The stillness of the desert looms over us as if in warning, as we hastily drive-for the very first time-through Anza Borrego's shadowy roads in the middle of the night, desperate to reach our destination. Maybe it's just me, paranoid from having watched one too many horror movies. Or maybe this arid land is, in fact, paralyzing at night when the mountain lions and rattlesnakes hunt in silence and the coyotes howl grimly, making the more timid want to crawl into their tents in hasty retreat. No, no, the desert in darkness, I decide, is a very frightening place.
Yet it can be an utterly magical place too. Over our heads, the dark blanket of Anza Borrego's night sky is bedecked with glistening stars-blues, whites, yellows and reds-like fairy lights over an evening outdoor party, but spectacular many times over. Here in this International Dark Sky Community, the Milky Way glows, almost incomprehensive in its grandeur. And despite our unspoken fear, we seek the dark, stopping on the side of the road to bask in the wonder like moths to a flame, before we continue on to Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort for our first glamping experience.
In the morning, it's a completely different place, albeit just as formidable. The black landscape turns into golden terrain, beautiful and intimidating at the same time. It goes on for miles and miles, stretching over plains, hills and mountains, some parts barren, some green with desert flora. For us Californians, this is where we clear our weary minds, this land that has time and time again proven itself harsh and lethal to the foolhardy somehow also cleansing to the spirit if you let it.
It's the wildflowers that brought us here, expected in large number this year due to the unusually heavy rains we've been having. A visit at the Visitors Center tells us that we're too early, but there are some species in bloom and there are also other things to see.
The Palm Canyon Oasis, for example, is a good place to start. Not far from the Visitors Center, the rare California palm oasis is a grove located in a desert wash well fed by a network of streams. A short yet yummy hike away, which may or may not include sightings of those shy big horn sheep that lend the park its name, Palm Canyon with its huddled palms, sweet-smelling grass and large boulders was once home to the Cahuilla Indians.
Another must is the Galleta Meadows, just short drive away from the small community of Borrego Springs. Their main draw are the towering metal sculptures of dinosaurs, camels, sheep, gigantic bugs and even people, their rust red color standing in stark contrast to the desert's blue sky. The perfect photo opportunities.
My favorite one perhaps is the Desert Gardens, the lush, natural desert garden in Coyote Canyon accessible only by a long sandy road on which, if you're not careful, you could get stuck in. It's in this area, we were told, where most of the wildflowers would be. So we drive our small, road-beaten Pruis off the well-paved Di Giorgio Road unto the dirt road, dragging a cloud of dust behind us.
There isn't much to see on the slow drive up, at least not quite yet. But the early comers-purplish desert sand verbenas, red-orange ocotillo flowers and pink Beavertail cactus blooms, for example-are scattered about, and they're casting a lovely scent around them, making it still worth our while.
At the end of the dirt road is the Desert Gardens. We park our car at one of the empty spots in the small parking lot and leisurely climb the small, lush hill next to it. There is dust everywhere-on our shoes, on our faces, in our mouths-but the cool, late afternoon breeze feels lovely from our long day under the desert sun. Rolling greens with the occasional patches of brown as far as the naked eye can see appear before us. It is a stunning site in the desert especially when seen from atop the hill. We find a narrow trail leading us down and we take it for a short time, needing to see more but knowing there wasn't enough time.
On our way back, we get a delightful surprise. Hundreds of desert lilies, most invisible only an hour before, are now reaching up towards the dusky sky. I hop out of the car before it even comes to a complete stop and run towards them, the desert sand browning shoes even more, for a closer look. The night-blooming white flowers are not sweet-scented like its more well-known cousins, but they're just as beautiful.
I take my camera, drop down to the ground carefully so as not to land on any baby cacti and try to take a photo of one. As I frame my shot, I notice the sky hovering in the distance, painted with the colors of the sunset. Soon, this land will be enveloped in darkness again, and I start getting anxious at the thought of getting stuck there.
Yet part of me doesn't want to leave. There's still some light left after all, and I want to stay there as long as I can to look at them bounded by the pastel orange and purple sky.
Michelle Rae Uy is a travel writer, editor and amateur photographer based in Los Angeles. Check out her adventures on Another Spur on the Road.