Mountain Biking Through History on the Anza Trail

Pedaling through Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park,I contrast the current landscape experience with the historical travels of explorers centuries ago in the desert, an early spring highlight of east San Diego county.

Riding Through Time and Space

Contrasting the current landscape experience with the historical travels of explorers centuries ago in the Anza Borrego desert, an early spring highlight of east San Diego county.

I am on a small portion of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail in east county San Diego, California. Pedaling through Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I think of the fact that a year before the U.S. declared independence from the British government, Spanish Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza, along with hundreds of others, set out on what would be a 1200-mile journey on horseback and foot through Arizona and California to settle what we now know as the city of San Francisco, arriving on March 28, 1776. Along the way, here in the far reaches of the Colorado desert, a sub-region of the greater Sonoran desert, encounters with indigenous peoples were met with seemingly positive diplomacy by the pathfinder and his entourage, despite the use of the word ‘heathen’.

Juan Bautista de Anza Journal entry, Wednesday, December 20, 1775:

On arriving at this place, which we called El Vado, we saw five of the heathen living here, but as soon as they caught sight of us they began to flee, leaving behind the vessels in which they were gathering seeds. In order that they might not be afraid I sent one soldier after them to bring them to the camp, so that I might give them presents. Having overtaken them he had them come a little nearer, but when they saw our men closer up they again fled. Seeing this I gave orders that they should not be pursued, lest they might consider it an act of violence. Their vessels, a bow, and three of their blankets of jack rabbit skin which they left behind, as I have said, I caused to be gathered up and placed where they could find them.

I wonder if they were Cahuilla, Cupeño, Diegueño, or Kumeyaay, peoples who have lived here for some 6000 years. Resilience enters my mind. So does, ‘those Spaniards were determined, weren’t they?’

My thoughts soon dissipate in the dry desert air as my tires roll over sand, bike packing gear providing added weight, making the going a little slower. Knowing the stream is running back in Sheep Canyon, at least I need not carry water. Its flowing song will soothe.

Journal entry, Friday, December 22, 1775:

This afternoon four heathen, so lean and emaciated that they looked more like skeletons from the grave than living beings, came to our camp. Although they came full of perturbation, I made efforts to quiet them with hospitality and the accustomed presents, giving them food to eat and delivering to them the property which their women had abandoned. They appreciated this greatly and withdrew, carrying part of the things with them. A short time afterward six men not quite so badly off came and finished carrying away the things which had been left at our camp, confident that we would not injure them, since no injury had been suffered by the first ones, who were weak and useless, these being among all classes of Indians the ones risked in such cases to come to reconnoiter our people. All this day it has been threatening to rain, and it actually began at eleven o’clock at night, although not very heavily. We thought that in the sierra nearest to us it was snow which was falling.

Twilight fades to darkness and the light show that is on the horizon comes to a close, the next round of entertainment making its entry in the sky above me; stars twinkle and later the Milky Way will dazzle. I soon settle into my down bag, winter’s desert night expecting to dip into the upper 30s.

Sleep is deep, and I wake feeling very rested. On the cook stove, water boils for a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal. I sit and scan the near ridges for desert big horn sheep, ending up not seeing any, the passing of time in this way being a perfect breakfast activity.

Mid-morning happens, camp is packed up, hanging from my bike and back. There is freedom in pedaling a bike with your house on it, if providing a home for only a couple of nights. Out here, where nowhere is somewhere, a woman on the Spanish expedition gave birth to a child.

Journal entry, Sunday, December 24, 1775:

Although it continued to rain until nearly daylight and the signs of rain continued, I decided to leave this place and did so at half past nine, continuing along the valley to the northwest with some turns to the west-northwest, through the stoniest country. Having traveled in this direction three leagues in as many hours, we halted at the villages of the people who on our last journey we called Los Danzantes, the stop being made necessary because a woman was taken with childbirth pains. Although from seven o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon it had been cloudy, with a fog so dense that one could hardly see anything twelve yards away, several heathen as timid as the foregoing allowed themselves to be seen by us on the march. In the place where we now are they have conducted themselves in the same way, although all are unarmed. At a quarter to eleven in the night our patient was successfully delivered of a boy, which makes three who have been delivered.

How many humans were born out here? How many have died? What stories were told that are no longer spoken? Which still remain?

Journal entry, Monday, December 25, 1775:

There not being in this place enough water for our cattle, although there is enough for the people, they went to drink at a place about a league from here where they drank yesterday in passing, for fear that what has happened to us would happen to them. After they had done this, running water in abundance was found a quarter of a league away to the southwest of our camp and of the road which we are following, with an abundance of pasturage and firewood, which we now know about for another occasion.

The air is warm and a breeze kicks up. Farther up the canyon, I go, simply enjoying the satisfaction of being away from there but present here, a place on a map where people have come and gone for eons. Too, some have stayed and others will arrive and never leave.

Journal entry, Tuesday, December 26, 1775:

Today having dawned fair, at the regular hour the sun came out bright. For this reason and because the mother was better and had the pluck to march, we prepared to break camp, and at a quarter to nine set forth, ascending the valley which has been mentioned, going west northwest … Here we halted for the night because it has been raining ever since nine o ‘clock, although very lightly, since this rain, if it should become harder, might injure the woman who was delivered night before last, and since the march although short has been for the most part up and down. With this march the sierra or cordillera which runs to and ends at Baja California is now overcome or passed.

My weekend jaunt through an intersection of history and landscape is winding down, my primary thought being of hope; I hope to continue my annual, winter, desert bike packing trip through here when my hair is white, or has fallen out, and then at some point, I will not be able make the trip, which is okay.

You can find out more about the Juan Bautista de Anza history at the National Parks website, and more on the terrain and trails at AllTrails

You can read more from James Murren’s travels on his website,

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