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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