Never use a palm frond to pull yourself up. I learned this the hard way when I was 9 or 10 years old. I had become separated from my dad and siblings and, since they were up ahead, I needed to get up a large step on my own. Turns out palm fronds are sharply barbed and instead of lifting myself up I managed to slice my own palm as it slid down the frond. To be perfectly honest I don’t remember much of what happened after that. Such are my memories of the great many hikes I have done in Palm Canyon.
Palm Canyon oasis is located in Anza-Borrego State Park, which is in the Colorado Desert, which in turn is part of the greater Sonoran Desert. The California Fan Palm is rare, found only in a handful of canyons in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The only native palm in western North America was a source of food Native Americans and its berries are still for Orioles and Coyotes. The dead fronds that fall about the trunk like a layered hula skirt protect the trunk and create a protective roost for small birds.
Anza-Borrego was the former delta for the Colorado River and it’s common to find fossilized sea creatures. What used to be much less common was a glimpse of the Desert Bighorn Sheep which frequent the oasis. Borrego is the Spanish word for sheep. My dad would often bring binoculars and would scan the hillsides looking for the sheep. After so many years of no sheep sighting I just gave up looking. A couple of years ago after Christmas I, along with some family members, made the trek to the canyon. The man at the entrance booth enthusiastically told us to look out for the sheep as they’d been spotted many times recently. We more or less brushed it off since we’d had no luck in the past. We hadn’t walked more than two minutes when seven ewes and one ram walked 20 feet in front of us as they crossed the trail. My mom, niece, nephews and cousin stood very still while my sister grabbed her phone to video them go by. Incredible is a bit of an understatement. We couldn’t believe our eyes that after all these years we finally saw them and so close! Turns out the video didn’t take because my sister’s phone had a full memory. We laughed that no one would believe us.
The sheep populations are a constant struggle. When the populations seem to recover mountain lions eat well and can bring down the numbers pretty quickly. Worse than that is their susceptibility to illnesses from domestic sheep which are often allowed to graze on BLM land near Bighorn Sheep habitat. Because they have no natural resistance to these old world diseases they are much more lethal to the Bighorns, who often die within days of contracting the illnesses. There are some steps to trying to keep them separate and Bighorn introductions back into native habitats often have excellent results.
Palm Canyon was such a wonderland and sacred place for my family that we never really explored Anza-Borrego beyond its walls. How could you not be drawn to the cool pools of water in the heat of summer? In 2004 a flash flood completely reshaped the canyon trail and the oasis. In my youth there was a deep pool a little ways before the Palm Oasis that one only wanted to swim in on the hottest of days. The large boulders that created the pool blocked most of the sun and the water always stayed chilly. The Palm Canyon of my childhood has been scoured and filled in and is gone forever but the specialness of the place remains.
Earlier this month was my birthday and even though it’s a bit of a drive from San Diego Tim, my mother and I made the trek out there. Due to time constraints we didn’t make it to the Oasis but that didn’t matter much. The Colorado Desert is a place worth the drive for just a few hours of enjoyment. Palm Canyon is a place of refuge, a soul nourishing place that even after my parents divorce they continued to individually still take us there. Over the years we’ve brought new family members and old friends to this beloved place. Early in my relationship with Tim we camped there with my siblings when my niece was just nine months old. My brother dutifully carried her on his back most of the hike. To go with her again at 5 years old and help her over big rocks and watch her girly shoes light up and sparkle as she hopped, jumped and climbed right behind her older cousins gave me great joy. Someday soon I’ll get to see her baby brother most likely leading the pack with all his energy to spare and I hope in the not to far future to bring my in-laws there to share my family’s special place they way they’ve shared theirs with me. After seeing and experiencing so many wonderful places this year it was nice to come back to see the place where my love of the outdoors was instilled.