Beauty in the Shadows

A male desert spiny lizard close his eyes as he rests beneath massive boulders at Cathedral Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in July 2018

Cathedral Rock is awash in beauty, with massive boulders and sweeping views of the Sonoran desert, but its greatest beauty sleeps in its shadows, hidden in crevices below the monoliths. Despite its size, the desert spiny lizard is rather shy and often scurries out of sight long before I approach. Thankfully I was not only able to spend some time with this one and watch as he grew sleepy, but ease away and leave him to his slumber.

A Magical Day

A desert spiny lizard perches on a small rock beside Cathedral Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I don’t use all caps much in any of my writing, online or otherwise, but my journal for July 8th starts “MAGICAL DAY!!!!!”. The five bangs are unusual too.

It was going to be hot, that I knew. It was already in the mid-80’s before sunrise, the coolest part of the day, even at Brown’s Ranch where it is typically cooler than the city. I was still getting used to hiking in the desert so while I planned to be back before the heat got severe I chose trails I had hiked before and where I had cell phone coverage just to be safe. The chance for a lovely sunrise fizzled as the overnight clouds dissipated as I drove out in the dark. I didn’t see many animals in the early morning light and fumbled with my camera even when I tried for pictures. Some days are like that, I learned long ago not to fight it, I was just happy to know that as long as I got out early I could still hike on the hottest summer days.

I reached my turnaround point at Cathedral Rock and stopped for a water break, taking a group photo for some cyclists who were also out enjoying the summer morning. I saw a desert spiny lizard but couldn’t get a picture as it scampered behind a rock. I had started seeing them on the trails on occasion, despite their size they are rather skittish so I wasn’t expecting any pictures. I sat there for a while, enjoying my new desert home, when the spiny lizard came out again. I didn’t move, taking some pictures from where I sat, and the lovely little thing got more comfortable with me. It scampered over underneath the massive rocks that make up Cathedral Rock and as I slowly approached it let me take some more pictures.

Another group of cyclists came up and I thought the lizard would disappear but instead it came closer to me. At one point it ran right in front of me and snagged an insect off the rock wall a few feet to my left, I didn’t risk any pictures but turned my head enough to watch it eat its breakfast. It stayed near me for quite some time and I took so many pictures even I decided it was enough. I put my Canon camera in my backpack but thankfully still had the Sony out with the long lens attached as I turned around and my lizard had suddenly grown larger and more colorful. I quickly realized another lizard had come out (a male? an adult?) and took pictures of it as well, then walked around a bit, before I decided to head back as the heat was rising quickly. I attached my tripod to my backpack when I noticed the first spiny lizard was now perched on a rock right beside me. Having so completely earned its trust I couldn’t resist more pictures, I took this one sitting on the ground with the lens resting on my legs, relying on the flip-out screen to frame the image.

Then it really was time to go, having spent 2 hours and 15 minutes with the two lizards. It felt good to stretch my legs as I headed back to the trailhead, and though it was 101 degrees as I reached the car I didn’t mind. I had plenty of water, I had plenty of energy, and my heart was full of joy.

I Did Not Eat My Hat

A desert spiny lizard perches on a granite rock along the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I like to think I’m a man of my word but I suppose we all have our limits. Last weekend I hiked out to Balanced Rock for the second time and after taking some pictures noticed in the distance the head of a spiny lizard sticking out from a rock, much like this desert spiny lizard on the Rustler Trail. It was far off and in the shadows but seeing the shape and that the head was darker than the surrounding granite I thought “If that isn’t a spiny lizard I’ll eat my hat.”

I lifted the telephoto lens to my eye to be sure. It wasn’t a spiny lizard. I tell you, the granite can be cruel.

But I didn’t eat my hat.

This spiny lizard is the same as in the linked picture but from the other side of the rock and in different lighting. The granite was in a kinder mood.

Turning Rocks Into Lizards

A desert spiny lizard peeks out from behind a rock on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As I hike the pattern recognition part of my brain is constantly scanning for objects that might be wildlife even though they often turn out not to be. I spent a summer in Florida in the mid-90’s and was delighted by the many alligators there, it took years after we moved to Oregon for that part of my brain to stop trying to identify possible alligators when I hiked in marshland. In Yellowstone on a gravel road there was a large rock in the distance that in the periphery resembled a bear. I loved that road and drove it a number of times and as I approached that spot, I’d tell myself not to be fooled even for an instant by what I came to call Bear Rock. But every time the pattern recognition would kick in for a fraction of a second and say “Hey is that a …” before the rest of my brain would reply “I just told you it wasn’t going to be a bear!”

Here in the Sonoran Desert I am fooled by cholla skeletons that look like rattlesnakes, twigs like small lizards, granite protuberances like large lizards. I try to use my mental powers to turn rocks into lizards but usually I fail, rock stays rock. But sometimes I succeed and the rock comes to life, such as this beautiful desert spiny lizard on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve. One success is worth a thousand misses.