At first every view in Arizona was a bit unsettling because it was so unfamiliar. The chance to explore somewhere quite different than my beloved Northwest was one of the attractions of moving here and the undercurrent of unease dissipated with each passing day. It took longer on the trails as nearly everything in my view was new to me and I couldn’t even put names to most of what I saw. I hiked as often as I could and studied when I got home and the desert changed beneath my feet into my home.
One picture can’t encapsulate all that is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, nor even the Brown’s Ranch area that I haunt the most, but this is a mix of much of what I see. The tall cactus you probably recognize as a saguaro, that one I could identify even before I arrived. Embracing the saguaro in the center is a crucifixion thorn (there are several plants with this name, this is the canotia). Scattered around are teddy bear cholla, buckhorn cholla, compass barrel cactus, foothill palo verde, and Engelmann prickly pear. And a bunch of plants I can’t yet identify.
In the background with the long scar running down its flank is Brown’s Mountain with Cone Mountain behind and to the left. From where I was standing Cholla Mountain was to my right, Granite Mountain behind me. Each of these hills has a distinctive look which made it easier to orient myself on the many interconnected trails.
Most of the branches have broken off this long-dead tree but still it reaches for the sky. In life it wouldn’t have approached the heights of the massive saguaros that dominate the landscape but it would have provided welcome shade for young plants trying to gain a foothold in the desert. In death it can provide some shade and shelter, every little bit helps as while the hills and vegetation behind me are providing some protection from the sun at this early hour, as the sun rises there will be little escaping its glare. Yet life flourishes in this desert, it is not the emptiness of sand and rock I imagined in my youth.
Fractures split a large granite boulder along the Pinnacle Peak Trail. The message could be that you don’t have to be perfect to be strong. To stand true and resist. Or it could be that those from whom you draw strength are wounded in their own way from the stress of the world and need support as well. Or maybe that nothing lasts forever, whether these rocks will outlast me depends on how many millions of years I live, but we are here now, together, and I am thankful for it.
My first impression after hiking with saguaros was of redwoods. Of massive lifeforms with an outsized impact on their environment. Of warriors, long-lived giants, their struggles written on their skin. Yet for all of that a surprisingly shallow root system. Saguaros have a central tap root that grows down but the rest of their roots radiate outward a handful of inches below the surface, soaking up every bit of rainwater they can. Sometimes erosion exposes these shallow roots, as on this old saguaro at sunrise on the Vaquero Trail, Brown’s Mountain rising in the background.