Posts Tagged ‘desert’

It takes some time for the traces and stink of civilization to fade, and with it the frenetic feel and busyness of a productive life. There is no productivity here, at least in a traditional sense. Unless breathing is considered productive. Unless studying the shapes and shadows of saguaro and ocotillo is worth something. Unless sampling endless beauty and soft desert sunsets can be considered a vocation, or learning the nuanced intricacies of sparrow chip and cactus wren whirrings.

By the second day in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I can feel it slipping away. Gone is the need to schedule my time, or to have a watch, for that matter. Slowly the scent of a flat-screen TV, of piped in heat and water, of a carpet is supplanted by the rain-scent of creosote, the dry must of sand, and the powder-blue whiff of an endless desert sky. Glancing at my truck, I can almost see the shadow of the city spilling out of the back and diffusing in the dry breeze. Gone is the moisture ofVermont; gone is the rusting salt of the winter roads. The desert seeps in.

I am no longer a teacher at a private boarding school inVermont. Those responsibilities fall away, too. I am back to being a student, and there is much to learn from the desert. Lessons in solitude, lessons in stillness, lessons in possibility abound. And lessons to be learned, too, from the bounce of the rock wren that lingers near my tailgate, or the manic wailings of the coyotes, or the way that the ravens dance and play in the wind, barrel-rolling just for the pleasure in it. One could spend a lifetime studying these things, and still have much to learn. For now I am content in this.

The cacophony of shapes and textures here is amazing. Escarpments of bare rock rising like battered battleships overhead, the snake-like profile of ocotillos against the fading light of day, the hiss of wind through the spines of saguaro and organ pipe, the way that the chortle of a raven or the questioning calls of flicker and Gila woodpecker can be swallowed, absolutely, by the stillness of the landscape.

Alamo Canyon. Four “primitive” campsites tucked at the end of a dusty, rocky track. Eight dollars buys you admission to the show, paid at the visitor’s center to a volunteer that seems happy to see you, and excited to tell you about the places in the park you can go that aren’t listed as trails on the map. Grassy Canyon.AjoPeak. Perhaps it is because I am different from most of the usual clientele. Organ Pipe in January seems to be a destination for retirees seeking a warm place to park their RVs and trailers, hoping to catch all of the ranger talks at the main campground. Good people. Students, too. And it occurs to me that if I am lingering somewhere surrounded by those that have retired from their busyness and business, then maybe I am doing something right with my life. Who wouldn’t want to lead the life of one retired. Perhaps I am a student of avoiding work, too.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is not a place that you stop on your way to somewhere else… unless you are headed toMexico. The border stands mute only miles to the south, and the roads are trafficked by green-striped Border Patrol trucks driven by professionals in dark sunglasses. Checkpoints abound, with serious, uniformed employees who ask questions and wait for you to stumble. “Did you, perhaps, pick up a hitchhiker by accident?” one of them asks me. But mostly they wave me through. Vermont plates, a weathered old Toyota stacked full of my worldly possessions … hiking boots with a  stink to them, layers of bedding, packaged dinners, a soccer ball. This place is out of the way. You end up here by trying to end up here.

This monument is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. It is a true and empty desert, but actually quite alive. Don’t tell anyone. There are two short seasons of rain each year in the Sonoran desert, and this abundance of moisture lends itself to abundant and varied life. Lots of birds, lots of flowers (at the right time), lots of mammals, and always the lizards. Were one to sit still for a little while, say on a tailgate in a primitive camp site, you would be visited by antelope squirrels and canyon towhees and cactus wrens and ravens and side-blotched lizards. Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, and curve-billed thrashers would perch on nearby cacti. After sunset, the gentle chirring of crickets would ease you to sleep while a distant great-horned owl issued its hollow call. A screech owl might move through in silence. With luck, you might catch a glimpse of a kangaroo rat. But don’t tell anyone. Follow Edward Abbey’s advice and only tell of the dangers of rattlesnakes, of sunburn and dehydration, of scorpions and kissing bugs. When they ask what is out there, simply reply “nothing.” And it is true in a way, a beautiful, empty nothingness.

But each morning, as I climb out of my bed in the back of the truck, I find myself spreading my arms to the world around me and celebrating the fact that I am alive and surrounded by beauty. I find myself grinning at random moments, astounded by my luck at being here to see all of this, at the gift of being alive and healthy. I find myself talking to the critters as if they are friends, to the cacti, even. Even the rocks sometimes. Thanking them frequently.

And all of the time, this body of mine is breathing it in, eating it, reforming it into living cells. The scratches crisscrossing my shins are healing with bits of the desert. My hair and fingernails are growing from the desert. As the traces ofVermontand a third-floor apartment leave me, as the stink of it all seeps out of my clothes and possessions to be replaced by something cleaner, I am slowly becoming a part of this place. With every breath and sip of water, my body builds with the essence of this place.

As the blush of sunset paints the western sky and silhouettes hundreds of cactus sentinels, I can feel it happening. The slow recovery. The coming back into being. The pulse of my body tuning. And in the morning, when I crawl out of bed in the half-light, ready to greet the sun and thank it for another day, I will spread my arms in amazement at being alive to see another day.


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a peek toward Salt Creek

Peekaboo Spring is the end of the road. And I suppose I could have driven there, save for the fact that my truck was heavily loaded with belongings. Instead, I took a walk from Squaw Flat Campground and five miles later found myself at a trailhead, complete with parked trucks and loud visitors.

The biggest attraction of Peekaboo Spring is the rock art that graces a point of rock that sticks out into the drainage and forces Salt Creek to make a large U.  A line of painted dots and two white shield figures partly obscure older, faded, and more sinister figures painted in brown. People have been here a long time.

rock art at Peekaboo Spring

note the faint brown figures

A few hours later I found the perfect camp in a side drainage off of Salt Creek. Rain was predicted for the night, and I found a huge boulder with overhung space beneath it… large enough for my tent and I, and remarkably free of packrat tracks or droppings. There was a an arch high on the distant redrock horizon. My legs were tired and there was hours until sunset. I wished I’d brought a book. Life was good.

shade and rain shelter

morning view from camp

The next day was one of memories. At the top of the side canyon, I found the spot where, years ago, I found my first spotted owl. Well, in truth, she found me–whistled at me in full daylight. But that’s another story. But still, I found the tree and the exact spot where I had been standing. Fifteen years and nothing looked that different. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have found my boot prints.

And further down the canyon, another spot where I watched a mother owl feeding two fluffy owlets as morning light painted the canyon walls orange. A magical moment. I found that juniper, too. But no owls.

At one point in my wanderings, I noticed a line of white dots on a rock face… much like those at Peekaboo Spring. Further investigation yielded a couple of figures on another panel. One was a faded, white snake, and the other was a sheep or goat. This was one of my favorite finds of the trip. What does this Anasazi art mean?

a pointilist goat... sheep?

The end of my day was a reconnaissance mission to the very top of the side canyon to see if maybe, just maybe, I could find a route that would cut through back to Salt Creek Canyon. The map suggested the possibility, but I have been in this country enough to know that the contour lines can hide many a impassable wall. But it was worth a try.

Turns out there were several impassable walls. I studied the benches carefully, and saw a few places that might lead a seasoned climber/scrambler up, but in the end decided that backtracking was the better option. So much for a loop hike. I would have been doing my climbing with a fully loaded pack, and no one knew where I really was. Still, it was pretty country there–soaring red cliff faces and spires. And the attempt made me feel alive.

Day three found me hiding my big pack in Salt Creek Canyon and strolling up canyon carrying some water, food, compass, and the map. The higher parts of Salt Creek, just north of the Angel Arch side canyon, twist back and forth like a snake in the rock art (maybe there’s a connection…) and is beautiful to walk. Furthermore, the area around Angel Arch is full of Anasazi ruins and rock art. It makes for fantastic investigation. I climbed up to several rock art panels, and by glassing and re-glassing one rocky point, just caught the dark square of a doorway–this little site was amazing…little cobs of corn still in the granary, and five hand outlines above the structure.

granary and hand outlines

1200 year old (?) corn cob

On my way back down, I scrambled up to a white outline of a hand and forearm. I was a little disappointed that there weren’t any other panels or rock art near it… but then I noticed some piled, flat rocks that looked like a collapsed structure, and in among these I found some pottery shards. I’ve never found pottery shards before, and it was pretty cool. Laying in the dust, little pieces of something made by those same hands that I see outlined in white paint in secret places in these canyons. How many years old?

pottery shards

The last day is always hard. Tiredness is a factor, of course, but the brain also tends to wander. Thoughts of real food, cold drinks, and other facets of syphillization intrude on the part of you that is able to appreciate the present. You are still outside in beautiful country, the mountains still shine with snow, and red rocks reach toward and endless sky, but somehow the mind wanders. It’s inevitable. But even though it is a relief and joy to see the truck at the trailhead, it still saddened me to leave the canyon country. Good memories, good adventures. It’s funny how a place can feel like home.

Sad to part, but I’ll be back.

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