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

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The center of the world

_C1_3223.JPGThis mountain bears the likenesses of some of the most influential people in United States history and took more than a decade to carve. It’s a striking and masterly monument, without question. But even more impressive, at least to me, is the other history tied to Mount Rushmore and the rest of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

From a geological perspective, some of this rock is about half the age of the planet. Some of it is the rounded and durable granite you see above. Other outcroppings have been squeezed and deformed, sometimes until the original rock layers are vertical, and sparkle in the sun with countless flecks of mica. All of it is topped with rugged pine and spruce that give the Black Hills their name.

As for humans, they’ve been living around here for at least 12,000 years. The hills are therefore heavy with myth and religious significance, including ties to Oglala Lakota creation stories. A holy man named Black Elk called this place the center of the world, and his people called Mount Rushmore The Six Grandfathers, referring to the earth, sky and four cardinal directions, which might make Rushmore something like seizing and then carving into the Sistine Chapel. The U.S. swore it wouldn’t take these lands but broke the promise because of gold. (The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled several tribes were owed compensation now worth more than $1 billion because of this, but they haven’t taken it, preferring to get at least some of the land back.)

Despite all of this, it isn’t hard to see much of the Black Hills as they have been for ages, even just around the corner from the monument.

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IMG_2719.JPG(Note the climber there in the lower middle)

The Black Hills also hold more wonders hundreds of feet underground, and I don’t mean that gold. Wind Cave National Park, about 20 miles south of Rushmore, holds at least 150 explored miles of passages that could connect to several times as many unexplored miles, according to the National Park Service. Those passages are often brimming with formations called boxwork — tangled, glittering, translucent blades of calcite about the width and sturdiness of tortilla chips. I couldn’t photograph it adequately, but try to imagine this coating the walls and ceiling around you:

IMG_2681.JPGSome chambers feature calcite in other forms, like spiky frostwork and little rounded blobs called cave popcorn, or, in this case, both:

IMG_2682.JPGIn the end, all of the Black Hills’ contents have something to offer. Just remember where you’re standing.

Thanks for looking,

Dan

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Through the Wall

C1_3356.JPGSouth Dakota’s plains of grass and corn and sunflowers stretch smooth and gentle for hundreds of miles until they reach the Wall. Half a million years of water and wind have carved a jagged rampart about 80 miles long. In another half a million years, it’ll be gone. But for now, the heart of Badlands National Park looms over the ground like the steeples and rooftops of a petrified city. Their sides reveal around 70 million years of history, including millenniums of human conflict and reverence that continue today.

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_C1_3379.JPGA loop southward from the interstate swoops through the park’s northern, busier half, giving the bulk of visitors a good sample of the land’s various personalities. One section near the main entrance holds a grove of junipers and cottonwoods, thanks to falling rocks that have compacted the ground enough to hold water. In other sections, erosion has gouged sharp ridges of chalky, crumbly, barren rock bleached enough to reflect a second dose of the sun’s heat. Toward the end of the loop, the Yellow Mounds and prairie dog towns with thousands of yipping residents show a softer side. It isn’t all cuddly, though. During our drive, a coyote darted across the road and disappeared into one of the towns, then ran back a second or two later with a motionless prairie dog in its mouth.

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_C1_3399.JPGIt’s around this point that the road forks. The paved highway to the right takes most people straight out of the park. The road forward becomes gravel for mile after brain-rattling mile. That was our path. A deeply sculpted butte with a spectacular reputation called Sheep Mountain Table waited at the end.

The road cuts through pastures and actually exits the national park for a while, passing by a mostly abandoned, creepy little town called Scenic. We got there in the late afternoon, giving an eerie sort of light. The strangeness continued as we crossed back into the park: The carved slopes in this single area sport countless mushroom-like formations that looked like a crop of foot-tall Stonehenges. They’re essentially tiny buttes, capped by rock that’s more wear-resistant than their skinnier bases. We were alone. A mile or so and the mushrooms were gone. The rutted road soon became impassable for anything but four-wheel-drive trucks. The last couple of miles would be on foot.

Somewhere along this final stretch, we entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a century-old monument to the damage the United States has done to the Oglala Lakota tribe. Its residents are exceptionally poor and wounded by alcohol sold by the millions of cans across the state border in Whiteclay, Nebraska — an ongoing lawsuit by the tribe aims to put an end to that. (For more information about it, I recommend the University of Nebraska’s nuanced, complex reporting here.)

The government pushed the tribe into this reservation as part of a treaty it soon broke by taking the sacred Black Hills nearby and other lands. U.S. forces killed at least 150 adults and children near this section of the Badlands in 1890; the Wounded Knee Massacre would be the final real conflict between the indigenous people of the Plains and this country.

This suffering and other history have made the area sacrosanct to tribe members. Some have tried to work out a way for the tribe to manage this section of the park instead of the U.S. National Park Service, though the effort seems to have stalled. Still, showing respect while here strikes me as an absolute requirement. We walked quietly on the gravel as bright blue birds flitted around, as if they were keeping an eye on us, or just keeping us company. Tantalizing vistas occasionally appeared to one side or the other.

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IMG_2634.JPGIt wasn’t until the last few dozen feet of the road, which ends at an overlook, that the full splendor of Sheep Mountain Table opened up around us. The only sounds were a soft wind rustling the junipers and some buzzing bugs. I just stood there for a few moments staring in awe.

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IMG_2655.JPGI stayed as long as I could, but daylight was fading. It was the perfect ending for the day. We drove back to the hotel in Rapid City under the slimmest sliver of a crescent moon.

Thanks for looking. Up next, let’s talk some more about those Black Hills.