Sunday, 2 December 2012


Tuesday 27th - Friday 30th November, 2012
            Going out into a desert? “Boat blogs could prove a little difficult,” wrote Senior Sis in an e-mail last week.

For three days in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Boatwif and the Captain searched the wide horizons for ships, but to no avail.  Camels have always been regarded as ships of the desert, haven’t they? None here, not now... but at the State Park Visitor Center there were references to camels having once inhabited the area.  Maybe if the Captain and Boatwif had been in the desert about 11,000 years ago rather than last week they might have spotted one of several species of camel...  About 30 miles further east from the little town of Borrego Springs lies the Salton Sea, an inland lake of about five hundred square miles – and there have been proposals  to connect it to the Pacific Ocean by a canal. Who knows, one day boats could be floating towards the desert! There is one final justification for a blog with a boat theme: Joe, our desert guide for two days, had graduated as a marine biologist and his first (of three) careers involved long stretches at sea engaged in research projects on whales and tuna fish.  So, Boatwif blogs again...

What took two water-loving folk out into a mainly waterless environment?

“You’ll just love the dark skies,” insisted the Captain, “so many stars to see.” Night after night the sand and dust sparkled under the brilliant full moonlight, the planets twinkled but the stars remained mostly unseen.*

“See the mountains late in the year, the shadows are wonderful in the desert,” a keen photographer had advised during last year’s California trip. How true this is...

The Captain had identified guided tours of a desert as being available in Borrego Springs. Up rolled Joe to the Borrego Valley Inn on Wednesday morning, map in hand, his bright yellow jeep parked outside. Longer-legged Captain clambered into the back while Boatwif learned to haul herself up and strap into the four point harness in the front. First stop was out on Clark Lake, a dried out lake, used in World War 2 as a naval outlying landing field and target practice area. Seeming close, but actually more than six miles away, shimmered the pinkish coloured Santa Rosa Mountains. Next stop was a narrow twisting canyon near a calcite mine. The hike was a sort of walk and a clamber between cliffs with the tide having gone out. Fault lines, earthquakes, rock falls, flash floods: this was evidence-led interactive physical geography (plus desert botany) conducted in perfect weather conditions: blue skies and temperatures in the high seventies Fahrenheit (about 25 Celsius). Wildlife sightings are scarce in the middle of the day but Joe pointed out a black widow spider’s web, cougar paw prints, Mexican bat roosts and a very shiny, very black beetle (a stink bug). Not for us the thrill of seeing of a Desert Bighorn Sheep or even a roadrunner... but the adventure continued.

The first day’s travels covered about 53 miles, that’s 53 miles of about 500 miles of road and track throughout the park. The all-terrain jeep took us off-road along dried up river beds, over rocks and rubble, up mountain sides, between steep sided canyons. It was a workout, internal organs jiggled and shaken, brains swamped with facts, theories and opinions. The day climaxed at Font’s Point, a peak overlooking miles of Borrego Badlands and sweeping mountain vistas.

Day two required an 8am start... The jeep bumped up into Hawk Canyon (a box canyon) where a wide-spreading tree gave ample shade while Joe regaled his tale of marketing his tours on live TV - although the presenters had not realised that cell (mobile) phones do not work inside deep canyons. One tree species shoots a tap root two hundred feet down to reach its water source; another has roots just tickling the sand and dirt surface.

Next stop was Split Mountain, down in the south of the park. We bowled along dead straight public roads, passing low-lying housing for retirees (there’s no shortage of land for development) and large numbers of recreation vehicle (RV) parks. Off road then; weaving and twisting, right through the mountain split in two by plate tectonic action. In a shell reef miniscule fossils indicate long ago tropical seas. Wavy rock layers, a syncline and an anticline, hint at the mountain’s dramatic earthquake-prone past. A trek up the trail from the creek bed to the Wind Caves brings you to wind-eroded hollows and to stunning views across to Elephants’ Knees (rock formations). Back down on Fish Creek Wash (a dusty rock strewn track which becomes a river bed after mountain thunderstorms) the jeep wove on, through narrow squeezes, along wider trails, passengers mesmerised by the constantly changing views, shades  and shadows. Why is there just one tree growing here? Is that pinnacle a knight on a chess board? What has caused those regular indentations? Look up to see the slice of rock gateau... and then there was one last rocky scramble. An overhang hid a secret: fossilised paw prints, side by side, a dainty dingo – and the foot and leg stump of an early mastodon.

