The Hawksbill

_C1_9559.JPGThe forest sounds different without its leaves. Rather than rustling millions of leaves, Sunday’s gusts roared like a distant waterfall between the trees’ bare bones. A good strong wind always seems to accompany hikes along the heights of the Ozark National Forest.

Area hiking enthusiasts probably recognize the outcropping above instantly: Hawksbill Crag at Whitaker Point, near the Buffalo River. It’s one of the best known spots in the state, but in all of my time here, I hadn’t seen it. I tried almost three years ago and was foiled by a steep and wet dirt road. A good friend just bought a Jeep, so this time we were golden. (It turns out there’s also at least one easier route a little further down the road. Good one, Google.)

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_C1_9602.JPGThe overlook at the end is obviously the primary draw of this trail, but the scenery on the way deserves its own attention. The trail runs along the top of a bluff line peppered with boulders and crowned by trees growing right out of the rock. The Boston Mountains swell and fall all around like immense ocean waves. These bluffs, like many around the Buffalo, can be deadly for those who go too close to the edge. Be careful if you visit.

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_C1_9549.JPGAnd here’s a view from on the crag itself. An unseasonably warm December afternoon wound up being a terrific time to get acquainted with this landmark. Someday I’ll come back to see its greener self.

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_C1_9576.JPGThanks for lookin’,

Dan

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Peak autumn

_C1_5869.JPGThe zenith of fall’s colors lasts only a few days, and for some reason or another, I think I’ve missed it every year I’ve been here in Arkansas. But this year’s peak fell on a weekend with beautiful weather and plenty of time for a hike — this weekend. I took advantage at the old standby, the Ozark National Forest around Devil’s Den State Park.

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_C1_5695.JPGWhat continually amazes me about the annual color explosion is that plants have a lot of the pigments that make it happen year-round, part of a chromatic net to catch as much sunlight as possible. They’re just overwhelmed by the familiar green of chlorophyll. Plants usually have to keep remaking the stuff and stop doing so around this time of year. So the oranges and yellows of carotenoids burst forth, sometimes in a way that looks almost pointillist, as with the oak leaf above. The same class of compounds gives carrots their color. The red is my favorite, though, and comes from a combo of sunlight and sugar.

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_C1_5902.JPGIf  you want to see it all, hurry. And thanks for looking.

Dan

Saguaro

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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

Dan