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Published: February 6th 2007
Flickr Set: Arizona / New Mexico
With 2 months off, hardly and money but with unlimited freedom I ventured to see the magical deserts and mountains of Arizona. Crossing the foothill sized Pacific crest
from San Diego, the landscape changed dramatically from a fog enshrouded ocean paradise to a hot and dry desert. But underneath the threatening veil of abandon lay something more special- a timeless place where only the strong survive. Wide open vistas, tall mountains, deep blue skies and curious plants make the pacific deserts a place where you contemplate your existence.
First stop? Saguaro National Park
In the taxonomy of plants cactus are advanced. As flowering plants, the cactus evolved
with mammals and birds over the last 60 million years since the Jurassic extinction. They evolved in the Americas, with the only similar plants in the world being the succulents of South Africa
. The only difference between succulents and cacti are that cacti have spines. Evolutionary conditions in the Americas has been dry for a long time period, and leaves of plants were forced to be able to store water. Soon the leaves evolved into thick structures meant for storing water and reduced transpiration. To conserve surface area, this great cactus
ancestor grew thin and tall, and the spines developed as a means to avoid predators looking for nectar, seeds or seed pods. The Desert
is a harsh place, and these plants had to survive the harshest of conditions involving continuous drought. There are places in the Atacama desert of Chile that have yet to record rainfall after 300 years. Recent studies suggest the Atacama desert
has been a desert for 40 million years, as opposed to deserts like the Sahara and Gobi. Asian deserts have abruptly become deserts because of shifting climate conditions, while the Australian Desert and South Africa has succulents, but no spiny cacti.
Why is South America so important to cactus history? This is where the first proto cactus, the first true cactus who's progeny then spread and evolved into every nook and cranny of the deserts of the Americas. In fact the living relative of this earliest cactus can be found in certain areas of Peru, and it looks a lot like a Saguaro Cactus. Although the Saguaro is a larger cactus and its true cousin is found in Argentina(Echinopsis atacamensis
), all of these plants share the same traits. Basically one large photosynthetic stem with branches, a stem
that can absorb large amounts of rainfall overnight in response to thunderstorms- then survive 7 months of drought.
The Saguaro is a giant, able to live 250 years and reach heights of 51 feet(16 meters) with a 7-foot(2.2 meters) diameter base. Its flowers attract raptors and other birds, its fallen trunks giving habitat to ground animals. Not just the cactus, the entire Sonoran Desert Biome
is something special. There is as much biodiversity as any forest. One look around my 30x30 foot (10x10 meter) campsite had me counting the number of different plants and cactus I saw. I lost track after getting to 25. It was spring and the desert was in bloom. But it wasn't just the Saguaros and wildflowers in bloom, the rare blooms of the Ocotillo in the Mojave Desert was in bloom as well.
Sunsets in the desert inspire poetry and art. Being above 4000 feet so far into a large continent, the rays of light from the setting sun, the clean air, and the views of lofty mountains in the distance create a magical scene. Instead of alpenglow, the desertglow illuminates the sentinels of the desert with hues of red and yellow one has seldom
encountered before. The moon started to rise, the fishhook cactus begged me to take its picture. Gazing at the moonlight, I heard the Chiricahua Mountains
calling my name... I left early the next morning.
Driving into Southest Arizona past Tucson, the landscape changes. As elevation increases, so do mild temperatures. Here, the summer monsoons also come on stronger, giving more rainfall. Yes, this doesn't look or feel like what I expected. A stream with a huge Sycamore tree, Grasses, Junipers, Pines...What happened to the desert? My mind was playing tricks on me, but Kartchner Caverns State Park
soon set me straight.
