Not a Snorin’ Desert After All

Arizona and the Sonoran Desert

Eastern California

 

Joshua Tree, CA – Tucson, AZ

Mile 5949 – 6493

October 15 – October 17, 2010

Immediately upon leaving Joshua Tree National Park, the desert around me took on a starker appearance.  I saw almost none of the “megaflora” characteristic of the Mojave Desert in the park – no Joshua Trees, no mesquite, none of the larger cacti.  In fact, the desert that had seemed so full of life in the park now looked like the vast wasteland I had always imagined it to be.  For the most part, this continued to be the case as I headed straight east into Arizona, soon crossing back into the Sonoran Desert.

A wink at desolation

The towns I passed through on my way, few and far between, looked equally bleak.  I think that it was the lack of water, combined with generally mild temperatures, that made the buildings and their landscaping somehow less “civilized”-looking than what I am used to.  There was, of course, dust everywhere, buildings didn’t need to have the sturdy roofs and walls that northern snow and cold require, and there wasn’t the water to spare for elaborate gardens, let alone lawns (though some homes, apparently to show off their good wells, had palm trees planted in the yard).  That said, there isn’t much of an economy in the area, aside from ranching and whatever is needed to serve the immediate needs of those ranchers, fifty miles or more from the nearest town of 1,000.  I’m not sure what keeps people out there – though, to be honest, I’m still not completely sure why people tried to settle there in the first place, unless it was the strangely beautiful, otherworldly appearance of the desert.

Saguaro National Park's star attraction

The charismatic cactus of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro, which can grow up to 50 feet tall.  Sometimes called the giant saguaro, they are the largest cactus species in the United States.  Like the Joshua Trees, large populations of saguaros look like forests, with the other cacti, shrubs, and even small trees serving as the “underbrush.”  I, however, saw only a few saguaros scattered here and there along the hundreds of miles I traveled through eastern California and western Arizona.  This was particularly true in central Arizona, south and west of Phoenix, where ranching and (what passed for) cropland were clearly widespread.  Just outside of Tucson, though, lies Saguaro National Park, set aside to preserve some of the great “saguaro forests” and the rest of the ecological community of the Sonoran Desert.

Western AZ

Why are these giants of the desert – the saguaro and the Joshua tree – nearly invisible outside of the preserves named for them?  I’m not completely sure, but it seems pretty clear that humans are responsible, at some level.   The saguaros in Saguaro N.P. are actually at the edge of their range – in a terrain too steep and cold to support agriculture as reliably as the flats (and in Arizona, that’s really saying something).  Joshua Tree N.P. is in one little corner of the Mojave Desert, yet even in the adjacent town named for that giant agave, there were few Joshua trees around.   Both plants, but especially the saguaro, have had human uses for as long as people have inhabited the desert.  The Tohono O’odham, and the ancient Hohokam before them, ate and preserved the juicy fruits and used the woody stems for building.  It seems likely that early Europeans in the area would have done the same, as a substitute for non-existent trees.  In addition, grazing animals compact the soil and trample young seedlings.

Saguaro "savannah" in Saguaro National Park

While some use of these plants is part of the balance of life and death in the desert, they are a very delicate species and cannot withstand the heavier impacts resulting from white settlement.  According to the national park brochure, a saguaro may grow only ¼ inch tall in its first year, reaching a foot after 15 years, and up to seven feet in 50 years.  It does not begin to flower and produce fruit until around 30 years old.   When one of these cacti it cut down, then, it may take well over a hundred years to replace it, and damaging the surrounding soil and vegetation ecology, or

Prickly pear cactus in Saguaro NP

removing all of the remaining fruits and seeds, will clearly have a devastating effect on the population.

Saguaros and teddy bear cholla cover the hills in Saguaro NP

Enough depressing talk, though – there are places where the desert ecology is well-preserved and maintained, and they are awesome.  I didn’t have enough time to really explore Saguaro National Park, nor did I get to the Sonoran Desert Museum in its west unit, which I have heard from several sources is wonderful.  I did get to drive the loop road in the east unit, though, and get out for a couple short walks.  It would be great to get back and see more sometime – two thirds of the park is designated wilderness, and in the Rincon Mountains on

Saguaro, prickly pear, and barrel cacti share space with creosote bush, palo verde, and others

the eastern side, one can hike up to scrub oak and even Ponderosa pine forests.  Tucson itself, which lies between the two parks, is a beautiful desert city, with towering cacti in front yards and mountains surrounding the town.  My own (great-) aunt’s garden, in the foothills north of downtown, was as beautiful as the National Parks, if slightly less wild.

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