ADAPTATIONS

Life as usual

isn’t.

Routines have changed and I’m evolving, shaped

by circumstance, wriggling into

new spaces, expanding into

unfamiliar realms, making it

mine,

adapting.

***

Just short of four months ago, my partner and I traveled deep into the Sonoran desert, near Arizona’s border with Mexico.  We had come to explore Organ Pipe National Monument, part of a vast desert landscape ranging through parts of California and Arizona, and Mexico.

Slicing across this desert is an international border – a political boundary, not an ecological one. The border is crossed fairly easily by plants and animals, at least while there is no wall. But people – they fight over this line in the sand. Some of them suffer deeply because of the border; many have lost their lives because of it.

The evidence of this struggle is quite apparent in the desert and the small towns, and between border conflicts and a difficult desert environment, it’s clear that adaptation is what every living being must do.

How people adapt or fail to adapt to the political and economical situation here is a complicated story that I don’t feel equipped to tell, except to say that the signs I saw – the border fence and checkpoints, the helicopter that buzzed us when we went off trail, the empty water jugs, the graves and roadside memorials – those signs of struggle were impossible to get away from. In retrospect, it’s almost as if those signs were a portent of the life-threatening change that would throw us completely off balance within hours of returning to civilization, a change that forced us to adapt beyond what we would have imagined.

But as we walked and drove through the desert we were purely in the moment. I was focused on taking photographs. Needless to say, I took a lot.*   Looking through them now, an obvious category is the flora the brilliantly adapted, tough and prickly plants of the desert that tell their own stories of adaptation.  Another group of photographs will wait for another post. Those pictures touch on the stark realities of the border and this desolate, unforgiving country. For now, the plants:

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The familiar looking Englemann’s Prickly Pear cactus (familiar because similar cacti grow in many parts of the US) is found scattered throughout the park. I love the soft green color of this cactus, but in black and white, attention is drawn to the contrast between the round shape and spiky spines, which I find compelling.

The large, multiple-stem cactus that gives the park its name is the Organ Pipe cactus. It’s more common in Mexico but inches onto the southern edge of the U. S. here in the hot Sonoran desert. This cactus and others that are rare in the U.S. are the primary reason the park land was set aside, way back in 1937.

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I’m not big on interpretive signs, preferring to keep fresh eyes and form my own take on things. Once in a while I do read them though, and a sign along the winding, scenic road through the park informs visitors that wind blowing through an Organ Pipe cactus makes a strange and beautiful sound. It was a breezy day so we tried it. Choosing a huge old specimen, we gingerly stuck our heads into the mass of spine-cloaked stems. The sound was enchanting and otherworldly – a kind of breathy, ethereal hum that is perfectly suited to the spare, quiet landscape.

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Another cactus seen more often in Mexico than America is the Senita cactus, below. It has a similar growth habit to the Organ Pipe, but the details are different. Older specimens in the second photograph show the Senita’s distinctive hairy looking tops. I was fascinated to learn that a moth has co-evolved with this cactus; both species have adapted to the environment and each other in a complex evolutionary dance. The moth larvae live on Senita cacti and eat the fruits; later, the moth pollinates the Senita’s night-blooming flowers. This cactus can grow tall, to 13 feet.

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Twenty-six species of cactus live at Organ Pipe; all are adapted to life at temperatures ranging from over 100 F to below freezing. Rainfall here is scant and unpredictable. Plants must be able to take full advantage of rainwater when it comes; storing it has proved one of the best adaptations to this environment.

Below is a typical jumble of the peculiar forms of Saguaro, Ocotillo, Senita, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde tree, and others. They all vie for space in the arid environment, making Organ Pipe National Monument essentially a lush, desert garden.

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Perhaps the most common cactus is the Saguaro, seen here in the foreground and scattering up the hillside to the left.

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Below is an example of the rare cristate mutation on a Saguaro. The cause might be frost, but no one is sure why the cactus sometimes grows in this ornate pattern. In fact, over a hundred other plants sometimes exhibit this abnormal growth pattern too, called fasciation. 

