The neat thing about deserts is that it doesn't rain much there. When winter storms bash the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, it's sunny and warm in Anza-Borrego, California's largest state park just above the Mexican border. For the past two Januarys, my wife has talked me into hopping into her Cessna 206 just as a storm is about to dampen San Francisco. Three hours later, we're in Borrego Springs, a small resort town encircled by the park.
The first year we invited fellow OP columnist Frans Lanting and his wife, Christine Eckstrom, to come with us. Thankful to get away from the pressure of our offices and assignments, we brought cameras more because we always do than with any goal in mind. One evening we drove our rental car up a sandy wash marked as a four-wheel-drive road on the conservative park map. After four miles, we came to a high overlook called Font's Point above some of the most fabulous badlands I've ever seen. The full moon rose, out came our cameras, and SUVs with families began arriving as sunset neared. One tall fellow carrying a baby up the short trail looked strangely familiar, and I recognized George Steinmetz, a top National Geographic photographer and a friend of both of ours who had no idea we were there. We just happened to converge on the same spot without serious photographic intentions as the moon was rising into the pink-and-blue boundary of the Earth shadow.
I suddenly got serious and set my camera on a tripod with a 3-stop hard-edged Singh-Ray graduated neutral-density filter that held an exposure for the moon and sky while opening up detail on the landscape. For the rest of our desert week, we three photographers and our wives hung out together and rarely took photographs.
With fond memories of winter warmth and access to the wilds, Barbara and I returned a year later by ourselves and checked into the Borrego Valley Inn, a Sante Fe-style adobe complex with a central plaza set in the desert just outside town. We enjoyed life for a couple of days before venturing out for hikes or photographs. When I finally drove to Font's Point, the sunset was hazy and without the full moon in crystal-clear air that we'd happened upon the previous year.
Borrego is Spanish for yearling sheep, referring to desert bighorn sheep once common throughout the region. Early one morning we drove two minutes to the Borrego Palm Canyon trailhead for a pleasure hike. Having heard of recent bighorn sightings, I couldn't decide whether to leave my heaviest artillery in my car. Since it was still cool, I decided to bring it along. My old manual-focus 500mm f4 Nikon lens, 2X teleconverter, Nikon F100, plus a couple of other lenses, Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod, and a quart of water weigh less than twenty pounds.
Throughout the mile-and-a-half walk to the native palm oasis, we searched the canyon walls for bighorn. Even though I saw fresh tracks in the sand, we never caught sight of them. As we were relaxing at an overlook, a hiker told us that he had spotted bighorn in a gully 300 yards above the trail a few minutes earlier.
Finding Rocky Mountain bighorn licking winter road salt off the edge of Highway I70 in Colorado is common, but these officially endangered bighorn are rare. Only about 300 Peninsular bighorn, ovis canadensis cremnobates, survive in the United States, mainly in the Sonoran Desert of extreme Southern California. They also occur on the Baja Peninsula, hence their name. In comparison, more than 10,000 "desert bighorn" of other subspecies roam arid parts of the American and Mexican West.
As we walked back toward the car, a group of four adult rams came down the hillside toward us, bound for the tenuous spring water that flowed beside the trail only a few hundred yards from the palm oasis before disappearing into the sands again. I scrambled for my big lens and tripod as a ram kept coming closer and struck a classic pose atop a boulder. I had to back up to get the animal fully in the frame.
Barbara and I spent twenty minutes as close as forty feet from the rams, watching them drink, feed, and butt heads after one guy stood tall when an older ram approached the stream. I felt very lucky, but then I remembered all those times I'd lugged heavier packs with big lenses a lot farther into the Sierra Nevada and failed to photograph the Sierra bighorn, whose population has now dropped below 100. Now and then I'd managed to photograph them in the past, so when that subspecies was placed on the endangered species list in 1999, I sold one of my 1970s photographs to the National Geographic.
A similar scenario is unfolding with the Peninsular sheep, which have also been ravaged by a growing mountain lion population, a severe drought in the south of California, and habitat loss of the moist valley bottoms where they formerly browsed and drank. That's why they came down for water even though they could see us on the trail.
All too many of my nature photographs, taken somewhat casually on personal trips, are evolving into records of a former America, a land that had more wildlife, clearer air, fewer human encroachments, and a more positive national media. Those Sierra bighorn shots sat in my files, published mainly in my own books or portfolios, until the subspecies was almost gone. Now the national media, hot on the bloody scent of death and violence as usual, is eager to use them.
That evening we dined in a resort where the lettuce and fish were fresh but the service lackluster. My reaction made me think about how spoiled we all have become in our expectations of what we'll encounter in the desert. Death Valley got its name because nineteenth-century travelers died trying to get through the place. Much of Southern California fits the classic definition of a desert: a place where life is limited by a lack of water. Pioneers on their way to the moist and green California Coast never could have imagined the day when arid landscapes would be preserved to spiritually enrich souls overwhelmed by too much of everything in the cities.
My parents feared the desert. We left on summer vacations in the middle of the night after my father tied burlap "desert water bags" to the sides of our 1940 Chevrolet to cool that life-sustaining fluid by transpiration.
Crossing the desert in a modern, air-conditioned, SUV with climate control, stereo music, and a cold drink in one hand in broad daylight is a very different experience. Flying over it is yet another step removed. Even so, I find myself feeling a far stronger connection with arid lands and making stronger photographs of them than in the old days when desert travel, like life itself there, was limited by heat and water.