SOUTHWEST ARIZONA – A Rough Draft

I’m back home in the Pacific Northwest, and life has finally calmed down enough that I can work on photos and step back into blogging. It’s time to play with my impressions of Arizona. There was the vacation: three days in a remote corner of Arizona near the Mexico border, and the unexpected aftermath: three weeks in a Phoenix hospital. Thankfully, that’s behind us now.

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From the passenger seat at 60 mph, near the juncture of Route 85 and Route 86, and the town of Why.

Indeed.

Next, the ubiquitous Saguaro cactus, up close.

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Above is the “lush desert” of Organ Pipe National Monument. This 517 square mile (1,338 sq km) Biosphere Reserve, located in southwestern Arizona, contains Sonoran desert plants that reach their northern limits here. It’s named for one of them: the Organ Pipe cactus. The cacti in this photo are saguaro and cholla; we’ll get to the Organ Pipe.

A remarkable quality of this particular spot on earth is its long history of human habitation. Over thousands of years people have managed to live in this harsh environment. These days humans in the Organ Pipe NM landscape may be tourists, drug smugglers, illegal immigrants or human traffickers. More about that later.

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Below, scenes from the small town of Ajo, where we stayed. The town is fascinating and I recommend it to anyone with a taste for the offbeat.

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Above, Quitobaquito Spring at Organ Pipe NM and below, Organ Pipe cacti and the Ajo Mountains. You can see why this is called a lush desert – there is a plethora of different shades of green and the ground is thick with cacti and desert shrubs.

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In some sections of Organ Pipe NM there are frequent signs of human use, like this primitive rusted stove found only a stone’s throw from Mexico. There’s nothing but a low fence at the border, a political boundary that divides the land where the desert people live (the Tohono O’odham), splitting the indigenous people into two unequal parts – the American and the Mexican O’odham.

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Winter in the desert can be bleak, but the odd hummingbird animates the scene. This is probably a Costa’s hummingbird.

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The road to Painted Rock Petroglyph site, west of Phoenix. We saw a Roadrunner here but it was WAY too fast for my camera. This shot is more my speed – no traffic, take your time, stand in the middle of the road, compose – nice!

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On a more somber note, one of many roadside memorials we saw in Arizona. This one is just inside the Tohono O’odham reservation. Below, Teddy Bear Cholla cacti (Opuntia bigelovii) glow with the last light of a fast-setting sun.

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Below, the interesting Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) which stores water in its trunk and lower limbs as insurance against fluctuating water availability.

One evening I had a tepary bean salad; these tasty beans are also highly specialized and  adapted to local conditions. They’ve been grown in this area (and especially in Mexico) for thousands of years. People quickly plant when the rains come and can harvest beans just two months later, without irrigation. One vendor was selling dried tepary beans at the tiny Ajo Saturday Farmers Market; there is a movement to return to crops like these that are adapted to the sudden appearance and disappearance of water here, instead of planting crops that require extensive irrigation. Seems logical, but….

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Above, Saguaro cacti, below, another view at Organ Pipe NM.

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Scrolling back through these images I can see that my take on this obscure wedge of Arizona may be pretty damned peculiar. I juxtapose rusted out cars, lonely trailers, and roadside memorials with botanical images of cacti. This southwestern sojourn was characterized by schizoid swings between the sublimely beautiful and the absurdly tragic. We began to see it as soon as we got outside Phoenix – the endless dry vistas, the small town struggles. The extremes intensified as we explored the section of Organ Pipe near the border – a beautiful natural desert spring contrasted with the jarring knowledge that smugglers were probably close by, helicopters were definitely buzzing us and good Samaritans were planting flagged water caches for desperate illegal immigrants. That energy continued back in Phoenix, where long, tense days in the intensive care unit and sleepless nights were interspersed with lovely dinners in local restaurants and countless friendly interactions with strangers.

I’m ready for a little middle ground now – just a little will do. I promise I won’t get too comfortable, just give me a bit of average.

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42 comments

  1. So glad things are getting back to some facsimile of normal for you, if not actual normal itself. I can definitely relate to “Bring on the average.”
    after the last two years I am quite content to be a worker bee again.

  2. “The Town of Why” — if it weren’t so literal,it would be comical.

    Average is nice, a bit like a waxing moon, mellow and between extremes… time for recharging batteries, physical, emotional and spiritual…. I’ll donate my share to your account!