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Cacti can be seen at Organ Pipe in all stages of growth and decay. Both Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti often begin life hidden under a desert tree such as the Palo Verde. The small tree or shrub provides just enough shelter for the cactus to get a good grip on life. Once we started looking for them, we saw many young cacti under trees and shrubs, like the Organ Pipe cactus growing out of the middle of a Palo Verde, below. You can see a shorter stem in front of the main stem.

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Below is the skeleton and peeling “skin” of a fallen giant – in this case, an Occotillo.

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The fallen Saguaro below pulled the desert floor with it when it toppled, exposing the rough rock it grew in.  Below, you can see the “skin” of a dead Saguaro and the woody structure underneath.

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This oddly beckoning skeleton is probably a Jumping Cholla cactus. Further down, you’ll see a live one.

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Like the native Tohono O’odham people, who have lived here for many generations, cacti have adapted well to desert extremes.  Shallow root systems and flexible “skins” allow cacti to quickly gulp down rain that falls as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings.  Pale colors reflect away over-abundant light. Spines provide protection from thirsty animals, guide raindrops towards the cactus flesh, and create slender threads of shade on sweltering days. Many cacti can put their metabolism into idle mode to wait out the calendar’s rough spots.

Below, a roadside scene at Organ Pipe where Cholla cacti and Saguaros are set against the Ajo Range. On the other side of the mountains is the 4,340 square mile Tohono O’odham (‘Desert People’) reservation, the second largest in the country.

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Where there’s water, plant life adapts and changes gears.  At Quitobaquito Springs near the border, trees and a wild tangle of grasses edge a pond.

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This harsh land has a strange beauty. The image below is an Ocotillo plant with the Ajo Mountains in the background. The Ocotillo’s peculiar spindly form is an odd favorite of mine. I was introduced to the plant at Joshua Tree National Park in California. It was good to see the Ocotillo’s eccentric scribbles punctuate the landscape again in southern Arizona.

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Some Ocotillos sport striped branches that contrast with new leaves, others don’t. Another adaptation? Maybe. The small, tough leaves can appear a few days after a good rain and fall off in dry spells, the plant going dormant for years if necessary.

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This is Jumping cholla, or Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). This specimen, with its balanced, formal symmetry, reminds me of Victorian decoration.

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Below is another Cholla cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigloveii). Its tiny, backward hooked spines are like little velcro magnets – get anywhere near them and watch out! They will detach and seem to jump right onto you. Good luck removing them! At Joshua Tree in California I saw a discarded T shirt in a Cholla patch – picking out the spines just wasn’t worth the effort (it would have been nice if they’d packed it out).  This cactus is also known for the way its spines catch the light with a warm glow at dusk.

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We were too early to see cactus flowers, except for a few. Below, the bud of a cactus, possibly a species of Mammillaria. Many species of Mammillaria cactus grow in Mexico but only a few thrive in the US, at least in the wild. They are popular as cultivated cacti. Below the flower, a barrel cactus with last year’s fruit, well protected behind a thick ring of sharp spines.

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Below, a rare Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) wedges its water-swollen trunk and  branches into the poor soil of a rocky hillside. I would have inhaled deeply if I’d known the tree has a wonderfully pungent fragrance, which I learned later online (no interpretive sign for that!). With all the moisture it can store, the Elephant tree can go a year without rain, but it is very susceptible to cold, which is why it’s more common across the border in Mexico. The tree’s tiny leaves arrayed on delicate branches contrast with the tough-barked, swollen trunk. The leaves’ pores open at night, another way to conserve water.

Some indigenous people who used the reddish sap as medicine cautioned that it must be kept out of sight. There seem to be layers of mystery around this species – I was drawn to the tree and I wanted to sit under it for an hour, just feeling its essence. Unfortunately, I don’t usually have that luxury when traveling. I’ll try to remember these lessons for my next trip:

  1. Read up more before you go, if possible
  2. Work in time to just sit and take it all in.

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Another intriguing desert adaptation is the relationship between the Phainopepla, a medium sized bird, and the Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). When the bird eats mistletoe berries while perched on the branch of a host tree, the seeds are left behind, typically in a perfect spot for future germination.  This mistletoe is a hemiparasite that grows on desert trees and shrubs. Below you can see the berries growing close up, and Desert mistletoe in a Palo Verde tree.

