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Shooting the Desert


Photographs and text by Theo Benson

The desert. The word conjures up images of cactus, sand and the occasional longhorn cow skull, silently reminding you what a lonely and desolate place it can be. Why would anyone want to visit the desert?


For a few weeks each year, wildflowers make a glorious appearance in San Diego’s Anza-Borrego Desert, rivaling the Carlsbad Flower Fields for color and variety. The quality of their annual debut depends on timing. Just the right amount of rain, heat and cold at just the right time is essential. If conditions are wrong, the blooms may not appear at all. But when things go right, the results are stunning.

Good news: Early signs suggest 2001 will be a great year for wildflowers. The actual timing of the spring flowering can be unpredictable, but there is help available. The Anza-Borrego Ranger District will notify you two weeks before the peak of the wildflower season (usually in March) if you send them a self-addressed, stamped postcard.

The Anza-Borrego wildflower area is easy to reach from San Diego. Take Highway 67 to Ramona, where it becomes Highway 78. Follow Highway 78 to Santa Ysabel—where you can stop at Dudley’s Bakery and pick up warm cookies and bread for the remainder of the trip. With goodies in hand, head north (left) on Highway 79 toward Warner Springs. Follow signs to State Road 2 and turn right, then turn left on S-22 through Ranchita. This road takes you down the majestic Montezuma Grade into Borrego Springs. From the grade, you may catch a glimpse of the fleeting colors standing out against the muted desert floor below.

At the bottom of the grade is Palm Canyon Drive. A left turn takes you to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center—complete with a stunning cactus garden. The garden actually covers the expansive roof of the semisubterranean visitor center. Here, you can view videos about the park and get detailed maps of roads and trails.

A right turn on Palm Canyon Drive takes you through Borrego Springs and toward what I call “wildflower central.” Though many of the wildflower areas are well publicized, a trip to the more out-of-the-way locations rewards you with less hectic visiting and some unexpected sights.

A trip down Borrego Valley Road (which crosses Palm Canyon Drive) takes you past acres of abandoned vineyards, whose silent, weathered arbors still support the dried vines that once held the promise of abundant grape crops. Farmers had counted on the short winters and long, warm growing season to bring grapes to harvest weeks in advance of other Southern California vineyards. Unfortunately, they found the cost of transporting their crops out of the desert valley too expensive to assure a profit.

If you drive to the north end of Borrego Valley Road, you’ll not only see some of the more unusual wildflower fields in the area, you’ll find lands where the Seley family grows organic produce. There are active agricultural operations amid large areas of sand verbena, desert primrose and creosote bushes. You might even see the ocotillo in bloom, cloaked in their brilliant yellow leaves, with flaming red flowers emerging like torches from the ends of branches.

Though many wildflower fields can be viewed from the road, you’ll probably want to get out and hike among them. A pair of good boots is helpful, because sand and thorns can get into tennis shoes or sandals. Boots also provide some measure of safety against carpenter ants and snakes—rattlesnakes are a fact of life in Borrego Springs. It’s the desert: Carry water and remember the sunscreen.

Spending more than a day in Borrego Springs allows you to enjoy beautiful desert sunrises and sunsets. There are several hotels and motels in the area. Plan ahead. But most importantly, since the wildflowers’ appearance is limited, don’t forget your camera.

To be notified of the wildflowers’ peak, send a self-addressed, stamped postcard to: Wildflowers, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004. For more info about the area, go to anzaborrego.statepark.org or borregosprings.org or call 760-767-5311.

Shoot Like a Pro with Infrared

abandoned carPhotographers are always looking for fresh and unusual ways of portraying things, especially if the subject has been photographed countless times by others. Infrared photography introduces a whole new way of seeing things. It seems natural to use infrared film to portray the wildflowers of Borrego Springs.

Infrared (IR) photography was originally developed for scientific applications. By detecting slight changes in how objects reflect IR light, scientists can see things not obvious in available light. Living, healthy plants reflect far more IR light than diseased or dying plants do, so foresters use aerial IR to detect the spread of threats like pine beetles or Dutch elm disease.

The first IR film was black-and-white. The more IR an object reflected, the whiter it appeared on film. But subtle differences were often hard to see, displayed only as shades of gray. In the past few years, false-color IR film became available. Because it records differences in IR brightness, there are no “real” colors here, just higher and lower levels of IR. Color IR film arbitrarily assigns a different color to each intensity.

Some of the brightest levels of IR are shown as a beautiful crimson. Plants, leaves and cactus needles (which are modified leaves) contain lots of chlorophyll, and chlorophyll reflects lots of IR. So these lovely creations of nature take on even lovelier and startling hues of scarlet, red and pink.

Color IR film can turn your visual world upside down. Red flowers become green; green leaves shout violet. Clear, light skies can turn a dark and moody blue, accentuated with cotton-white clouds unseen to the naked eye. The effect is odd but never disappointing.              —T.B.

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