Saturday, December 26, 2009

Quail Mountain

Bill and I send warm holiday wishes to one and all. Thank you for being in our lives and for keeping up with our doings through this blog. We love you!

A few weeks ago we went on a walk sponsored by the Mojave Desert Land Trust at the base of Quail Mountain--a 955-acre, privately owned property that the Land Trust is currently in the process of acquiring.

This beautiful, undeveloped area borders Joshua Tree National Park. The above photo was taken looking towards "Tortoise Flats," where over 20 desert tortoises make their home. It's the place where I saw my first desert tortoises last spring. Bill and I used to walk there regularly when we lived in Joshua Tree, as it was only about a mile from our house. But this hike started from the other end of the property, where we hadn't been before. (The tortoise photo was taken in May 09)

Along with the tortoises, this area provides habitat for bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcat, gray fox, coyote, badger, and mountain lion. We were told that when it rains, there's a waterfall on Quail Mountain. Hundreds of Joshua Trees cover the lower elevations and rocky slopes.

The walk was led by naturalist Pat Flanagan, Resource Advocate for the Land Trust. That's her with the short grey hair and no hat, despite the cold and blustery day.

Once the property is purchased, the Land Trust will donate it to Joshua Tree National Park so it will be preserved in perpetuity. We recently joined the Land Trust because we believe in their work. To learn more, click here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ghosts of Camels Past

I just had an article published in The Sun Runner Magazine called "Ghosts of Camels Past." The article appears below. To check out the entire issue (the theme is "The Mysterious Mojave") click here:

Mention camels, and most people think of the Middle East, China, Mongolia—anywhere but Southern California. Yet camels left their mark on this area not once, but twice. The first time was between 44 million and 11,000 years ago, as shown by the fossil record at the La Brea Tar Pits and Anza- Borrego/Joshua Tree National Park. The second time was in the mid-1800s, when the U.S. government authorized an experiment known as the Camel Corps.

After winning the Mexican-American War, the United States gained 529,000 square miles of western territory. The cost of feeding horses and mules to cross vast desert tracts was astronomical, so a few forward-thinking individuals promoted using camels instead. They pointed out that camels could carry huge loads, travel long distances without water, and thrive on a diet of native desert vegetation.

The idea found a supporter in Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy). In 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 to import camels and test their abilities. Two shipments of camels arrived in Texas, and in 1857, their moment of truth arrived: 25 of them accompanied an expedition to survey a wagon road to the Colorado River.

(This photo shows a reenactment by the modern-day Texas Camel Corps. Visit their website here.)

As pack animals, the camels exceeded all expectations. Expedition leader Edward F. Beale said, “Certainly there was never anything so patient and enduring and so little troublesome as this noble animal.”

More might have come of the experiment if the Civil War and the Transcontinental Railroad hadn’t intervened. There were a few half-hearted attempts to make further use of the camels. Some of them remained in military forts until 1863, when the government ordered that they be rounded up and auctioned at Benecia, north of San Francisco. A number of camels ended up in mining operations, others went to circuses, and still others escaped into the desert. Camels imported by civilians during this time period sometimes became feral as well.

For generations, wild camel sightings were common in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. Over time they grew less frequent, but the reports never completely stopped. The most notorious story involved the “Red Ghost,” a camel that supposedly roamed Arizona with a human skeleton strapped to its back. Legend has it that Hi Jolly, the renowned camel driver who accompanied the Beale expedition, died in 1902 alongside a camel in the Arizona desert.

In the early 1900s, tales of camel sightings circulated in Imperial County, especially around Borrego and the Chocolate Mountains. In 1929, a wild camel supposedly stampeded horse herds near Banning. In 1941, a camel was reported on the shores of the Salton Sea. It’s been said that the last sighting of a wild camel in North America was in Baja California in 1956. But some folks believe wild camels still roam the remote deserts of the Southwest.

Stranger things have happened…so if you’re ever out in the back-of-beyond and hear a rumbling growl that sounds like Chewbacca—remember, it just might be a “ship of the desert” plying the sandy seas.

Camel Fun
• In 1963, the New Christy Minstrels recorded the song “Hi Jolly the Camel Driver” on their album Ramblin’.

• Hollywood latched onto the Camel Corps story in 1954 with Southwest Passage, a 3-D western starring Rod Cameron, John Ireland, and Joanne Dru (not yet available on DVD). There’s also Hawmps!—a 1976 slapstick comedy with James Hampton and Slim Pickins that’s short on history but darn funny.

• Camels can be very vocal. A camel growl was one of the sounds used to create Chewbacca’s voice in Star Wars.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Last weekend I joined my friends Jean and Phyllis on a trek to gather desert birdcages. We found them in a wash, way out in Wonder Valley. What are they, you may ask? So did I--that's why I went along!

The story is this: the plant is called the dune primrose. In spring it has beautiful, showy white flowers. Here's what it looks like, growing next to some equally beautiful sand verbena. (Thanks to Phyllis for this photo!)

While the flower stalk is upright, the plant also has many branches that radiate outwards along the ground. When the plant dries up, those branches curve upwards around the central stalk, forming the birdcage. (I've read it's also called a "desert lantern").

Here are some birdcages in their native habitat. We gathered a carload of them, along with some interesting rocks and some palm fronds from back in 29 Palms. We had all been at the 29 Palms Art Gallery earlier that morning for the annual Xmas Crafts Show. Thanks to Jean and Phyllis for a great day!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Borrego Springs

After our adventure at the Camel Dairy last Sunday, we spent two nights in Borrego Springs. It's been eight or nine years since we were last there, but the little town has hardly changed at all. That's what we love about it--there's a whole lot of nothin' in Borrego!

Our big advantage on this trip was a four-wheel-drive vehicle, which allowed us to go where we've never gone before. The view above was taken off Mine Wash Road, where there's a Kumeyaay village site with mortreros in the rocks.

We love interesting rocks, and Borrego is full of them. These photos were also taken off Mine Wash Road.

One new attraction just outside of town is a bevy of giant metal sculptures by Ricardo A. Breceda. This one represents the Incredible Wind God Bird (Aiolornis incredibilis), a creature that lived in the Borrego area millions of years ago. One paleontologist said, "Think of it as a T. rex with feathers."

We took another side trip to Seventeen Palms Oasis, about 3.5 miles down the roughest dirt road we've ever traveled. As you can see, it was worth it. The palm oasis is in the Eastern Borrego Badlands, which is rife with fascinating geology. Between two palms there's a "desert mailbox" filled with journals where you can leave a message. We did!

On the way home we stopped at Salton City and ate our lunch by the shores of the Salton Sea. Sea and shore birds are arriving for the winter. Lots of white pelicans. Our last stop on the way home was the Oasis Date Garden, where we stocked up on a half-dozen varieties of dates. Here's Bill with a date shake--mmm mmm good!