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I bet that’s a Phainopepla feather caught on that mistletoe branch…

Our own adaptations to changing circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – may be less obvious at first glance than those of the plants at Organ Pipe, but they are just as interesting. Let’s hope we as a species can be as successful in evolving with rather than against our surroundings.

*

* Taking travel photographs is challenging.  Every time I travel to a new place, excitement takes over. When I get home I realize all the things I forgot to do: I should have used a different aperture, I shouldn’t have left the polarizing filter on, I should have composed more carefully, held the camera steady, checked the exposure, etc. Maybe I should tape a small sign on my camera the next time I travel that says, “Stop. Think.”  The most successful photos above are thanks to practiced eyes and the miracles of digital cameras and software, in spite of an over-excited mind. The less successful ones are lessons.

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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***

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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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MANUEL

I met Manuel by chance as I walked onto the grounds of La Posada hotel in Winslow, Arizona. He’s a groundskeeper there, so having a background in gardening and landscaping myself, I stopped to admire his work and talk. He’s originally from Mexico and returns to his ranch and family there every year. He takes equal pride in his gardening and his seven years sobriety from Tequila. When I asked to take his picture he backed into this juniper, squared his shoulders and looked me straight in the eye.

 

 

La Posada hotel wouldn’t have been built, back in 1929, if it weren’t for the railroad that stops conveniently right at the back gate. It was quite the destination in its heyday, with guests like Gary Cooper, President Franklin Roosevelt, Shirley Temple and others too numerous to list. With building costs topping a million dollars, it was an extravagant showcase for the Sante Fe Railroad and the imaginative architect, Mary Colter.  By the fifties it was shuttered, but four decades later, another twelve million dollars revived the hotel, thanks to an entrepreneur.

Had we known about this historical gem we would have reserved a room there, and if we return, we’ll do that.

If only to see Manuel again.

NORTHERN ARIZONA

Last week we took another trip to Arizona. After flying from Seattle to Phoenix we picked up a bright red Chevy Trax SUV at Sixt Rentals and drove north towards Flagstaff, taking a scenic four lane highway (state Rt. 87).  It was a rainy day in Arizona – not what you bargain for when you’re visiting from the gray northwest, but the saguaros were beautiful in the misty blue air. We pulled over to the side of the road to take in the soft greens, tans and distant lavender blues.

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Our plan was to spend a few days at Canyon de Chelly, a national monument comprised of two large canyons whose layers of rock go back 200 million years. In the middle of the Navajo Nation, the site is miles from any city and has been inhabited for thousands of years. Because of the remote location it’s not overrun with tourists. I was eager to spend time among the great sandstone cliffs with their ancient dwellings and petroglyphs.

It’s a long way from Phoenix, so we over-nighted en route at a Navajo-owned resort and casino, which turned out to be refreshingly light on glitz and strong on tasteful elegance. An odd introduction to Navajo ways – but it worked for us!

On to Chinle, the town on the Navajo Reservation that’s the base for visiting Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay).  On the way we passed through charming Winslow, a small town made famous by the Eagles song from the 70’s, “Take it Easy” – which folks seem to do in Winslow. They’ve capitalized on the song and made their town a tourist destination. A German man of a certain age dressed in black leather asked us to take his picture by a statue that memorializes the song. It happens to be on the famous Route 66. He had rented a Harley (he rides a BMW at home, of course, but this is America!) for an epic ride across America’s Main Street highway. Leave it to the Germans to swallow American pop culture whole, and show us how to really enjoy it!

It WAS a lovely morning for soaking in the classic American small town atmosphere. It didn’t hurt that the old style sweet shoppe makes an excellent macchiato.

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The town has a fascinating  small museum. It’s full of fabulous local memorabilia, from ancient cultural artifacts and dinosaur bones to cowboy culture, railroads, Hopi pottery and more.

What a rip-roaring town it was, back in the day.

And it remains an interesting place.

And on the outskirts – more to see.

We continued northeast, making a pit stop at Little Painted Desert, a county park. The Painted Desert covers a large swath of northern Arizona. As we ate sandwiches and took pictures, a stray dog and a raven were our only company.

The desert silence began to sink into our bones.

We were now in the Navajo Nation, whose boundaries extend deep into four states, encompassing over 27,000 square miles of land.  Within Navajo boundaries a separate nation, the Hopi reservation, is home to a people who are quite different than the Navajo. They have not been as successful at integrating into western culture and do not take to tourists and strangers as easily.

We drove onto the Hopi reservation but I took almost no pictures, as photography isn’t allowed and cameras can be confiscated. Parts of the reservation were rougher than places I’ve seen anywhere else. It truly felt separate from America.

We stopped at a home with a sign indicating silver jewelry was sold there. I knew Hopi craftspeople often sell their work from home, and prices, as long as you have cash, are likely to be better than at galleries or stores. We knocked on the door. The artist, Harry Nutumya, was there. He showed us his and his nephew’s work. A very soft spoken man, he told us quietly about going away to school and returning to live on the reservation. The Hopi have a long history and complex spiritual belief system that I wouldn’t dream of trying to describe. On a very basic level, our brief meeting with Harry seemed to exemplify how closely place and people are knit together in the desert – the high mesa with its open sky, sparse vegetation and expansive quiet matched Harry’s thoughtful persona. And yes, I was happy to contribute directly to supporting his work with a few purchases.

There’s our Trax, posing against the grasslands and distant mesas under that grand Arizona sky, with clouds all the way to the horizon.

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As we rolled across the desert I photographed the grasslands and changing sky, sometimes with my phone, sometimes with my camera.  The views didn’t disappoint!

It really got interesting when we raced a rainstorm across the reservation, a rainstorm that produced double rainbows while keeping its center well away from us – perfect!  You can’t always stop when you want to, but maybe this conveys a taste of the drama of an Arizona desert storm.

The next day we spent all morning with a Navajo guide, bouncing across the bottom lands of Canyon de Chelly in his old jeep. Not ideal for photography, but a lot of fun. Outsiders can only enter the canyon with a Navajo guide and are admonished to respect the privacy of the few remaining people living in the canyon by not photographing them or their houses. It’s not a zoo after all.

It was a bit rough on the soft dirt canyon bottom lands – there aren’t roads exactly, just well worn tracks snaking through the canyons.

Below, one of many old Anasazi dwellings we saw. This one is called Antelope House. Most of the old places cling tight to the rocks high up the cliffs but this one is at the base of the canyon.

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That rainstorm we passed through the day before left big puddles here and there. The guides take it in stride, plowing through the water to give tourists a closer look at petroglyphs on the canyon walls. Above and to the right of the jeep are drawings of people on horse, a common theme.

You can’t get very close to most petroglyphs or dwellings; many are high and out of reach. Our guide described climbing up with hand-made ladders in his younger days; the ladders used to be pulled up as you went, so no one could follow.  If you had plenty of time, a long lens, a tripod and good light I’m sure you could get great photos of the ruins.  As it was, I didn’t have the right mix of circumstances, but that’s the way it goes. It was rewarding just spending time with our guide on his turf.  Towards the end Dave, who was born and raised here and seemed to know everyone, talked a little about his clan, and how his mother blew corn pollen over him when he was a baby – an ancient practice that gave us a tantalizing glimpse into a culture that still thinks very differently from people I normally come into contact with.

Later we drove along the south rim to see places we had just driven through from far above. Water flows in the creek alongside the track.  A few people still raise a little corn down there, and peach trees grow near the native cottonwoods and willows.

The famous Spider Rock was half concealed in deep shade by the time we reached it.  The next day we drove the rim of the canyon in the morning, and again it was in shadow. But if the canyon didn’t cooperate, the ravens did.

