Many years ago in Oregon I was reading about someone who visited one of the American deserts and so fell in love they moved there and never left, and I thought “How do you fall in love with sand?” I wonder how much of my photography in the desert is a love letter to that past self, gently poking fun at his complete and utter ignorance of the desert but also deeply thankful that when it became apparent he was going to have to leave the place he never wanted to leave, he kept an open mind and found not just a new home but a new love.
This trail is in not just my favorite part of the preserve but one of my favorite places anywhere. In December 2021 I was taking environmental portraits of phainopepla and as sometimes happens, took my favorite late in the day while hiking out. I saw the male atop a crucifixion thorn in front of the Four Peaks, the late light starting to cloak them in their purple mountains majesty, near an old saguaro replete with woodpecker holes, and couldn’t resist a quick shot before continuing towards my exit.
On Friday I wasn’t able to get my work done as far away computers weren’t working, by late afternoon I gave up and took Bear for a walk in the desert instead. Earlier on a snack break I heard howling in the distance so when he started sniffing the trail so hard I thought a pizza or a pot roast must be walking up ahead of us, I had a clue as to the real source of his interest. He was so focused on their scent I saw them before he did, I pointed his head directly at the most easily visible coyote but he didn’t pick it up until it moved slightly. Then he was transfixed watching the three of them saunter across the desert, cross the trail, and head down a game trail.
He didn’t want to move for a while, I like to believe he was reflecting on the wonder of it all but I suspect he was just hoping they’d be back. When he was finally ready to resume our walk I took him back down to where they had crossed the trail, if I hadn’t had a good hold on his leash the coyote pack might have gained a new member.
I was thankful they each judged each other not to be a threat, he far outweighs them but he stayed quiet and relaxed and once they sized him up they went about business as normal. We resumed our now familiar loop and towards the end with sunset approaching on this cloudy and comfortable day, I stopped him for this picture. Which I realized later is almost identical to one I posted in December when we first discovered this trail.
I dubbed this mushroom The Artists’ Studio when I realized a prolific pair of artists was painting the rock face. Bear and I had seen both owls on our walk earlier in the afternoon but I came back out with my biggest telephoto hoping for a close-up near sunset and only saw the one. I got those pictures but my favorites were the environmental portraits I took with the Nikon Z 24-200mm lens, perhaps not surprising since I’ve been craving these types of images for a while now.
This first image is my favorite of the two, the second was taken a few minutes later and further up the trail so I could include the mountains in the background. The lighting is more direct here and the light getting much softer, often a look I prefer, but in this case while I like both I prefer the shadows from the side-lighting of the first picture.
Since he’s been doing so well in the less crowded part of the preserve near our house, I’ve been taking Bear onto some more popular trails while still avoiding the congested areas where I know a number of other dogs might be present. On this occasion we started off near my favorite saguaro, The Green Elephant, on the Latigo Trail then went up to the Vaquero Trail to visit Witch Hazel, then continued up to where I took this picture at The Amphitheater (its actual name and unlike the others not just a name I made up to help me navigate to my favorite places in the park). At this point I knew he was ready for a water and snack break so I got out his water bowl and a bag of baby carrots. It makes me laugh as he eagerly gobbles them down as I can hear Ellie shouting down from heaven, “No Bear! Carrots are vegetables! Make him give you real treats!”
On the last day of the year I was walking Bear in the desert when I noticed some extra color amongst the lichens. “A flicker feather!” I exclaimed to a disinterested pup, and since I had my superzoom got out the camera for a quick snap of one of their lovely primary wing feathers (see the US Fish & Wildlife Service Feather Atlas for more examples). I hesitated because something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was a beat, and a beat, and a beat, then I realized it was from a red-shafted flicker!
Before we moved here this variety of northern flicker was a backyard bird for us, and when I read that Arizona had both this flicker and a gilded flicker that nested in saguaros, I hoped I’d get to see one of the gildeds, however unlikely it was. Once we arrived I realized it was not unlikely at all as I had it the wrong-way round, the golden birds are the ones I see frequently. I once thought I saw a red-shafted flicker flying across the desert but I later so second-guessed myself that I struck it from my list. There aren’t any saguaros in the section of the park where I found this feather, perhaps I’ve been hiking around too many saguaros to see my once familiar friends.
But how can you not?
While watching woodpeckers I noticed the saguaro beside the trail had exposed damage resembling Medusa’s head, covered in swirling snakes. That saguaros have a thin gorgon layer between their green skin and the spongy material beneath would explain why I sometimes stand transfixed before them, unable to avert my gaze.
While walking Bear I noticed a large mural painted across a boulder in the desert and wondered who the artist was. While I don’t usually bring the telephoto zoom on dog walks, I had it on this occasion and there’s a nice spot on the trail here to stop for a snack break. As Bear lapped up his water I trained the lens on the rocks and was shocked to see the artist-in-residence was in residence! Bear isn’t much of a birder, especially not when they’re this far off, he’s more fond of mammals. There are lots of jackrabbits here, when he sees one his eyes light up as if to say “Giant rabbit!”, which isn’t quite true but I’m not going to split hares with the pup.
My week off from work brought heavy clouds and gentle rains, reminding me of lost worlds. Looking out to the obscured mountain peaks, of ancient times when land emerged from the sea. Walking Bear in the mist and rain, of walking Ellie in the damp Portland winters, toweling her off when we got home. The rain caught Bear and I but once on our long walks, I stayed dry since I still have all my rain gear, and Bear, like Ellie before him, was as happy in the wet as the dry.
The desert is dressed in muted greens and browns with an occasional splash of red from a cardinal, a woodpecker, a fire truck …
Sunrise at the Basalt Ridge Overlook in the summer of 2021.