September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
Newcomers continue to challenge Arizona’s implacable desert
While reading up on Arizona preparatory to a trip there, I came upon the following remark by the English author J. B. Priestley: “There is no history here because history is too recent. This country is geology by day and astronomy at night.” Given the title of this column, I briefly wondered if I’d chosen the right destination, but after it was all over, I could see exactly what Priestley meant. What he took away from a winter’s stay on a ranch near Wickenburg just sixty years ago (and wrote about in Midnight on the Desert ) still applies.
Of course this isn’t because Arizona, after Hawaii and Alaska the youngest state in the Union, has no history. Indian, Spanish, and Mexican cultures are deeply embedded there. Certainly the shape of present-day Arizona owes much (for better or worse) to the ranchers, miners, and military forces that by the mid-nineteenth century had entered this remote, inhospitable land and begun the struggle to tame it. As for the most recent great migration, only the future can tell how the “economic spree,” as one writer has called the Sunbelt, will rewrite human history here.
“In the West nothing done by Americans is for keeps,” writes the Arizona journalist Charles Bowden. “Everything … becomes a brief raid on the dry land and then becomes tumbleweed, ghost towns, lost mines, real estate empires that go up in flim flam.…” So it is on Bowden’s implacable desert and on Priestley’s “oldest country I had ever seen, the real antique land, first cousin to the moon” that history becomes the sum of geology.
Because I’ve always wanted to see some part of the American landscape closely and on foot rather than from a speeding car, I was ready to be intrigued by the brochure of a company called Country Walkers and especially by its southeastern Arizona weeklong trip through the Sonoran Desert, scheduled for spring just as the flowers were starting to bloom.
Not all urbanites are completely innocent of backpacks and hiking boots, but I certainly was. I comforted myself with the belief that a regular regimen of walking city streets and panting on a treadmill would mean that I would be up to speed. Moreover, the word walkers rather than hikers and my image of a desert allowed me to picture myself sauntering through a flat, sandy place made bright with flowers and birds. I’m just as glad I didn’t comprehend the topography ahead of time; I might not have gone.
Other selling points: A van would carry luggage, and nights would be spent in comfortable, even elegant, hotels. Half the week we would be based in Tucson and half in Sierra Vista, about ninety miles to the south. The brochure grades walks as easy or moderate, and that seemed reassuring. So did the word optional when referring to nine-mile hikes. Expert naturalists, in our case Julia Huestis and Ted Levin, would lead the group. The ten who signed up for my trip were all women (an unusual occurrence, I heard), ages twenty-four to sixty-four, sturdy, enthusiastic, and—but for me—fairly experienced hikers. A more compatible group I’ve not encountered. Many held high-powered jobs—chemist, financial planner, literary agent, psychologist, stockbroker—and they saw a week of trotting up mountain trails as a perfect antidote to regular life. As the week wore on, there were more than a few jocular references to the movie City Slickers , although I think the only real slicker may have been me.
The Sonoran Desert we were exploring, one of four major deserts in North America, contains no large stretches of sand. To the New Englander’s eye it may appear dry as dust, but because it gets as much as ten inches of rainfall a year in certain areas, it is, as Ted Levin described it, “the greenest, lushest, wettest desert on the planet.” At least two-thirds of the desert lies in Mexico, and some of the creatures we saw (like a warbler called a painted redstart) are native to the Mexican highlands and can be found nowhere else in the United States.
Even in early April the desert can heat up fast, so our walks usually started by 7:00 A.M. , with time out to find shade at midday. The first hike, nine miles in all, was billed as the most rigorous of the week. After driving fourteen miles from the city to Tucson Mountain Park, we would climb to Wasson Peak, a daunting sight at 4,687 feet, even if we were starting at 2,000.
