IMG_5985.JPGLife in the hot and dehydrated Sonoran Desert needs to be strange to survive. The bark of palo verde trees is pistachio-green with chlorophyll, which means the trees can photosynthesize even after dropping their leaves to conserve water. The ocotillo plant grows in clusters of slender, vicious-looking stems several yards long, like a car-sized sea urchin, that are decked with even more spines to protect the tender leaves that occasionally appear. Cholla cactuses are so densely covered with spines that they look fuzzy and can grab onto passersby at the slightest contact.

Looming over them all are the saguaros, unmistakable sentinels found only in this desert and the namesake of Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

I’ve come to this place for years, way longer than I’ve had the notion to visit and photograph all of the national parks. The photos here come from as far back as 2008. The park’s right outside of Tucson, where my mom has lived for years, and each visit brings at least a glimpse of this odd desert forest.


Arizona-January-2010-077.jpg(That’s Tucson in the distance.)

Saguaros grow slowly and can live for a century or two, reaching 60 feet with their upturned arms. The ridges up their sides allow them to expand like accordions to take maximum advantage of any rain, and inside they’re supported by a circular cluster of wooden slats, like the support beams of a building. The leftover skeletons of dead saguaros can sometimes be beautiful on their own.



Christmas--Arizona-08-268.jpgThe Arizona clouds overhead often bring another kind of beauty. Usually I’ve visited in winter, so that might be behind it, but almost every time I go I see these huge brushstrokes of wispy vapor stretching and twisting across the dry air.



Take plenty of water if you go. Many of the trails here will probably leave you looking like this:

Arizona-January-2010-118.jpgThanks for looking,


Temple of Giants

IMG_4651.JPGYosemite Valley is full of superlatives – the world’s largest exposed granite monolith, some of its highest cliffs, the continent’s tallest series of waterfalls – but these remarkable things are only there because of what isn’t. Billions (if not trillions) of tons of the valley’s granite were ground away more than 1 million years ago. A river started the job before glaciers took over, scouring off Half Dome’s other half, carving El Capitan’s 3,000-foot heights and leaving cliffs tall enough to scrape the clouds. Granite’s a tough rock, and this specific granite is as ancient as the dinosaurs. But sculpting it into some of the biggest and most recognizable formations on the planet took the strength of water.

Yosemite National Park now is defined more by rivers of liquid water rather than frozen, with spring snowmelt tumbling down falls that fill every valley with mist and sound. Some are huge and iconic – Bridalveil Fall accents the image of Yosemite Valley every visitor sees, and Yosemite Falls drops almost half a mile altogether. Countless smaller falls are tucked away in hidden corners of the valley, glistening threads running down distant ravines or vanishing into vapor high above the valley floor.



IMG_4593.JPGOur first taste of Yosemite Valley’s scale was the football-field-size cliff that breaks through the forest across the valley near its entrance, streaked black from lichen and water. Tiny cars drove along the road at its base. On our side of the valley, another smooth granite outcropping sloped toward the floor at a gentle angle. Still, standing on it, seeing the earth drop away and looking out over a valley thousands of feet across was enough to get my heart pumping. The feeling didn’t go away during my four-day stay in one of our first national parks.  “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” famed naturalist John Muir wrote a century ago. “Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”




IMG_4638.JPGBefore seeing what Muir meant, we had to actually get there, with a stop in Arizona to pick up my mom. That meant a whole lot of driving, passing through Roswell (and stopping at the International UFO Museum, obviously), across the Rockies and a dust-blown desert in bloom, and between stands of wind turbines that often stretched to the horizon. In California’s Central Valley the turbine groves were replaced with miles upon miles of tree orchards and vineyards. Occasionally a semi drove past hauling trailers filled to the brim with garlic or oranges.

Then it was back up the mountains to Yosemite’s Wawona Campground.










IMG_4929.JPGMore than 4 million people pile into Yosemite every year, and nearly all of them head to Yosemite Valley, which stretches across a paltry 1 percent of the park’s 1,200 square miles. I couldn’t blame them. I also couldn’t wait to see parts of the park many of them don’t visit. Wawona, which sits 30 winding miles south of the valley and was home base for four days, was the first of three non-valley stops.

