On The Page: The Secret Knowledge of Water

I didn’t discover the wonders of the desert until I was well into my twenties. My former partner took me to Moab and introduced me to its cranky bee-drinking bard, Ed Abbey. After that, I was hooked. The Colorado Plateau is actually considered a “semidesert” but I’ve also learned to love the Sonoran Desert and have learned to “not hate” the Mohave Desert. While mountains have my heart, it’s no accident that the mountains that I inhabit are so close to the desert and that I make regular pilgrimages to those parched lands.

Fellow Western Slope resident, Craig Childs writes about the deserts of the American West in a way that resonates with me more than anyone else, including Cactus Ed. Childs incorporates history, science, and landscape in a way that makes my Western loving nerdy heart sing.

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert delves into the intimate relationship between the desert and water. Throughout the book, Childs looks at both still water hiding in remote canyons to sustain life and the dramatic floods that rip through the arroyos and canyons of the desert tossing boulders.

I find myself getting pulled into writing like this both as someone who follows along with Craig on his adventures and seeing places through his eyes but also as someone who has walked (albeit more superficially) through some of the same landscapes.

The book opens with Childs discussing his exhaustive study of watering holes in just one range of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The Cabeza Prieta feels incredibly remote and has always seemed very dry to me; however, because I’m a hiker with a peakbagging problem, I have spent more time on the rocky spines of the mountains than probing the quiet canyons just below them. As is usual with Childs’s writing, the scene is made strikingly visible even to those who haven’t visited the locations he describes.

He discusses how ignorance of where to find water in some of America’s driest country can easily lead to death and gives the briefest outline of the history of traversing the El Camino Del Diablo. I was excited to learn more about Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and how he successfully traversed the Camino repeatedly by listening to natives of the area. (The peak for which he is namesake is one I really wanted to climb when in the Ajo area and is pictured below but then the western side of Organ Pipe National Monument was closed to the public; it’s since reopened, I guess it’s time to go back!)

After discussing hidden water holes in the southern deserts of Arizona, the scene shifts north to the Colorado Plateau. While some more standing water is discussed, the story shifts to moving water in the canyons surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Childs impetuously watches flash floods from close range and makes the reader imagine standing on hot desert rock when thunderstorms open up and let water course down the dry falls and canyons. (I was really distracted in this section by the fact that I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon. I’m going to have to figure out when to get down there…)

While I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I was still born in the northwest and learned to love the outdoor in the wet temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest so I am still fascinated with the extremes of the desert. The Secret Knowledge of Water was a book that gave me a deeper understanding of how life survives in the desert. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the southwest.

 

Cacti of the Week: Nightblooming Cereus

Nightblooming cereus

Nightblooming cereus
Peniocereus greggii

Nightblooming cereus is also known as “Arizona queen of the night” and “Reina de la noche.”

I’ve only seen this cactus once but apparently this cactus likes to grow underneath ironwood, creosote, and other bushes making it’s few, thin, stems hard to spot.

Nightblooming cereus

Nightblooming cereus is most famous for its white, cream, or pinkish strongly scented flowers. The flowers bloom after dark sometime in June or July and wither by morning.

Nightblooming cereus

Nightblooming cereus

Cactus of the Week: Many-headed Barrel

Many-headded barrel

Many-headded barrel
Echinocactus polycephalus

The Many-headded Barrel cactus grows in mounds of closely packed stems, these mounds can grow to reach 3′ across! Mostly this cactus grows in the Northwestern part of Arizona but it is also found in a small area near Yuma (which is where I found this along El Camino Del Diablo).

Many-headded barrel

Many-headded barrel

Cactus of the Week: Corkyseed Fishhook Pincusion

Corkyseed Fishhook Pincushion

Corkyseed Fishhook Pincushion
Mamillaria tetrancistra

These little cacti are adorable. They’ve got short white spines that make them look almost fuzzy with larger black spines in the middle of each areole. They can exist as a single stem or in groups of about 3-10 stems. Their flowers are pink and their fruits are bright red (and almost look like a chile).

Corkyseed Fishhook Pincushion

See how tiny they are? (Look in the lower left corner for the Corkyseed.)

Corkyseed Fishhook Pincushion w/ North Ajo Peak

Cacti21

Cacti1

Cacti2

Travesia: Jeeping In Mexico

At 3Up Adventures, we always are on the lookout for something exciting and unique to try so when Forrest’s coworker invited us to join an off-road jeep run in Mexico, we went. We arrived at the designated meeting place an hour early, signed up, and waited. Neither of us speak any Spanish but we managed to make a few friends.

Travesia, February 2013

About an hour after we were supposed to meet, things got started. As we started to move out of the gas station, sirens began to blare: we were getting a police escort down the highway through the heart of Sonoyta. As we drove through town, I waved back at the “spectators” enjoying the “parade.”

