christmas circle borrego springs

When Christmas Circle first appeared through the dusty windshield of our old ford pickup back in 1976 it looked like some kind of grand mistake in highway planning, a big green traffic circle in the middle of the desert.

It is a long drive from Priest Lake in far northern Idaho to Borrego Springs, 1,500 miles over two days. Terri and I had driven much of it through the night to get to our destination, Joshua Tree, as early in the day as possible. But when we pulled into the national park campground on that March morning almost 40 years ago it was already full. A ranger suggested we “go down to Borrego.” He said that’s where he and his family went when they wanted to camp in the desert, and he mentioned that they liked a place called Pinyon Wash. So the driving continued.

The springtime desert trip had become an annual ritual for us, a ritual started just a few years before while attending Idaho State University in Pocatello. But the journey had always been to Arizona; this was the first trip to the California desert.

For a while we just sat on the grass at Christmas Circle and took in the surroundings. Then we walked over to old food market where we picked up some carne asada to cook over the grill, a couple of blocks of ice, and some cold drinks. By now it was late afternoon so we hit the road again, for the very last part of a very long trip.

As we left the asphalt and started bouncing our way into the wash, I recall our attention was first drawn to the smoke trees. It was as if they were there but not really, so perfectly blended with the environment that you looked right through them, like smoke. We bumped along, passing stands of cholla nicely backlit with the sun, and the sandy road drew us in, to always see beyond the next bend in the road, to see what else might be out there.

A mile or so into the wash we found a spot that looked like it had been waiting for us, a spot with an enormous rock at the base of a hill, some nice flat sand behind it with perfect “sitting rocks,” a large ironwood tree for shade, and barrel cactus and green agaves perfectly positioned on the rocky slope above. The tarp came off the back of the pickup, the tent went up, boxes of food were hauled to the tailgate, and before long it was moonlight that illuminated the desert floor.

We didn’t really know it at the time, but we had just found Borrego.

The day that we found Borrego seemed like any normal vacation day at the time. But it evolved into something that became more than that. From that very first trip, Borrego became home to us. Everyone knows what home is. It is a place where you feel welcome and at ease to be yourself, a comfortable place that just speaks to you and tells you this is your place, the place where you belong, a place that calls you to come back home when you are away.

We already had a home of course, Idaho, a wonderful place that gave us the same feeling as Borrego. So the annual desert trip became a migration between our two homes. Before long the pickup became a family car, and the annual journey became a trip with two little boys along for the ride, Chris and Andy. In the beginning it was a long trip that involved diaper changes and car sick kids in the back seat, but later it was with two boys who became desert explorers. The place in Pinyon Wash that we called “The Rock” was often our base camp. It was the place where we staged Easter egg hunts, where the kids “discovered” coins we had buried in the sand, and the place where there was no better cup of morning coffee in all the world when the first rays of the sun cast a warm blanket across the desert landscape. It was a place where Chris and Andy came to on their own together one time, when they were both old enough to drive.

We go back to “The Rock” from time to time, and it is mostly unchanged from the first day of that trip in 1976. I once kicked around in the sand to see if any of those coins might still be there. But they are all gone. The wash has changed some after decades of desert rains, but the agaves are still on the hillside, and the old ironwood tree is there as well.

Everyone finds Borrego in their own way and sometimes it takes time to know you have found it. Looking around “The Rock” I can see lots of footprints, and I can tell that the sitting rocks have been rearranged from time to time. Many people have spent the night at this spot. It is nice to know that after almost forty years, this spot is still at work, helping people to find Borrego.