We were mostly alone when we hiked partway up the nearby Chilnualna Falls trail one morning. The steep and rugged path wove between house-sized boulders and precarious trees up into some of the park’s official wilderness. The air was sweet from ponderosa pines and cinnamon-colored incense cedars that towered more than 100 feet overhead – even the trees are oversized in Yosemite. Chilnualna Creek’s rapids were never out of earshot. On the way back down, a group of a couple dozen seniors passed us looking as if they did this every day.




IMG_4736.JPGNext we swung back around to Yosemite Valley; though the valley visitor area is packed with thousands of people during the warmer months, a nearby, little-used trail runs 5 or 6 miles past Mirror Lake into the valley’s quieter upper end. Almost no hikers went further than the crowded lake shore. Half Dome soared almost a mile overhead, the occasional cloud hiding its peak. The sun was bright and the breeze was soft. An hour or so passed, the stream flowing quietly nearby. The path seemed to keep turning away from the rest of the valley as it passed stands of aspen and pine. We started to wonder if the trail was still actually going anywhere. Eventually we joined a family of four wondering the same thing. We kept going.






IMG_4778.JPGNear where the valley transitions into the smaller and steeper Tenaya Canyon, a sturdy bridge over gushing rapids came into view. Egg-sized granite stones formed little islands in the stream where more pines and cedars grew. Mosquitoes wouldn’t let us enjoy the scene for long. As we finally turned back toward the rest of the valley, we came across a few more hikers. Each asked us if the trail was actually going anywhere.

*      *      *

IMG_4867.JPGLast came the giant sequoias, relatives of the coastal redwoods. Of the two, redwoods are the giants in terms of height, soaring to almost 380 stunning feet in some cases and holding the record as the tallest trees in the world. Giant sequoias are their heftier cousins, slightly shorter than coastal redwoods but making up for it with their colossal trunks. They’re one of the largest known single organisms and can weigh in at more than 1,000 tons – that’s 10 blue whales to you. They can also be prodigiously old, living up to around 3,000 years. They’re so well adapted to forest fires that they actually need them to reproduce. In the meantime, they can get so big that their own tremendous girth is often what brings them down.




IMG_4877.JPGIt’s difficult to describe the feeling of being among a group of sequoias, even one as relatively small as Yosemite’s Tuolumne Grove. I could only crane my neck all the way back and try to take in how immense these living towers are. Even the young, “small” ones stand out from the surrounding full-grown pines, imposing and powerful. Yet their bark is spongy and soft, well suited to keeping out flames and the bugs that have decimated conifers throughout the Rockies (thanks partly to climate change, some researchers have found). Strength through softness, my mom said. Like the water that shapes the valley.

We took one last drive through Yosemite Valley before leaving. Long before Muir and others like me walked here, indigenous Miwok people and other tribes lived within the valley’s walls for some eight millennia. Settlers violently took it from them, with the last village removed around when my parents were born. Those people’s descendants are still around. I hope I at least honor their home well.



IMG_4806.JPGOn the way home from this crazy road trip, New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument was the final major stop. Dust rose from the dune field like steam in the wind on the way to Yosemite. It seemed fitting, in a way, to venture into the field on the way home, almost a sequel to last year’s trek to the Great Sand Dunes. The two places shared the same odd, muffled quietness, though White Sands’ dunes are much smaller. The missile range where the first nuclear weapon was detonated is next door, and an occasional jet broke the silence. The wind-sculpted gypsum sand, pure white and soft as sugar, radiated heat in the sun but stayed cool to the touch. Shadows of puffy clouds sailed across sand waves.







IMG_4998.JPGA brief stop there, then it was back in the car. All in all, it was a trip full of beauty and bigness and way too much driving.

Thanks for looking.


Rocky Point

IMG_0674I got lost in the beach’s beauty.