Traversia, Sonoyta

South of town several miles, we turned west and our trip started for real. It was exciting to drive through a Sonoran Desert that showed it was further south with a different variety of plants. Eventually, we turned off the road and headed cross country, up sand dunes, and through washes. F enjoyed showing off the capabilities of our jeep!

Traversia, Desert Road

Traversia, Donkey

TJ in Mexico

Traversia

We made camp around three and then went out to play in the sand dunes some more. We’d brought along food for dinner but our hosts wouldn’t hear of us not sharing their feast: we had a yummy bean stew and carne asada tacos. It was delicious!

Jeep, Traversia

Jeeps, Traversia

Jeep on Sand Dunes

Jeeps

Sunset

Sonoran Desert at Sunset

Camp

Jeeping friends

3Up Adventures. Family

Cactus of the Week: Senita

Senita

Senita Cactus
Pachycereus schottii

I hadn’t seen a Senita in the wild until we got to Mexico. While driving through the desert, I kept wondering what was up with the “hairy Organ Pipes,” once I got out and took a look, I realized they were a totally different species.

The Senita is another tall cactus (like the Saguaro and the Organ Pipe), measuring between 10′-20′ tall. They grow in large clusters, up to 100 stems. Their stems are hexagonal and waxy looking with a heavier concentration of spines at the tops of the stems that give them that hairy or shaggy appearance. The spines at the top of the stems are also longer than those at the bottom.

Senita

Senita

Senita

Cactus Of The Week: Engelmann Hedgehog

Engelmann HedgehogT

Engelmann Hedgehog
Echinocereus engelmannii

Engelmann Hedgehog

The Engelmann Hedgehog has cylindrical stems that grow in bunches of 3-60 stems. Most of the ones I’ve seen look like the above with 5-10 stems. They have wavy ribs and varied colors to their spines making them look “shaggy.”

Engelmann Hedgehog

Arch Canyon

A couple weekends ago, Forrest, Ezra, and I decided we were going to head up Arch Canyon in Organ Pipe National Monument. We were hoping that we’d be able to find a way up the steep canyon walls to reach the summit of Mt. Ajo and return via Bull Pasture.

Arch Canyon trailhead

Natural Arch

One of the things Forrest remarked upon as we hiked through the canyon was how much it reminded him of Utah (and also how incredibly green everything was!). The canyon was very tight in some places as we made our way up the wash—everything was simply stunning!

Arch Canyon

Arch Canyon

We weren’t able to make it onto Mt. Ajo’s summit ridge; we headed to the east as soon as we thought we could traverse the ridge and were foiled by some areas that looked too sketchy to do without ropes. In retrospect, it may be possible to summit if you stay in the wash proper as long as you can and head more directly for the summit. Despite not reaching the summit, we had an excellent day of hiking, scrambling, and even doing some light climbing.

Arch Canyon

Spring, Arch Canyon

Arch Canyon

Arch Canyon

Ezra climbing in Arch Canyon

View from Arch Canyon

Forrest climbing in Arch Canyon

The summit of Mt. Ajo is visible on the left: (SO CLOSE. Yet SO FAR.)

Mt. Ajo

 

Cactus of the Week: Saguaro

Saguaro Cacti

Saguaro
Carnegiea gigantea

The saguaro is a tall tree height cactus found throughout southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. The saguaro can grow to 70′ tall but on average, a mature saguaro will reach 30′.

Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus

Saguaros flower in April through June and produce ruby colored fruits. Saguaros eventually grow arms (those without arms are called spears) and can be as old as 150 years old!

Saguaro Cactus

El Camino Del Diablo

Last week we had a really nice rain in the desert so Forrest and I decided that it was a perfect time to go out and drive El Camino Del Diablo since the dust wouldn’t be an issue. I’m so so glad we did: it definitely wasn’t dusty and we even saw a ton of wildflowers out on a hike.

El Camino Del Diablo traverses the desert between Ajo and Wellton (Yuma) passing through Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range. To drive the Camino, you need to obtain a free permit (available at several locations) but fortunately the agencies work together so you only need one.

Mountains

We left before the sun was up and were treated to some beautiful silhouette skylines and awesome views of the Bates Mountains as the sun rose.

Sunrise

Kino Peak, Bates Mountains

Windmill

As we were driving along through the Pinal Sands, Forrest asked me how close we were to Mexico. I took a guess based on the map and said “Four.” As it turned out, he was able to see the border fence. After the morning in the car we were all ready for a hike so off we went. The hike was awesome! The border was only about a mile away and the flowers were beautiful.

Pinal Sands

Desert Plants

Forrest and Sprocket

Desert flowers

Desert flowers

Desert flowers

Forrest and Sprocket, US-Mexico border

Beth, US-Mexico Border

Desert Flowers

As we left the Refuge and entered the Goldwater Range, we stopped to do some exploring at the Tinjas Altas. There’s some beautiful rock with pools in it there. Definitely worth the detour off the main Camino.

Tinjas Altas

Tinjas Altas pools