It had to end: sunset comes quickly at the 33°N latitude. The open-sided jeep raced back to the town and there was time for one last swim in a desert pool, the mountains casting longer and longer shadows over the valley bottom... The Captain and Boatwif, early snowbirds, a local term for seasonal winter visitors from northern states and Canada, had to pack their bags ready to leave for home.

Friday - departure day - day of contrasts. Believe this: outdoor breakfast (needlessly accompanied by an open air gas fire); a call in at the State Park Visitor Center (at 10am temperature 78F); a 40 minute drive up four thousand feet to gold-rush township Julian (into cloud, people wrapped in coats, umbrellas aloft, temperature about 46F); downhill, back to the coast, meeting Cal Son for an early dinner at an upscale mall (he waiting in the rain, smart restaurants sporting outdoor gas fireplaces and barbeques).

Then the farewells:

“Say, can I ask you something? Are you as crazy about Downton Abbey over there as we are here? And Call the Midwife?”  (Borrego Springs waitress)

“Please say hello to the Queen for me.” (German cyclist, also staying at the Borrego Valley Inn)

“Give a great big hug to England from me!” (Excitable, theatrically ambitious assistant in the Julian Tea and Cottage Arts shop)

It was indeed a full-hearted farewell - farewell to family, to ocean, to city, to mountains, to valleys, to desert.

Farewell California!

*Note to self: check moon phases before planning another visit to a Dark-Sky Community!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

At your convenience – and other folk

           On Sunday Cal Guy Jnr was distinctly unwell: he was running a high fever and just wanted to cling to one parent or other.

            Cal Son came up with an idea: Why not drive towards Palomar Airport at Carlsbad -and watch the aircraft movements on the runway from the outdoor Starbucks lounge at Loker Avenue West? What a good idea!  Cal Guy Snr and the Captain got aircraft talk, Boatwif got a new view and a sky fast brightening from early sea fog – and Cal Gal got a Starbucks peppermint vanilla bean frozen drink. How convenient was that for aircraft spotting!

            Later a trip to Boomers was announced.  Along the 78 Freeway westbound the Captain bowled, with instructions from the rear seats to watch out for the Volcano...  What a convenient, if a trifle tacky, landmark. There it was, right beside the Freeway, hole 9 of the Miniature (UK: Crazy) Golf Course. Fun was had: Cal Guy Snr and Cal Gal won 9 games each while Boatwif won one – having flicked the ball into deep and inaccessible water early on during the match. Wistfully Boatwif watched later as the younger generation took to water, squirting spray and bashing each other with the bumper boats. But is the water in the pool really 30ft deep – watch your decimal places! (See photo 3)

            Other conveniences: Just look at that view (photo 4) – Boatwif had no-one of the same gender to share with her the breathtaking view from the Women's Restroom last week: on Point Loma a set of conveniences looks directly over the Pacific Ocean. Is this the best view ever from a cubicle window...?  A star mention, too, must go to the Restrooms at the Carlsbad Outlet Mall. Has any other Restroom /Convenience designer been so thoughtful as to provide a railed-off shelf behind the toilet for handbags and purses? What a sensible idea!  Nearby a security officer was on patrol, mounted on a Segway – very convenient on smooth surfaces...


            The USA may be predominantly English-speaking but there are times when it is reinforced that you really are travelling in foreign parts.  There was the Senior on the cash till at the bookstore last week: "Oh, I once lived in Sheringham, in Norfolk. My Dad was in the US Air Force..."

            At Spanish Village (the area in Balboa Park for artists and artisans) an effusive gallery attendant oozed: "Why, can I help you?" (Squeal of pleasure)  "Is that an accent I hear... Australi...?"  There was a rapid reassurance that this was a British accent...

            On Tuesday, unaccompanied by the younger generation, there was a last visit to the Escondido Barnes and Noble bookstore. Conveniently, there is a Starbucks concession within the store. The Captain located a road map, then baled out to seek some coffee. As Boatwif, browsing finished, moved across the store to relocate him, strident words could be heard:  "There are two S bends in the tunnel..." The Captain was regaling the tale of Cleddau's conquest last summer of the Standedge Tunnel. But who was he speaking to? Strange, non-American accents were on the receiving end. And there in Starbucks were two Rotherham folk, ex-Sheffield steel workers, long term retired and great fans of the USA. They'd been through the 32 foot mobile home phase for about 15 years and now have an alternative life style, living in a San Diego motel for five months over the winter. A local travel card allows them easy bus and train travel - and for $35 dollars they had improved their motel kitchen facilities by adding two non-stick pans and a toaster!