I looked at the millions of shells and the waves and the signs of life and of death, more and more intensely focused on the absolutely stunning detail in every inch of sand. I told time by the endless push and pull of the tides under the Sun and Moon. It was intoxicating. The Gulf of California holds tens of thousands of species, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the global ocean. I wanted to take in as much as I could.

(This is a longer post; as usual, feel free to just look at the photos.)

Day 1

The four-hour drive between Tucson, Arizona, and the Gulf features some odd geography: wide, flat plains abruptly punctured by serrated mountains. Drab-green bushes and spiky ocotillos dot the plains like freckles on a face.IMG_1098Tiny shrines pop up every mile or so, lone crosses on steep hills or boxes big enough for a handful of people. Past the border, a low and broad volcanic shield of dark rock, the Pinacate Peaks, looms over the western horizon. Three peaks crown the shield; smaller cones poke up from the slopes like barnacles on an overturned boat. NASA thought the area resembled the Moon closely enough to train Apollo astronauts there.

The mountains and familiar saguaros of the Sonora eventually fall behind, leaving plains and dunes of cream-covered sand and barbed-wire fences. We’re approaching the water.

Puerto Peñasco is a town of around 60,000 at the tip of the long, thin Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortéz. Called Rocky Point in English, it thrives on fishing and tourism. My mom, her husband and I are headed to a strip of beach houses on the edge of town that wealthy Americans rent out for weekends. My mom’s friend Charlie and her family are coming, too.

It’s a beautiful place, and a beachfront house is a luxury I’ve never experienced. We immediately walk across the road to the beach. The tide is low, exposing a couple hundred yards of sand that’s sculpted into waves, as if the sea’s motion had been petrified just before we arrived.IMG_0694IMG_0673IMG_0687A horsed man with a moustache and cowboy hat ambles up and down the beach, leading a group of about half a dozen other horses. His son is perched on the last of the bunch. The horses’ fur is ruffled and their owner’s pace is slow, matching the lack of energy in his and his son’s blank faces. They offer rides to faster-paced beach-goers. One American boy, maybe 9 or so, sprints to them and insists in shouted English they follow him toward his family.


IMG_0745Day 2

I don’t know how long it’s been since I had no Internet, no phone reception – heck, not even a clock. It’s not the life-changing purge you might expect, at least not yet. But it’s different. Losing the news is odd for a reporter. The U.S. could plunge into civil war and I wouldn’t know much about it until next day’s paper (Take that, CNN!). I make my mom laugh when I say this must be how daily life must have been a couple of decades ago. Sunrise fills the sky and windows with pink and orange.IMG_0843jpegA group of brown pelicans is called a pod, but I want to call it something like a troop, because they fly together like fighter jets in formation. Ten or so glide swiftly above the water this morning with hardly a wing beat, all level and in a row. They ramp up and down together like a roller coaster train on its track. The leader swoops up before plunging straight down into the water, piercing the surface with its hefty beak. The followers trace the same arc right behind. Smaller groups split off and continue their tandem hunting. It’s mesmerizing.IMG_0825jpegThe water is clear and cool, taking on a glassy, bluish-green hue with more depth. The tides come in and out as if the ocean were breathing with planet-sized lungs.

On the way into town, men in cowboy hats recline beside tables holding jars of amber miel — honey. The town, or at least the touristy boardwalk, is splashed with every color, with shelves of T-shirts, hats, pants, knick-knacks, silver and beaded jewelry and bags. Primary-color signs advertise fresh fish.IMG_0853

IMG_0856IMG_0857Calls of “Amigos!” and “Almost free!” come from every side as smiling men and women try to steer us into their restaurants or shops. Mexican radio plays from passing cars. Lots of Americans drink beers and tote cameras (I only do one of those things). Almost all of the first-floor windows are barred with twirled metal. Every block or two stands a demolished or abandoned building.

Later we spend a couple of hours walking to and from Estero Morúa, the Morúa Estuary, home of thousands of birds and their food. The beach on the way is a place of stark, almost desolate beauty. By the time we reach the cove, the small waves in the exposed sand near the house become dips several feet wide.


