then, as I continued to walk around, I began to realize there was a strangeness to this place. At first, I was awed by its presence and had wanted to get as close to it as I could for I have a thing about being close to Nature. But then, I was awakened by the fact that something was wrong; I soon realized it was the absence of younger plants. Oh, I saw a few, but nothing in comparison to the numbers of adult plants and a number of what I thought were seeds scattered on the ground.
What few youngsters there were, were nearly impossible to see. They were hidden and that, I presume, is what ensures their survival. Each of those younger Cardón cacti was growing within the protection offered by a relatively small bush. Being younger, they were afforded even more protection by their color, which approximated the color of the bush rather than the bright green of their fully-grown parents.
“Where is your nursery,” I shouted as I began walking ever-enlarging circles until my path led me back to my sandrail from where I undertook the search in earnest. To me, the things I was seeing (rather, the things I was not seeing) constituted a mystery and I was going to solve it no matter how long it took. Then, after an hour of driving in circles, I came upon the answer when I found the nursery located a third of a mile northwest of the garden. It was then that I discovered what was happening. These cacti were on the march and that could only mean that they had been on the march from their place of origin, which, I began to realize, was that far-away land of the giants along the Magdalena Plain.
“Mag” Bay is a little more than 450-miles south of San Felipe; the Magdalena Plain is slightly less. If these plants were moving at the rate of ¼-mile every 250 years, I calculated, it would have taken them just under 500,000 years to arrive at this place but that’s not the end of the story. I knew of stands farther north, so, while these in The Garden were not the first of their kind to reach this region, they were the first to tell me what was going on.
As I stood there staring off to the south, I conjured up a vision of other stands I was familiar with and each of them was standing in what appeared to be lines pointing all the way back to the Magdalena Plain. What I saw was no different than a vision of any other group committed to a decision by intelligent choice. These big fellows were desert wanderers who, for one reason or another, had their beginnings on a lonely shelf of land where water is converted from the air and a droplet is seldom if ever seen. Perhaps it was prevailing winds, or perhaps I shall never know, but they seem to have decided upon the north and, having decided, their trek was begun.
With the exception of these “Johnny-come-latelys” in The Garden, their northerly trek ceased before they reached the 32nd parallel for there are no Cardón north of the Sierra Pinta. There are a scattered few near the base of San Matias Pass and a few more in the narrow Arroyo Grande Valley, but beyond these there are no others.
On the one hand, almost nothing grows along the Laguna Salada. On the other, there must be something as identifiable to these magnificent giants as that which enabled geographers to place a boundary around the San Felipe Desert, for it is that northern boundary that halted their northerly trek.
Although not a mystery, there is another interesting plant in the San Felipe that some folks think is the most common of them all. Only about 10,000 years of age, “Ocotillo” is the newest addition to Baja California’s flora. And, little known by most, is the fact that this orange flowering tree has a yellow flowering cousin that is so rare it is protected by law wherever it grows; the San Felipe Desert may be the only place on earth where it is found.
Another interesting plant is the “Elephant Tree” for here in our local desert there are three different varieties. Two of them—the grey-barked “Torote” and the red-barked “Torote colorado”—dwell principally in the northern regions while the blond-barked “Copalquín” enjoys the southern San Felipe.
Maguey is an interesting plant that can be found in profusion along each side of the highway at the northern end of the Santa Clara Valley. Here, in May and June, their 10-foot shoots are topped with brilliant yellow flowers attracting bees and bats and hummingbirds from all over the desert. A mountain variety is harvested after the flower stalk has dried and then sold for household adornment during the fall. The trick to these beauties is to spray the newly harvested stalk with a mixture of cold water and detergent and, when dry, apply a thorough coating of aerosol lacquer or varnish… but wait; did I say “Fall?” You’ll find many of these dried beauties, including the two at my house, decorated with lights for Christmas. At prices ranging to $35 each, you’ll want to protect your purchase for use during another year for it is only through a form of protection that we may be guaranteed we’ll have these treasures forever.
