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Arizona Highways — February 2018

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Great Basin
February 2018
People, places and things from around
the state, including the renaissance of
the Grand Canyon Café, one of Flagstaff’s oldest eateries; Saguaro Lake
Guest Ranch; and the history of Scottsdale’s first general store.
The desert is a hot and desolate wasteland. That’s the stereotype, anyway.
The truth is, the desert is home to some
of the most remarkable ecosystems in
the world. And it’s not just one desert.
Arizona is home to all four of North
America’s major deserts.
A Portfolio Edited by Jeff Kida
Text by Kathy Montgomery
Z Visitors to Grand Canyon National Park line the railing
below the South Rim’s Desert View Watchtower at sunset.
Paul Gill
CANON EOS 5D MARK III, 1/10 SEC, F/11, ISO 100, 26 MM LENS
A barrel cactus grows amid chollas
and saguaros at sunset in the Gates Pass area near Tucson.
All three cactuses are hallmarks of the Sonoran Desert.
Sean Parker
CANON EOS 6D, 1/8 SEC, F/22, ISO 100, 15 MM LENS
A burrowing owl takes a tentative bite in
a rocky section of the Sonoran Desert. Sue Cullumber
CANON EOS 5D MARK III, 1/320 SEC, F/6.3, ISO 1000,
The Cabeza Prieta has no real focal
point, no Yosemite Valley, no singular
peak towering over everything. One
place looks much like another, a slab of
light and space and silence.
An Essay by Charles Bowden
The traditional role of agaves in preColumbian cultures has been known
for centuries — the desert plants were
a critical source of food, medicine and
building materials. In recent years, however, botanists have discovered that
ancient societies were actually cultivating agaves in Central and Southern Arizona. Some of those prehistoric farms
are still out there, and researchers from
Desert Botanical Garden are determined
to find them.
By Annette McGivney
Photographs by Eirini Pajak
An Essay by Kelly Vaughn
In January 1969, we dedicated our
issue to the saguaro cactus — “the
Monarch of the Desert,” we called it.
Among the many photographs were
two dozen images from two “amusing” brochures by Frank Redding: Silly
Saguaros and Some More Silly Saguaros. With saguaros once again playing
a leading role in our cover story, the
resurrection of this piece was too
good to pass up.
By Frank Redding
Photographs by Ed Mateo
Grand Canyon
National Park
Bullhead City
Saguaro Lake
Silver Creek Road: From the novelty
of wild burros to the majesty of
Cathedral Rock, this scenic drive in
Northwestern Arizona offers all kinds
of photo opportunities.
By Noah Austin
Photographs by John Burcham
Peralta Trail: Somewhere in the vicinity of this trail is the legendary Peralta
Mine. Even if it exists, you won’t find
it, but you will discover one of the
most scenic routes in the Superstition Mountains.
By Robert Stieve
Photographs by Laurence Parent
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you might think he’s a movie star. A cowboy
actor. “Now playing in select theaters: The Lone
Rider From Madera Canyon, starring Dennis
Chandler.” He’s not from Hollywood, though.
Dennis Chandler came to Arizona on a Greyhound in 1946, and then served 12 years in the Navy and another 34 years
with the U.S. Postal Service. He retired in 2004, but he isn’t sitting around
watching old Westerns. He’s too busy gathering history. “You name it — if
it’s Arizona and collectable, I collect it,” he says. In all, Mr. Chandler has
amassed more than 3,000 books on Arizona history and almost every issue
of Arizona Highways. On the day before
Thanksgiving, he drove to our world
headquarters and shared one of his rare
copies: December 1930.
You may have heard about that issue. It
made the news a few months ago. Its rise
to fame, however, began in September,
when I walked into the art department.
“Hey, Barb,” I said to our creative director,
Barbara Glynn Denney. “What would it
take to put all of our covers online? Somewhere on the homepage. I think it would
be cool for people to look back at the
different logos and type treatments and
classic cover photos. What do you think?”
She didn’t say it out loud, but I think
she was thinking: C’mon, man. You know I’d do anything, but that’s more than
1,100 covers, and a lot of them have never been digitized. Plus, I’m on deadline with
two books and a magazine, and I have to go to Minnesota for a press check.
She could have said no and left for the airport. Instead, she bit her lip and
went to work. “We can get it done,” she said a few hours later, “with the
exception of December 1930. There’s not a single copy in the building. We’ve
searched the archive, the backroom. Nothing. No loose copies. Even the
hardbound sets don’t have December 1930.”
Huh? I thought. How is it possible that we don’t have at least one copy of every
issue we’ve ever published?
But it was true, and when word got out, our colleagues at the Department of Transportation offered to put out a press release. We were dubious
— nobody reads press releases anymore — but it resonated. It was like the final
scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, when everyone in Bedford Falls comes together
to help George Bailey. “ ‘Arizona Highways’ Editors Looking for December
1930 Issue,” the headlines read. We couldn’t believe all the attention. The
story was picked up by media outlets all over North America, including the
Calgary Herald, U.S. News & World Report, The Seattle Times ... even WDAM-TV
in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, ran the story.
It was an email from Annika Cline, however,
that ultimately connected us with Dennis Chandler. Annika is a producer at KJZZ in Phoenix.
“Hi Robert. I’m reaching out about the December
1930 issue. Have you found it yet? Anything interesting happen in the hunt for it? We were thinking this might be a good segment for The Show.”
A couple of days later, I did an interview with
Mark Brodie, and people were listening.
“My next-door neighbor listens to NPR all the
time,” Mr. Chandler told us. “We were chatting,
and she said, ‘I know you have Arizona Highways,
and they’re looking for a December 1930 issue.’
I said, ‘I think I have that one!’ ”
Turns out, he did, and now it’s in our hands,
but only long enough to have it scanned. Once
that happens, we’ll commission a fleet of
armored vehicles and have it returned to its
rightful owner — that issue is now the most
valuable issue in our archive. Ironically, despite
its net worth, the magazine itself is pretty dull.
Among the monotony inside is an in-depth report
about the road to Yuma. “The Arizona Highway
Commission has awarded a contract to Skeels
and Graham for two bridges and oil processing
fifteen miles from Gila Bend west — the PhoenixYuma Highway. This leaves only eight miles of
this highway to be oiled.” In another scintillating piece about road safety, our editor reported
that approximately one-third of all accidents in
Arizona could be attributed to drivers who were
“plainly lacking in road courtesy.” And he wasn’t
done: “The road hog, the impromptu racer, the
inconsiderate truck driver were primary causes
of more than 34,000 avoidable accidents.”
The magazine read like an owner’s manual for
a road grader. Mercifully, all of that changed in
1938, when Raymond Carlson and George Avey
transitioned Arizona Highways from a black and
white trade journal for civil engineers (thus the
name) to a world-renowned travel magazine.
Today, we do our best to live up to their legacy.
We’re biased, of course, but we think this
month’s offering on the Arizona desert is more
compelling than a report about road sealing — in
our defense, we have bylines by Charles Bowden
and Jack Dykinga. The real measure, though, is
whether or not Dennis Chandler adds February
2018 to his collection. Here’s hoping. Our fingers
are crossed.
Follow me on Instagram: @arizonahighways
VOL. 94
NO. 2
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Win Holden
Robert Stieve
Kelly Mero
Kelly Vaughn
Noah Austin
Nikki Kimbel
Jeff Kida
Barbara Glynn Denney
Keith Whitney
Kevin Kibsey
Michael Bianchi
Victoria J. Snow
Nicole Bowman
Bob Allen
Cindy Bormanis
On Media Publications
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Botanists Wendy Hodgson and Andrew Salywon have made the survival of domesticated
agave species (see In Search of Ancient Agaves, page 38) a focus of their careers. But
Eirini Pajak, who photographed this month’s story on that subject, found herself focusing
on a different kind of survival: her own. “I can’t emphasize the sweltering temperatures
enough,” she says. “I reached my physical limit more than once, but even when I was
functioning well enough to photograph what was going on, the light was often stark and
unforgiving.” Despite the challenges, Pajak accompanied the botanists on several summer trips in search of the rare plants. The assignment was a natural fit, given Pajak’s own
background in botany. “I’m generally more interested in wild plants, but I found myself
especially drawn to the cultivated agaves,” she says. “Growing up, my parents were
always carting me and my sisters off to archaeological ruins around the world. These
plants form an organic bridge to those indigenous peoples who lived and tended them in
such ruggedly beautiful landscapes.” Pajak is a regular contributor to Arizona Highways.
Charles Bowden could
write. As well as anyone.
Consider this: “The world
disappears. The heat
hangs like a blanket over
the land, and at night, the
stars dangle from the sky
and cause me to duck
when moving about. The
loudest sound — when
the coyotes finally fall silent — is the beating of my heart.” Those are the first three sentences of an essay we’re rerunning this month (see page 30). And there are so many more
sentences inside. Of course, Chuck’s mastery of the written word went beyond the pages
of Arizona Highways. He wrote more than two dozen books and won a long list of writing
awards. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and when the editors of Esquire selected
the 70 best sentences in the history of their magazine, Chuck was in the mix, along with
Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. As writers, we all have access to the same set of
vowels and consonants, but Chuck was the master of composition — he’d string together
words the way Mozart paired notes and Monet combined colors. Sadly, Charles Bowden
passed away on August 30, 2014. His words, however, never grow old.
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of your December 2017 issue, the adjectives keep
popping into my head: wow, stunning, awesome.
There are so many “almost favorites,” but my favorite photograph is Derek von Briesen’s on pages
16-17. It’s so beautiful it brings me to tears. Arizona
Highways has outdone itsself with this issue. How
can you ever top this?
The Big Pictures:
Ellnora Young, Roseburg, Oregon
December 2017
hris Gall’s fabulous cover scarcely prepared me for the astonishing photos
of Monument Valley inside [December
2017] — a superb Christmas present to
all of us. I bless the Navajo people as
they care for this inspiring, spiritual
treasure, and thank you and everyone at
Arizona Highways for sharing your obvious love of creation that’s spread out
before us.
Bill Wheeler, Palm Springs, California
Scott Larson, Kingman, Arizona
just finished scanning the December
2017 issue of Arizona Highways. Now to
read it cover to cover. All of the 2017
issues make a wonderful collection.
These I will file separately from the rest
of my Arizona Highways issues. I want to
be able to pick them up again and again
and again.
Jerry Reichman, Mesa, Arizona
irst off, thank you for the excellent
state highlights over the past
12 months. I have to say they’ve been
some of my favorite issues since
I became a subscriber (2010) to your
great magazine. What a great mix of
history, information, travel ideas and
photography they’ve been. I’m sure
choosing only 12 locations in a state
as beautiful and diverse as ours was a
daunting and difficult task for the staff.
In spite of the fact that the locations you
chose were great, I feel like you missed
out by not choosing Route 66 as one of
your locations. Route 66 would have
allowed you to highlight many communities in Northern Arizona that rely
on that historic stretch of Americana to
keep their towns alive. On a separate
note, I was also disappointed in the
December issue to see that the Hike of the
Month and Scenic Drive were gone. I hope
those two features will return in 2018,
as I have utilized them to plan some of
the most memorable vacations my family
has enjoyed in our great state.
the house could not have been built in a
more dangerous location: the middle of
a dry wash, a narrow channel with the
headlands a mile or more away and at a
significant rise in elevation. This lack of
thought reminds me of many locations
in Southern California, where lovely
homes have been built in the usually
dry foothills, just waiting for a heavy
rain to wash them out. The difference
is, we have FEMA. The Schneblys did
Gary Stellern, Pasadena, California
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks, Scott, for your apprecia-
tion of our hikes and scenic drives. As you can see,
their hiatus was limited to the December issue.
aving read and looked at Arizona
Highways for close to 80 years, it’s
still one of my favorite magazines.
However, I do greatly miss the “old
time” stories that were in most issues.