IMG_0877A pale, marble-sized object sits on the sand among shattered shells: an urchin skeleton, hollow and delicate as an empty robin’s egg. Tiny pinpoints etch a 5-pointed star pattern on its surface. It’s light enough for the wind to blow it out of my mom’s hand; it breaks. Beautiful and temporary, that’s the beach. Amazingly, we later find a second, even smaller one. She nests it in a palm-sized scallop shell with a bed of sand. We don’t drop that one.


IMG_0665The exquisite swirls and curves of millions of shells are stained with every shade: mossy green, magenta, sky blue, rusty orange. To me they seem finer and more precious than gems.

IMG_0882Few people can be seen in any direction. A massive dune crossed by tire tracks looms behind a towering hotel or condo building of beige concrete and green glass, easily the tallest thing for miles and completely out of place. It looks empty.

IMG_0915IMG_0904IMG_0903(Our work at the estuary’s edge.)

As we walk back to home base along the surf, the sand’s surface reminds me of parts of Mars. Tiny craters surrounded by little mounds hint at unseen worms and look like miniature volcanoes. The worms, or whatever they are, leave curving, twisting tracks a few millimeters wide, like tiny, dried-up river beds.

IMG_0928As the sun sets and the tide comes in, a pod of hundreds of pelicans recreate the morning’s tandem flying, following each other up and down as the leader swoops toward the water’s surface. I haven’t seen many flocks as big.

IMG_0947In the night, half a dozen shrimp boats glint in the distance like stars set on the water.

Day 3

Lots of wind on the last morning, as if the sea is trying to blast us back home.

IMG_1005Troops of pelicans, flocks of sea gulls and individual ospreys hover almost in place in the wind, tipping their wings up and down occasionally to edge forward. They then angle themselves to the side and zoom backward before turning back to their original angle, halting and starting again. High waves toss below, with translucent green water curling into tubes that tumble into the sand.


IMG_0989(That’s a contrail’s shadow, something I’d never seen before.)

IMG_1074IMG_1096On the road back to the States, everyone’s in a hurry; trucks speed past on the left every minute. A sign helpfully says respeta los límites velocidades – respect the speed limits.

Crossing the border, on the other hand, takes at least an hour, probably longer. Women, children and men walked between the two stationary lanes of traffic, hoisting up tamales, tortillas, jewelry, wreaths, cotton candy, brushes for cleaning windshields or statues of turtles and monkeys holding cans of beer. Merry Christmas, I suppose.

Thanks for reading and looking.


Leaving the Desert

Have you ever heard the harsh, dry rattle of a rattlesnake in a movie or TV show? How it starts slowly before speeding up menacingly, warning that you have seconds or less before a strike?

I heard that sound for myself on the last day of my trip to Tucson, Ariz. I heard it from about five feet in front of me from the ground and reacted probably even before I had locked eyes on the rattler, coiled in defense. It was only about a foot and a half long, but the valley I was hiking in got a good sample of what my yells sound like, and my heart hammered and my lungs gasped as if I had already sprinted two football fields away.

It crept off to the left. I stood motionless for several moments. Then I walked slowly forward before once again hearing that terrifying sound, this time from the right. I decided I’d had enough hiking for the day. Light rain started to fall.

I’m back in Missouri now following this trip. These are some images I took after the excursion to Nogales, including the newest additions to my continuing series, Dinky Desert Flowers, and some of my first attempts at street photography. I didn’t get any of the snake, unfortunately, because I didn’t want to take my eyes off of it even to reach for my camera.

Street photography’s a different beast than newspaper photography, come to find out, and I look forward to the experience and practice I need to get better at it.

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These wacky birds were really beat up, with messed-up feathers and broken toes, and they all kept looking up in the same direction before calling out piercingly in unison every few moments.
These wacky birds were really beat up, with messed-up feathers and broken toes, and they all kept looking up in the same direction before calling out piercingly, in unison, every few moments.

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