My Stomping Grounds

An environmental portrait of a cactus wren singing from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca with mountains in the background in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

As the first light of day spills across the desert, a cactus wren sings from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca as it makes the rounds of the high places. In between this patch of McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the mountains on the horizon are a host of subdivisions, including ours, I see the mountains on the left from the back porch. There are 5 (!) preserve trailheads near us and this is where I do most of my hiking, either in the massive northern area like this or down by the mountains. The preserve continues quite a ways to the south, those trails are great fun too (our second favorite house was at the southern end) but the northern part is my favorite.

Singing Soaptree Stalks

A curve-billed thrasher sings from a soaptree yucca flower stalk on a sunny winter morning on the Brown's Ranch Road trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in January 2020

When I think of flower stalks I think of the delicate stems of the wildflowers I’d see on hikes through most of my life, like daisies or columbine or fairly slippers. The soaptree yucca, on the other hand, has a towering stalk that’s thick at the base like a tree limb before tapering into thin branches at the top. Even so it is a testament to how impossibly light birds are that this bedraggled thrasher only slightly depressed its perch as it sang on a sunny winter morning.

Morning Greetings

In the blue light before the sun was up, a northern mockingbird perches on the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca at the Brown's Ranch Trailhead in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

With a headache not yet relenting I was delighted to be greeted as soon as I stepped off the parking lot by the songs of a mockingbird, perched on the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca. Technically the sun had risen but it would be a little while before it cleared the mountains and bathed us in its warm light. For now the mocker and I enjoyed the cool and the blue of the waking desert. I tore myself away in time to reach my target for the morning, a ladder-backed woodpecker, just as the sun arrived.

A black-and-white version of a northern mockingbird perching on the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca at the Brown's Ranch Trailhead in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

Could You Point Me Towards the Latigo Trail?

A soaptree yucca, its flower stalk laden with fruit and leaning over, points towards a saguaro down the connector trail from the Brown's Ranch Trailhead to the Latigo Trail, taken at dawn in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

Ah, thanks, much obliged!

(Taken before sunrise near the Brown’s Ranch Trailhead where I start many of my hikes, to give you a flavor of how I start my mornings on the trails, the desert feels magical to me in these moments. The helpful plant is a soaptree yucca with its flower stalk, now laden with fruit, leaning over. The trail winds through the saguaros beyond and is a great place for birdwatching, further down is where I’ve photographed mule deer, javelina, white-winged doves, one of the Harris’s hawk families, one set of Gila woodpecker parents, and lots of other wildlife.)

Yucca

The dried flowers of a soaptree yucca set against a pink and purple sky at sunrise on the Hackamore Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I don’t love getting up before sunrise but I love being up before sunrise. If only there was a way to enjoy the desert dawn without getting out of bed. I was hiking along the Hackamore Trail with the sun not yet risen and liked the serenity of the dried flowers on the long flower stalk of a soaptree yucca set against the pink and purple western sky. What a blessing it is to be in the desert as the day breaks, may it always bring me joy.