Fish-Hook Barrel Cactus Picture of the Week

When you hear someone talk about a desert, what image pops into your mind? Is it the endless Sahara dunes where Bedouins in keffiyeh headdress travel by camels? Maybe it’s the barren, dry lakes of Death Valley, or perhaps your go-to desert is in Mongolia. By definition, a desert is any place receiving less than 20 inches of annual precipitation. That makes most of the Great Plains, most of Southern California, and the Antarctic deserts.

My desert is the one that I’ve called home for almost 50 years; the Sonoran Desert. In the last half-century, I’ve traveled most of its parts within Arizona and California. I can attest that it’s not a flat, uniform wasteland—as some people think. It has mountains, canyons, plains, dry washes, and an exotic river or two. Its span ranges between Arizona and the Mexican State of Sonora. If you see a map of it (and you have to squint real hard), it’s jellyfish shaped—starting at the north (where I live), the half-circle body covers Arizona, and the tentacles reach south to either side of the Sea of Cortez. Its width covers from El Centro to Tucson.

The signpost that says, “This is the Sonoran Desert,” is the saguaro cactus. It thrives here because of the four major western deserts; the Sonoran is the only one with two rainy seasons; winter rains and summer monsoons. In winter, the rains nourish the cactus to flower and bloom, while the monsoons provide water for the dispersed seeds to germinate. Isn’t nature swell?

Although the saguaro may be the Sonora’s big-ticket item, it isn’t the only thing here to see. That’s evident when you visit the desert’s reserves like Saguaro National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, KOFA Wildlife Preserve, or several wilderness areas in southern Arizona. The biodiversity of these places will keep you on your toes—“Watch out! There’s a snake over there.”

Fish-hook Barrel Cactus - a couple of succulents nuzzle in the late afternoon sun.
Fish-hook Barrel Cactus – a couple of succulents nuzzle in the late afternoon sun.

That’s how I thought I’d end our one-day tour of Saguaro National Park. While exploring the park’s dirt road loop, I spotted a couple of succulents nuzzling one another, so I went in and grabbed a shot. I call this picture Fish-hook Barrel Cactus. It shows a couple of common cacti—a fish-hook barrel and prickly pear—glowing in the evening sun. The barrel cactus is the one you’re supposed to cut open if you need water—it’s not hollow, so you have to wring the pulp if you’re desperate for a bad tasting drink. Prickly Pear grows everywhere and has even overrun Australia after it was illegally transplanted there.

You can see a larger version of Fish-hook on its Web Page by clicking here. For December, we have an idea for a completely different type of monthly project. We had to. I’ll be spending time with my Mexican dentist—oh joy—and Anne is risking her life to visit her family. She’s shortening my leash while she’s away, so I won’t be able to roam very far from home. If I do, my electronic collar will shock me.

Until next time — jw

Arm Pits Picture of the Week

When we visit national parks, Queen Anne and I like to spend time at the visitor’s center. We study the 3D display map and look through all the books. It gives us an idea of what to expect. Unfortunately, one of the regrettable effects that COVID 19 has brought is that the centers are closed. Even so, we stopped at the one in Saguaro National Park because they leave literature outside for crazy folks like us. That’s where the story of this week’s picture begins.

After picking up a map, I wandered the grounds looking for a shot of the mountains outback. I took several shots, but I knew they weren’t keepers. We got back in the truck, intending to explore the open roads, but we never left the parking lot. I spotted a possibility and immediately parked. As I hiked up the hill, I spotted a unique saguaro, and I forgot all about what I was after. Ooh, squirrel.

Arm Pits - A close-up photo of a cactus that refused to shave found in Saguaro National Park, Arizona.
Arm Pits – A close-up photo of a cactus that refused to shave found in Saguaro National Park, Arizona.

Like people, saguaros are all different. Young ones have no arms; some have one arm, others two or more. Someone could publish a book of saguaro portraits—it’s probably already done. The specimen that caught my eye had multiple arms, and they were pretty much at the same level. It reminded me of the Hindu goddess Durga—the woman seated with a gold headdress and many arms. As I approached the cactus, I noticed that it hadn’t been marred with woodpecker holes, so I spent some time trying to get a memorable photograph.

When I first reviewed this shot on my computer, I came up with a litany of Queen Anne jokes about shaving her legs. They involved ruined pantyhose, scratching posts, bear fur, velcro, and things along those lines. But, this morning, I thought better and decided not to go there. It’s better not to squander what little life I have left. I didn’t want to let the humor go to waste, though, so I titled this shot Arm Pits.

You can see a larger version of Arm Pits on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week, our day in Saguaro National Park turns to late afternoon, so be sure to come back and see what we found.

Until next time — jw

Tucson Mountains Sunrise Picture of the Week

I woke up in a very chipper mood this morning. When I put on my jeans, they were so loose that I had to tighten my belt a notch to make things better. My morning routine is to check my vitals before making coffee, and my blood pressure was perfect today. There’s been a great weight lifted off my shoulders, and let me tell you what I think it is. First of all, I finally finished the wood project that’s kept me busy all summer—I’ll show you on Wednesday—and secondly, summer’s finally over—well I hope it is.

Over the past couple of days, clouds have filled the Congress skies, and it sprinkled Friday evening. That’s the first precipitation in months. This morning, our new wall thermometer got below 40º for the first time, and I got to put on one of my bulky sweaters. It keeps getting better—today’s forecast is for snow in the mountains. Yep, straight from summer to winter. Today, the world is better.

My mood is so good; I don’t have any snarky stories about Queen Anne, so let’s go back down to Tucson and see where we stopped for our second November image. Last week, we visited the overlook at the top of Gates Pass before dawn. Believe it or not, I wasn’t the only photographer there. A handful of guys were hanging out with their tripods set up for a sunrise shot when I got there. I’m not usually late to one of these parties, and when I saw what they were getting ready to shoot, I wasn’t impressed—it was more of a sundown kind of shot. After snapping a few other scenes, I hopped in the truck and headed down the road stopping again at the bottom of the pass.

Tucson Mountain Sunrise - The morning sun shines on top of the Tucson Mountains.
Tucson Mountain Sunrise – The morning sun shines on top of the Tucson Mountains.

In this week’s featured image—that I call Tucson Mountain Sunrise—we’re looking back at the overlook. It’s the flat area between the two forward peaks at the bottom of the sunlight. Behind that, you might recognize Bushmaster Peak from last week’s image. Actually, all of it is Bushmaster Peak, but I really liked the western side’s gnarly part. It has the most character. For scale, I found a couple of young saguaros and placed them in the foreground—that means that I was wandering around in the dark, rocky, snake-infested desert to get this shot just for you.

How could you ruin a beautifully quiet moment like this? Well, let me tell you how. Just as I finished my shot and began walking back to R-chee, a guy who was parked nearby in a black late-model Chevy pick-up fired it up, and the distinct sound of a V8 with open headers reverberated throughout the canyon. Now, I enjoy loud race cars as much as anybody, but it has to be in the right context. As this gentleman drove east through the pass, it was obvious that he wasn’t racing—he was making noise just for the sake of noise. Fortunately, after the summit, he rode the brakes downhill, and the bird songs once again filled the morning air.

You can see a larger version of Tucson Mountain Sunrise on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week, we’ll make a morning stop in Saguaro National Park for another photograph in our story.

Until next time — jw

Organ Pipe Cactus Picture of the Week

There’s nothing rare or unusual about the organ pipe cactus. They’re a common sight in the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja. I’m sure that the local folks view them the way Zonies do the saguaro; they’re just another part of the local landscape. But, the saguaro’s smaller cousin only reaches into the United States in the national monument that’s a half-hour south of Ajo, and that’s what makes them special to us.

Like the saguaro, the organ pipe grows best on south-facing rocky slopes of the Sonoran Desert. So why don’t they grow further north? Well, that’s because they’re less tolerant of frost and won’t survive a hard freeze. The specimens that we have in our cactus garden have to wear styrofoam cup hats to get through even our mild winter nights.

