A couple of lifetimes ago, almost 16 years to the day, the sun begins to rise above the Atlantic in South Carolina. If memory serves this was the last time I saw the sun rise over the ocean, a short while later I realized how easily alligators were seen in the freshwater marsh so while I returned to the park a few other times before sunrise, naturally I never made it past the marsh. I visited the ocean in the Pacific Northwest during our many years there but something would have gone very wrong for me to see the sun rise above it.
We may be landlocked here in Arizona but we did get some water the past week, starting with a thunderstorm one night after work. I sat on the back porch listening to the rain pounding down in the dark, breathing in the unique smell of the desert in the rain. Another day a short shower barely wet the ground but yesterday the skies darkened during an afternoon swim so I got out in plenty of time before a thunderstorm blew through, thankfully courtesy of the weekend this one I was home during the day to watch. Trixie was not amused but I stayed out until it grew dark, the odds are against me being able to see the rain so I try to soak it in when I can.
At the start of May I got up early and went to a favorite trail I hadn’t been to in a while. I soon came across mule deer so close to the trail I could have photographed them with a wide angle lens, but it was rather dark yet so rather than risk startling them I continued on towards the scene I planned to photograph at sunrise.
Further on the dim light suddenly intensified and turned pink, not nearly as strongly as the time when I was visiting my favorite saguaro but I couldn’t figure out why it was happening at all. The sun was still below the mountains and there were no clouds I could see to reflect the light, but perhaps the mountains hid more than just the rising sun. I looked around for something to shoot and had to smile when I saw the family of deer were occasionally visible through the desert scrub. I was far enough away now to need a telephoto lens but I was pleased I could include Troon Mountain in the background, as somewhere betwixt us and the mountain sits my home.
I watched from afar as the deer drifted in and out of view until they disappeared for good. The pink light stayed but for a moment before turning yellow, then a sickly white, then dying away until the sun at last cleared the hills. I tarried too long with the deer to have any chance of reaching my original destination so I went a little further down the trail to my favorite rock formation and soaked in the moment when the light suddenly floods across the desert.
It’s a little embarrassing that after a few years in the desert I can still struggle so to predict the sunlight, my excuse that I love rainy days and spent decades in an area with a plethora of them only goes so far, but it’s alright if I never get much better.
Sometimes it’s nice to be surprised.
Most of the desert falls into shadow as the setting sun clings to the saguaros and mountains; a young Harris’s hawk looks out over its home from atop one of the old giants. Looking north towards Cholla Mountain there aren’t a lot of saguaros but there are around me, a short walk to my right leads to my favorite. Walking left leads to an area chock-a-block full of them and all the wildlife they support. Nearby too is the neighborhood entrance I’m heading towards with the park about to close, it’s not my neighborhood but we live close by and my wife was picking me up, having dropped me off earlier for an evening hike before the encroaching summer heat puts an end to those.
I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits so I was delighted to take one of two of my favorite desert inhabitants, the saguaro and the common side-blotched lizard, one of the largest residents and one of the smallest (at least one of the smallest on four legs). As much grief as I give my pattern-matching self for spotting marmots in the rocky hills when he knows there are no marmots here (he’s mostly stopped with the occasional relapse) and for spotting lizards that turn out to be protuberances in the rocks, he nailed this one from afar. The little fellow was a ways off and wasn’t worried about me so I had time to find a spot on the trail both where I could see the saguaro behind him and place him in a gap between the giant arms so he’d be easy to see against the blue sky.
I quietly wondered if he’d be willing to stick around for an hour-and-a-half for the last light of day but I knew he wouldn’t stay that long and neither would I, I wanted to get some hiking in and I had only just begun. In any event I finished the day further east, taking environmental portraits of another favorite resident, but no spoilers …
A quiet morning in December, looking north to Granite Mountain. The large depression was created decades ago when the giant lizard who had been resting beneath the mountain finally woke, shaking off its slumber and heading west to California and the Pacific Ocean. It was seen swimming in the direction of Tokyo but I don’t know what happened to it after that, hope it had a good life.
When we first moved to Arizona and I started taking pictures in sunlight I struggled with what to do about my shadow. At first I’d try to compose the picture so my shadow didn’t fall in the image, and sometimes still do, but sometimes now I lean into it and deliberately put my shadow into the frame as a reminder that I’m documenting my life in the desert. On this occasion though as I photographed the damage in the saguaro on the left, as the sun sank low a giant behind me threw its shadow all the way up the hill, allowing me to sidle down the trail and hide within it. That’s not just me throwing up my arms pretending to be a saguaro, though I can’t say the thought has never crossed my mind.
Looking south towards Phoenix near sunset on the Go John Trail.
The moon sets over Tosche Station, I was supposed to meet my friend Luke here to pick up some power converters but he had a couple of new droids to take care of. I forget what this building actually is, I think it’s a utility building of some sort, but it reminds me of Star Wars and thus makes me smile. It sits at one of the neighborhood entrances to the preserve, closest to my favorite saguaro, there’s no parking here but we live close enough that my wife can drop me off when she’s available. That saves me some time hiking over from Brown’s Ranch, while I love that section of the trail it lowers the probability of me getting seduced by woodpeckers.
I’ve been meaning to photograph it for a while, I almost did the other morning when the entire scene was bathed in red but I wanted to get out to the saguaro (which was bathed in pink when I arrived). I couldn’t resist a quick shot a few days later as the moon set, I only took the one as I wanted to see if I could include the moon in a scene with the saguaro and since the moon wasn’t standing still, neither could I.
Granite Mountain to the north in the soft light as New Year’s Eve dawned, even as clouds in the east and west began to catch fire. I have a fondness for the subtlety of this first shot of the day, the year ending meant my vacation soon would too, along with the daily hikes it afforded. These quiet moments never last long, the day always rushes in behind.
After taking the previous woodpecker picture I looked at the skies and thought I might be able to frame one of my favorite saguaros against the pink clouds of sunset. The problem was the saguaro was on the opposite side of the hill and to get to it I had to drop back down past the basketball courts and go up the other side of the trail. A part of me wanted to call it a night as the light was not likely to last that long but a part of me decided to try it, and that part won out and had me arriving just as the pink skies began to fade. I took a quick shot of the fading beauty, of the battered old giant with broken arms that sheltered so many birds during its long life, of the day fading into night.
On the way over I took a quick shot in a different direction of the orange clouds above the city and mountains of Scottsdale. I wanted to include more of the city, and could have if I climbed the hill, but I couldn’t do that and get to the saguaro, choices had to be made. And that’s just fine, the purpose of these sketches is to remind me in years to come of how fortunate we were that when the time came to leave the home we didn’t want to leave, we ended up in another land of wonders. And maybe to become actual sketches as I’d like to learn to draw (and maybe paint), but for now the camera will do.
With the light truly gone I made the short trip back to the parking lot where my hatchback awaited for the short drive home. It’s been everything I hoped for, a lovely little commuter car that is also easy to drive to the local trailheads and which has made the intense summers so much more tolerable (dare I say enjoyable? A part of me misses the summer).