I stood beside Balanced Rock at sunrise, in the distance Brown’s Mountain and Cone Mountain, two pyramids formed by nature rather than vainglorious kings. Perhaps because of the gently sloping boulder beneath my feet the height above the desert floor didn’t trigger my vertigo, even the peak of Brown’s Mountain is kind enough that I can climb it so long as I avoid some of the edges. Some trails here force me to turn around but that’s both nothing new and fine besides, as trails we have aplenty.
I met a fellow hiker with his dog who was enjoying being back on the trails after getting both knees replaced. He obviously loved her and said she was his first dog and knew now he’d never again be without one. A cyclist was there who moved from the Pacific Northwest at the start of our long dry summer, he and his wife bought bikes and were learning to ride on the many trails. I assured him it is always so lovely but not always so hot.
He noted I must have made a beeline to arrive by sunrise, I only do it sometimes as at heart I like to walk and wonder. On a hike weeks earlier I noted in my journal I “was really dawdling along for the first hour, Ellie would have been so proud!” As much as I love hiking, my favorite walks were bimbling around with her as we followed her nose through our old Portland neighborhood. These little ones grab hold of your heart and never let go, even after they’re gone. So too these lands, though we are the ones who must leave.
The sun was just tipping over the horizon this fall as I approached the summit of Brown’s Mountain with an expansive view of the mountains circling my desert home. But as the light spilled across the world at large around me it was the world writ small before me upon which I trained my gaze and my camera’s lens, for I shared that lovely sunrise with an ornate tree lizard scampering about the rock face. I love the scenery here but there is no doubt where my heart lies.
When we arrived in Arizona the desert was both exciting and bewildering, like I had been plunked down into a new earth that only hinted at the shapes and forms I had known all my life. Brown’s Ranch helped orient me in two ways, both on display in this view of the crested saguaro on the Vaquero Trail. First were the saguaros themselves, they tower above the desert floor and while initially most seemed similar there were some with features so memorable that just by seeing them I could orient myself without consulting the map. But towering even above the saguaros are the hills, such as Brown’s Mountain in the background, and the three I saw readily from the trail each had a distinctive shape that made them easy to distinguish from one another. The trails are well-marked (and maps readily available at the trailhead) so I wasn’t in danger of getting lost, rather it was a way for me to relax by developing an instinctive feel for where I was, and where I was going.
The forecast for New Year’s Eve called for clouds in the morning and rain in the afternoon. The night before I debated about where I wanted to go in case there was a colorful sunrise, trying to choose between one location at Brown’s Ranch and another at Marcus Landslide, waiting until morning to make my choice. I fell in love with Brown’s Ranch on my first visit after we moved here and have wanted to photograph this palo verde in front of Brown’s Mountain for some time, so that was where I decided to end the year.
I arrived in plenty of time to hike to the tree before sunrise and as I waited in the cold I saw the most amazing sunrise taking place behind me, high clouds in the eastern sky lit the most intense pink. I wasn’t in a place to photograph the sunrise itself so I drank in the moment and hoped for the best for the scene I had in mind. I have long enjoyed photographing morning arriving at my favorite locations and like to leave part of the scene still in shadow, for this picture I hoped to catch the mountains and palo verde in the early light with the surrounding desert scrub still in shadow.
Low clouds soon began blocking the rising sun as it started to illuminate different parts of the park, one minute there’d be dynamic light and the next none at all, my hopes rising and falling with the light. Dark clouds rolled in behind the mountain, not the clouds that would soon bring much needed rain to the desert but perhaps a portent of what was to come. Suddenly the light broke through, for a moment, and I had my picture before clouds blocked the sun once more, the dark clouds before me moved past, and I continued on my way. Up to the Vaquero Trail, to scope out another scene for another morning.
A lovely start to the end of the year. I was sick in the afternoon and decided not to risk going out this morning despite being up early, so the new year begins more quietly with my loved ones at home, before I head back to work tomorrow.
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.
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.