The Literal Landscape
Chasing Wildflowers in El Pinacate y Gran Desierto
Finding that I’m not at home, Scott Calhoun—my friend, neighbor, and author of the recently published Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener’s Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand—dashes over to the activity center in our Tucson, Arizona neighborhood and waits almost diligently for my meeting to end.
As we convene, he rushes up to me with a sparkle—or perhaps mad gleam—in his eye. “What are you doing tomorrow and the next couple days?” he asks. It’s a loaded question, and I know it.
“Working on Terrain.org,” I reply honestly. It is, after all, only two days until the next issue launches.
He dismisses my priority and tells me we’ve got an emergency. After all the spring rains, native flowers are blooming on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border like they haven’t in a decade or more. Reports have it, he says excitedly, that the flowers are nothing short of amazing at the Mexican state of Sonora’s Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, officially Reserva de La Biosfera de El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar. He looks me in the eye and says without a hint of sarcasm: “This is a wildflower emergency. Are you in?”
Monday, 2:44 p.m.
Our trip is confirmed, but we cannot leave until Tuesday because I’m taking care of my daughters tonight. Since Scott has to be back on Wednesday mid-day, and Terrain.org publishes the following day, that leaves us roughly 30 hours to cover some 600 miles, two languages, two national parks, three columnar cacti species each growing over 20 feet tall, dozens of wildflower species of every imaginable color and maximum density (we hope), and one seafood restaurant in Puerto Peñasco, at the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez, to enjoy fresh sea ray tacos and cold Negra Modelo in amber bottles.
Tuesday, 10:20 a.m.
We’ve just finished loading my Honda Accord, a four-door sedan logging 150,000 miles. What information on Pinacate there is—and there’s not much—generally advises a quattro by quattro, but she’s all I’ve got.
The snack collection we’ve assembled mirrors the hurried nature of our departure: turkey jerky, Fig Newtons, Swedish fish candy, random granola bars, husked almonds, and plenty of water. With all the gear we’ve packed—tent and lantern, sleeping bags and camera bags, tripods and wildflower guides, boxy coolers and wide-brimmed hats—you’d think we were driving the lonely road down Baja California rather than dipping into Sonora on one of Mexico’s better roads.
Less than an hour west of Tucson, coasting down state highway 86 before reaching Kitt Peak and the Baboquivari Mountains, a small hill rises from the cholla, saguaro, and mesquite dotting the landscape. Our minds must be playing tricks on us because suddenly it’s autumn and a massive stand of aspens is aflame. Where, then, are the blue spruce and Ponderosa pine? The chill in the air and the dusting of snow?
As we get nearer, however, the illusion passes to the ecstatic realization that the hill, about a half-mile south of the highway, is blanketed in golden-orange Mexican poppies and bright yellow bladderpod. Already we’ve seen wildly pink penstemon, deep orange globemallow, waxy white desert chicory, and fuscia owl’s clover—but nothing like this.
While a few other cars have stopped—drivers hunching over glossy hoods to stabilize their cameras—we slide into an opening on the road’s shoulder, dawn our hats and camera bags, and set off for a hike. Despite the cactus, this is clearly rangeland, and we carefully evade the barbed wire as we cross into the field. Immediately we are in a different world, and while the sun is higher than Scott—who definitely leans more toward ‘professional’ photographer than I—would like, our first real stop for wildflower photos, still so close to Tucson, is a great success.
Through the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and into the town of Why, Arizona, we spot more but far smaller patches of poppies, and also Gooddings verbena, and pink, purple, and white globemallow, a distinct and noteworthy difference from the more common orange globemallow. Turning south toward Mexico on highway 85, we enter Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and stop for some advice. At the visitor center, a park ranger tells us about her trip to Pinacate only last week, saying we won’t be disappointed in the blooms, though in a passenger vehicle our range will be limited.
