Little Tempters

A black-throated sparrow perches on a dead teddy bear cholla on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 29, 2020. Original: _RAC0301.arw

While waiting for sunset to photograph a particular saguaro I scouted some other trails and found a yucca I wanted to shoot, timing how long it would take to move between the two locations so I’d be ready when the light got low. In the meantime I headed up to the Jane Rau Trail to look for some antelope squirrels but got taken in by a phainopepla, then a mockingbird, then this black-throated sparrow. I gave up on the yucca entirely and had to pull myself away to arrive in time to photograph the saguaro, as I adore it but have never photographed it and didn’t want to risk something happening to it before I got the chance. Easier said than done when little tempters abound.

Lines & Circles

Rain drops collect at the ends of horizontal spines on a teddy bear cholla on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

Water drops collect on the horizontal spines of a teddy bear cholla. It’s rained off and on the past couple of weeks but sadly it’s been off on the days I have been too. On Christmas morning however I woke to the sound of raindrops on the rooftops so I grabbed my rain gear and a new lens and spent a lovely morning in the desert.

The House at the Top of the World

A bird's nest sits near the top of a teddy bear cholla atop the debris field along the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2018

I was a bit surprised to see birds building nests in cacti when we moved here as it didn’t seem to be the most comfortable place to raise your children but I can see how it might keep ground predators at bay. This nest in a teddy bear cholla looked out over the desert from atop the debris field along the Marcus Landslide Trail. The nest was no longer in use as I took this at sunrise on Christmas Eve, I’m glad I didn’t wait as over the winter the nest slowly disintegrated.

One Year Ago

Looking down into a teddy bear cholla along the Pinnacle Peak Trail in Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale, Arizona

I took this picture one year ago on my first foray into the Sonoran Desert. I had interviewed the morning before on my first to Arizona and they called a few hours later to let me know they were going to make an offer. I already knew I was likely to accept so I wanted to make sure I’d enjoy hiking in the Sonoran Desert, although I didn’t have much time before visiting some neighborhoods and then flying back to Portland. I headed up to Pinnacle Peak Park for an hour or so to get a taste of the desert.

The last note in my hiking journal is simply this: “Can’t wait to hike more here, will always miss the Northwest of course, but the desert will be amazing to explore.”

I accepted when the offer arrived early the next week, setting in motion a frantic month getting ready to move. A year later we are getting ready to move again, this time from our rental house to our new home. It’s been a busy month but nothing compared to last year, a cross-city move is so much simpler than a cross-country move, especially since then I was also starting a new job, we were finding a rental house, all while getting ready to sell the old house.

I’m excited and nervous and happy and tired and above all, grateful. I loved my 21 years in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve loved my year in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s to many more.

Choose Your Punishment

A close-up view of the spine of a teddy bear cholla along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

If you’re ever captured by a villain who’s going to punish you by tossing you into a thorny desert plant of your choosing, pick the crucifixion thorn (canotia). Despite the fearsome name, the thorns aren’t too sharp and are dense enough that they will likely break your fall more than break your bones. Do not choose the adorably-named teddy bear cholla, its spines are sharp, its spines are many, and the joints break easily so you will carry your pain with you after you escape its embrace.

It does however make a lovely subject in the early morning light.


A view of the desert landscape before Brown's Mountain as seen from the Watershed Trail with a wide varienty of plants including many of the typical cactus species

At first every view in Arizona was a bit unsettling because it was so unfamiliar. The chance to explore somewhere quite different than my beloved Northwest was one of the attractions of moving here and the undercurrent of unease dissipated with each passing day. It took longer on the trails as nearly everything in my view was new to me and I couldn’t even put names to most of what I saw. I hiked as often as I could and studied when I got home and the desert changed beneath my feet into my home.

One picture can’t encapsulate all that is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, nor even the Brown’s Ranch area that I haunt the most, but this is a mix of much of what I see. The tall cactus you probably recognize as a saguaro, that one I could identify even before I arrived. Embracing the saguaro in the center is a crucifixion thorn (there are several plants with this name, this is the canotia). Scattered around are teddy bear cholla, buckhorn cholla, compass barrel cactus, foothill palo verde, and Engelmann prickly pear. And a bunch of plants I can’t yet identify.

In the background with the long scar running down its flank is Brown’s Mountain with Cone Mountain behind and to the left. From where I was standing Cholla Mountain was to my right, Granite Mountain behind me. Each of these hills has a distinctive look which made it easier to orient myself on the many interconnected trails.