43.84 Miles; Agua Caliente County Park, CA to Fish Creek Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
The morning edge gave way to light, and I awoke after a deep night's sleep. My throat felt worse, my sinuses were producing mucus, but it didn't matter. I was here on this ride.
All lounging began with steadfast approach for breakfast. By 9:30, with a new day's warmth pressing down in positive reception, we set out. No sooner had we passed the Agua Caliente General Store then we threw bikes in reverse based on the glimpse of a bikepacking rig outside the business. We met Sam - Julian, CA local and six time racer of the Stagecoach 400 out on a training ride in preparation for this year's race. He spoke passionately of the area and let us know that the verbenas soon to be seen down June Wash were something he had never seen in this area in his years here. That brought appreciative mmhmms.
The road is empty and we start again. Yet, every hundred feet or so Dan or I skid to brake for mandatory flower photos. Royal purple verbenas (so unlike the darker purple lupine in the Sonoran of Arizona) spill from roadway berms and the surrounding desert. Can't stop taking photos. White sand, sepia toned-cacti, royal purple blooms. We push on again, sweep left down June Wash where the distant hillside is smattered violet - I don’t exaggerate here for the plush frequencies of mauve coating so thoroughly the white desert sands that we can see them from a mile away like a paint-spill on the verdant, orderly aridity.
Push on. The road descending lightly takes us quickly through stark, but gentle landscape on a February morning. Smooth, slow, worthwhile. The saunter carries up several hundred feet to an overlook of the Carrizo Badlands and the soon-to-be entered Sin Nombre Canyon. Overlanders beckon to us - offer us a beer. We decline, but promise to see them in the heart of Fish Creek Canyon. Push off, feel that dry warm air, and plummet down packed sand into a bowl of striated granite and sandstone. Verbena gush vibrantly, accented by yellow petals of brittlebush. Our heads swivel, bikes go down, cameras come out. The body spins to allow eyes to take it all in.
The mouth of Sin Nombre Canyon unfolds and we sweep through the labyrinthine box canyon that narrows up properly with vertical sides before crumbling to desert and doing this dance on repeat over again. I compare it to the Grand Canyon far shrunken and filled with dirt instead of Colorado snowmelt. Pockets and folds in the rock stretch out and collapse. It's sheer and magnificent.
And the wash just spills us into a larger sandstream that fills a plain of desert. The banks are silt and flowers as drapingly heavy verbena petals spill over sides. And there, distant but distinct, lights the royal face of another violet desert hillside drenched in purple and ultraviolets. Dan and I tip our bikes on their sides to stand gaping and harking the petal paint so deep and so profuse. Winter rains allowed seeds to sip deep and now a winter bloom adolescent in the spring rips color across a landscape so vividly all you can do is stand to take it in. Our pace is slow, but subtle hints of land demand attention. Loud shouts of life bursting color from the ground direct so I must give due following.
Reluctantly we move on as the wash boxes up and we enter the Mud Caves. Silt, graven, hardened, silkened, and stacked have become rounded out alcoves and slots in the adjoining rock faces. We hike up one, explore, come out, and soak sun while eating. A guy in a car pulls up and excitedly talks to us - his desire to try bikepacking is strong and I urge him to go for it. We push on, amazed by the snaking route through the land. The route rises up and crests above the washes on plateau sandy and studded with ocotillo. We race along the sand and come to the infamous Diablo Drop. Several dozen suped-up vehicles, raised, hydraulicked, and studded sit semi-circle to a serious of four, one-hundred foot drops. We watch parades of them descend, ascend, and earn their mettle. Locals chat with us and tell us the history of this highly-sought overlander challenge. Not only that, but they equally revel in the bikepacking Stagecoach 400 racers who fly down this section in April of each year.
We walk down though - no need to push past my skill. Back in a narrow ravine, we push our bikes up and around cars horizontally wedged in the canyons trying to turn around. And like that, we spill into the sandy wash of Fish Creek. Down and down in the slanting golden light of white and yellowed rock. Suddenly, it boxes up thinly and high with outcrops of branching sandstone shelves as we enter the famous narrows. Light passes beyond canyon rimrock leaving a shaded evening glow inward. The deposition picks up as sand deepens and the pedaling gets tougher. We stand to leverage power and move towards the mouth of Fish Creek Canyon. I see Janna and Kate walking the dogs in the distance. They were able to drive up the sandy wash in the cars and were parked behind some willows next to an embankment out on the spilling desert plains. Dan and I cast down bikes, grab some warm clothes, and eat food to contentment as dark night deadpans above us. I feel nothing but gratitude for being with friends and being someplace beautiful.