In late July I had a quiet moment with our not-so-quiet state bird, the cactus wren. The sun had mostly dipped below the mountains as it posed for a moment before flying off with two others. More robin-sized than wren-sized, they don’t seem to cock their tails like their smaller cousins, but their personalities remind me of the ever-entertaining marsh wrens I watched in the Northwest. On recent hikes they’ve kept me company calling out from either side of the trail while mostly staying out of sight.
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 …
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.
Some people were flabbergasted, knowing how much I loved the rain of the Pacific Northwest, that I was willing to give life in Arizona a try. I knew it would take an attitude adjustment on my part not just to deal with the heat but with the relentless sun. It’s not that I never went hiking on sunny days in Oregon but in those glorious forests the sun was more of an abstract than a reality, so it was mostly a concern up above treeline or out on the coast. The other morning I got up early as there was a specific tree near Balanced Rock I wanted to photograph in the shade and I knew Granite Mountain would block the rising sun for a little while, giving me time to try out different compositions. Though I made a beeline to the area even from a distance I could see Balanced Rock was already bathed in sunlight. I checked and double-checked and triple-checked my watch and was so confused I turned back to the rising sun to understand my mistake and could but laugh as I realized at this time of year the sun peeked through a dip in the southern end of the mountain, lighting this area earlier than on my other visits. The next weekend I returned for this shot when the sun first cleared the mountain, a little paean to how little I understand and how eager I am to learn.
Though I only saw it in silhouette I knew from shape and size which of our ground squirrels I was seeing as I came down the Saddlehorn Trail. This is a rock squirrel, the one I see least. The trail wound away from it so this was my only good view, I did like that I could put the tops of saguaros behind it for context as it looked out from atop the large granite boulder.
Two of the giant protectors of the Marcus Landslide Trail watch over me at sunrise, in the distance on the hill on the left the rock I call The Guardian, closer to me on the right an old if less ancient saguaro. I love this trail but haven’t been in a while, while I’d like to rectify that I’ve been too tired for any early hikes the past couple of weeks.
A xenolith provides a handy perch for a Gambel’s quail to survey the surrounding desert. This xenolith has tricked me many times as at a distance it looks like it could be a spiny lizard sunning on the boulder, and even though I know better I often can’t help from looking through the long lens, just to be sure. It’s not an entirely bad instinct, it’s how one day I went back for a second look and turned a cactus into a bobcat.