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Desert Companion

Where things go bloom: A flowering in Ridgecrest, Calif.

The Ridgecrest Wildflower Festival has blossomed into a must-go event for flower-hunters — but this gathering has a personal backstory

Where things go bloom

The “bellyflowers” of the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert three and a half hours from Las Vegas will bring you to your knees. Awe has a lot to do with it. In a good year when they blanket the foothills, you can admire their deep colors from a distance. But even when peak season follows less-than-average winter rainfall, you can experience their intricate patterns up close and personal — hence the term “bellyflower” applied to any blooms you have to squat down to examine.

They begin to emerge in February and last through April, sweeping across expanses that stretch from Death Valley to the Sierra Nevada. As it warms up at lower elevations, prime viewing advances upslope at a rate of roughly 1,000 feet every two weeks. The Upper Mojave Desert city of Ridgecrest, Calif. pays homage to the annual outcropping each spring with the Ridgecrest Desert Wildflower Festival, a floral jackpot with a personal story behind it.

Tiny white dots

Support comes from

A born and bred New Yorker, I met Dave Rosenthal among Yucatan pyramids 15 years ago, married him and moved to his home in California’s East Sierra. An engineer on the U.S. Navy’s China Lake base and a Renaissance man, he embraced all of creation. He did science reporting for CNN, had a part in testing one of the Mars vehicles, flew Medevac helicopters for the National Guard, traveled the globe to witness eclipses and mastered the nuances of Maya archaeoastronomy. But more than any of these, he had a passion for wildflowers.

We’d go out together finding wildflowers; I was the spotter, he was the photographer. On one balmy morning when his subjects wouldn’t stop swaying in the breeze, I lost patience and plopped myself onto a blanket.

I noticed tiny white dots at my feet, no bigger than pinheads. When I pushed my face right up to them, I saw a diminutive red dot inside each one. I called Dave over. He took a picture. Not until we got back to our house and enlarged the shot did we realize the complexity of a design obviously intended for insect eyes. Wow. Bellyflowers for bugs.

Apricot MallowWe identified it as rattlesnake weed. From that moment, I succumbed to the bright white pincushions, yellow goldfields, violet phacelia, orange poppy and apricot mallow, pink and red desert calico, red Indian paintbrush, brilliant purple indigo bush and the playful white-tipped magenta owl’s clover.

‘Our wildflowers’

No wonder the ancients rejoiced when spring flowers arrived. Praise the heavens. Life renews itself. We can stop being cold for a while. Our crops will grow again. Nature and the universe reward us with ample expressions of this happiest stage in the cycle, everything from chirping baby birds in their nests to longer days and shorter nights. But nothing says “celebrate” as ecstatically as these glorious little bouquets. 

Dave died of colorectal cancer in 2007, snapping extraordinary images pretty much to the end, as if packing every possible adventure into his camera and into the months he had left. When a friend in the tourism office asked me some years ago what Ridgecrest had going for it that might inspire a signature event, I remembered Dave’s excitement over that first bud, those splendid displays.

“Desert wildflowers,” I answered. “Not only wildflowers. Desert wildflowers. Our wildflowers.” With that, and enthusiastic support by the tourism board, a festival ensued.

[HEAR MORE: Why paint flowers in the desert? Mary Warner discusses her art on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]

The Ridgecrest Desert Wildflower Festival returns this year with activities town-wide, including vendors, food, exhibits, lectures, workshops and wildflower tours. The Kerr McGee Center on 100 West California Ave. serves as the main hall. With Maturango Museum’s annual wildflower exhibit at 100 East Las Flores Ave., antique, book and consignment shops in Old Town, and Ridgecrest’s dozen-plus hotels and more than 50 restaurants, you’ve got the makings for a memorable family weekend.

If I sound biased, I admit it. But hey, we’re talking bellyflowers, guaranteed to bring you to your knees. 

Rattlesnake Weed

Nearby

Points of interest for Ridgecrest flower fans

1. The Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History, on Highway 395 an hour and a half northwest of Ridgecrest, preserves the diverse movie lore of Lone Pine, Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra with 10,500 square feet of exhibits, an 85-seat theater, a gift shop and “Back Lot” – the Alabama Hills outside. These rugged rocks have figured prominently on screen from Gene Autry and Roy Rogers cowboy action thrillers to, more recently, William Shatner and William Downey, Jr. films, all in the shadow of Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States.

2.  Randsburg, once a mining boomtown and now a living ghost town off Highway 395 a half-hour south of Ridgecrest, has hardly changed in the intervening century. Highlights include art galleries, Randsburg Opera House, the White Horse Saloon, sarsaparilla and an old-fashioned soda fountain at the General Store.

3.  The U.S. Naval Museum of Armament and Technology on the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in Ridgecrest has a lunar soft landing vehicle (the Sidewinder), missiles and rockets developed and tested at China Lake. Admission is free, but you have to obtain a pass to enter the base, either from the Visitors Center or from the guard at the gate on weekends. Present a picture ID for each individual and proof of car insurance.

4.  The stunning shapes and striations of Red Rock Canyon State Park (seen in “Jurassic Park” and Disney’s “Dinosaur”) 20 minutes north of Mojave on Highway 14 and the surreal, imposing spires of the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark  (“Planet of the Apes” and Will Ferrell’s “Land of the Lost”) a half-hour northeast of Ridgecrest on Highway 178 appear often in movies and TV commercials.

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