“Don’t underestimate the trusty Accord,” I say, though realize the last thing we want to do is get stuck in Mexico’s largest desert region, especially when there’s already a travel advisory for Sonora. (In fairness, the advisory is based on problems encountered along the Texas-Mexico border, leagues east of here.)
“You have two options,” the ranger tells us. “Take Mexico 2 west out of Sonoyta and enter Pinacate from the north, where there are dunes and large volcanic outcroppings. But that’s a rough road with a wash that’s probably too risky to try without four-wheel drive.” Bummer.
“Or, take highway 8 south and enter the park from its south side, where the ‘visitor center’ is located.” After some discussion we agree this is the best plan, in part because we intend to camp in the park tonight, and need to register.
There are times, and this is one of them, when we shouldn’t give ourselves as much credit as is due. Take Scott, for example. He recently published a book, with his own text and photographs. That could, in theory, make him a professional photographer. And as his accomplice of sorts, that might make me a professional photographer, as well. The problem, as we learned from a Pinacate Biological Reserve administrator—a serious, uniformed woman with a keen eye for protocol—is that to officially take photographs in a national park or biological preserve, there’s a process that goes something like this: You request permission, in writing, a month or more before your visit; you await an affirmative response; you provide a gift of thanks once you arrive.
For two tourists who have suddenly become professional photographers, this doesn’t bode well. With the interpretive help of an actual professional photographer visiting from Mexico City, however, we are able to strike a deal: We may continue into the reserve to take photos, and then return this evening to get the director’s verbal blessing that will allow additional photography in the morning.
(At this point it’s worth noting that Scott, while not prolifically fluent, speaks Spanish fairly well. Simmons does not.)
With the sun well past its zenith, any deal is a good deal, so with camping permit in hand I guide the Accord slowly over the sand road and into the heart of Reserva de La Biosfera de El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar with the goal of making it to Crater Elegante, one of the large, near-perfectly round volcanic craters caused between five million and 150,000 years ago by rising magma colliding with groundwater. The pressure from their meeting resulted in an explosion with the power of an atomic blast, creating a series of half-sphere cutouts from the Sonoran desert terrain, some a mile wide and a thousand feet deep.
Elegante is one such maar crater, and we fear the photographs will not adequately show the massiveness of the crater and its caldera, which at the bottom is ringed by poppies and also seems, along the dark red volcanic cliff edges, to create its own wind. Perhaps its own weather altogether.
Hiking along the edge, Scott and I are nearly speechless from the stark, geologic beauty of the crater and the surrounding area, with its wild collection of senita and saquaro cacti, stunted elephant trees, palo verdes, ironwoods, blooming ocotillos, and glowing teddy bear chollas. Though the flowers here are fewer—mostly the yellow daisy-like brittlebush and some ground-dwelling, tiny purple beauties—the vastness of the scene is worth the trip alone.
And then we meet the Arizona blister beetle, which is not the legendary namesake of the park—the Pinacate beetle—that we hoped to see. Heading back, something catches the corner of my eye, so I kneel down for a closer look. I call Scott over and while we don’t mean to impose—apparently it is blister beetle mating season and their orgy is spread before us like the Moulin Rouge in miniature—we stick around a bit to watch the interesting black-and-orange insects. And since most are mating end-to-end or in more traditional manners, there seems little risk of getting our own skin blistered, which is a legitimate risk of these cantharidin-carrying bugs.
As the shadows grow and the landscape begins to absorb the last light, taking on the desert glow we’ve waited for all day, we drive back toward the biological reserve station. Along the way, we take liberal stops to photograph the smooth, green senita growing between ironwoods, now overtaking them, from the black ashen soil. We photograph the rare Ajo lily. We photograph cholla and saguaro and ocotillo. As the light leaves, the yellow and, on rarer occasion, white evening primrose begin to open, giving us hope that tomorrow our wildflower expectations will be met.
Tuesday, 4:00 a.m.
After hearing the wild pack of dogs and that singularly damned cricket all night—as short as the night was—I may have preferred to camp at Pinacate rather than falling into this hotel room just north of Puerto Peñasco. Still, we had to have seafood for dinner last night, and need to be on the road early this morning.
We’re heading north on 8, into and through Sonoyta, and then west on 2, toward Mexicali. Between the administrator, the Mexico City photographer named Frederico, and the custodian, we learned yesterday that kilometer markers 72 and 79 are the best (and perhaps only) places to stop along highway 2, places where we can walk or drive a short distance into the park, and take photos.
Last night the Pinacate director never made it back to the park. The only gifts we could have offered, we realize, are the Sonoyta oranges (15 pounds for $2) and the cold Dos Equis in the cooler. Turns out, however, that we’ll need those for breakfast, so it’s a good thing we didn’t give them away.
We’ve just turned south onto the microondas cobbled dirt road off highway 2, kilometer marker 72. Instantly, we know this is where we need to be. Primrose, sunflowers, sand verbena, and a number of others we cannot yet identify have exploded upon the sand dunes. While the inertia of magna and groundwater created the rare maas craters south of here, the inertia of millions of energy-clad seeds and a marvelously wet spring created this spectacular floral event—and we have to believe this is the peak day for blooms, as it was yesterday for the Mexican poppies and bladderpod along Arizona 86.
Words cannot convey what we hope and trust our photographs will [view wildflower gallery], but here’s some of what we see, set against sharp mountains in the background and shallow dunes in the fore: clumping violet sand verbena, pale purple lupine with airy geometrical leaves, Western peppergrass atop the cheddar-colored dunes, large white evening primrose, a sea of dark-centered yellow sunflowers, and much more.
Scott and I head off in different directions as the sun begins to rise, being as careful as possible not to step on the plants—an impossibility. By the time we return, an hour and a half later, we are, as A.R. Ammons reports in his poem “Prospecting:”
At dawn returning, wet
The heavy dew on the morning plants has greeted our shoes and long pants. After burning through 72 slide exposures and more than 40 digital, it’s time for breakfast—a surprisingly fulfilling collection of oranges, granola bars, and green-bottled Mexican beer.
Back at Organ Pipe—after a requisite visit to a Sonoyta mercado and three carne asada tacos each—we have another decision to make: head home, arriving by lunchtime, or take the 22-mile Ajo Mountain Drive into the rolling hills of Organ Pipe National Monument. After consultation with the ranger of yesterday, we decide on the drive.
Once again, we are not disappointed. Beginning with a sprawling display of flowering brittlebush against the burnt redbrown scarps, we’ve discovered a psychedelic collection of flowers among organ pipe cacti and their driftwood-like skeletons, saguaros, palo verdes, and ever-present chollas. Here we see more Mexican poppies, globemallow, penstemon, vividly blue lupine, Esteve’s pincushion, desert chicory, a wonderful light blue lily called covena, deep larkspur, chia, chuperosa, and a number of other white and yellow flowers like anemone and desert marigold.
I am also happy to report there is a slight traffic jam for a rattlesnake crossing our dirt road, then settling beneath an aromatic creosote bush.
Pulling into our southeast Tucson neighborhood, we’re hit by how much ground we’ve just covered. And we’re exhausted in the best kind of way.
In addition to the photographs and the sheer adventure of it all, I’ve quickly developed a new relationship with many of the desert plants I had been taking for granted, like brittlebush and globemallow.
We see these common desert shrubs planted as single entities or perhaps grouped in twos or threes in yards and medians. But to see them in uncountable numbers along a jagged hillside, or rising out of a sandy wash, or even in haphazard rows along the side of the road gives me a new appreciation.
So to them, and to Scott, and the Organ Pipe ranger, and the Arizona blister beetle, and the towering cacti, and the massive caldera, and the desert ironwood, and the late winter rains, and the resulting fields and hills and canyons of a raging floral fire, I give my thanks.
View more El Pinacate wildflower photos:
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