    Thanks for the lovely tour – Lisa

    • I like your notion of average here, Lisa – waxing is good too, so average moves forward, i.e. isn’t mired in stasis. So good of you to donate and share – I will do the same for you anytime! 😉

  3. I think you captured what I loved about our desert visits. Mojave was a favorite, but then so was Eric’s old territory in and around Magdelana. Falling in love with that prickly landscape was a huge surprise. Wishing for some normal for you, too!

    • It’s so different from our damp, moody northwest. I love the open spaces and abundant light – but then I’ve never visited in summer, and I don’t plan to! I’d like to get to New Mexico, but it might be southern Utah next. The travel partner is not too keen on desert just now though!

      • But southern Utah is desert-like as well. We spent much time exploring the area when we lived in Utah. Have to admit it has some gorgeous country. Well worth a visit.

  4. I think the detailed views of the cacti might be my favorites, as a group, but I’m mightily fond of the view of Quitobaquito Spring, too. Despite many suggestions that I’d enjoy New Mexico, Arizona, and the Big Bend area of Texas, the government’s sign made me realize that my fondness for traveling alone may be what’s been holding me back. When I think of being in areas along the border by myself, I grow apprehensive in a way I don’t when I think of the midwest or west — even though there may not be any more danger there than in certain parts of Houston.

    At the other end of that spectrum, there’s the name that made me laugh: Opuntia bigelovii. Big lovey, indeed! Cute, though not quite so cuddly as other sorts of teddy bears.

    I have to learn Lightroom. Yes, I do. As for the times of average? I like to them of them as times of lying fallow, so that more productive growth can take place.

    • Lying fallow – well, it doesn’t feel quite like that because things are still very different from what they were, but it’s probably true for photography, which I had to let go for a little bit, for the most part. I don’t know. And yes, isn’t Opuntii bigelovii a great name? Maybe it was named after someone named Biglov, but if that’s the case i don’t need to know – the fantasies are better.
      This particular place isn’t one I’d want to spend much time in alone. On a weekday there weren’t many other tourists; in one area we saw maybe only one, and we were stopped by the Border patrol because they seemed to suspect us of meeting up with some locals who had just passed us, who looked suspicious. A bit dicey. The water caches left out for immigrants were moving, as was a map I saw of all the sites where human remains have been found in the last few years. Chilling. Not an average vacation!

  5. Haha! >>> don’t worry about what you’ve juxtaposed, this is a wonderfully diverse collection of good images. I’m especially hit by the one above “The road to Painted Rock Petroglyph site”, the blazing yellow lines – wowee!!! And the cactus above “Above, Saguaro cacti, below” – you have a real eye, my friend. Also, I see in a comment reply that you’re wanting to learn Lightroom – well I’ve been absorbing it quite well, and on Saturday I’m hoping to put out a post with a few very basic and simple LR hints. A 🙂

    • Diversity is the good side of being rather scattered, eh? Those yellow road lines were emphasized in LR – I realized that the polarizing filter I had on the lens most of the time cuts out too much light. I have to rethink that.
      The saguaros are very, very photogenic. In some, we saw the remains of baby birds that had perished in the barbs. Strange and creepy. You wonder if maybe a shrike or some such bird placed them there for a meal, but there were at least four in various stages of decay, not looking like they were eaten, so I think they just fly into them by mistake when they’re young, and then can’t get out. The desert can be cruel.
      Re Lightroom – that was another person’s comment, and I’m comfortable with a number of functions in LR but there are many that I know nothing about, so I look forward to what you put together.

      • Well, what I’m about to post about LR now is mostly very basic but I hope its of use to some people – if there’s any LR area you’re unsure of, why not let me know. I do not by any means have an overall knowledge, but I might be able to help and … I have the enormous book! 🙂 Yes, definitely rethink the polariser, it cuts out far to much light and LR can help to some extent. A

    • Oh, yes, it’s a beauty, right on a main drag in a tiny town. I have more views. I’ll try to fit them into another post. 🙂
      How can there be so much rust in a place with little rain though?

  6. That’s an excellent photo essay, Lynn…you did justice to your subjects…and were simply eloquent in your desire for the middle of the road…for average….

    Well done.

  7. Somehow I missed this post. I’m seeing it just now in Reader, which I usually don’t use. I really like this whole collection; it’s hard to say what I like best. If you absolutely make me choose, I’ll take number 11. Love all those lines in this very nice composition. Well, number 2 is hard not to comment on. I know I’ve seen photos of this cactus before, but maybe none was like your photo. The colors are so appealing, especially the way the yellow goes to green. The absolute clarity of this one is striking, too. As usual, your narrative adds to the already-wonderful mix. I hope you have been able to experience and enjoy average these days.


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