Alas! The San Felipe Desert is filled with treasures more wonderful than we realize. After the runoff from a recent storm subsided, Spanish doubloons were found laying where the cactus march… where you’ll find some of the strangest plants on earth… where a flower one day is a Christmas ornament the next: in a little cactus garden that is a part of the strange and wonderful… San Felipe Desert
FEELINGS OF JOY
Bruce F. Barber
THE BEAUTY OF BAJA
Part 5: Laguna de los Volcanes
Bruce F. Barber
The site of North America’s second largest geothermal-powered electricity generating plant, the Laguna de los Volcanes (Volcano Lake) lies in a sprawling desert thirty kilometers southeast of Mexicali. It is a surprising place where jets of steam disappear into the atmosphere amidst a setting of cactus, sage and mesquite. In reality, there is no lake there, not any more, but there are hundreds of steam vents driving turbines which, in turn, drive electricity generators. Altogether, the site is providing the Mexicali Valley (and parts of nearby San Diego county) with an abundance of electrical power.
The Laguna de los Volcanes is a 20-square-mile area of industrial development: 20 square miles of wells, pipes, turbines, generators, transformers, control centers, switching stations and steam vents. It is 20 hazardous square miles where natural forces have ruptured the earth’s crust to allow the escape of heat rising from below!
As heat rises from within the earth, water from surface-drilled wells comes into contact with superheated rocks, flashes into steam, and is ejected under pressures created by that conversion. But this is today when the miracle of learning has permitted scientists and engineers to develop such a marvelous undertaking:.What about yesterday?
According to geologists, the Laguna de los Volcanes is situated along the Cerro Prieto fault, a branch of the San Andreas fault system. It was created by plate tectonic pressures that fractured the land between 20 and 5 million years ago creating this particular arena and its adjacent volcano, Cerro Prieto.
Because it is located near the eastern edge of the continuously moving Pacific Plate, the question arises, “How long can this power source be counted on?” The answer appears to be “indefinitely” but that gives rise to another question: “How many steam vents will the system support?”
To date, more than 40 steam-producing-wells have been drilled. The casual visitor will undoubtedly see well drilling rigs punching new holes into the earth suggesting its full potential has yet to be realized. But that, too, relates to today, a fact that inevitably leads some of us back to, “What about yesterday?”
According to archeologists and anthropologists formerly associated with Arizona and New Mexico Universities, the Laguna was originally seen by Indians who came into the region about 39,000 years ago. These natives could have been descendants of Indians familiar with the Yellowstone geothermal area of Wyoming. Such a natural phenomenon undoubtedly created beliefs in gods living within the earth who displayed their anger by making the land tremble and the sands boil; by making steam issue forth from rocks and the air to smell so foul it could turn a man to stone.
Beliefs such as these would foster stories to be passed from generation to generation in the same manner most of early man’s wisdom was handed down. It may be assumed that these early discoverers knew, as a result of their stories, what the place was and how it was to be venerated.
According to historians, the first European to come upon the site was Melchior Díaz and the twenty–five Conquistadors that accompanied him. What they saw would have been a hot water lake, boiling mud pots, geysers of steam and patches of treacherously soft ground to be avoided at all costs.
The fact that the Laguna was mentioned by historians entreating the Díaz mystery lends credence to the proposition that Melchior Díaz was the first European to set foot on Baja California Norte. Be that as it may, the Laguna has seen the passage of thousands of men and animals over the tenure of its lifespan.
Access to the geothermal site is provided by a macadam road running between Ejido Oaxaca in the south and Ejido Puebla in the north. Driving from San Felipe on Federal Highway5, turn east at La Puerta’s north–side Pemex station and continue easterly via Poblado Zakamoto to State Highway1. Turn north and drive 5 kilometers to the center of Ejido Oaxaca (one block before Oaxaca’s Pemex station) and turn west on a 4-lane divided street. After crossing the railroad tracks, turn north again and, 7 kilometers later, enter the geothermal area.
