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A Yankee in the Desert

NH Tourist in Phoneix, AZ (continued)

Author meets Phoenix native in the desert / photo

My first New Hampshire footstep made no impression on the mighty desert. The hard dry desert surface felt as fake as a plaster movie set and even the low shrubbery seemed no more lively than the little trees sprinkled on an HO railroad set. The only tracks in evidence were the worn trails of motocross bikes and recreational vehicles. The only scorpions I saw, in the end, were those frozen in blocks of clear Lucite and sold as keychains at the airport. The only wildlife, save for what sounded like the flutter of a jackrabbit and the occasional circling bird, were those on the Discovery Channel in the hotel. But dead ahead was what I had really come for, the shape that told me I was far, far from home.

Instinctively, with no other destination in sight, I had been walking toward the rocky red hills, ignoring a small paved road until it obligingly disappeared. Finally, there it was in all its moldy green splendor, attended by a retinue of wispy shrubs. Experts will tell you they have no idea how old the saguaros grow. They survive only in Arizona, and natives say they are hundreds of years old, older certainly than any structure in Phoenix, older perhaps than early Spanish missions, though young compared to the ruined homes of early Arizona natives.

Your first saguaro is always your best. We stood alone together for ten minutes or so, saying nothing. Maybe this guy was a round fuzzy ball on this very spot when my ancestor stepped off the Mayflower. Probably not, but there was an ancient spirit here all the same. I put my hand between the spines and touched the corrugated flesh. This green guy has been standing here motionless, I told myself, through countless 120-degree summers and ferocious desert winds. He knows how to survive. Saguaros can live years with the water they store inside. They waste no energy. They make few friends. They listen well. These were lessons worth traveling thousands of miles to learn. Checking to be sure we were alone, I positioned my camera on a desert rock, set the timer, and posed beside a large wise plant.

To make a long story short, I managed to get as lost in the desert as I regularly do in the woods and along the rivers of my home turf. It was four hours and probably five or six miles of wandering later that I found the botanical garden museum hidden right out in the open. It had looked so easy to reach when I spotted it with binoculars from atop some rocky hill. But one saguaro looks pretty much like the next, and the horizon has a tricky way of hiding the obvious out there in the Sonoran Desert. Eventually I met thousands of cacti from every imaginable tribe -- century plants, Joshua trees, monkey tails, yuccas, barrel, organ-pipe and jumping cactus. They whispered secrets of America's ancient past, things a mere Yankee could not understand.

(To Be Continued )




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