The Caverns were fantastic. I've been to my fair share of show caves and some wild ones, and Kartchner is a cave without equal. Discovered in the late 1970's the cave was kept secret. When the rancher sold the land in 1988, the cave became a model for preservation and sustainable visitation. The air inside the cave is 100%!h(MISSING)umidity(rare for a desert cave), and opening an entrance for visitors would soon alter the cave environment by introducing warm, dry air. Dust and lint from humans would dirty the cave formations, and both of these things have happened in Carlsbad Caverns
. So to
visit Kartchner, you must put on light plastic jackets, be sprayed with gentle water mists in a special room, then pass through 3 air locks before entering the cave environment. The cave was incredible, a must see collection of completely virgin and pristine formations, moist and warm, and otherworldly. Hiking around the abandoned mines near the cave, I knew I had seen the shimmering heart of the planet- and it was far more beautiful than anything at the surface.
Off to the Chiricahua Mountains, a special stronghold of forested desert crags that gave spiritual meaning and shelter from invading Anglo's to the Chiricahua Apache
. Geronimo himself retreated into them, his people having held the mountains sacred for thousands of years. South of Geronimo's Stronghold lays Chiricuhua National Monument. The landscape goes from grasslands to canyons and forest, culminating in the giant volcanic spires that inspired the protection of this Monument. These highlands were like a little piece of paradise in a desert sea of sunshine and rocks, a dense forest with pinnacles of rock standing 100 feet high. Intimate caves and slot canyons are everywhere, and the sunset from the 7000 foot ridge was even better than in the lowlands
of the desert. Several different species of evergreen trees forest the slot canyons and ridges. One thing is for sure, if I was anywhere near Tucson again a stop in Chiricahua Mountains would be at the top of my list of things to do.
The next day was very exciting for me. I would be travelling north to Safford, Arizona to a small state park that has a small lake and a hot spring. A novel idea I thought, a simple rock tub built around a hot spring in an unheard of state park in the middle of nowhere Arizona. A good place to shower, rest and relax. The past few days hiking in the cactus and desert left me feeling a bit dried out. Arriving at Roper Lake State Park
, I was giddy with enthusiasm- even though the flat and lifeless landscape would have most praying for a change of venue.
One of the great things about travelling is the unexpected. For some, that means meeting new friends of having plans change 180 degrees in an instant. For me, that means paying attention to the landscapes and being shocked at the things I don't expect. Safford
is on a large
flat plain, and expanse of land in the rain shadows of the huge mountains around it. I had no idea a mass of mountains over 10,700 feet( tall towered over this place, but they were. For some reason mountains give me happiness, a security inside. I felt like I could easily call this place home.
The state park was at first glance a disappointment. Just a small man-made lake with reeds covering the shore in the middle of the desert with hardly any people. But the campsites had large open air picnic tables, perfect for making a bed for excellent rest and stargazing. There was a large BBQ grill for cooking and the bathrooms were large, clean and had hot showers. The lake itself had easy access, and was colder than I expected. So cold a 20 minute dip made my body completely numb, which was just what it needed after all the driving.
Then came the hot springs stone tub, which I shared with a family of 5. The little kids were easy to get laughing, and it didn't take long before they left. Soon I was relaxing in an incredible cut stone hot tub by myself.
I realized the water in the tub was being piped in. But not with pressure, for the 6" pipe slowly poured this water in and would occasionally gurgle as the water tumbled out. The original spring was sealed, and the water directed through a pipe which travelled 50 feet downhill to the tub. You could immerse yourself completely and let the water pour on your head. How many thousands of years ago did the water enter the earth, only to be heated and forced back to the surface to provide humans with such a simple pleasure?
Yes, this was definitely a place of healing for the Chiricahua.
The water was hot, 104 degrees. The sun was setting. I couldn't believe the different things I was experiencing. "Who here can tell me the significance?" I asked. A jeweled cave that was 500,000 years old. A forest of cactus as diverse as any rainforest. Ancient Lava, carved by rain raised high by time and settled by an evergreen forest. An ice cold lake in the middle of the hot desert. A steady flow of hot water from deep within the earth, all for me as the sun set over Mt. Graham. I had a flashing thought- I was not separate from this incredible place, but a part of it. My connection was undeniable, for why else would the earth provide
me with 104 degree water to replenish my soul?
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