Ever since visiting the Grand Canyon six years ago, Arizona has held a special mystique for me. It is a colorful state, full of deserts and mountains and rivers and flowers. Driving this stretch of highway between Flagstaff and Tucson in the bright morning hours is particularly striking; the wildflowers are in bloom, the air is clear, and as I progress farther south, I begin to see saguaros.
Saguaros - the classic symbol of the American Southwest - are beyond doubt one of the great wonders of the plant kingdom. Growing to heights as great as 50 feet and weighing up to 9 tons, these huge silent sentinels of the desert are as majestic as they are mysterious. They can live for as long as 150 years, and their pleated exterior enables them to expand and contract like an accordion as they gain and lose moisture. In May, their great green limbs are festooned with delicate white blossoms - the state flower of Arizona.
Saguaro National Park is divided into two parts, one on either side of Tucson. I follow the brown signs off the highway to the western half of the Park, arriving around 11 AM. After studying the maps and obtaining some information from the Visitor's Center staff, I elect to take the Hugh Norris Trail to Wasson Peak, a 10-mile round trip with some moderate elevation gain.
The trail is excellently made, and though the temperature is a good deal warmer than it was in Utah, the miles count off easily. The better you get at hiking, the better ratio of inspiration to perspiration you can achieve. Honestly, it's not much fun if you're working so hard that you can't enjoy yourself or take in the scenery. Get toned before you go, because a National Park is no place to be getting in shape; there's too much to see.
The sign at the beginning of the trail warned of Africanized honeybees, so I'm keeping a sharp eye. I'm not afraid of much, but there are a few things that will freeze my blood and stop me in my tracks, and bees are one of them. Many years ago, our family was attacked by an angry hive of big, mean, hairy bumblebees, and as a result of that traumatic experience I developed an irrational fear of buzzing flying things, which I carry to this day. I personally think that some bees take a sadistic delight in dive bombing me just to see me duck and cower. Suffice to say that I avoid bees as much as possible, and thankfully the few that I met in Saguaro were content for the most part to leave me alone.
I have recently been growing more and more interested in finding out the names of things in order to appreciate them more fully. I used to think that I could enjoy a burst of butterflies or a riot of wildflowers just as well without knowing their name: I see now that I was quite honest, quite idealistic, and quite wrong. There is character, information, and identity in a name that allows one to appreciate a specimen as something unique, something with it's own peculiarities, something alive. G. K. Chesterton, in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, observed that "in proper names themselves is half the poetry of all national poems."* It is the specificness of this thing or this flower as opposed to some other thing or some other flower, and the only way to fully enjoy this precise personal connection is to know the name.
Toward this end, I purchased a book in Saguaro that briefly describes 100 Desert Wildflowers of the Southwest - a small beginning, but a beginning nonetheless. At the very least I wanted to be able to identify the most prominent flora in the desert parks, and in this I have been largely successful. By the end of my desert tour, I was greeting the Ocotillo, Teddy Bear Cholla, Strawberry Hedgehog, Prickly Pear, Barrel Cactus, Staghorn Cholla, Texas Madrone, Alligator Juniper, and Soaptree Yucca like old friends.
Atop the peak, I sign the register, chew on some beef jerky, apply some duct tape to some hot spots, and enjoy the view of Tucson. After a few minutes I gather my gear and head back down. The sun is beginning to cast eastward shadows, and my thoughts are turning eastward with them, to the Guadalupe Mountains of western Texas.
*G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 69