March 16, 2011

The Wrong Trail?

Out in the desert, I doubt the existence of any wrong trail. In the middle of nowhere, you find footprints everywhere. Anywhere there's a clearing free of boulders and cholla, by now someone has cleared a path and walked through.

In national and state parks, there are designated paths on a map, but out there, on the land, they're often poorly marked, or not marked at all.

And when they are marked, following them can still be confusing.

If you're lucky, you find a path lined by stones or tree trunks...

or a creek to follow...

...but sometimes you have to look off in the distance to see what you're walking toward, and find the path of least resistance to get there.

During my most recent visit to Anza-Borrego State Park, down in the previously-unexplored south region near Bow Willow, that was the palm groves.

There were plenty of distractions along the way, including some cacti and red ocotillo...

...but the real payoff was going to come in the form of a couple palm oases, from which water still flowed down a damp creek bed.

Although I could see them in the distance, I kept wondering if I was on the right trail.

I followed the prints underfoot, but couldn't those before me have been wrong? Where was I supposed to walk? Where was the right trail?

Was there a right trail, if I ended up at the same destination?

Must I follow the steps of those who have blazed the trail before me?

Must I always blaze my own trail?

At the end of this relatively short hike, I decided to retrace my steps back up to the bustling Visitor's Center, where a volunteer had warned me that the nearby Borrego Palm Canyon trail was the most popular one in the park, and would be quite crowded. At the time, I asked for something a little farther off the beaten path. But once I was off the beaten path, I thought it might be nice to be around some people, and at least follow them down the trail. If we went the wrong way, at least I wouldn't be alone (which I usually am when out hiking).

I also wondered how I could visit Anza-Borrego during peak wildflower season and not visit the trail that's so popular because of its abundance of what I came in search of: wildflowers.

As I embarked on the trail alone, I greeted my fellow hikers at the trailhead and remarked on the vibrancy of the colors, the variety of species. But less than a mile down the trail, I was once again alone, passing many an elderly hiking couple, or family of hikers with small children, marveling at the honeycombs looming in the stone hills above, and swatting away at the bees that had descended down below, chasing the scent of desert lavender and other perfumes both natural and unnatural.

On my way back, I tried trailing different groups of hikers so I wouldn't have to navigate myself, and could just follow in their steps. Inevitably, whoever they were, they would stop, hands on hips, turning head left to right, wondering if they were, indeed, on the wrong trail.

And, I thought, I am not so alone after all.

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