Nature’s Test

A molting greater earless lizard basks in the sun along the Tom's Thumb Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in April 2018

I had only been in Arizona for three weeks when I met this molting greater earless lizard on the Tom’s Thumb Trail. As I was photographing it a young woman pointed out the lizard to the man hiking with her but he shrugged his shoulders and kept going. Probably that’s nature’s way of telling her that he isn’t worth her time but I suppose there is a remote possibility that you could both be a wonderful person and not fascinated by lizards.

Tom and Nik and I

My Tom Bihn Nik's Minimalist Wallet sits on top of my dusty Tom Bihn Guide's Pack

I had been looking to get a smaller wallet so when I saw the colorful designs of the new Tom Bihn wallets, Nik’s Minimalist Wallet, I ordered one in the color of Island in 210 ballistic. I chose design number 4 with the outside pocket and the little webbing loop at the top. I love it, it carries my essentials and is much less obtrusive in my back pocket than the old leather wallet I’ve had for many years. I usually carry it in my back pocket but sometimes I like to clip it into a bag using the loop. During the week I keep a credit card and my cafeteria rewards card in the outside pocket for easy access during lunch at work, and on days I have to stop for gas I’ll put the gas rewards card in that pocket too.

A photo of some of my Tom Bihn gear on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

During a water break on a recent hike I photographed the wallet along with a couple of new buckle straps for securing my tripod to the bottom of my backpack (the Tom Bihn Guide’s Pack). I have been using some simpler lash straps without the buckle and thought I’d try the buckle straps to see if it makes it a little quicker to attach and detach the tripod. I’ll let my summer self decide, it’s his heat-addled brain at the end of a hike that I’m thinking of, so far my winter self has been happy with both designs.

A closer photo of some of my Tom Bihn gear on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

This spot is on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve, I discovered the trail last month and immediately fell in love and have hiked it a number of times since. The sign marks the boundary to an adjacent county park and has been a good spot for bird-watching, I’ve gotten close photos of phainopepla, white-crowned sparrows, mockingbirds, and curve-billed thrashers in the past few weeks. When I decide to head back to the car, the camera goes into my camera bag and I swap the tripod for my trekking poles that otherwise are folded up inside the main bag compartment.

The Tom Bihn Nik's Minimalist Wallet compared to a saguaro

The specs of the little wallet are available on the Tom Bihn website but sometimes I feel photos give a better sense of size than numbers. Here, taken in the area of the landslide itself, you can see the wallet is about as tall as a saguaro cactus. I’d guess this specimen was about 30 feet tall but I’m not good at estimating distances, so take that with a grain of salt.

The Tom Bihn Nik's Minimalist Wallet compared to a massive rock formation know as Tom's Thumb

As another example, you can see the wallet is about the same size as Tom’s Thumb, a massive rock formation on the nearby Tom’s Thumb Trail. And yet somehow the wallet still fits in my pocket with minimal thickness and weight. Not sure how that works, but I love the wallet and highly recommend it.

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

Chasing Waterfalls

Bird waste flows down the rock face of Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I loved the many waterfalls of the Northwest and knew I was leaving them behind when we moved from Oregon to Arizona, but as I stood under Tom’s Thumb I realized I had found a waterfall of sorts. I didn’t need a slow shutter speed to turn the waterfall into a flow of white. I’m not sure what kind of birds are making their home up there but further around the rock formation prairie falcons were nesting, as the rock climbing route was closed while the falcons were nesting. You can see one of the routes on the right side of the picture, it’s the thin grey line ascending the rock face.

A view of Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona


A large granite rock formation resembles an egg near the Tom's Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Before we moved I researched the risk of natural disasters for each city we were considering. In California it was earthquakes and wildfires. In Arizona it was heat and drought. It was only after we moved I learned of the disaster no one dared mention, the dinosaur eggs the size of buildings waiting to hatch outside the city.

I wish someone had told me, I would have moved here a lot sooner.


A strawberry hedgehog cactus with only a couple of blooms remaining along the Tom's Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

When we adopted our dog Ellie years ago, as we tried different dog toys we quickly discovered her clear favorites were stuffed hedgehogs that squeaked when you squeezed them. She so adored them that over the years we acquired a small army of adult and baby hedgehogs that were loved within an inch or their life. Some were loved too much and had to be thrown out, as once they developed a hole she would gleefully rip their stuffing out. In her elderly years she doesn’t have the agility to chase them anymore so they have fallen out of favor.

Most of the bedraggled lot didn’t make the trip to Arizona but I will always have a soft spot for anything hedgehog.

I was delighted in February when I made a brief stop to Pinnacle Peak Park on my interview trip and saw that there is a cactus named strawberry hedgehog. It’s the first cactus to bloom in the spring so when I saw the hedgehogs in late April on the Tom’s Thumb Trail most of their flowers were already spent, this one still had a couple of its lovely flowers in the interior. I have a pair of North Face Hedgehog waterproof hiking shoes so in the cooler months I’ll have hedgehogs on my feet and before them.

Looking up the hill at this scene with the blue sky behind it felt fake to me, more like a diorama in a museum than part of the vast desert landscape, so I couldn’t resist a picture of this delightful little cactus.

Rock Squirrel

A rock squirrel looks out from a crevice in the massive rock formation known as Tom's Thumb in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A rock squirrel lives up to its name as it crawls along a crevice in the massive rock formation known as Tom’s Thumb in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It had been at the base of the formation but crawled way up into the crevice when hikers with a dog approached. This is not a new species for me, we saw one during our visit to New Mexico a decade ago, but it is nice to be reunited. I owe a lot to that trip, not only because we had a great time but because it got me thinking about moving to the Southwest when looking for a job. I’ll eventually make it over to New Mexico but for now I’m focusing on trails near our home in Scottsdale.