I Hiked Alone, Surrounded by Friends

A black-throated sparrow perches atop a buckhorn cholla on the new interpretative trail at Fraesfield at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 24, 2021. Original: _RAC3574.arw

I came across this black-throated sparrow in a mixed flock of sparrows on the new hard-packed interpretative trail at Fraesfield on a rainy winter afternoon. It’s a nice trail if you have mobility issues or need to push a stroller or wheelchair or the like, and is also nice on rainy days when they’d prefer you stay off the regular trails. Even after a few years in the desert I can’t get over how naturally birds land on a cactus with spikes half the size of their bodies, they are more at ease in their dangerous world than I will ever be in mine.

A black-throated sparrow perches in a buckhorn cholla on the new interpretative trail at Fraesfield at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 24, 2021. Original: _RAC3614.arw

Red Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

A female phainopepla perches on a curved branch on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 28, 2020. Original: _RAC9951.arw

This is what a female phainopepla looks like on our more typical sunny desert days. I heard her cheerful cheeps from the backside of a tree as the trail wound its way up a small hill but I was headed to a particular spot and wasn’t going to try for a photograph. But as she flitted about she hopped onto this ready-made perch right as I approached so I couldn’t resist a quick picture of one of my favorite birds.

I Feel You, Sister

A phainopepla rubs her damp head feathers on a branch on the interpretative trail in the Fraesfield area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 24, 2021. Original: _RAC3738.arw

On-again, off-again rain showers left this phainopepla feeling a little bedraggled as she preened her damp feathers to get them back into their normal glorious shape, here gently rubbing her crest on the branch. She was her normal chipper self even if the wet weather seemed to have thrown her a little off her game. I wonder how she felt the next day when it snowed.

More Than Skin Deep

A close-up view of the damage to one of the arms of a saguaro I call the Green Elephant on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 17, 2020. Originals: _RAC6567.arw to _RAC6570.arw

My favorite view of the Elephant is looking west but the best view of the recent damage to her arms is with a telephoto looking east. Everything about her is beautiful, even her scars, they remind me of grizzly carvings in the trees of Yellowstone. I’m not worried she’s going to die, I make all my favorite saguaros sign legally-binding contracts stating they’ll outlive me. I wouldn’t ordinarily, you can find yourself in a real monkey’s paw situation since there’s an obvious way for them to guarantee it, but a saguaro is one of those rare creatures you can trust unconditionally. If a day comes when she can’t keep her promise, if a day comes when she breaks my heart, I’ll be thankful for the times our paths crossed and how far I carried her in my heart when we parted.

Tosche Station

The moon sets over a building near the 114th Street entrance to McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 30, 2020. Original: _CAM8649.arw

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.

A Quiet Beginning

Granite Mountain framed by saguaros in the soft light before sunrise on the interpretative trail at Fraesfield in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 31, 2020. Original: _CAM8703.arw

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.

A True Ninja Can Hide Even in an Orange Jacket

A self-portrait wearing a bright orange jacket while sitting in front of a copse of ocotillos on an off-map trail in the Pima Dynamite section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 26, 2020. Original: _CAM8203.arw

A couple of days ago I visited my favorite copse of ocotillos at sunrise, when I realized they were going to be partly in shadow for a while I started goofing around with self-portraits. The jacket is a holdover from my time in Portland where I was frequently a pedestrian, I have a small army of jackets and hoodies in bright orange to make me more visible. On this morning it was a little cool and windy so I put up the hood of my wool hoody to take the chill off. I have a wool cap on underneath, I’ve never liked the cold but after a couple of years in the desert I’ve lost any tolerance of it. The mask didn’t go unappreciated not just for a little warmth, and not just because I didn’t need to smile for the camera, but because it hid the tears streaming down my cheeks from being up so early.

I can’t tell the story of the Sonoran Desert, only my time in it. I’d love to revisit this shot when the ocotillos leaf out or bloom but this is their normal state, bare arms soaring into blue skies, and I hope in some sense it shows how beautiful the desert is even when it’s not trying to be spectacular.

A self-portrait wearing a bright orange jacket while standing in front of a copse of ocotillos on an off-map trail in the Pima Dynamite section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 26, 2020. Original: _CAM8233.arw

For this shot I put myself at the edge of the large flat boulder, the plants are growing between this one and the next, so I could be as close as possible to the same plane as the two ocotillos in front to give some context as to their size. All of which is to say no optical tricks, they get pretty big.

The Pink Green Elephant

A saguaro I call the Elephant is bathed in the diffuse light before sunrise with pink skies behind on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 24, 2020. Original: _CAM8025.arw

Clouds were predicted the morning of Christmas Eve so I dithered when my alarm rang out as I wanted to sleep in if the sun was going to be snuffed out, but I also didn’t want to miss out on colorful skies if it wasn’t. My vacillation wasn’t helped by a certain orange tabby who repeatedly woke me in the wee hours as he had a grand old time snuggling up under my chin, I love when he does it as it’s where Scout slept every night, but his timing could have been better. Fortunately I dragged myself out of bed, even if a few minutes later than intended, as when my wife dropped me off at the preserve the most glorious color was already spreading across the eastern sky.

I hurried down the trail towards my favorite saguaro, the Green Elephant, kicking myself for being a little behind but still careful with my footing as faceplanting into the unforgiving desert floor was not on my list of Christmas wishes. In the cool morning air I regretted not putting on my gloves in the car but I didn’t want to stop now. I took a few shots of the eastern sky on the way but the shot I most hoped for was of the Elephant looking west, so I was tickled to arrive and find the entire desert bathed in pink light with pink skies behind. The light was beginning to fade even as I started taking pictures so I was thankful I got off a shot from my favorite view of her, with a more traditional saguaro visible in the gap behind her, before the light faded to it’s normal pre-sunrise blue.

The pink skies behind her remained a little while longer and I expect I’ll like those subtler shots too. The sun rose fifteen minutes later and cleared the mountains soon thereafter but the clouds held sway and the remainder of the hike stayed cool and windy. Even in the dim light the desert was lovely as always, with phainopepla cheering my steps along the path.

This shot makes me a little sad, I noticed in the fall she has extensive damage along the arm on the lower left and also on another not visible from this angle. She looked fine when I saw her in full bloom at the end of May, but perhaps so did I, it hasn’t been the easiest year. We’re still standing though and every sunrise I spend with her is a treat, no matter the light.

How Do You Hug a Cactus?

Buckhorn cholla grows next to prickly pear on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 26, 2020. Original: _RAC8826.arw

In my mind’s eye I saw the picture I wanted to take, the cholla next to the prickly pear, almost hugging. The cacti were a ways off the trail and even with my longest telephoto I knew I’d have to crop the image a bit, which was fine, I grabbed a quick shot before heading off as I had a little hike yet to reach the exit by closing. It’s not quite the shot I wanted, a better angle was a few steps down, literally down, as the trail descended a small hill. At that spot though too many plants obscured the view, I would have needed to be 50 feet tall to get the camera high enough. It’s a frequent issue but at this stage I doubt I’ll develop Late Onset Extraordinary Gigantism. I haven’t given up hope, I bet Godzilla wasn’t expecting it either.