It wasn’t sand but crushed rocks and pebbles that met our feet in the first stretch, as we followed the bed of an arroyo, a dried-up stream that can turn immensely dangerous in the instant of a flash flood. Fortunately this wasn’t the rainy season. Here we made our first acquaintance with the flora and fauna of a desert canyon, weirdly beautiful in all its adaptive variety. “Don’t bump into the jumping cholla cactus,” Ted warned us. These appealingly fuzzy plants are armed with thickets of needles that latch on to flesh at the merest contact. Only a comb will detach the painful prickles. Ted brought along twelve combs, one for each of us.
Scatterings of flowers, most in the desert’s spring shades of white and yellow, with occasional flashes of fuchsia and delicate purple, mantled the arroyo’s banks. As the path grew steeper, canyon walls rose. At one rocky outcrop we spotted faint stick-figure pictographs left hundreds of years ago by the long-extinct Hohokam Indians, and Ted pointed to several indentations on a ledge, reminders of the mortars the women of that tribe used to ground mesquite pods into flour.
We heard a Gila woodpecker pecking out its lunch in a saguaro cactus and watched a Gambel’s quail outrun us up ahead. Queen butterflies, colored like monarchs, hovered over newly sprung buds. At the start of the trip, Ted, to whom no form of animal life is alien, said, “I can almost guarantee you will see a rattlesnake. They’re as North American as apple pie and Mother’s Day.” The city slicker wasn’t thrilled. As it turned out, Ted diligently led us past rattlesnake haunts every day, but the closest we came to an actual snake was on that first day, when a dry, spooky rattle emanated from beneath a shrub. Its owner glided away unseen.
After an hour or so we left the arroyo behind, the trail narrowed, the breeze turned into a stiff wind, and switchbacks became a menace every few yards; their cramped shelves threatened to hurl me into space. The views were spectacular, but with nothing but spiky, low-growing vegetation to the right and on the left a cactus-strewn mountainside tumbling into canyons now far below, I met up with an old enemy: fear of heights. I shared this, I soon realized, with another hiker, and how greatly, in this case, did misery appreciate company. We both made it, not to the peak but just below it to a flat, slightly wider rocky outlook, where we gratefully collapsed and devoured our lunch. I was mad at myself for not having considered the topography of this part of Arizona; I was deeply uneasy about the precipitous descent to come; and when someone asked if I didn’t feel pretty terrific about having managed to do this at all, I barked out, “No!” Inevitably, a few days later not only did Wasson Peak begin to take on the shape of a good story, but I started to think that in slow doses I might learn to ease this lifelong fear.
God knows there were other opportunities for doing that on this trip. Remembered most happily was a hike up the forested Madera Canyon, where, if necessary, I could have clung to a tree. This is a bird-watcher’s mecca where serious practitioners had set up gigantic scopes on the meadows below. “From a biological perspective,” Ted said, “we have just entered Mexico.”
Beyond the miles of walks there was time each day for stops to see such totems of human history as San Xavier del Bac, a magnificent Spanish church of the 1780s, and Tombstone, the town that set the standard for Western lawlessness. But the most satisfactory hours off trail belonged to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, founded in 1952 in Tucson Mountain Park. It is set up so artfully to blend with the land it describes that the place barely whispers “museum.” The desert landscape itself opens seamlessly from this planned one, bounded in the distance by the tree-fringed mountains that remind you that this region is most often described as a “sea of desert” punctuated by mountain “islands.”
You need to spend a day out here at the start of any trek into the desert because all the sights that attack your senses, all that appears so strange and maybe dangerous at first, all the mystery, come into play at the Desert Museum in a way that makes it seem if not manageable then at least part of a plan, part of a desert-driven logic. Cactus in its all its grotesque variety and animals in the most natural possible habitats don’t seem pinned down or imprisoned but function almost as ecological signposts, put here to show you the way. At one moment I turned down a path and found myself confronting a powerfully muscled, tawny mountain lion. Except for the solid sheet of protective glass between us, we were practically nose to nose. I looked at him for long minutes, and the big cat just stared back.