Dinosaurs in mirror are closer than they appear: Our vacation in the Anza-Borrego Desert

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We were looking for a getaway, and the desert was a good place for that. We went to the Anza-Borrego State Park, about a two-hour drive and a million miles away from San Diego. It’s so different from where we live that it’s hard to remember that the park, too, is part of San Diego County (also, Riverside and Imperial Counties). Its 585,930 acres — roughly twice as big as Los Angeles. And it’s a desert. If you’ve seen American deserts on TV or in the movies you’ve seen something like this one. As a matter of fact, you’ve probably seen this one; it’s a popular location for movies and TV.

We stayed in the town of Borrego Springs, in the middle of the park, which basically consists of a main drag and a light sprinkling of housing developments. As far as I could see, there are no Starbucks in Borrego Springs, no supermarket or big box stores, just some hotels and motels and a couple of restaurants and a few galleries. The town has about 2,900 people, growing to 10,000 during the tourist season, which is winter, when the snowbirds come in. The manager of an outdoor equipment store we shopped at in the afternoon seated us for dinner at a neighboring restaurant the next night.

We had a fine time being outdoorsy and different from our normal lives. One day, we drove around and hiked a bit searching out the 129 free-standing welded-steel sculptures of dinosaurs and horses and elephants and at least one gigantic serpent all over town. A sculptor named Ricardo Breceda built the artworks, some of which towered twice as tall as a man. The project was funded by Dennis Avery, who owns a lot of land in Borrego Springs and is heir to a label-making fortune.

We stayed at the Palms at Indian Head, which was not great. They seem to be trying awfully hard, but it’s being rebuilt, so there’s debris all over the place. It’s short-staffed. The restaurant is mediocre and the service is slow. Our room smelled of Febreze. On the plus side: It’s very picturesque. It was built in the late 40s as a Hollywood getaway resort, then rebuilt in 1957 after it burned down. The architecture and design is very Mad Men. The staff was friendly and gracious, and trying hard, but they’re stretched thin. We won’t be back.

Friday, we took the California Overland desert tour, guided by Joe Raffeto, the friendly and knowledgable proprietor, who is very qualified to do desert tours on account of being a former marine biologist and the desert was an ocean millions of years ago and oh hell I’m making this up. Joe was a marine biologist at one time, but he’s very knowledgable about the desert, and drove us around in an Army surplus truck converted to a sort of open-air bus with a capacity of 16 people. If I had any teeth that weren’t loose when we started, the truck tour through the desert took care of that.

Seriously: Loved the tour. Joe was great. He does special stargazing and other tours, I hope we can make it back up for those.

To get to Borrego Springs from San Diego proper, you go over the mountains, passing through Julian, which we’ve been to before. It’s a fun little town but overrated — basically a single main street in the style of a 19th Century gold rush town, with lots of shops and restaurants. It’s known for its apple pie. While apple pie is a great invention, I don’t think it’s particularly better or worse in Julian than, say, the Marie Callender’s restaurant a quarter-mile from our house. Apple pie is always great. Even McDonald’s apple pie is pretty good.

On the way back through the mountains, we stopped in a little crossroads called Santa Ysabel, which has a down-home restaurant called the Apple Country Restaurant (apple pie!), as well as a country grocery store and an outpost of Dudley’s Bakery. We stocked up, and hopped in the car. On the way home, we drove through the town of Ramona. “This is fantastic!” I said. “You said that last time we did this,” Julie said. But I didn’t remember. I love a good small-town downtown.

We got home Saturday, I relaxed a bit Sunday, and Monday came in and worked a 16-hour day. That always seems to happen first day back from vacation; I wish I could skip the first day back and go directly to the second day.

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