I remember the first time I ever saw Tierra del Sol’s Desert Safari event.
It was March 2008. It was dark, and I was driving through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on Highway S22, toward the Salton Sea. Just outside of the state park, one enters an amazing area called the Badlands. From up on high in the hills, one suddenly descends onto the desert floor. And there it was—as though a city had appeared, a sea of lights hugged the badlands and continued south in an area normally blanketed by darkness or lit solely by the moon. It was quite astounding to see this enormous temporary city.
This coming weekend (Friday, March 1, through Sunday, March 3) is Tierra del Sol’s 51st annual Desert Safari event. Hosted by the “Four Wheel Drive Club of San Diego,” off-roaders meet each year just east of the Anza-Borrego State Park and at the northern end of the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Registration Area. Online registration is closed, but you can still register on-site for $65. In order to ride, you need to be registered. There are trail rides and rough runs, vendor showcases, demonstrations, a raffle and even fireworks.
As a relative newcomer to California, but with tremendous love for the desert, I had been blissfully unaware of just how popular off-roading is here. I was a European who loved to visit the desert in the heat of the summer, when most sane people sit around hugging their air conditioners, or just leave. Bikes, quads, ATV’s, ORVs, 4WDs, AWDs sand rails, and many other off-roading toys filtered through to my world only as objects of death and destruction: death to the person riding them, and destruction to the landscapes they chew up.
Last year, I finally had to the chance to see what this Desert Safari event was all about, as I worked at the (very popular) empanada stand. I had moved to Salton City, and was thus more knowledgeable about some of these off-road vehicles. I can hear them all the time from my house, and I see the dust tracking behind the vehicles as they zoom through.
I realized the event was a significant gathering for lovers of all sorts of off-road vehicles. Some of the vehicles were standard, some modified, some totally outrageous, and some looked like vehicles you would find on a farm. People invest a lot of time and money into this pastime.
Onsite, there was a lot of action; a huge crowd was there, watching the big guys taking to the training park and trying their hand at the obstacles. (Think a skate park for Jeeps: Instead of half pipes and handrails, there are pyramids and rubber-tire mountains.)
There was also lots of dust flying, fumes and burning rubber burning. I spoke with a good number of people, and one of the things we spoke about was responsible off-roading and “treading lightly.” These trails already exist; they have specifically been cast for off-road vehicles and are intended to be kept to a maximum width, with as little destruction to the desert landscape as possible. The off-roaders are taught to practice “pack it in; pack it out” habits and not to leave the existing trails. They are asked to tread lightly and to minimize the damage to the areas.
But all too often, riders do not stick to existing trails and leave litter behind. Tire marks lead up hillsides and mounds. There is so much vegetation that is either dead or dying after being trampled on or shredded.
I am sure it is the action of a few that are causing the damage in reputation to the rest. But that damage needs to be pointed out.
At the height of off-roading season, one can see dust clouds forming and drifting toward residential areas near the Salton Sea. This is made worse as more vegetation is destroyed; this is a very windy area, and vegetation serves as excellent dust mitigation. There is not much an off-roader can do about the dust, but one can stick to trails, not ride over vegetation, and ensure that all the trash that is taken in is taken back out.
I recently went out with a resident whose house backs on to some of these washes and trails. We picked up cans, plastic bags, bottles, leftover tissues, frames from lanterns, plastic tubes and more. She goes out to these trails and washes everyday for hours at a time and returns home with mounds of litter that off-roaders leave behind. She will be at the Tierra del Sol event collecting cans and other litter, and teaching awareness.
If everyone who rides into these off-road areas took home not only all of their own trash, but a few additional items as well, the area could be cleaner for all to enjoy. It’s great enjoy the action, the noise, the dust, the trails, the food and the company—but please remember to tread lightly.