Concerning the article on Sedona
[A Woman by the Name of Sedona,
November 2017], it shows, in my opinion, a great lack of thought on the part
of the builder. The Schneblys’ house is a
design for disaster. Having been a guest
at the Orme ranch about 10 miles outside of Mayer, Arizona, for four summers in the mid-1940s, I still remember
the occasional monsoon rains and the
fascinating wall of water that would
suddenly come down the nearby river.
Over the years, several cars tried to ford
this river, but they often met with an
expensive defeat. Looking at this photo,
’m a lifelong Californian, but I have
taken many opportunities to visit your
beautiful state, and I have been a subscriber to Arizona Highways for many
years. Your October 2017 issue was the
one that I have enjoyed above all the
others. Last summer my daughter and
I visited Canyon de Chelly and stayed
at the historic Thunderbird Lodge. We
took a fabulous jeep ride with a Navajo
guide and viewed many of the ruins and
pictographs shown in your photographs.
Through your articles and photos, I felt
like I was there again. It’s a magical
place — thank you for helping me to
relive that wonderful experience!
Susan Alvarez, Santa Paula, California
contact us
If you have thoughts or comments about anything in Arizona Highways, we’d
love to hear from you. We can be reached at editor@, or by mail at 2039 W. Lewis
Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85009. For more information,
A lightning strike illuminates
the Colorado River and the
walls of the Grand Canyon.
Photographer Scott Bracken
made this shot during a rafting trip through the Canyon.
Because he shot on film, he
wasn’t sure he’d captured the
lightning until three weeks
later, when he processed his
film from the trip. To learn more
about Grand Canyon National
Park, call 928-638-7888 or
Virginia Rails
As this photo indicates, Virginia rails
(Rallus limicola) prefer to run, rather than
fly, to escape predators. And they’ve
evolved accordingly: Rails have the highest ratio of leg muscle to flight muscle of
any bird. Many rails are flightless, but
Virginia rails do take to the air for short
trips or to migrate. They’ll also use their
wings to swim underwater. These secretive birds usually are found in marshes,
hidden in dense vegetation. The species’
bill is ideal for probing water and mud in
search of insects, fish, frogs and small
snakes. Virginia rails live in Northern Arizona in summer and Southern Arizona in
winter. In the western part of the state,
they’re year-round residents.
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Grand Canyon Café
Although the menu’s been updated — spinach quinoa salads weren’t
common on 1950s diner menus — the décor remains essentially the same at
this Route 66 landmark, where the new owners have masterfully maintained
the history of the place while adding some much-needed life.
COU N T LE SS L A N DM A R K S on Historic
Route 66 have gone the way of the classic
cars that once traveled the Mother Road,
with strip malls and chain restaurants
replacing neon signs and soda fountains.
When the longtime owners of Flagstaff’s
Grand Canyon Café decided to retire, a
few locals teamed up to ensure this treasured institution wouldn’t suffer the
same fate.
Paul and Laura Moir, the duo behind
several of Flagstaff’s culinary hot spots —
including Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar
and Criollo Latin Kitchen — joined
Michael and Alissa Marquess of Mother
Road Brewing Co. to take on the daunting task of breathing new life into a restaurant with a storied past.
That past spans more than seven
decades and features the Wong family,
who paired their traditional Chinese cuisine with diner-style favorites to feed generations of hungry travelers and locals.
“We couldn’t run their restaurant,”
Paul admits, but the new owners endeavored to carry on the Wongs’ legacy while
making their own mark.
They took their time, working with
regular customers to ensure the
revamped menu was a hat tip to the past,
but with an eye to the future. Burgers are
a mainstay, but the fresh ground beef
comes from Proper Meats and Provisions,
the Moirs’ butcher shop of Arizona-raised
meats. For a double dose of goodness, go
for the burger topped with Gruyère
cheese and Proper pastrami.
The owners admit Chinese cuisine isn’t
in their wheelhouse, but it was the one
non-negotiable element of the menu. “We
wanted to maintain the continuity and
history of the café for the ‘legacy customer’
group, but we also wanted to broaden the
visibility,” Paul says. So you’ll find diner
favorites, such as a triple-decker club
sandwich and corned beef hash, alongside pork belly fried rice, with house kimchi, and crispy noodle chow mein.
