Travelogue: Sonoran Desert
We hired Jesse, a self confessed cowboy with an off-road jeep for a tour of the northern part of the Sonoran Desert. Jesse strapped us all into his slightly battered and bruised open sided jeep and took off down the highway, and as the wind took our breath Jesse talked of indian reservations and bikers conventions and how in this part of the desert the valleys are narrower, the mountains are higher, the winters are colder and the summers are warmer, and we were going to see it all.
The Sonoran Desert covers the southwestern part of Arizona, part of California and the northern part of Mexico and is approximately 120,000 square miles in size.
Jesse drove us slowly away from the busy roads to a point where hundreds of mail boxes were bundled together on dirt, and the track moved from gravel to sand.
“This is as far as the mailman comes,” Jesse announced and then with a steep drop we were off.
What amazed me was for miles tucked away amongst the terrain of cactus, trees, flowers and nothing were houses, big houses. All with roof top gardens. No one is safe in there own garden Jesse told us, that land belongs to the snakes and scorpions, so people sit on the roof. Interesting I thought as I peered over the side of the jeep.
Drug-dealers and wealthy recluses, Jesse said when I asked who an earth would live in the middle of the desert where water has to be trucked in and snakes look into your living room patio doors.
Upon research the border that the Sonoran straddles is a popular route for illegal entry into the United States.
Eventually the houses gave way to silence, apart from the occasional All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) that were either racing or showing tourists around in a rush and low flying hawks.
The landscape was dramatic at an elevation of around 1,200 ft. The differing species of cacti was amazing and more than 2,500 different plants grow providing a range of wild animals with habitat, food and shelter.
The weather in April was perfect, although plenty of sun block was required. Arizona is famed for its dry heat when cold air descends in high pressure zones. The air becomes warm evaporating rainfall before it can land on the desert floor, which reaches super hot temperatures.
Jesse spent a lot of time teaching us all about the different types of cactus. The Saguaro are the most common in this part of the Sonoran.
The Saguaro has a smooth and waxy skin and is covered in two-inch spines located on vertical ribs. In May and June the cactus bears creamy white flowers on the end of huge branches. In frosts and in rare rainfalls the Saguaro’s extravagant root system soaks up water and stores it in its ribs. We watched as Gila woodpeckers attacked the Saguaro to get at the valuable water store.
Many of the Saguaro’s are over a century old and they are beautiful specimens with it’s body builder arms coming off its strong framework in different directions.
We also studied the Hedgehog Cactus, cylindrical in shape and about a foot long and one to two inches thick. These were not called Hedgehogs for nothing but they had deep red flowers that were beautiful. Native Americans Jesse told us collect the leaves, burn off the spines and mash them to make cakes.
Next was the easily distinguishable and rife Barrel Cactus. Some can get as big as 11 ft tall and it is not something that you want to trip over. Again the Native Americans use this cactus for food.
Jesse pointed out the Chain Fruit Cholla, the predecessor to chain wire fencing. These grow like weeds and pack a nasty prick and lie in wait all around the bottom of the plant.
The cactus we were most warned about was the Jumping Cholla and this is the one Jesse had the most fun with. Also known as Teddy Bear Cactus, which strangely appealed to our daughter. From a distance the branches look very fuzzy, almost like fur. But on closer inspection you see it is packed full of silvery spines.
These cactus also jump at you, or a least at the slightest breeze break away from the plant and attach to your skin. Cute as a teddy bear they ain’t!
It was our Cowboy’s moment as he drew this huge knife, more of a dagger actually and attacked a stem. With kevlar gloves he picked it up and set light to it. We lost him for a minute and he told us that when burnt the leaves smoke becomes a hallucinogenic!
We got him back just in time for him to chop up the cactus fruit, now free of dangerous thorns, and offer us part of the fruit. I made him go first, but the fruit tasted of not much, perhaps with a little bit of imagination, similar to an artichoke.
The show was over after Jesse pulled out a big pair of pliers and set about numerous sharp spines embedded in his gloves and cowboy boots.
Now it was time for a bit of rallying as we made our way down deep gravel ditches and sandy pockets at deft defying angles. Our daughter whooped with joy as her Mum and I held on for dear life. The more our daughter laughed the faster Jesse went. She certainly does not get that daredevil-ness from me.
I don’t how far we climbed down, but we were a lot lower and we now raced through rock canyons and plateaus. Once in a while a ATV would come around a blind corner as Jesse steered us out of the way and eventually we came to the edge of the stunning Rio Verde.
The river was freezing to the touch yet alluring and lucent. We spent some time watching as local kids jumped about on the rocks and in the water, whilst a couple of older generations smoked up the grill perched on rocks.
It was a great way to finish our tour and even better was that we had come one big circle and Jesse’s jeep was back on the highway in no time and we weren’t long away from the sanctuary of our hotel.