As we made our way along this busy roadway, we were thrilled by the magnificence of this natural phenomenon and the opportunity to be there. The fact that the area was industrially developed was of little importance to us. It was the historical nature of the place and how man has benefited from it that captured our thoughts.
We wondered about the presence of prehistoric animals in the area. How many saber toothed tigers, camels or mastodons have stood on these same heated grounds? What rituals did the ancient ones perform here? And, although pressed for time, what did Melchior Díaz and his conquistadors think of this place? Did they slow their pace long enough to marvel at the boiling pools of steam-heated mud? Were there geysers here, issuing forth their pressure-relieving jets of steam every five, ten or fifteen minutes?
Why is it we cannot go back in time to see the place as it was throughout the millennia? How I wish that I could for I’d be among the first to go. What I long to know is not what the desert looked like five million years ago, for this area has not always been desert. What I long for is to see the land as it existed before it became desert.
I would like to see the forest that covered the ground from El Centro to Puertecitos before it was petrified. What kinds of trees were they? What happened? Was it El Centinela that uprooted them with the power of one earth-shattering blast? Did it bury the trees under tons of flesh-searing ash that ultimately played a part in turning them to stone?
I’d like to see the Patterned Ground when it was being formed along the western boundary of that same forest. Patterned ground is a natural phenomenon caused by convection currents in freezing and thawing ground. The patterned ground I speak of lies in a one hundred mile long line stretching from the base of Cerro Coloradito to Blythe, California. It is composed of a series of three meter wide donut-shaped rings.
Composed of coarse gravel, some of the rings are filled with sand and surrounded by finer gravel, others are filled with a finer gravel and surrounded by sand. How is it that there could have been a forest standing next to freezing and thawing ground? How could there have been freezing temperatures in a temperate zone?
A few miles south of Cerro Coloradito lay a series of canyons crowded with hot springs, rivers, blue fan palms and Indian morteros. The walls above each of these venerated places are covered with countless paintings and drawings made by Natives recording things most important to them. Perhaps one of those ancient drawings describes the Laguna de los Volcanes and the gods that dwelled therein.
They say it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature and yet, here, in a 50-mile-wide circle Mother Nature is fooling with us with her petrified forest, Patterned Ground, hot springs, blue fan palms and the Laguna de los Volcanes. It was she who brought Native Americans to our area and because of her they left their messages upon the rocks.
It was Mother Nature who laid a path before Melchior Díaz and because of her he went to a premature grave. It was she who brought me to this region and it is because of her that I seek answers to these fascinating questions. Tell me your secrets, Dear Lady. Tell me what I long to know of the magnificent, unending, incomparable beauty of Baja California.
A BIRD’S NEST
Bruce F. Barber
“So? …what’s the big deal about a bird’s nest,” she asked?
“It’s where I find them that makes the difference,” I replied. “Not only in trees, but in cactus, desert bushes and caves.”
I was telling my daughter, visiting from Pennsylvania, about her mother’s and my desert treks and a few of the things we encountered out there. Although she lives on a farm, she wasn’t impressed when I mentioned finding birds’ nests… until I told her in detail.
While I make no claim to having seen every kind of North American bird’s nest, the fact that my wife and I are desert travelers has afforded us an opportunity to see more than a few. In one remote place, for example, we saw the nest of the endangered Blue Heron. We’ve seen ospreys’ nests, bald eagles’ nests, vultures’ nests, large and small owls’ nests… even the near-impossible: A roadrunner’s nest.
It was the finding of smaller birds’ nests that I was telling my daughter about. My wife and I had led neighbors on a Sandrail Run into Valle Chico (near Baja California’s San Felipe de Jesus). This was a relaxed outing for no particular purpose except to provide men and women who’d never before experienced the desert an opportunity to learn about things I knew would knock their socks off. Departing home at 7:00 a.m., we were standing atop a landmark volcanic outcropping by 7:30 where I pointed to and explained a brief history of the Colorado River Delta, Sonora’s Desierto de Altar, its Sierra Pinacate (about 90-miles distant), and a little of Baja California’s northeastern quadrant.