While the menu is updated, the décor
is virtually untouched from its Route 66
heyday. Guests who dined at Grand Canyon Café half a century ago might find
their elbow marks worn into the original
tables and countertops.
The Multimixer milkshake machine still
churns out shakes, malts and even boozy
concoctions, such as a dirty bourbon chai.
And a walk around the restaurant offers
glimpses into the past — from the pie
case, repurposed into beer taps, to the
bullet hole in the wooden walk-in cooler,
courtesy of a man running from the law.
Deeply rooted in deep history but
ready to greet future generations, the
neon sign continues to burn bright at the
“new” Grand Canyon Café.
Grand Canyon Café, 110 Historic Route 66, 928-774-2252,
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from our archives
[july 1963]
In July 1963, Arizona Highways
took readers to the bottom
of Havasu Canyon, a Grand
Canyon tributary that is
home to the Havasupai Tribe.
“Unlike the white men who
go there, adventure is not
a mere visitor to the canyon,”
Elizabeth Griffith wrote.
“Rather, it has dwelt there
with the Indians for hundreds
of years.” Among the photos
accompanying Griffith’s story
was this Ray Manley shot
of Havasu Falls, one of the
spectacular waterfalls for
which Havasu Canyon is best
known. “Sunlight hits the
falls best during midsummer,”
Manley noted.
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Q&A: David Muench
JK: Tell us about this photograph.
JK: What kind of gear did you use to
DM: I made this photo atop Mount Gra-
make these photos?
ham in the Pinaleño Mountains, probably
DM: Many of the photos in the book were
in the 1960s or ’70s. It’s part of my new
made with a 4x5 camera, which meant
book, Top Rock, which is out this year. Ever
lugging a tripod up the mountain with me.
since I barely could walk, I’ve looked at
I was notorious for finding the lightest,
peaks and heights and been determined
cheapest tripods — a couple of which just
to climb them. At first it was ego- or
fell apart in the cold weather. I later began
achievement-driven, but then I had to
using 35 mm cameras and went back and
have a photograph from there. The book
forth between those and 4x5 cameras.
contains quite a few of those photos that
I’ve made over the years.
To learn more about Top Rock and
JK: What draws you to the summits?
David Muench, visit www.davidmuench
DM: There’s a connection there — an
excitement of being connected to the
Earth, yet looking into the sky and feeling
a sense of sky and space. I wanted to get
the feeling of the rock itself, or of the plant
and animal life up there. Many of them
had strong stories to tell, and some were
memorable for being absolutely quiet.
Looking at the photos today brings back a
lot of memories.
JK: Did your approach to climbing and
photographing these summits change
over the years?
DM: One of the lessons I learned over the
years was to not do these trips as day
hikes. If you start out early in the morning
and reach the summit at noon, that midday light is just terrible. I began camping
out on peaks so I could take advantage of
evening and morning light.
Best of the West
April 22-28, multiple locations
This weeklong workshop, led by photographer Nathaniel Smalley, features some of
Arizona’s most amazing landscapes, including Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe
Bend, Monument Valley and Canyon de
Chelly. Information: 888-790-7042
To learn more about photography, visit
Granite boulders rest
atop Mount Graham,
the high point of the
Pinaleño Mountains in
Southeastern Arizona.
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Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
Built in the 1920s as a mess hall and sleeping quarters for Stewart Mountain
Dam’s construction camp, this historic guest ranch is now a comfortable base
camp for exploring the Tonto National Forest.
IM AGIN E WA K ING U P to the gentle
caresses of the Salt River, watching rays
of sun stream over the cliffs, listening as
birds welcome the day and catching a
glimpse of wild horses frolicking in the
distance. At Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch,
that imagined scene becomes reality,
and it plays out every day.