            But now the Cleddau crew has relocated to the Anzo-Borrego Desert, in eastern San Diego County. They are the only guests at a desert inn, except for one - and he is quite exceptional. He arrived by bicycle this afternoon, cycling coast to coast, Florida to San Diego.  We conversed, he a German resident of Munich who speaks impeccable English. His trip will take two and a half months, he rides about fifty miles a day and cycles about six days a week... but wait! This is his ninth solo cycle transit across the States... Here, a rest stop in Borrego Springs will help him prepare for the four thousand feet climb through the mountains before it's downhill to the coast...

            The last interesting person of the day was the waitress at the local diner last night. She was a fast-talking one-time Los Angeles girl, who had relocated a couple of years ago from a 300 person town up in Nevada to Borrego Springs. She has absolutely no wish for her two teenage girls to have any experience of urban life.  One daughter is a trainee welder, the other wants to be a baker. The population here in summer (low season) is about three thousand and in winter (October to March) it swells to maybe nine thousand.  She has, of course, two jobs, one as an evening table server and the other in the shopping mall.

            Bedded down now in an adobe lookalike building, rather like those pictures of South Western housing in the geography textbooks; desert exploration begins on Wednesday...

Sunday, 25 November 2012

It’s winter

Wednesday 21St - Saturday 24th November

"It's winter," said Cal Son as Boatwif remarked upon Christmas decorations at a shopping mall a week ago.

Well, it's winter now," said Cal Mom on Wednesday, as discussions were under way about how hot, how cool or how cold the bowling alley would be. It's the original bowling alley, 40 lanes for play, first opened in San Marcos about fifty years ago. In the event temperatures were comfortable at T-shirt level and the air conditioning was switched on. (As for the results: well Cal Mom topped the board, and Boatwif beat the Captain in both games!)

Thanksgiving Day dawned, blue and warm after a chilly mid-forties night.  Mid-morning Boatwif offered to take the younger two down to the park – to let off steam and to work up an appetite. Races over and play equipment tricks demonstrated, short of both water and steam, the trio returned to the house. After a delicious Thanksgiving lunch out again came the USA jigsaw, there was a first chess lesson for Cal Gal and then questions for adults on the US civics lessons.  Have you tried answering the sample questions found on-line for a would-be British citizen? The combined efforts of four British-born and educated persons achieved just 75%...

Black Friday follows Thanksgiving Thursday: many folk go shopping but the Cal Clan headed about a dozen miles further east. "Fire country," proclaimed Cal Son, gesturing at the dry scrub covered hillsides and he told tales of a friend who lives in these parts and how he defends his house in times of fire.  At the San Diego Safari Park all party members were lathered in sunscreen .The queues were building up and well before 11am shade was being sought. There was the Condor Trail to be followed and from high up over the San Pasqual Valley views over the arid and savannah-like areas below are striking. Next find the elephants: see the littlest one scuttling beneath its mother. Lizards and bats, cheetahs and rhinos, antelopes and giraffes, gorillas and gibbons... A shady table was sought at lunch-time. The temperature was 83F ("feels more like 85," ruminated local resident, Cal Son). Queues for the African tram (tourist land train) were long so there was chance to play in the playground. Hot and thirsty refreshments were needed. "It's a hot winter's day," remarked Cal Son as we scuttled towards tables in the shade while refreshing ice-creams were downed.

Traffic was heavy in Escondido on the way home – had everyone been Black Friday shopping at the sales? The car radio was turned on for local traffic news. A Christmas carol was being aired. (Well, it's winter...)

There was a long delay on red traffic lights: another car fed into the lane ahead from the right, a large Christmas tree poking out from its boot (US. trunk). By 5pm it was completely dark; the car pulled up on the drive – and the next door house was a shining wall of Christmas lights!

It's late November, but the beach is tempting. The lifeguards are gone but the sea is still there. Wave jumping is a great sport: there were Ticklers and Ankle-grabbers and Bottom-bashers and Back-slappers... "How do you know about all these waves, Granny?" asked Cal Gal. Best not to launch into how growing up in Cleddau land and a few doses of Roald Dahl brings out these names.

Shadows were lengthening, the moon rising in the sky, a sail boat bobbed behind the pier back to harbour and a school of wetsuit clad surfers honed their skills. The sun was dipping towards the ocean as the car sped past the Top Gun house, turned right and headed back inland. "...Dashing through the snow," came from the radio, there were sandy feet in the car, more holiday lights adorned people's houses, temperature is due to  fall to 75F tomorrow: remember, here in California IT'S WINTER!