by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
You can’t turn on your radio or television these days without hearing something about “Homeland Security”. I surely don’t envy Tom Ridge who, as head of that newly created authority, is trying to knit together all of the various governmental departments and make them function as one. Before you ask why I am writing about a political issue, let me reassure you that I’m not. It’s just that, as a naturalist, I was recently made even more acutely aware of the enormous task confronting Tom Ridge and our country. I was down in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in southern Arizona, looking at a rusted strand of barbed wire fence that stretched for miles and miles through the desert. That rusted fence was only about 3½’ high, fastened to spindly three inch thick mesquite and iron posts. That rusted fence was the line of demarcation between the United States and Mexico. The freedom and opportunity that we enjoy in our country, and too often take for granted, is why that fence is never going to keep anyone out who wants to cross it, whatever their purpose.
What was I doing contemplating a rusted barbed wire fence? For years my wife has said that she has always wanted to see the desert in bloom. She has a passion for cacti of all types. And what man, in his right mind, would ever deny a passion of any kind of his wife’s, especially when she devotes her life to keeping him happy? That’s why we were in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the middle of March 2003 — because, if you want to see the desert bloom, that’s when you have to be there.
However, wanting to see the desert bloom and seeing it bloom, even if you are in the right spot at the right time, are two entirely different things. I had assumed, and I know no one should ever just assume, that this would be a great year to see the desert bloom because I kept hearing that they were getting some rain or snow in that area all through the winter. What I didn’t know, and now you do, was that they really need the moisture in October and November to produce the best flowers the following year. They got some moisture in October and November, enough to produce a good year, but not enough to produce a great year for the flowers. As the naturalist in the visitor’s center told me, on a scale of one to ten, the year 2003 was about a six.
Thank God we weren’t there the year before because he said that 2002 was just a one. So that you don’t have to depend upon the luck of the draw, I would suggest you call the headquarters at 520-387-6849 before going to the park if you are contemplating a trip there. You should also realize that, although March is the peak month for the flowering of the desert plants and flowers, it is not the peak for the cacti. The different cacti bloom in different months, spanning a period of about five months from March into July.
Brittlebush, a shrub that grows to be about two feet high and has pale gray-green leaves, produces beautiful bright yellow flowers on the end of ten to twelve inch stalks. This plant favors disturbed soil, as the ubiquitous fireweed does in the north, literally blanketing the roadside in a blaze of sunshine color. The Mexican gold poppy favors similar conditions and, in the drier areas, seems to supplant the brittlebush, with it, too, forming extensive masses of color. As the poppies close each night, they should not be photographed before nine in the morning to give the petals time to open their beautiful orange-yellow cups. The globe mallow produces beautiful small orange cups on a two to three foot tall weedy stalk that creates blankets of flowers in between the creosote bush and the palo verde shrubs. The bladder pod mustard is a dwarfed version of our much taller northern wild mustard plants. It blankets the land on undisturbed soil.
Saguaro cacti are common throughout the area, but the region gets its name from the many organ pipe cacti that are found mainly in just that area. The saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States, with the organ pipe being number two. Whereas the saguaro is basically a single stalk cactus, having arms in the adult plants, the organ pipe grows a cluster of ten to twenty-four stalks coming out of a single base.
Each individual, unbranched stalk grows to be six to eight inches in diameter and reaches a height of eight to ten feet. This cactus blooms during May, June and July, but only opens its blossoms after dark when you will have to photograph them with flash. Although many of the cacti, such as the beaver tail, prickly pear, hedgehog, pincushion and fishhook, etc. bloom during the daytime, many cacti bloom only at night.
Again, as in Saguaro National Park, this area is best visited in October through April. Summertime temperatures often average about 105° Fahrenheit in the daytime, with the temperatures recorded at the official distance of five feet above the ground, with the gauge housed inside a ventilated enclosure. Ground temperatures, taken in the midday sun, occasionally reach a scorching, shoe-searing temperature of 175° F.
To that I say, “No, thank you”.
Although there are numerous hiking trails throughout the area, there are just two basic roads. The Ajo road is best run in the afternoon as the light will be most favorable for the area’s scenic features and can be covered in about three hours, even with the frequent stops we made for photography. This area is the best place to photograph the organ pipe cacti as they thrive on the foothills at the base of the south-facing slopes of the Ajo Mountains. Cold is this cacti’s worst enemy and they get their greatest protection from the location I’ve just described. About ten miles out on this loop road is a beautiful natural arch at Arch Canyon.
We took an entire day to drive the 53 mile Puerto Blanco drive. We carried our lunch, lots of extra water and took our time. We wore our “Turtleskin” snake-proof gaiters because, if you want to see and photograph wildlife, you have to walk up the bushy draws where the occasional rains nurture a profusion of grasses, flowers and bushes on the banks of the now-dry washes. We saw no snakes, but we felt much better, knowing we were not as vulnerable to any undiscovered snake that might strike at us.
Male Gambel’s quail, calling from the tops of bushes, lured us up the washes. Blue-gray gnatcatchers, verdin and ruby-crowned kinglets seldom held still long enough for us to get in some photography. The roadrunners we saw were all doing just that – running. Perhaps it was because I am so hard of hearing that I didn’t hear any BEEP BEEPs. Between miles five and six are the most productive washes for both birds and flowers.
I played hide and seek with a little Harris antelope squirrel. It would hide and I would seek over and over again. They favor rocky ledges for a dwelling place, yet they need bushy cover to protect them from such aerial predators as hawks. The little squirrel, and they are little, being smaller than most chipmunks, would scamper up on a rock to see what I was doing, but always peeking out from behind some protective brush.
What I was doing was trying to tiptoe around the rock so I could find a clear shot at the squirrel without the intervening brush. Me, tiptoeing with a 48 pound video camera must have been a comical sight, and the only reason I finally got some decent video clips was that the squirrel was so busy laughing it forgot to duck. That took up several hours of our morning.
The ocotillo, a plant with eight to twelve foot long spindly stems, was in full bloom; the bright orange flowerlets crouched on the last ten inches or so of each stem. The ocotillo is known as a drought deciduous plant, meaning that throughout the year the stems, over their full length, are covered with one inch bright green leaves that turn brown and fall off during each dry spell. The plant then produces another crop of new leaves each time it rains. The mule deer love nibbling on the tender new leaves. The palo verde is a beautiful, willowy shrub that doesn’t appear to have any leaves because the few it has are so small. Palo Verde is Spanish for pale green and this shrub has a beautiful pale green bark on every exposed surface. The shrub is able to produce chlorophyll through just its bark and, not having leaves, it is able to survive in the desert by eliminating the transpiration of water through its leaves.
We ate our lunch at Bonita Well, a well that was drilled to provide water for cattle by Robert Gray when ranching was allowed in this area. The old corral and the windmill which pumped the water are still standing. In 1978, when the Organ Pipe Cactus Monument was classified as a wilderness area, it barred ranching and mining for all time.
While eating our lunch beneath a brush-covered framework called a ramada, we watched and photographed a pair of phainopeplas take turns incubating their eggs. The phainopeplas look like a jet-black, smaller edition of the common cardinal, crest and all, although the phainopepla’s crest is much longer than the cardinal’s.
Little lizards scurried about among the branches and framework of the ramada. They were most uncooperative, either being too fast or too well hidden when they didn’t move to be able to get decent photography. Frustration comes in the large, family-sized package in the desert.
At signpost 15, we parked our car in the designated area and hiked back ¼ mile to photograph a cristale Saguaro. Through some freak of nature, the tip of two saguaros, instead of being a straight pole, grew a plumed top. The second, and largest, of the cristale is an absolutely exquisite plumed growth. Absolutely perfect in formation, and so unusual, it actually inspires awe in all who see it. Because of its huge fan shape, that particular saguaro is always in danger of being blown down because of its increased resistance to the strong winds that rage through the area. Losing the saguaro would be losing a true national treasure and I am so thankful that we had a chance to see and photograph it.
While the first thirty miles of the Puerto Blanco Drive is a one-way road, the last section of the road, paralleling the international border and that rusted four strand barbed wire fence, is a two way road because it goes to a little village beyond the monument. Because of the village, the road is heavily used and deeply washboard-rutted. When driving that road, at even slow speeds, and we were the only ones who drove that way, you have to clench your teeth tightly. This is not done out of fear, but to keep your fillings from falling out.
Organ Pipe National Monument is truly a uniquely spectacular piece of the United States. To maximize your chances of seeing it at its best, please call the number I have given you.