Visiting the Sonoran Desert

February 22, 2014

craig_Blogger Craig Convissor has been finding himself this winter, travelling out West. Here are some of his notes from the road.

Off Broadway. A blog by Craig Convissor.

Organ Pipe National Monument

Near the border of Mexico, just outside the Tohono O’odham Nation, and once undoubtedly a part of it, is this beautiful and very unusual expanse of the Sonoran Desert. Dedicated as a monument in 1937, it was further declared an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1976. This desert is the lushest in the world, due in part to two rainy seasons—one slow and steady in the winter, which allows water to percolate down through the soil; and the other, a monsoon season at the end of summer, which somehow moves rocks as big as small cars down the washes. It’s on my bucket list to see one of these “floods”.

craig2What sets this area apart is the proliferation of saguaro cactus—the tall magnificent cactus, some with odd combinations of arms—and the organ pipe, growing many tall appendages from the ground. The organ pipe cacti generally live 150 years and produce their first flowers at age 35. The bat pollinated flowers open at night and close by midday the next day. The saguaro can live several hundred years. In addition, there is an abundance of teddy bear chollas (you just want to hug them!), creosote, prickly pear, palo verde, ocotillo, etc., all blooming from late winter into summer.

The cactus wren, gila woodpecker, phainopepla, have all entertained us in our campsite, while we saw two great horned owls on a hike up the wash. If one is lucky enough to see them, there is the fox, coyote, bobcat, mule deer and javelin, a wild pig look-a-like, related to the hippo family. I brought a wildlife camera to set up at night but haven’t done it yet. Tonight is the night, though there is a dog in the campground.

We took an amazing hike yesterday, off trail, about 2000 feet above our camp, with our friend Tom (the Billy Goat) Hinck, whose goal for the past 20 odd years has been to scale all mountains in his path. The climb up to the saddle between two ridges and then up to a beautiful view in all directions, including the mountains in Mexico, was arduous and sometimes dangerous. One needs to pay attention constantly to footing and handholds. Fortunately, we are not too worried at this time of year about scorpions and snakes, which would substantially enhance the climbing experience. Being only our second hike this year, Laurie and I were rubber-legged at the end of it. But as Tom says, a little bit of fear gives one the confidence to try harder. Today is a rest day of reading and eating.

blog_craig_convissorWe’re in the primitive permit campground which only has four sites, and is a good 12 miles from the more organized campsites and visitor center. It’s beautiful here at the foot of the Ajo Mountains, (pronounced Ah-ho), with plenty of opportunities for interesting hiking. You can stay here for 7 days and then you must leave for a month.

Only characters drive the 20 mile round trip to get a permit and then the 3 mile two-track to the campsites. This week: us, of course; Billy Goat Tom; Big Mike from Alaska; and Farmer Mark, all with stories to tell. Big Mike has a voice like gravel flowing across screening and down into the wash, and can talk to you from any point in the valley and be perfectly understood. The darkness in Alaska, he maintains, drives many people nuts, and is the reason he escapes at this time of year. “I went over to a buddy of mine,” he yells, “and there were arrows stickin’ out his front door. I figured I’d go around to the windows and have a peek. They were in there, drunk, shootin’ a crossbow at a target they pinned to the front door. I went in the back way and says, ‘Maybe you guys outta think about getting’ out once in a while!’”. Big Mike works as a consultant for an oil company and has been in a couple helicopter mishaps and two plane crashes. His card reads: “Crude Consultant, specializing in madness and mayhem.” He drinks beer in the morning because he doesn’t like to get up in the middle of the night. Hey, I’m just the reporter here! I could listen to the guy forever.

Normally, it’s quite peaceful here, but yesterday morning was different. There were four park service vehicles in early along with a low flying helicopter. The campground was full and people were coming in to hike. I counted 13 vehicles at one time. The park service rounded up 7 guys carrying about 200 lbs. of contraband. Carrying weapons, the park service people strip searched the “fugitives”, the young desperadoes waved at the crowd and said “good morning”, and they all drove away. I was surprised to see the park service so well outfitted. Apparently, the park service and the border patrol don’t get along well, but I don’t have any firm information on that.

Organ Pipe is one of the must see places if one is in this area of the world. It is so unusual and beautiful. The native population here has a long history of harvesting parts of the desert flowers for jam and foodstuffs and clothing. They also have made beautiful woven baskets and pottery. It’s amazing to me to see how folks survive in this harsh but beautiful environment.

Tomorrow we resupply, do laundry and aim for California, with a few desert stops on the way.

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