Another difference between the columnar cacti is obvious by looking at them. The giant saguaro grows with a single trunk and sprouts arms after it reaches 50 years—like a tree. On the other hand, the organ pipe’s arms sprout from a stem close to the ground resembling a bush. Internally, their structures are similar to porous skeletons that allow the flesh to expand and store water.

While the saguaro and organ pipe’s flower looks the same, the latter’s are only open at night and are pollinated by bats. The saguaro keeps its flowers open in the day, which lets bees and doves help the pollination. Like the saguaro, the organ pipes produce fruit during the rainy season about a tennis ball’s size. The flesh is bright red and supposedly tastes better than watermelon. After eating the sticky fruit, birds disperse the seeds by defecating from the branches of palo verde trees.

Organ Pipe Cactus - This cactus specimen commonly grows in the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja, but only crosses the border within the boundaries the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Organ Pipe Cactus – This cactus specimen commonly grows in the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja, but only crosses the border within the boundaries of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

I drove a good distance on the Ajo Mountain Loop looking for a really nice organ pipe to photograph for this week’s featured image. The specimen in my image—called Organ Pipe Cactus—is a beaut, resembling an upside-down octopus on steroids. I’m a little upset that Ajo Mountain snuck in and photo-bombed my picture. At least you can see how far I traveled by how the mountain’s angel changed from last week’s photo. My references say that an organ pipe’s normal height is 10 to 16 feet, but this baby towered over my head and may have reached 20.

You can see a larger version of Organ Pipe Cactus on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week’s stop resulted in a surprise photo op. Be sure you come back and see what I found.

Until next time — jw

Ajo Mountain Picture of the Week

I turned my calendar over this week, and that means a couple of things to me; the best is that it’s the final quarter of 2020. In an average year, the hot weather finally breaks in a couple of weeks, because there’s an Arizona law that prohibits kids from Trick-or-Treating on a hot night. Of course, nothing about this year has been normal, so I’m not holding my breath. The Queen and I are looking forward to opening the house soon, and I’m anxious to take my drone out again and resume filming.

For October’s project, I drove south into the heart of the Sonoran Desert. As I said, we live along the northern edge of the saguaro country. We have a good population here in Congress and Wickenburg, but in other parts of the state, the giant cactus thrives. To show you, I traveled south of Ajo last week and drove the Ajo Mountain Drive loop in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The road is unpaved, but a sedan will make it as long as it’s not raining.

A couple of years ago, Anne and I visited the monument for the first time. I wanted to take this loop, but we didn’t bring an off-road truck. Plus, when she saw a sign warning of smugglers and illegal aliens, she said no. The park is 10 miles from the Mexican border, and 30 miles south of the old copper mining town of Ajo (evidently the Spanish found wild garlic growing in the area, so that’s how it got the name). The road passes through the middle of the Goldwater Bombing Range, so I’d recommend not stopping along the way to pick wildflowers.

The Monument is the only place where you can see large stands of Organ Pipe Cactus. They’re more common south of the border, but on this side—not so much. The two columnar cacti (saguaro and organ pipe) grow side-by-side throughout the park. With the dry summer that we’ve had this year, I was pleased to see that the specimens in the monument looked healthy and watered. The rain patterns in lower Pima County are different from home, and they had a better monsoon than we did. The cacti are packed in down there—if you could ever call a desert lush, Organ Pipe would be an example.

Ajo Mountain - The volcanic peak rises above its foothills in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Ajo Mountain – The volcanic peak rises above its foothills in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Ajo Mountain is the name of this week’s featured image, and in it, I was trying to show two things. They are the volcanic mountain—rising above its surrounding foothills—and how many saguaros are growing per square mile. These giants also seem significantly taller than our home-boys.

You can see a larger version of Ajo Mountain on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week we’ll stop further along the drive and show you the organ pipe cactus from which the monument gets its name.

Until next time — jw