Vast and barren, deserts with their apparent lack of life are one of the spookiest places on the planet and the source of many supernatural tales. The stark landscape lends itself to see the unimaginable, perhaps a mirage, or perhaps something more insidious. In actuality deserts can be deadly for both humans and animals, and only the hardiest plants can survive there. Are the tales of strange beasts, mysterious sightings and ghostly visitors only the product of fevered, overheated brains? Perhaps what slithers, walks or glides along the unforgiving, hot sands is appears only a moment in this dimension before they take what they want.
The first strange story we come to are reports of something that stalks the land of the Borrego Sink, 45 miles southeast of Borrego Springs, California. It’s described as an aggressive Bigfoot-type creature, and they are called the Borrego Sasquatch. This dweller of the Borrego Badlands is seen in the arid spaces of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and tales of this creature were first heard by Spanish missionaries arriving in San Diego in 1769. The natives called them “hairy devils”. The Indians avoided the area of the Santa Ana River and called it “towis puki” which translates to the “Camp of the Devil”. They warned the missionaries to stay away, however as more settlers came to the area encounters were inevitable.
West of the Park is a 44,000 spread named Warner Ranch. There is a hollow known as Deadman’s Hole which earned its name when a Butterfield stage driver found a dead man beside the spring, in another version 5 prospectors were drowned in a flash flood. In the following years it became a stop off point for stagecoaches as they criss-crossed the desert.
Sightings of a strange creature were reported by passengers on the coaches, claiming that a hairy man would stare threateningly at them from behind brush. During these years, strange deaths occurred, and the victims appeared to have been savaged by an animal. The creature was believed to be the one who killed these people.
The place was described thus:
"Between the years 1858 and 1890, the spot was truly haunted. Many prospectors in the vicinity disappeared into thin air, never to be seen again, until finally only the uninformed would venture near.”
In 1876 the Mendocino Democrat reported on an encounter by a prospector named Turner Helm:
The discovery of a wild man ten miles east of Warner's ranch, San Diego county. The writer says, "Mr. Turner Helm and myself were in the mountains on a prospecting tour, looking for the extension of a quartz lead. The man was discovered by Mr. Helm, sitting on a boulder about 15 or 20 paces down from him. He appeared to be covered all over with coarse black hair, seemingly 2 or 3 inches long, like the hair of a bear, his beard and the hair of his head were long and thick.
The prospectors tried speaking to it in English, Spanish and the local Indian dialect, but it didn’t respond and just stared without uttering a sound. It walked towards them. They pulled out their firearms, and it only retreated when they aimed the rifles at it.
Other murders could not be held against the strange creature. At Oak Grove, fifty miles in the interior of the county, a man named Robert Gunn, a resident of Warner's Ranch sent a letter to District Attorney Copeland advising of the murder of a woman who herded sheep. This is the story reported by the San Francisco Examiner on January 8, 1888:
In a small adobe hut, lives a Mexican named Polito Escallier known by the settlers in the vicinity as "Chihuahua." He owned a small piece of land, on which the hut is situated, and quite a large flock of sheep and goats, and has for years passed his time in tending them.
When he returned home he could not find his stepdaughter anywhere. Thinking she was out in the fields tending the flock, he went to sleep. He was surprised to find her still gone the following day. He searched for her, but met with no success. He went to Oak Grove and told the residents of her disappearance. A search party quickly assembled, and she was found in a clump of bushes, about 3 miles away.
She had been shot through the breast, the ball passing through her body. Belita had been killed nearby and her body was dragged into the bushes in order to conceal it. Nothing was found to throw any light on the crime, and her murder was never solved.
The summer before a man named William Blair was killed in the area, and the murder was never solved as well.
April 8, 1888 the San Diego Times described the encounter of what the men called a monster, half-human and half-animal which had been killed at Deadman's Hole:
Hunters seldom venture into Deadman's Hole partly because of the general awe and fear of the place, but more especially because it is well known that there is no game there. Last Thursday, however two venturesome hunters named Edward Dean and Charles Cox, determined to explore the dark and mysterious cañon.
In later years what has come to be known as the “Borrego Sandman” would continue to be occasionally sighted.
In 1939, a man alone in the park set up his camp in a gulch. In the middle of the night he awoke to the sound of something around him. By the dying light of the campfire he saw several bipedal, silver-haired creatures with luminous red eyes that glowed in the darkness. They circled around him, but stayed away from the fire and eventually melted into the night.
In 1964, a father and son who were hiking through Escondido were pelted with rock from what they described as a shaggy beast. West of Anza-Borrego near Jamul the MGM Ranch found three cows killed and mutilated. Strange tracks were around the carcasses. Another person to have an encounter was US Marine, Victor Stonayow, who was exploring the area and came across three-toed tracks. They measured 14 inches long and 9 inches across. He claimed he took pictures and plaster casts but failed to produce them.
In 1968, Harold Lancaster who was camping in Borrego Sink encountered what he described thus:
I saw a man walking in the desert. The figure came closer. I thought it was another prospector. Then I picked up my binoculars and saw the strangest sight in my life: It was a real giant ape-man. I had heard about the screaming giant ape-man up in Tuolumne County that frightened people for a couple of years. Another person and I even went up there to look for the thing. I decided it was a hoax and never expected to actually see one. That thing was big. I was no match for it. I had a .22 pistol on my hip but it would have been like shooting at a gorilla with a pea shooter. I was afraid the beast might get too close. So, I fired a couple of rounds into the air. The sandman jumped a good three feet off the ground when the sounds of the shots reached him. He turned his head, looked toward me and then took off running in the other direction!
In 1985, a set of large, human-like tracks were found, and into the 1990s sporadic sightings were reported. Is it the same creature the Indians warned the missionaries about? And the question begs to be asked, is the Borrego Sandman still lurking in the sparse landscape of the Anza-Borrego Desert Park?
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer