ANZA-BORREGO, Calif.—Driving along a desolate highway you’re being fooled by a mirage when you see two raptors locked in battle, or a monstrous eagle poised for take-off into the blazing sky.
But as you slow down to get a better look, you realize this is no mirage: there really are giant creatures dwelling in the sand next to the road.
About 90 winding miles east of San Diego in this desert valley, prehistoric creatures and humans sculpted in scrap metal and iron cohabit in the Anza-Borrego Desert. Almost 100 beasts and desert dwellers stand realistically frozen in time, butting heads, snarling, or searching for their next meal in the scorching desert.
“I can see these creatures living here a long time ago,” said Jackie Steinkrauss, an Escondido, California resident on a recent visit here. Standing next to a herd of grazing prehistoric elephants, she said, “They look like they belong here. I can imagine them running around the desert. They are amazing.”
In fact, dinosaurs did not live in the desert. “We had mammoths, camels, ground sloths, mastodons, and the giant birds,” explained Anza-Borrego paleontologist George Jefferson. “Many animals we did have here, but not the dinosaurs. This was all underwater during their time.” Jefferson said that extensive research has been done in the Borrego area and information can be found in the book “Fossil Treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert,” which Jefferson co-edited.
The sculpture park is a collaboration of artist Ricardo Breceda and Dennis Avery, an heir to the Avery office products fortune, who owns several square miles of land known as Galleta Meadows in the town of Borrego Springs where the statues reside.
Breceda, who works and lives in Perris, California, began crafting life-like dinosaurs after the Jurassic Park movies came out in the 1990’s. “I’m a single parent and back in ’95 I was doing nothing and Jurassic Park came out and my daughter said, ‘Let’s make a big one daddy.’”
In a telephone interview from Alaska, Avery said he stumbled upon Breceda by accident while driving along Interstate 215. “I saw these strange things being created,” he explained. “I lived out in Borrego Springs and when I met Ricardo I thought maybe he could create some of the animals (for his property).”
Breceda says that Avery is “like a child” and loves Breceda’s work. “It’s just for the fun of doing it. He has a lot of land out there so we just put them around town.” Breceda credits Avery for coming up with the idea and says they never knew they were going to do something as extensive as this.
Breceda hand-crafts the sculptures out of scraps of iron and sheet metal. He has a team of 7 or 8 men who gather the pieces together while Breceda makes the frame and then covers it with the metal, creating the sculpture and giving each one its own realistic character.
“We took the gomphothere, which is a prehistoric elephant, and dropped them out there. It was very positive and the news showed up,” Avery said.
Local residents of the Borrego Springs area never know when some new creature will suddenly make its home in the desert, joining the other metal creatures. Debbie Loza likes to recall her own surprising first encounter with the sculptures. “I went to work and asked the people I work with if they saw the camel. And they said, ‘Ok Deb, you’re seeing camels out in this desert…’ And the next day they had to come in and apologize because they had seen it too.”
Loza said the town estimates about 10,000 tourists visited Borrego Springs during the last year just to get a glimpse of the sculptures, most of which are near the edge of the paved highway, although you can get a closer encounter by taking any of the dirt roads that lead right up to the beasts.
But there are more than just prehistoric animals and birds out there. Other figures from more modern history include 20th century grape-pickers and an 18th century missionary and his dog companion.
And just how much does this installation of animals cost? “I had to buy the land, first of all,” explained Avery. “For one sculpture it is about $1,000. But most are $3,000 to $7,000. My limit at first was $50,000 but we blew right past that.”
And he will continue to sponsor Breceda’s work. “I thought I was done. But people started complaining that we left something out,” said Avery.
The next figures scheduled for placement, he said, will be a gold prospector and his mule, two figures that have been confirmed to have roamed the local deserts in the 19th century.
Breceda’s works also can be found far away from this desert zoo in places such as Canada, Alaska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Maryland, and New York. Private buyers have purchased his sculptures for their own property and one man from Canada bought 12 horses, according to Breceda.
The former construction worker, who was born and raised in Durango, Mexico, started sculpting the figures as a hobby 13 years ago and now it’s his only business, which he said doesn’t make his mother too happy. “She says, ‘Aye mijo, why do you do this? Why you don’t do something else,’” Breceda said, laughing.
“I want to do this forever,” Breceda said. “I want to be somebody.”