6,000,000 years ago this part of the Californias was at the bottom of an ancient sea where (millions of) seashells were collecting on it’s sandy floor. Subsequently, over the millennia, the seashells dissolved, the sea receded and those calcium-rich sands turned to nature’s concrete. As our friends stood on a rock-hard mound more than 1,000 feet above today’s sea, they found a breath-taking view—one that included the Sierra Pinta, Cerro El Chinero, and a segment of Baja’s northeastern. They were stunned by natural phenomena they had no idea existed.
On the north side of the mound we showed them a small cave in which bees had created a hive and were busy collecting nectar from surrounding desert plants. Completing our tour of the mound, we led them through a low-grade fossil site and, ten minutes later, stopped at a prominent fossil site where 6, 7 and 8,000,000 years ago, clam, oyster and snail shells had collected in individual colonies.
Our next stop was at a place I call the “Little Grand Canyon,” where a solidified ancient mud flow is slowly eroding away. It was here that our friends had their first sighting of the multi-headed Biznaga (Barrel cactus), which grow in profusion in central Valle Chico. Later, crossing the valley floor, we encountered many other ‘multi-heads’ including a 40-headed plant.
It is sightings like the beehive and multi-headed cacti that keep us in awe about nature’s intriguing accomplishments. And, it was near “40 Barrel” that we saw our first bird’s nest of the day. A large nest for such a small bird (a cactus wren), it was firmly attached to a spiny cholla in a manner strong winds could not dislodge. For fear of upsetting the thing, we made no effort to peek inside its tiny opening although we knew it was the season for birds to be sitting on eggs.
Continuing our outing, we drove via El Chaparral, a place where vaqueros had penned two wild Javelinas, to park in the shade of flowering mesquite trees near our favorite waterfalls. Then, as we enjoyed a savory lunch, we spoke of the surrounding desert and the Indians who had populated this region for so many years before Columbus’ first day on earth.
After lunch, we continued our trek across the desert floor. Passing the bone-dry Rio Huatamote, we stopped to reflect on the waters it had known. Rio Huatamote, Arroyo Huatamote, the Huatamote Trail: The riverbed was an avenue that, for some 2,000 years, had been an ancient Indian thoroughfare between Valle Chico and the distant Sea of Cortez.
One hour later, I left the roadway to drive into the desert to allow my group to see a geologically uplifted area seldom visited by anyone. Within a minute, it seemed, as three of us enjoyed a cool refreshment, our women shouted down to us from the rim of the uplift. Scampering like children in a playground, they were enjoying themselves to the fullest.
“Look what I found,” shouted one of them. “It has eggs in it.”
We went where she was standing at the entrance to a wind-blown cave. There, on a 6-inch ledge at the back of the cave, was a tiny nest glued to the ledge with a mixture of clay and a bird’s saliva. The nest itself was built of sand, fine twigs, and what appeared to be rabbit fur although I knew it had been plucked from the bird’s own breast.
In the center of the nest were three pink-hued eggs about three quarters of an inch long by three eighths of an inch wide. The bird had chosen well. Her nest was completely protected from the elements and, as far as we could tell, other wild animals, as well. Her youngsters would not only mature in peace but we, if we chose, could observe their progress during future visits.
Satisfied with our discovery, we returned to our buggies to begin the final leg of our journey. 30 minutes later, however, we encountered friends on a run to Valle Chico’s peacock farm. While we were talking, my wife chanced upon another bird’s nest… as large and as beautiful as any we’d seen.
Back on the dusty road again, we came to the end of another magnificent day in the desert… a day filled with the wonders of nature. From the Colorado River Delta to honeybees, petrified seashells and waterfalls. From yesterday’s Indians to present-day birds nests… and three new lives in development. From the history of this place (which includes the first Europeans to lay eyes on the peninsula) to the reality of today, the desert is as beautiful a place as there is on earth. Like a newly hatched bird is to its nest, the desert is the one place where I truly feel at home.