A couple of lifetimes ago, almost 16 years to the day, the sun begins to rise above the Atlantic in South Carolina. If memory serves this was the last time I saw the sun rise over the ocean, a short while later I realized how easily alligators were seen in the freshwater marsh so while I returned to the park a few other times before sunrise, naturally I never made it past the marsh. I visited the ocean in the Pacific Northwest during our many years there but something would have gone very wrong for me to see the sun rise above it.
We may be landlocked here in Arizona but we did get some water the past week, starting with a thunderstorm one night after work. I sat on the back porch listening to the rain pounding down in the dark, breathing in the unique smell of the desert in the rain. Another day a short shower barely wet the ground but yesterday the skies darkened during an afternoon swim so I got out in plenty of time before a thunderstorm blew through, thankfully courtesy of the weekend this one I was home during the day to watch. Trixie was not amused but I stayed out until it grew dark, the odds are against me being able to see the rain so I try to soak it in when I can.
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.
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.
At the start of 2011, after taking the previous picture at Horse Lake I moved to adjacent Long Lake, the pink skies fading in intensity despite the trivially short drive. Though side-by-side the differing natures of the lakes meant some wildlife preferred one to the other. Dead snags stood upright across the narrow width of the lake with many of their fallen brethren floating nearby. It was my favorite spot for close looks of teal and grebes and mergansers, with egrets and herons and bitterns hunting the shallows. In the warmer months turtles sunned on the logs, one of the few reptiles in the area. Mammals also made an appearance though not as often: otters fishing, raccoons and coyotes prowling the edges, deer up on the banks. Nutria too but then they were everywhere.
The tallest snag was near the road out-of-frame to the right, one day to my astonishment an adult bald eagle perched there almost right above me. Swallows would stop to rest as they hunted the skies above the lake, while below blackbirds and sparrows searched the marshy shores for insects to feed their young. The tall snag on the left was a favorite spot for kingfishers, as well as taller ones on the right, it was my favorite place to watch them as they dove down from the heights and plunged into the water after small fish.
But time took its toll on the former trees and one by one they began to fall, until on a visit four years later I sadly noted in my journal they were all gone. On a later visit it seemed more of a marshy meadow than a lake though perhaps in the rainy season it would fill up again. I wondered what animals would now call it home but it was not for me to know, change wasn’t just coming to the lake.
One of my favorite places at Ridgefield was Horse Lake, an innocuous seasonal pond at the start of the auto tour. To the left and right of this image grew clumps of tall grasses where bitterns and herons and egrets hunted. Dabblers like teal and pintails and wigeon congregated further left and right. In this open spot if there wasn’t much road traffic, and if you were patient enough, shy divers like scaup and bufflehead swam up to feed. The not-so-shy coots were always around, and often too the skies filled with cackling geese who wintered at the refuge in large numbers.
And once, and only once during my many visits, sunrise lit the skies a vibrant pink that reflected off the frozen pond. My favorite time to visit was on rainy days where you had to take it on faith the sun had risen, towels strewn round the Subaru as I listened to the pitter-patter of raindrops and the chitter-chatter of ducks. Because it was the start of the auto tour, there could be too much traffic for my liking on sunny days, and during the winter about every other day brought duck hunters and volleys of shotgun blasts. But in memory it can always be as peaceful as it was on this day and many others besides, as morning came to my little Horse.
The car goes in for its first scheduled maintenance tomorrow, in Portland courtesy of the light rail it would have taken me two years to drive 5000 miles rather than six months, and only then if I took a road trip. I tend to keep my cars for a while so I haven’t bought many over the years, and strangely enough I don’t photograph them very often. Usually at trailheads like this one, taken before sunrise with smoke from a distant fire rising over the mountains, a faithful companion waiting for me to return while I hike into the places I love. I was rather nervous buying it as it had big shoes to fill but I rather love the little thing. It’s a much more relaxing cabin on the commute, is fun to drive slow and yet gets great mileage, and during the brutal summer temperatures thanks to the ventilated seats I no longer arrive at my destination with freezing hands and a back drenched in sweat. Still in the honeymoon phase but so far it’s been a joy.
The rising sun illuminates a battered old saguaro, some of its arms shattered in half and some broken off altogether. But it still has a host of hallelujah arms raised towards heaven, all now fruiting and not just hopefully starting new life from its seeds but sustaining the lives of others with its fruit, a prized treat for many birds. In the picture below, taken just before the sun rose, a curve-billed thrasher feeds atop one of the taller arms.
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.
I see her often, the Green Elephant, usually just a quick hello as we pass on the trails. Sometimes though I head out just to see her, as I had the week before, when I promised I’d try to be back the next week. Though getting up was hard the reward was worth the effort as she greeted me with so many bouquets of flowers she could scarce hold them all betwixt arms and trunk and ears and tail. “Welcome, welcome, stay and wonder,” she whispered for in the east the sun began to rise.
Taken the day before the previous picture of a juvenile Harris’s hawk, this adult perched atop an old saguaro is part of the family group raising up the youngsters. Like most of the saguaros in the area, the tips of the arms were covered in flower buds with some starting to bloom. I was playing around with near-silhouettes of the family in the moments before the sun rose, it always took a few tries as I don’t have a remote shutter for this camera so I relied on the self-timer given the really slow shutter speed, but since the birds were turning their heads to watch the desert below I never knew which direction they’d be looking when the shutter tripped.