The Other Side of the Guardian

A rock formation sits before orange clouds at sunrise along the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I didn’t want to get up this morning but with high clouds forecast I thought it might make for an interesting sunrise. I headed to the Marcus Landslide Trail to photograph the rock formation I call The Guardian but as I started down the trail I realized the best light was going to be in the opposite direction than I had planned. I stopped and switched lenses and took this shot before continuing down the trail. It was only the start of what turned out to be a wonderful morning.


A xenolith embedded in a granite mushroom along the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Walking in the desert humbles you. To see life survive and even thrive in such a seemingly inhospitable place is inspiring. Then there are the xenoliths (from the Greek for strange or foreign rock), pieces of ancient rock that survived as magma flowed and solidified around them. This xenolith is in a granite mushroom along the Marcus Landslide Trail, bathed in the reddish light of sunrise. It saddens me to think of what climate change will do to the desert but for now it is a land of wonders, of survivors.

The Green Land

A western gull (I think) perches on a large boulder in front of a moss-covered cliff on the beach at Heceta Head on the Oregon coast

A western gull (I think) perches on a large boulder in front of a moss-covered cliff on the beach at Heceta Head on the Oregon coast. A stream was flowing between us, emptying into the Pacific just to my right. The rich greens of western Oregon were something to behold, I miss seeing moss growing on the rocks, on the trees, in the grass. I don’t miss seeing it growing on the roof, on the steps, on the car …

Snow-capped Peaks

A close-up view of a large quartz rock along the Windgate Pass Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As I hiked along the Windgate Pass Trail I was surprised to see snow-capped peaks here in the Sonoran Desert, especially to see them at my feet. Looking at this large quartz rock reminded me of the glaciers and snowy mountains of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. At least I think it’s quartz, learning the rocks of my new home is on my list, but it’s a long list.

Keep It Down, We’re Trying to Sleep!

Keep It Down We re Trying to Sleep

Harbor seals eke out as much rest as they can amidst the crashing waves as the Pacific rises to embrace them. I too was awakened recently by gentle but relentless sounds, once by the sound of Boo trying to get out of the bedroom closet he got trapped in, once by the sound of him trying to get into a different closet. The Pacific is mighty and mysterious, but not so much as Boo.

Under Tom’s Thumb

An environmental portrait of a rock squirrel between two massive granite rocks at Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I met this rock squirrel back in April a few weeks after we moved here. One of the reasons I love a telephoto zoom like the 100-400mm lens so much (this is the Canon, I only got the Sony recently) is that you can zoom in and take a traditional portrait of a small animal far away, like the shot below, but you can zoom out and take an environmental portrait as well like the picture above (when the scenery allows it). In this case I vastly prefer the environmental portrait as you get a feel for the massive rock this squirrel is perching under. Given more time I would have preferred an ever wider perspective with a different lens to show that it was perched high off the ground between much more massive granite boulders above and below than you can see here, but the squirrel only paused for a moment as it ran up the rocks at the approach of a dog on the trail.

I was struck by how at ease this rock squirrel was in the rocks as it moved about the narrow passages and great heights as easily and gracefully as a tree squirrel in the trees. I was delighted to find both rock squirrels and Harris’s antelope squirrels in the desert as I had mistakenly surmised I was leaving squirrels behind when we left Oregon. I fell in love with chipmunks and squirrels at an early age, we had a forest behind our house as a child in Michigan, I can’t remember ever not loving them. They’re a rarer treat now than then, but a treasured treat always.

A rock squirrel between two massive granite rocks at Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The Guide’s Pack

A tall saguaro leans over and appears to be asking for a hug from another saguaro, as my Tom Bihn Guide's Pack sits underneath

I bought my backpack, the Tom Bihn Guide’s Pack, four years ago and put it to use right away on a trip to Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park in Washington. We spent our first years together hiking around the Pacific Northwest, not only Rainier and the Olympics but the Columbia River Gorge, the redwoods in California, the Oregon coast, and of course at Ridgefield. Designed and manufactured in nearby Seattle, it was right at home in its home.

Then we moved to the desert.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack at Sunrise Peak in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

My first thought after moving here, unsure how I would handle hiking in the hotter weather, was to take a lighter pack on some short hikes, so for the first couple of hikes I took an old REI daypack I’ve had for over twenty years. I quickly switched to the Guide’s Pack as I realized it was better suited to carry the water I’d need on longer hikes courtesy of its internal frame and hip belt.

Since some of the trails are narrow my first thought was to take off the two removable pockets on the sides and store them in the bag. One of the pockets has an organizer for little things but the other is open, and it turns out it is perfectly sized to carry two 27oz Klean Kanteen water bottles. I carry one 27oz bottle attached to my camera bag, two in the side pocket, and a spare in the bottom of the backpack. But I quickly realized my mistake once I started putting my telephoto lens and camera into the bag when the light started getting harsh, as to get to the water bottles I had to pull out the camera and lens. You have to constantly drink water while hiking here, so easy access to water is critical. I put the pockets back on the sides where they have stayed ever since, and after looking in the mirror I realized they weren’t sticking out as I had imagined anyway.

A dusty Tom Bihn Guide's pack at Brown's Ranch in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The bag is getting more and more dusty and that’s a good thing because it means I’ve been hiking more and more. I’ve been out almost 20 times in the two months we’ve been here and can’t wait for the next hike. One of the things I’ve loved about this pack is its looks, the navy parapack material is both durable and gorgeous and is well-matched against the coyote brown bottom and straps. It’s a rucksack design, the top compartment is where I keep my snacks, you can open the zipper and get inside without opening up the pack. Pull back the top and there’s a cavernous compartment inside where I store my hiking poles, my fourth water bottle, a first aid kit, and extra clothing (if needed), and various other things. There are some o-rings inside for attaching stuff sacks, adding some nice organizational capability to the large space.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack next to one of the many rock formations in Brown's Ranch in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

My last adaptation in the desert was to start putting the big lens and camera away when the sunlight starts to get harsh, swapping the lens for trekking poles which make hiking in the desert more enjoyable. How I wish I had four arms so I could carry my tripod and trekking poles too! The tripod I cinch under the bag with some lash straps, that has worked a treat. This is the configuration in the picture below, with the backpack and attached tripod holding up Balanced Rock.

There are lots of nice touches in the bag, such as the loop handle that makes it easier to load the bag into the car or move it about the house. There’s a nice mesh on the back – your back does get sweaty in the desert, for summer hiking I might look for a back with a gap between your back and the backpack. Or maybe a lightweight pack if it proves too hot in the summer for any hike over an hour or two.

I absolutely adore the Guide’s Pack. I love that its beautiful, I love that its well-made and made well, and I love that it’s a great backpack too. It broke my heart to leave the Northwest but getting to know the Sonoran Desert has been an absolute joy. My thanks to the folks at Tom Bihn for making the backpack that let me explore my home in the Northwest, and my new home in the Southwest.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack sits underneath Balanced Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve