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Hit the Road

Wowed by metal monsters and flowers

You can always count on the Anza Borrego Desert to deliver surprises, and we weren’t disappointed on a recent visit.

In late October, we drove over the mountains to see some of the 131 Sky Art sculptures that inhabit the acres around the town of Borrego Springs. We expected to be wowed by these metal monsters, but didn’t expect to find flowers.

“The desert is blooming because they got a lot of rain a couple of weeks ago when it rained a bit in San Diego,” said Phil Pryde, professor emeritus at San Diego State University and expert on all local forms of life.

Nevertheless, he was hard pressed to identify a few of the flowers in the photos I sent. Let’s just say that it was pure joy to discover the expanses of white-and-lavender Jimson Weed; the clumps of purple sand verbena; the carpets of tiny yellow mystery flowers; and a vine that produced what looked like mini-watermelons.

But back to the sculptures …

They were commissioned by millionaire philanthropist and amateur paleontologist Dennis Avery who owned acreage in and around Borrego Springs. A chance meeting with metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda in 2007 led to a collaboration that changed Breceda’s life. Formerly in construction, he sustained an injury about 14 years ago that changed his life.

“I broke my back,” Breceda told me in 2009. “A couple of discs were smashed so no more heavy lifting. I started doing little things in metal just to kill time, and I gave them to my friends.”

Then Breceda’s daughter encouraged him to think big.

“She was 6 at the time and the ‘Jurassic Park’ movie had come out. She said, ‘Let’s make a big dinosaur.’ So I made a T. rex and a Spinosaurus. They were 20-by-40 feet, and I put them (on my land in Perris) by the I-215 freeway. Then there was bumper-to-bumper traffic and the television cameras came and the rest is history.”

Avery followed the commotion, met with Breceda, and commissioned him to create the first group of creatures — 65 prehistoric beasts that once roamed the Borrego Valley at a time when it was green and lush.

The artist modeled his creatures after drawings in a book that Avery helped publish. The first sculptures were installed in 2008, and now the Borrego Springs area is populated with mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, camels, wild pigs and horses, sloths, sheep and llamas. Human figures are there, too –— Juan Bautista de Anza, who trekked today’s Anza Borrego Desert looking for a route to San Francisco for Spain; miners panning gold; and field workers picking grapes.

My favorite pieces include a humongous grasshopper and scorpion, and a gargantuan dragon that appears to have started diving into the sand on one side of the road and surfaces on the other.

Most of the sculptures are within a few minutes’ drive of Borrego Spring’s Christmas Circle. (This grassy oasis has been improved since my last visit — lots more shade provided by covered structures and trees, and even wi-fi.) Most of the sculptures can be seen from the car, but cursory glances don’t do justice to these treasures. Put on your hiking shoes and get up-close-and-personal with these behemoths. A careful look will reveal amazing and intricate metal work.

Breceda used both recycled and new metal to construct the sculptures, and built the largest ones in sections, then assembled them on location. The process often took several weeks or months, and most creations cost thousands.

The last sculpture was placed in 2012, the year Avery died.