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The Night Watch at Anza Crossing

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Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

He arrives when the sun sets and the Santa Ana River is lit by floodlights at the construction site, by the moon, and by his heavy-duty lantern flashlight if he needs to see
who's moving in the darkness. For twelve hours, he sits in his truck, paces the parking lot and checks the locked gate. He's 6-6, weighs 370 pounds, and has an encyclopedic
memory. Before he was hired, thieves had stolen $300,000 worth of equipment from this construction site, where workers are boring a tunnel along the river to replace an 80-year-old sewer pipe.

Last week, when I went to visit him, he said the night before, two men had come down the narrow road to the site in their truck, with gloves and workboots, and when he
shone the bright light into their faces and asked what they were doing, they claimed to be remembering the spot from childhood, just wanting to smoke and gaze out over the river.
"They left pretty quick."

The coyotes come and go all night. Homeless men and women from riverbed camps come up the trails and into the park, where there's a drinking fountain and portable
restrooms. An owl perches on the top of the tallest crane parked behind the fence. He sits in his truck hour after hour, his left front tire five feet from the historical
marker which tells the world that Juan Bautista de Anza and his party of soldiers, women, new babies and animals crossed the Santa Ana River here, where it is narrowest, back in
1774, on the first overland route to California.


Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Father Francisco Garces, a Franciscan priest, had tried the journey before, in 1771. He left San Xavier de Bac, a frontier mission in what is now southern Arizona, and
reached the Colorado River, which he followed up to its mouth in the Gulf of California, but the way was lost in the desert after that, and he returned. In 1774, he joined the party formed by Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish military captain at Tubac, Arizona. Anza wanted Spain to open a trading route with New California, a land route from Tubac to San Gabriel Mission and then on to Monterey. Previous failed attempts had led the Spanish to call the desert journey El Camino del
Diablo - The Road of the Devil.

The Anza party must have looked like a strange parade to the various tribes and villages of Native Americans who saw them approaching. Anza, Father Garces and another priest, Father Diaz. A California Indian who'd made the trek from Arizona to San Gabriel, whose Christian name was Sebastian Tarabal, as guide. Twenty-one volunteer soldiers from Spain, an interpreter, a carpenter, five mule-drivers, two of Anza's servants. Sixty-five head of cattle, and 140 horses.

A few days before they left, colonists in Boston disguised themselves as Indians and threw tea into the harbor.

Days into the Anza expedition, trying to reach the Colorado River, Anza came to know from Garces and Tarabal that the lives of human and animal would depend on Native Americans in Arizona, the Papago and Pima peoples, leading them to rainwater caches they had known for generations, and offering them food like rabbits they killed
with throwing sticks.

"An owl sits right up there," he pointed, at the top of the crane which rose into the night sky. "Just sits up there, or in this tree right here," he pointed to the skeletal branches of the tree near his truck. "And last night he dropped a rabbit head right here next to me. I was sitting here and it came down from the sky. Crazy. Right here."

Now he pointed to a dark spot on the asphalt. "That owl tears off the head and takes the rest."

I said, "Did you just leave it there?"

"Heck, no. I didn't want that rabbit staring at me all night. I put it in the trash. Right there where the raccoons came last week. They were bigger than dogs. And the skunks came last night, too. Lifted up their tails and I thought, 'Oh, no, man, not that!' I saw all that white and knew it would be bad."

The coyotes were quiet at that moment, though. The night was clear, and I'd arrived before him. I'd visited with the construction workers closing down the site for the night, turning off the pumps and drills, locking up. Just as they left, and before he came, the coyotes went crazy, chasing something in the first dark.

Their chorus was so varied and unearthly that the pack sounded like twenty. One long mournful, sustained howl, rising at the end. One contrasting with short barks, dog-like. And the back-up singers, the yips and laughs and crazy chatter that make humans shiver.

When he arrived, I asked first about the coyotes, just after I gave him the cake. He's family, and he'd worked on the holidays.

He said, "They smell my lunch, in the truck. I pack my lunch every night. I can't leave, except to check the gate. They come right up the hill there and just bump the dang truck. Just bump the doors, like they're gonna get my lunch." He laughed. "Then they go back down to the river. They wait for the rabbits. Right there."

The grassy open field near the parking lot, just above the bluff. "They wait til it's about 20, 30 rabbits in the grass, and then the coyotes sneak up and pick them off."


Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

The water is shallow now, but in winter, the Santa Ana can rage brown and churning, from bank to bank. The current is held back by the Seven Oaks Dam, upstream, by irrigation diversions, and by water treatment plants.But it still flows right here, where I wander to the edge to think about those men crossing, with their horses and cows, in March of 1774. Father Garces' diary records that the water was flowing so fast and heavy that the men had to build a bridge of logs, which
took time, and then cross over that. Every other river, they'd been able to ford on foot and horseback, but not here.

"Man, I saw this whole family on New Year's Day go down to the water and get in," he told me, leaning against his truck, looking out at the silver ribbon of the river in the moonlight. "I heard people go swimming in the summer." "Will you be here in the summer?" I asked him.

"They say this job will last all year," he nodded. "But I wouldn't get in that water."

I told him I waded in it last summer, with my dog, who loves the wildness of the riverbed. We walk along it every week, the trails through the cottonwoods and wild grapevines that lead here, to just below the bluff where we stand. The Santa Ana is one of Southern California's most beautiful and untouched rivers here, in Riverside, near the park named for Anza and for Martha McLean, an activist who stopped the paving of the river here in the way it was channeled into cement downstream, in Orange County.

"Yeah, you guys walk it in the day," he said. "It's different at night."

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

The monument for Anza's crossing was just behind us. A Metrolink train sounded the horn in the distance, coming from Orange County, the headlights piercing the mist that had begun to rise under the graceful arched railroad bridge. Like an old movie, the train appeared suddenly on the bridge, the lit windows and faces snaking above us.

"The foggy nights are the worst," he said. "The train looks like a ghost coming out of it. And this whole place looks haunted."

Under the bridge are the rocks where Anza's men assessed the crossing. Graffiti covers many of the stones and the bridge abutments. One homeless encampment is near here, and we watched two young men ride up the trail and then walk their bikes past us.

He greeted them, as he does everyone.

He's there for security. A large presence. One set of thieves, last year, loaded an entire flatbed with expensive equipment, using a crane, and then stole the truck as well.

During the day shifts on the weekends, retirees come to the park in motorhomes. One couple told him they were following the entire Anza Expedition, stopping at each
monument. They told him a lot about the history of the place where he spends most of his waking hours now, and then they motored away to the next marker.

In 1775, Anza, Garces and the Spanish organized a second crossing, this time partly to populate New California. They brought 240 people, including 29 wives of the soldiers.

They crossed deserts, lava flows like "a sea of broken glass," travelled down the Gila River to the land of the Yuma people, and finally crossed the Colorado River at a ford shown to them by a Yuma leader named Palma. They entered California here, the river running two hundred yards wide and shallow enough that the cattle and horses were led across the river, while the Yumas carried the cargo, and Anza and the others rode horseback. Garces, though, had a terrible fear of falling from a horse and drowning - he could not swim. So the Yumas carried the priest across the water, too.

On December 24, 1775, at Coyote Canyon, the Anza party passed out of what is now San Diego County and into what is now Riverside County. They had left behind days of snow, and entered rain and fog, and one of the women "was taken with childbirth pains," Anza's diary reads. "At a quarter to eleven in the night our patient was successfully delivered of a boy, which makes three who had been delivered between the presidio of Tubac and this place..."

Father Pedro Font baptized the boy Salvador Ygnacio the next day. And on January 1, 1776, they came again to this place. Anza wrote, "...this river of Santa Anna ...almost unfordable for the people, not so much because of its depth as of the rapidity of its current, which upsets most of the saddle animals. For this reason it was necessary to reinforce the bridge which I made during the last journey...these tasks could not be completed until after twelve o'clock, at which time the women were taken over first, next all the perishable things, and then the rest of our cargo and our stock, of which a horse and a cow were drowned because they did not have strength enough to withstand the force of the current."


Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

We stood there for two hours, that night, January 2012, the river winding silently below us, the epic journeys of men and women on horseback, and men and women on bicycles and carrying their possessions by backpack. "About three in the morning one time," he said, "I hear engines. Those ATVs. Three of them, and I look down at the trail, and three guys are riding with rifles. Slung across their backs. They had a trailer, like they were going to hunt something. I don't know what the heck they were hunting. I didn't hear them coming back this way."

The coyotes called faintly in the distance, and he leaned against the truckbed, looking
out into the darkness.

Susan Straight's latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room."  Both she and photographer Doug McCulloh are natives of Riverside, and their stories appear on KCET every other Wednesday, all which can be read here.  She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside.

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