And now for something a bit less intense…

We bolted south and west from Slab City mid-afternoon, zigzagging our way along the long rectilinear grid of roads that separate vast irrigated fields of alfalfa, artichoke, chard and bob knows what else that line the bottom of the Salton Sea. The place where these fields give way to salt water is now the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, a product of the late congressman’s vision for saving this accidental oasis. Yeah, we could have stopped, but we were ready for something easier. “Easier” in this case was Borrego Springs, where a friend of Devon’s had offered us space to camp on her retreat at the edge of the mountains.

Borrego Springs, and the surrounding Anza Borrego Desert State Park, are dark sky havens, and we’ve been enjoying moonless nights trying to remember our constellations. Instead, that night we got to appreciate the stability, soundproofing and watertightness of the Orca as the rain came pummeling down out of the sky. So…we caught up on email instead.

But morning was spectacular, with a desert sunrise straight out of a Hollywood sound stage. On our way over, we’d tagged “Giant Steel Animals” into our itinerary, so the first order of business after ambling around the retreat, look-but-don’t-touching the amazing cactus garden, was to try to find these creatures. 

We weren’t disappointed. The animals were scattered around the outskirts of the town on land owned and made available for public access by Galleta Meadows, LLC. But no information about the artists, the mission, the history of the project, just giant metal animals prancing, swooping, fighting or just looking smug out there by themselves.

Then it was time to meet up with some old friends from Pittsburgh. Britt and Dayne moved out to the San Diego area a couple of decades ago and recently relocated up in the mountains west of Anza Borrego. Dayne and I worked together at a couple of failed startups, and they’ve got a pair of kids (er, adult offspring) about the same age as ours, so we had plenty to bond over, and have managed to stay in some semblance of contact. They drove down and took us off roading (in their Jeep – the Orca is made of sturdy stuff, but not that sturdy), eager to show us some of the less accessible parts of the Park. The crazy, vertiginous cliffs of Foss Point, the backroads leading to the oases of 17 Palms, Five Palms and Una Palma (perhaps there’s one more in the countdown that we missed, Cero Palmas?), and finally the winding trail down through Slot Canyon, placards everywhere warning us that if there happened to be a flash flood, we were pretty much screwed.

Following Britt and Dayne back up over the hills, we drove through snow, just a few miles from the desert floor, with roadside pull-offs chock full and kids sledding down practically every non-treed, non-horizontal surface along the way.

And this morning? This morning has found us waking to the sound of waves in Cardiff, squeezed between Highway 101 and the bluffs that drop down to San Elijo Beach. Our neighbors in the campground are a mix of massive space-age RVs and vintage VW camper vans, and everybody seems to be big on the “Howdy”s and the knowing, boy-do-we-have-it-rough-eh? smiles. It’s a laid back vibe. We walked into town for coffee and breakfast empanadas, then kept walking north the mile or so to the neighboring surf town of Encinitas to absorb a bit more the yesteryear vibe of this corner of the coast. 

Swarms of surfers dot every beach access point along our way there and back, casually paddling their longboards out through the low but consistent break. There are a lot of wetsuits and a lot of buff-and-blonde of both genders, and I keep finding myself humming Beach Boys.

We’re headed north this afternoon to LA to see and stay with my mother before trying to cross paths with both our kids (long story at this point), so this is probably the end of this chapter of this particular roadtrip. It’s been a good chapter – I look forward to seeing how the next one turns out.

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