Finding Peace in the Malpaís

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace” – Tacitus


Several times last week I dreamt of escape while trapped in traffic staring at the brake lights on the cars stopped ahead of me on my morning drive to work.  Sullenly I read the tea leaves looking for answers to the questions in my head as I attempted to decipher some pattern in the flashing of the brake lights.  Why do I live in this state? Why have I stopped riding my bike to work as much as I used to?  Why can’t the driver of the car ahead of me keep their damn foot off the brakes?  The brake lights, as usual, flickered their answers in gibberish.

Just as I can’t ignore the ever-tightening grip on the steering wheel with each year that I spend commuting to work by car, I also can’t hide the fact that life in Crowd-a-fornia has begun to wear me down a little bit as of late.  Teeth gnashing has become one of my favorite hobbies.  Luckily by Friday morning I had figured out the blinking Morse code of the POW brake lights being paraded ahead of me and in a moment of clarity a message was revealed: G-O_T-O_T-H-E_D-E-S-E-R-T.

Many people ignore the obvious solution to the crowds of coastal California and instead choose to wallow in the stew of populace like hogs in a spring rain, never venturing very far beyond from the trough of the “beauty strip” that is the most populated area of the state.  At best they only zoom through the desert on their way to somewhere else (like Vegas or the Colorado River), paying no attention to the jewel that lies before their very eyes.  Granted, during the summertime there’s a good reason for this as the interior of the state is an open-air oven and only the toughest venture outside their air conditioned caves.  Even fewer yet think of the desert as a fun place to ride a bike as on the whole the sandy roads and trails can be kind of difficult to ride.

But luckily for me I have a fat bike and it’s almost “winter” (I use that term sparingly in these parts) so desert heat is not a problem.  True, I bought this beast of a bike so that I could enjoy real winter while riding and racing on snow, but the fat bike has also proven to be a great tool for exploring areas that I never would’ve thought of venturing into without it.  Anza Borrego State Park is one of those places.


Anza-Borrego Park contains 500 miles of dirt roads, many of which meander like lost tribesmen through desert washes.  As long as one stays on the marked “roads” (more like routes), you can go anywhere on a bike.  Some of them are even passable on a “normal” mountain bike.  Although almost all of the trails forbid mountain biking, riding the rough roads that follow the washes on a fat bike is an absolute blast.  Whether fighting upstream like salmon to spawning or paddling lazily downstream on the Huck Finn of gravity, water is never far from your mind when you’re meandering in the desert.  Of course water will only be in your head as this IS a desert after all, but it’s nice to dream.  For some reason I occasionally find myself dreaming I’m riding frozen Alaskan rivers while riding the washes in Anza Borrego – without the need to ward off frostbite of course.  You are the captain of your ship in the solitude of the desert and mine just happens to be an icebreaker.

Yesterday I set out to complete a loop I had started last year but never finished due to a mechanical problem.  After the initial sandy climb from last year’s debacle was complete, I continued up to Font’s Point and was treated to a grand overview of the area I was about to encircle: the Borrego Badlands (or in Spanish “Malpaís”).  Erosion is my copilot.




Heading further south, the next course was a delicious paella of fissures and ridges at Vista del Malpaís.  Them’s some finger licking good badlands vainly attempting to grasp those distant mountain ranges.  The sunrise breakfast buffet must be exceptionally tasty in this area.


Eventually I flowed down Fault Wash into the belly of the Badlands, stopping only to explore the mica deposits that glinted from the walls along one section of the arroyo.  The ten year old kid in me is always on the lookout for fossils that have been freshly scoured form the walls of this ancient seabed as mastodons and other creatures have been discovered in this area.  Maybe next time – no need to hurry as the ten year old kid ain’t growing any older.


At the end of Fault Wash the Ocotillo Wells area is just a skipped stone on the surface of San Felipe Wash away – beyond that lies Mexico.  Not wanting a confrontation with the Border Patrol or a Trophy Truck blasting through the Ocotillo Wells SVRA playground, I turned to the north and contemplated misty mountains in the distance.  One of these days I should climb that range to see if anyone up there has any answers.  I sure have a lot of questions down here on the valley floor.


Dropping into Borrego Sink the sand becomes loose and drifts on the relentless wind into a blizzard of waveforms  found in the lee of the scrubby vegetation that takes root in the poor soil.  Eventually the road degenerates into deep sand for the final few miles back to the town of Borrego Springs.  The wind giveth, the wheel taketh away.




The desert held one final unexpected treat near Borrego Springs – sand dunes danced on the horizon!  At first I blinked (not only because I had sand in my eyes) in disbelief as I had no idea these existed.


I skirted the edges of the dunes for a photo opportunity, then rode the soft sand back toward a late lunch in Borrego – a burrito as big as my head served “wet”, of course.  It had taken almost 6 hours to cover the entire 45 mile loop, time during which I had not seen another soul.  I guess no one else was in need of escaping the empire of coastal California, which is just fine by me.

Peace and quiet in the Badlands, good stuff indeed.


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4 Responses to Finding Peace in the Malpaís

  1. Eric Hunter says:

    Do you have a gpx file for this?

    • Tom says:

      Sorry, i deleted it already. I can get you a description of the route though as the roads/washes are all marked well. I’ll email it to you on FB when i get a chance

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