There are some experiences in life when "the first time is the best time".
The very best time is when it's unexpected...
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona is part of the Sonoran
Desert. The Sonoran is the lushest of the North American deserts, rich in large
cacti, trees, and wildlife. This is due to a very active summer thunderstorm
season. The changing summer weather flow (known as the Monsoon) often brings downpours
from the Gulfs of California and Mexico.
All American deserts experience mild winter rains. If the rains come at the right
time (late fall / early winter) and the right amount, the desert will break out
in a profusion of wildflowers the following spring. This wildflower outbreak has
a special impact on the desert due to its open and relatively sparse terrain.
The American deserts will generally have a good wildflower bloom every five or six years.
(Above left, a cardinal. Above right, desert globemallows.)
When record-breaking rains occur in early winter such as in the season of 1978-9,
the resulting beauty has few parallels in nature. The spring of 1979 has been labelled
the "Once in a Century Wildflower Season". And it's not just about wildflowers;
the desert comes alive. (Right, Mexican poppy and lupine.)
The spring of 1979 was also the time of my first desert hiking trip, and I knew
nothing about wildflower seasons, monsoons, or any of it. The choice of Organ Pipe
during the once-in-a-century year was a total coincidence, and it was overwhelming.
There is no way for the uninitiated to imagine the scenes: a red hill here, a blue
one there, an endless field of gold in the middle. Photography does not adequately
portray it. A possible analogy: in the movie classic, The Wizard of Oz,
recall the "field of dreams" on the approach to the Emerald City.
(Above left, that is me walking in a typical desert wash. It is easy to hike
overland in the desert but the washes provide a change of scenery: the vegetation
is different, generally more lush. Washes are usually dry except during heavy
thunderstorms. By the way, at Organ Pipe there are few trails. Hiking
is mostly "cross-country".)
Above, two of our finest shots from 1979. Sadly, our primitive 110 camera
could not quite do justice to these scenes. To the naked eye, the hill left
appeared bright gold, clad in poppy, and the hill right appeared blue, clad
in lupine. Several photos on this page were taken with a 35mm during the
fine 1983 season. The composite photo at the page top which highlights this story
was taken in 1979.
However the wildflowers were only part of the picture. The desert seethed with
wildlife. Organ Pipe is always a birdwatcher's haven but this year was extraordinary:
many birds nesting, hawks and vultures patrolling overhead, the Gila woodpecker
working the saguaros, quails darting everywhere. (Note the photo of the cardinal at top.)
And plenty of mammals including rabbits, ground squirrels, and assorted rodents.
Even a rattlesnake sunning itself. Small lizards flitting everywhere. In other
years at Organ Pipe we have met the Gila monster as well as a huge mountain lion.
(Left, lupine and others. Right, profusely flowering brittlebrush, probably the most common
bloom at Organ Pipe.)
This fantastic season energized the other senses as well. The sweet smell of the air
from the pollinating flowers. And it didn't take long to realize that the pleasant
humming sound was actually millions of bees busy at work on the wildflowers. I later
learned that the general greenness of the desert was special. Most of the time,
the predominant color is brown. (Left, closeup of desert lavender. Right,
closeup of poppy.)
My experience at Organ Pipe in the spring of 1979 was a case of "the first time
is the very best time". That is somewhat bittersweet. I have spent the rest of my
life trying unsuccessfully to recapture that experience. There have been many grand things
but none better. The power of the unexpected made it unsurpassable.
And what of the desert itself? A lot of unspoiled desert has disappeared from
Arizona since the once-in-a-century year. The once remote Arizona-Mexico border
region is marred by drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
The best sentiment I can think of is this: Wilderness is about feeling alive because wilderness is life.
So we ought to do our best to protect it.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - Vistas and Cacti