Rent-a-naturalist idea helps tourists find desert byways

There are good reasons to be wary of the desert: scorching heat and nighttime cold, waterless expanses and flash floods, creatures that slither and sting, and the ease of getting lost in the seemingly alien landscape. A casual visitor to the desert would be foolish to stray from the main roads. But there are reasons for loving a desert like California's Anza-Borrego: the play of light and shadow, jagged mountains looking like the fossil skeletons of gargantuan beasts, clear air, and the fascinating array of strategies that plants and animals employ to survive. It doesn't take long to become enamored with the Anza-Borrego - some two hours east of San Diego by car - and to yearn for a safe way to venture away from the few paved highways.

The ideal would be a personal guide to the desert wilderness. In Europe and Asia, it's affordable enough to hire a guide to a well-traveled spot, a tradition largely absent in the United States, where a knowledgeable guide leading an expedition into the outback is something out of 19th-century explorers' tales.

Enter Pat Flanagan, part-time biologist, part-time teacher, and full-time lover of the Anza-Borrego. It was her inspiration to fill an empty niche as a kind of ``Rent-a-Naturalist.''

For Ms. Flanagan's Anza-Borrego Desert Tours there are no set schedules, no expensive equipment, no employees - and thus no overhead and no limits. For $15 an hour, she will accompany any group, with any special interest, on a custom-designed tour. The visitor provides the mode of travel - car, bus, or plane, or by foot - while Flanagan provides scientific background.

She can focus a trip through the Anza-Borrego on anything from geology to fossils to aboriginal ways of life. Well-off travelers may hire her for individualized tours of several days' duration. Those with limited funds might pool their resources and organize a small group for half a day. The $15-an-hour charge is the same.

People who choose to live in the desert must adapt themselves, and Flanagan is as well adapted in her way as an ocotillo cactus or a kangaroo rat. She wanted to live in the desert; she wanted to teach people about it; and she wanted to reach a wide range of desert lovers. Her self-created service permits her to do all those things.

Flanagan has the youthfulness of a kid freshly embarked on a fascinating career. Having worked as a technician in research laboratories for many years, she went back to school to take a biology degree in her mid-30s. She parlayed a longtime love of the desert and her new degree into a position at Anza-Borrego State Park, running the visitor center and heading the volunteer program.

Flanagan also worked as a consulting biologist and taught summers in an Audubon ecology camp, but wanted to find a line of work that would marry her more firmly to the desert. She gave herself a long, hand-to-mouth season to come up with something. One morning, a few days before the deadline she had set, she woke up with the ``Rent-a-Naturalist'' idea.

``What gave me the idea was working in the visitor center,'' she says. ``So many people would come in full of questions who knew nothing about the desert, but were fascinated by it. That's the only common denominator among the people who hire me: an innate fascination with the desert.''

The business of Anza-Borrego Desert Tours has grown slowly but surely through word of mouth and heartening response to occasional local newspaper and magazine articles about her.

Meanwhile, she has kept herself going by taking consultant jobs, guiding natural-history cruises to Baja California, and serving in a part-time position as education coordinator with the Tijuana River Estuarine Research Reserve, across the San Ysidro Mountains and a world away.

She has guided a number of tours in search of spring wildflowers, the first thing that comes to most people's minds when the desert is mentioned. Flanagan is a pro at finding colorful flora, but as befits her company motto, ``There is more to the desert,'' she tries to turn visitors' eyes in new directions.

``Nobody sees the rabbitbrush in bloom, because nobody comes to the desert in November,'' she laments. ``Nobody sees the smoke trees blooming, which are just gorgeous, because nobody comes to the desert in June. The winter is actually most beautiful to me. The lighting is the best, coming in at a low angle; the geology is so exposed. The weather is good. The vegetation is all out there, and when you're not cueing in on the flowers, you have the time to sit back and look at the desert as a whole, to look at the geology, to look at the evidence of native American occupation, of which there is plenty, to look at the diversity of shrubs and plants. It's crystal clear most of the winter, and it's so quiet.''

The tours Flanagan arranges are as various as the people who seek her out. She has guided photographers looking for locations and subject matter. She has guided bird watchers. She has traveled around with elderly couples whose children gave them a day with a naturalist as an anniversary present. With one wheelchair-bound client, she simply drives to a beautiful spot and spends a morning talking about the desert.

While she is quite capable at pointing out scenic vistas and points of historical interest, Flanagan's specialty is desert ecology. She not only identifies individual species of plants and animals, but discourses on the adaptations that enable them to survive in the desert.

During a typical tour, she may expound on the geological history of the badlands, the way flowers engage in ``color conversations'' with insects, or the reason that smoke trees are found in washes and ocotillos on slopes. Within an hour, she'll have people down on their knees, peering at the inner workings of a flower through a hand lens.

By scientific training and temperament, Flanagan is a fierce defender of the desert's fragile ecosystems, ready to do battle with developers and off-road-vehicle drivers.

She can point to the clearly visible ruts of the Butterfield Stage route, which passed through the Anza-Borrego. ``That's been there 125 years, and it's still bare,'' she says. ``Scrape the desert and that's it - it doesn't come back. There's such a combination of factors needed for the long-lived plants to germinate and survive. It might take 50 years, and it might take 100 years, and it might take 1,000 years.''

But Flanagan would far rather share the desert than argue over it. ``When people really see things, when they see how tightly everything is woven together, you don't have to crusade.''

She once took out a group of dune-buggy riders and found, ``I don't need to preach at people. The mind wants to learn, and when you learn about things you care about them, and you hate to see things you care about destroyed.''

Practical information

Anza-Borrego Desert Tours, or Pat Flanagan, can be reached at 685 Wells Fargo Trail, Julian, CA 92036; tel. (619) 765-1066. In addition to individual trips, large-group bus tours are available at a flat rate of $100. Flanagan also offers slide shows to organizations and a week-long seminar on the desert each year during Easter week.

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