Less than two hours over the mountains from San Diego lies the Sonoran Desert, 120,000 square miles of ocotillo, cholla cactus, rattlers and mind-bending mystery. The desert extends over into Arizona and way down into Mexico, but despite ever-increasing human population growth, the minute you’re in the desert, you’re alone.
Not only are you alone, you’re in a reality so expansive and other that even the most unbearable of woes dissipate in the hot, dry winds. Of course you can also dissipate in the hot, dry winds, which may be the point. Proximity to death is notoriously a factor in altered awareness.
However, nobody goes out there, at least consciously, to be proximate to death. At this time of year, people go out there to see wildflowers. I went out there yesterday to see prehistoric animals made of sheet metal, and that’s the story.
It’s a tiny story, and charming. The desert is itself a story the dimensions of which are too vast for comprehension. But it’s there in the endless, endless baking rocks and a silence so profound that after a while it’s a sort of melody you hear in your bones. Apparently the story is a musical, but it takes place so slowly that the entirety of human history to date takes up less than a minute at the end of the first act. I suspect that any one of the gazillion rocks out there could recount the entire plot, and may be recounting it, but we can hear only an absent humming, if we hear anything at all. So back to the tiny, charming story.
Ten million years ago, before North and South America became one continent, an elephant-like creature called a “gomphotherium” lived in the grasslands that, after multiple ice and marine ages, would become the Sonoran Desert. And the gomphotheres are back, in spirit and sheet metal, along with the giant camels, VW-sized tortoises and wild pigs that came and went millions of years later. These creatures actually lived, died and left fossil remains in the now-silent rocks of the Anza-Borrego region and its little town of Borrego Springs. But they’re now in the company of viciously fanged raptors, dinosaurs straight out of Jurassic Park who, if they ever existed at all, became extinct aeons before the first gomphotherium lumbered south from Canada. And there were never any dinosaurs here anyway. “Here” may not have existed when there were dinosaurs. (Although Wyoming definitely did exist and harbored dinos, just not Southern California.)
I love the desert and Borrego Springs, and incessantly set parts of mystery novels out there. Bo Bradley camps in the desert; Blue McCarron lives there. The desert is so gaspingly huge and lacking in density that you feel like putting something there as a place marker, a thing to hold onto as it pulls you, electron-by-electron, toward someplace else.
Add to this landscape the mind of Michael Crichton with his tale of dinosaurs, Dennis Avery (Avery Labels) with millions and a quirky wit, and a guy named Ricardo Breceda who was an adult when he saw the movie version of Jurassic Park but loved it anyway. (See folksy Huell Howser video of Avery, Breceda and animals –
). Welding bits of scrap metal into random art forms is fairly common in nearby Mexican communities, and Breceda (who lives in predominantly Latino inland Perris, CA) learned the skill. Avery saw Breceda’s sheet metal dinosaurs and commissioned the series of marvelous creatures that now leap and graze atop the fossilized bones of their real-life models. Plus lots of Michael Crichton raptors just because Breceda loves making them.
I am entranced by all this, the complex weave of Crichton’s fiction and glimpses of real prehistory on a dizzying terrain Avery loved and could afford to purchase. His support made possible this fantastic exhibition of exuberant, “outsider” art by a man who is likely to be the son of impoverished migrant workers. (I don’t know that he is, am only imagining his history.)
Michael Crichton died in 2008, but images spun from his mind live on in many “Jurassic” theme parks. He lived in San Diego for a year, 1969-1970, when he worked at the Salk Institute. I like to imagine that he made the short trip over the mountains to Borrego at least once, that he saw the breathtaking emptiness Avery and Breceda would populate with sheet metal beasts. I imagine that Michael Crichton would love this free, open theme park best. Because it’s real. Because it rusts and rattles in the desert wind. Because it is so many stories.
There are lots of photos at www.galletameadows.com for any who share my taste for the un-corporate, unusual and uncanny. To bring them to life, see the stark shadows cast by a blinding, white sun that is palpably pulling the water from your body as you stand there. Feel the hot wind rake your eyes, hear the silence and enjoy the layers and layers of story.