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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Saguaro

 

 

The Saguaro cactus – that powerful symbol of America’s Old West – is a fairly common sight in southern Arizona, where the Sonoran desert extends its range from Mexico.  Tucson has a huge park devoted to the Saguaro, and they dot the landscape around Phoenix, too. While awaiting our flight home out of Phoenix recently we went to the Desert Botanical Garden, hoping to inspect Saguaros and other cacti at close range.  Admission was $37.00 for the two of us – that’s rough!  We noticed a few acres of attractive desert habitat around the road leading to the garden. Weighing our options, we decided to park in the lot and walk the “wrong” way down the road. Then we wandered at will, with no paths, signs or amenities to distract us.

I doubt that fallen Saguaros are left to rot in such splendor on the other side of the fence. We enjoyed seeing the cactus structure bared as it slowly releases itself to the elements. The crisp “skin” felt like hard plastic. Anchored by a long tap root, the cactus puts out many shallow roots near the surface. When it rains, the Saguaro drinks deeply and saves the bounty. Saguaros grow slowly in the hostile desert habitat and can live to be over a hundred years old. The small cactus above nestled among larger stems might already be 30 years old!  We observed a bird there that we identified as the Gila Woodpecker – it makes its home inside the saguaro; you can see the holes below. How it perches amidst those spines, let alone excavates a nest hole, is hard to imagine.

This fellow gets props from the garden staff:

 

It rained in Phoenix that day – funny because we were on our way back to Seattle, which has a big reputation for rain.  Seattle Seahawks fans were already arriving for the Superbowl the following week, so locals blamed the rain on them  –  I mean, us. 😉

The gloomy, glaring light wasn’t good for photography but it was fun to inspect and photograph the many specimens and strange forms, even under the poor light.  Though the Saguaro’s subtle colors are quite beautiful, I thought a monochromatic Saguaro essay would be interesting. I processed the photos in Lightroom and OnOne Black and White Suite. I didn’t use a consistent style because certain images seem to lend themselves to particular treatments.

Incidentally, we really enjoyed our little adobe house in the desert, far from the nearest town (and about a hundred miles from Tucson). It had everything we needed, including a composting toilet and shower in a separate building. I quickly got used to running between the buildings with my flashlight, and inhaling the cool desert air outside, the scent of pine shavings inside. Here’s our place at dawn with the Dragoon Mountains in the background. Below is the bathing facility.

If you’ll be in the area, I recommend staying at the Dragoon Mountain Guesthouse. The hosts are wonderful people.  We had everything we needed but we felt like we were the only people around (Barbara even gave us birdseed to scatter near the window so we could watch birds while eating breakfast).  If you’d like to know how to construct a straw bale house, which the owners did while staying in the adobe house (they built that too!) read about it on their website here.