BORREGO SPRINGS – It had been a long drive on one of those lonely rural roads and, you know, a guy can get worn out and start seeing things that may or may not be there. Highway hypnosis, my high school driver's ed teacher called it.
Just ahead, in the gathering dark along a fallow stretch of Borrego Springs Road, I could've sworn I saw a dragon (or maybe it was a steroidic rattlesnake) slithering across the pavement. Cue the menacing musical leitmotif from "The Twilight Zone."
I swerved and slowed – hey, wouldn't you? – to have a look-see. No, officer, I haven't been drinking. It was this ginormous dragon that ran me off the road.
Sober as Mitt Romney, I swear, I saw that this critter was no vision – but certainly quite a sight.
It was a 350-foot-long, 20-foot-tall rust-hued sheet-metal serpent slithering east-to-west near the corner of Borrego Springs and Big Horn roads. Its tail looked just like a rattler's, and it undulated. Sections submerged in dirt and others arched high above ground. Its neck, fortunately for motorists, lay under the paved road before springing up with jagged teeth and a slavering maw.
In the harsh light of dawn the next day, I quickly found that the serpent was no anomaly. Dotted along the roads on both sides of the city and even represented on the town square are 131 other sculptures of varying sizes and subjects.
Camels and saber-tooth tigers and mammoths – oh my!
The story behind the sculptures in this low-rise desert town is equally intriguing. It involved a multi-millionaire self-stick labeling magnate and an unemployed construction worker who became fast friends and changed the town's landscape, culturally and literally.
Dennis Avery, who owned 3,000 undeveloped acres in Borrego Springs and its outskirts before his death last summer at 71, had already made a name in town for his philanthropic endeavors. His gifts helped build a performing arts center, a Little League field and a skate park. Recently, his family gave $1 million to the town's school district.
But his big splash, the gesture that gained Avery acclaim beyond Borrego, was collaborating with sculptor Ricardo Breceda on scores of sheet-metal sculptures that would honor the town's prehistoric past and diverse present, with a few outrageous fictional creations (such as the serpent) tossed in just for whimsy.
Breceda, 50, had been hurt in a construction accident 12 years ago that left him unable to work. His daughter, Lianna, had just seen the movie "Jurassic Park 3," and asked her dad to make her a metal dinosaur. And when Breceda started welding near his home in Perris (Riverside County), he never stopped and started drawing raves from landscape architects and art lovers.
One day, Avery happened upon Breceda's work and had a brainstorm: to build a menagerie in Borrego Springs based on prehistoric animals that roamed the countryside.
In 2008, the two started with just a few depictions – a saber-tooth, a gomphotherium (an elephant ancestor), a camel, an elephant.
Breceda said by phone from his Perris home that he and Avery just couldn't stop. They always vowed to limit the sculptures. Once it reached 100, they really, truly were going to stop. They did 32 more, many of the latter pieces depicting farmworkers and historical personages.
The serpent, by the way, was installed in 2008. It cost more than $40,000 and took Breceda four months to build and three months for him and a dozen buddies to install.
It was Avery's idea to do the prehistoric theme; it was Breceda's idea to supersize it.
"I always go for big," Breceda said. "I like big. When he came to me, I said, 'Dennis, you've got to go big and make a statement, let people know what you have. You want to make people happy, surprise them, amaze them.' He agreed."
Nothing like a giant grasshopper, bloated sloths, wild horses and a T. rex or two to surprise folks.
"In the beginning, we didn't know what the reaction (in town) would be," he said. "We thought we might have to put a fence or that people would complain about it. But they liked it. Every year, it just got bigger and better. Every time I'd go to (Borrego) to put in a new piece, people were speculating: 'What it would be this time?' I'd tell them, 'Wait and see.' "
Over the years, Breceda has almost become an unofficial Borregoan. In October, he served as the grand marshal in the Borrego Days Desert Festival. But Breceda, a modest man, said he did it because of his friendship with Avery, to whom the parade was dedicated.
"I tell everybody you want to know a real man, you need to know Dennis," Breceda said. "He was humble, smart, nice. We'd be together not only for work but for pleasure, spend hours talking. I was fortunate to know him. We made a pretty good team."
Alas, Borrego's landscape will have no future metal creatures. Breceda says that, with Avery's death, it was time to move on. But he vowed to help maintain the sculptures, which occasionally get damaged by high winds.
"The job is done," Breceda said. "But if anyone in Borrego wants to commission me for something for their yard, I'm ready."