Wild horses roam the bottom of Canyon de Chelly.

I’ll leave you with their gentle presence. There’s more to come on the Arizona trip…

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DESERT TRAJECTORIES

Scrolling through photographs from last month’s trip to the southeastern corner of Arizona, I noticed that many of them feature strong diagonals. Normally I’m not looking for diagonal lines when taking pictures, but I’m often drawn to them. They lend a dynamic feeling to compositions and they keep the eyes moving.

Speaking of composition, there’s a tool in Lightroom I like to use called a crop overlay. It places lines in the shape of triangles – diagonals – over your image. When you crop or move your image around relative to the fine lines and place a focal point where the lines intersect, the composition often falls magically into place. Your eyes are led naturally around the image. I don’t always get it right but the tool is a big help.  You can see it in action here, on Rikk Flohr’s WordPress site devoted to cropping images.

 ***

I love a window seat!  Here, snowy mountains and farm fields trace diagonals high above the line my flight followed (another diagonal) between Seattle and Phoenix:

Southeast of Tucson, along the sandy shores of the San Pedro River, there was evidence of the water’s power in the mangled grasses and leaves left high and dry after the last flood:

In the Chiricahua Mountains weathered wood melded with the rocky soil, creating a pale bas relief effect. These brances trace beautifully flowing diagonals.

On the Echo Canyon Trail at the Chiricahua National Monument, enormous boulders balance on one another in a daring elemental dance.  A twisted dead tree contributes more diagonals:

A crooked hole in two “Standing up Rocks” in the Chiricahua Mountains affords a dramatic view. The angled, weathered rocks speak of great geological disturbances, but the clouds describe restful horizontals:

Cracked mud, animal footprints, and caught leaves create an interesting pattern on the banks of the San Pedro River:

Fallen leaves, weathered wood, and a pink rock lay tangled on the ground at Ramsey Canyon:

The Dragoon Mountains tumble diagonally across the land, catching afternoon light and beckoning exploration:

Sunlight creeps along angled boulders at Texas Canyon in the Dragoon Mountains:

Desert flowers hold fast to a bit of soil lodged in a diagonal cut in the rock, and a weathered branch lends stability:

Seen from the right angle, even round cactus leaves can trace diagonals:

Slender weathered branches trace a relaxed trajectory among cactus spines, creating a contrasting mass of diagonals – a still, dry dance of graceful and spiky forms:

And the beautiful, open road that is Highway 186 carves enticing diagonals across a golden desert grassland:

ALTERNATING CURRENT: the GRAND and the DIMINUTIVE

Grand and diminutive,

vast and intimate – these are

my alternating currents.

Five days in the Sonoran desert

allowed me to exercise

my predilection

for absorption in the

distant and near.

 

Sunrise, Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona :

Weed seeds by the San Pedro River:

 Desert grass in winter:

 

Desert grasses, distant mountains; Cochise, Arizona:

Dried flower heads in the desert:

Going to seed in the desert:

 

The Dragoon Mountains:

An unidentified flower at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix:

Roadside grasses and the Chiricahuas:

Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) and power plant, Cochise, Arizona:

Sulphur Springs Valley from the Chiricahua Mountains:

Mesquite with granite outcrops at the Amerind Museum in Dragoon, Arizona:

Desert plants:

 

Evening at Whitewater Draw, Arizona:

The southeastern corner of Arizona is a fascinating mix of varied desert habitats, subtle colors, wide open spaces and amazing mountains. For our trip, we flew down to Phoenix, where we picked up a rental car and drove to Tucson. At the lively Union Public House, we enjoyed a wonderful evening with old friends from back east who just happened to be in Tucson that week. The next morning we drove southeast along Route 10 to the Sulphur Springs Valley, where gravel and dirt roads led us the final miles to our little hand-built adobe cottage in Cochise, hard by the Dragoon Mountains. Each day we explored the valley and the mountains on either side of it. I will post more photos soon!