Back to Life


Yesterday, I composed a December post in my head as I hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. The piece felt poetic—and it came out whole. And now I can’t remember the flow of it. Still, I find myself reaching for what I intended to say—something about being glad I could enjoy a weekend in the desert. It was another cancer post. I hiked six miles on the first day, and more than three on the second, frequently patting myself on the back over previous workouts. They were paying off. As I hiked, I was able to chat with a friend and remain energetic. I felt strong enough, almost normal. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Though the stiffness promised by anastrozole was apparent. Or maybe I would have been stiff without this drug that is supposed to make my body less welcoming to invasive lobular breast cancer.

The first hike was in Plum Canyon. Desert plants were trying to bloom—some were actually blooming. I crushed a pinch of purple lavender between my thumb and index finger. It was fully pungent. We agreed this route, called the California Riding and Hiking Trail, would be worth revisiting during the wildflower season a few months from now.

In our campsite, I read Mary Oliver—Upstream—as I sat by the fire before dusk. It was a right-book-at-the-right-time encounter. I found myself relating to the way Oliver embraces sanity in nature, even when human consciousness seems to be failing our world. I’m not trusting my own kind right now. Mary Oliver writes about foxes. “They have neither mercy nor pity. They have one responsibility—to stay alive, if they can, and be foxes.” Her words felt “deep,” though I knew I was feeling more vulnerable than usual, less armored, less sure of anything. I would read a few sentences, and then idly think about how lucky I was to be able to take comfort in this place. As these thoughts spun in my head, the sky went Van Gogh, displaying swirls of pink and deepening blue. Meanwhile, the sun kept its rays firmly on the mountain range to my right.

No, I can’t bring back what I meant to say as cancer memories moved toward the horizon, and I started to plan my next backpacking trip (maybe in Point Reyes National Seashore). I can only churn out choppy sentiments that no longer fit together. I did see some fast creatures – jackrabbit and roadrunner. I watched for snakes, especially during the longish trek across desert ground, from my tent to the bathroom. This was in the middle of the night. It wasn’t very cold, maybe 50 degrees. I was having hot flashes. At first I tried out the foot vent in my fancy new sleeping bag, but wriggling my bare feet in the night air did not cool me down enough, so all the layers went to the wayside. I found myself on top of the bag in nothing but a pair of underwear. The moon was bright. It was hard to drift off.

Coyotes did howl.

The host at the Borrego Palm Canyon trailhead told us no one had reported any big horn sheep sightings, but we ended up having a fine view of three ewes. They were probably headed to the waterfall near the grove of indigenous palms everyone was hiking the trail to see. The night wind had left the sky perfectly blue against jagged ridges on either side of us. Other hikers were chatty. They marveled at such an oasis.


On the way home, we stopped for pie in Santa Ysabel. I had Dutch apple with a caramel topping. This was a tough decision. I could have paired it with ice cream or cheddar cheese. In the car, my friend asked, “Your hair is darker, isn’t it?

“Darker, grayer, thicker, and curlier,” I said.

Camping in the Desert

I usually camp with friends, which is always enjoyable, especially after the fire is going strong—and supper is ready. Problem is, I know some ambitious hikers. As much as I enjoy being with them, come morning, I invariably find myself facing an 8 or 9 mile hike. More than once, I’ve sat watching the day deepen as these plans were being fine-tuned, only to find myself yearning to remain in the campground to read and write—perhaps go on a short hike in the afternoon.

Lazy Day in Camp

Lazy Day in Camp (Notice the Smile)

I finally decide to take matters into my own hands, reserving a site in the Anza Borrego Campground in the Anza Borrego State Park, which surrounds Borrego Springs, California. Borrego Springs is a sleepy, unassuming sort of place, bathed in dry heat. The town once drew the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and other celebrities who arrived in their private planes for some R & R. That heyday appears to be over. I’ve never spotted a human star in the vicinity, though a lot more people do start showing up there about now. The off-season ends when temperatures drop into the eighties and visitors can enjoy being outside all day long in this fascinating terrain, which includes vast expanses of desert, mazes of canyons, badlands, and mountains. The spring wildflower season tends to be particularly spectacular.

My trip, however, was scheduled this fall. In the beginning, all went well. I stopped in Julian for pie—and still had plenty to time to set up camp before the sun went down. My fire did not sputter out. Dinner was easy to prepare, and I eased into the evening, watching star after star dot the sky. As temperatures were not expected to drop below the mid-fifties, some people in the campground were in a celebratory mood, which remained merely festive during the early part of the evening, but began to feel more daunting by the time most campers had retired to their tents. I was beginning to wonder if it was safe to pass this rowdiness on the way to the restroom. The party also made it difficult to sleep. I could tell other campers were struggling with the noise. Several pleas for quiet went out, loud enough for me to hear. But to no avail.

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

As I was growing up, my family often camped in California State Parks. In those days, rangers kept the peace. I don’t remember us ever having to deal with people who were too noisy—or for that matter, music being played over the sounds of nature. We kids – put to bed early – were the ones who were told to pipe down. These days, guests are on their own at night—unless they dial 911, which nobody that evening appeared willing to do. And I don’t blame them. What a depressing way to end a day in nature!

The Next Morning

Children occupying other sites wake up early, and begin busily moving about the campground. The desert light has the effect of making the place feel safe once more. I watch as two young boys – deep in discussion – head down the road. People begin riding past my site on their bikes. Some appear to be hiking toward the Palm Canyon Trail, which is my one planned activity (in the afternoon). I finally get in that down time I’d yearned for on earlier trips. The morning continues to be luxuriously slow. I am visited by birds, not to mention a lone jackrabbit that stops to look my way, remaining still for a long time—its two sensitive and very big ears pointing to the sky.

I finally grab my trekking poles and wind my way to the Palm Canyon Trail. This jaunt (1.5 miles one way) leads to an authentic palm oasis tucked deep in a canyon that often has running water. The trees up in there look like lions, big and shaggy. I head toward the grove, hiking for roughly thirty minutes before a hiker coming from the other direction stops me and says, “There are bighorn sheep up the trail.”

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

And I light up to say, “Thanks.”

“A family of them.”

I begin scanning the terrain. As I walk, more people tell me about the sheep—how they are really hard to see. “They crossed right in front of us!” And I begin to fear I’ve missed them.

Then I spot four females, on the other side of the creek bed, standing on the steep, rocky incline of the canyon. They are positioned at odd angles, clearly trying to blend in. I fire off a few photos, before gazing at these lady sheep that look like billy goats.

Bighorn Sheep

I want the moment to last, but this is a popular trail, and I can’t be upset at the kid who exclaims, “Oh my God! Bighorn sheep!” which ultimately makes the animals begin to trot. Next thing I know, a pack of kids are running up and down the trail, alerting everyone about the sheep. Meanwhile, the four bighorns calmly move to my side of the canyon, and then up and up and up until they reach the very top. The sky above the ridge swallows them whole.