The property, located just southwest
of its namesake reservoir and a short
drive from the Phoenix area, dates to
the 1920s, when it was a mess hall and
sleeping quarters for Stewart Mountain
Dam’s construction camp. A Kansas
couple then turned the buildings into a
fishing lodge. In 1948, the Durand family
purchased the property and made it a
guest ranch. The Durands still own the
ranch, which today is managed by John
and Sean A’lee Bevell.
A day at the ranch starts around
8 a.m., when guests gather for breakfast
in the lodge. There, beneath a grand
saguaro skeleton, you can awaken your
taste buds with coffee, orange juice or
tea. The breakfast menu changes daily,
but a recent morning featured fruit,
eggs, blueberry pancakes, hash browns,
sausage and bacon. While your breakfast settles, take a seat in the common
area. The walls are dressed in paintings
and photographs of the Sonoran Desert,
which complement vintage furniture,
Southwestern antiques and a fireplace
made of native river rock.
Come early afternoon, meander
around the grassy meadows, grab your
fishing pole or lounge in a hammock to
watch birds flutter from tree to cactus.
If you’re feeling adventurous, explore
the surrounding Tonto National Forest
via horseback or hike, or try tubing or
kayaking the Salt River.
Wind down by watching the sunset
and taking an evening swim — the
ranch’s pool is heated in winter. Then,
drift off to sleep in one of the ranch’s
20 cabins, which are filled with vintage
furniture and Native American-inspired
décor. Out here, the noise pollution of
the city can’t be heard.
Over the years, Saguaro Lake Guest
Ranch’s noteworthy visitors have
included Senators Carl Hayden and
Barry Goldwater, along with musician
Tanya Tucker. Weddings, workshops,
corporate retreats and other events are
hosted there, too. And John Bevell says
the ranch’s visitors, who come from
around the world, give him a regular
reminder of the magic of this place.
“The longer I work here at the ranch,”
he says, “with the fresh eyes of our
guests … they help me stop, look up and
say, ‘You’re right. This is special.’ ”
NEAR MESA Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, 13020 N. Bush Highway, 480-984-2194,
Vintage Holiday Puzzle
George Avey Retro Map Puzzle
Our December covers have often had a nod to the holidays. This classic
from December 1952, now available as a puzzle, is a good example.
$14.99 (regular price $19.99) #ACPZ7
In August 1940, Arizona Highways Art Director George Avey
created our most famous map. Now, it’s available as a puzzle, too.
$14.99 (regular price $19.99) # APUZ6
To order, visit or call 800-543-5432.
Pricing does not include shipping and handling charges.
Use code P8B5PZ to receive these special prices.
Offer expires 2/28/18.
With sunset light on the jagged Kofa
Mountains, teddy bear chollas and
ocotillos flourish at Kofa National
Wildlife Refuge. The mountains and
refuge, named for the King of Arizona
gold mine, are near the northern edge
of the Sonoran Desert. JACK DYKINGA
The desert is a hot and desolate wasteland. That’s the stereotype, anyway.
The truth is, the desert is home to some of the most remarkable ecosystems in the
world. And it’s not just one desert. Arizona is home to all four of North America’s
major deserts. A Portfolio Edited by Jeff Kida Text by Kathy Montgomery
N A MAP, North America’s four major deserts seem to swirl around Arizona’s center
like a dust devil. In the west, the Mojave
Desert straddles the Great Basin Desert
(which sweeps across the north) and the
Sonoran Desert (which blankets much of the south). On
the other end, the Chihuahuan Desert stretches a fingertip into the southeastern corner of the state.
Arizona is the only state in the nation that embraces
all four deserts. Or not. Some argue that Arizona’s portion of the Great Basin is really semi-desert, and that
the state’s Chihuahuan Desert is instead intermediate
savannah. Meanwhile, others question whether our
most iconic saguaro forests even qualify as desert at all.
To some degree, deserts confound classification.
What the various definitions have in common is that
deserts are dry. As Osvaldo Sala, the director of Arizona
State University’s Global Drylands Center, explains, a
desert is a place where the demand for water exceeds
supply. Yet deserts are amorphous. On State Route 89
near Congress, a saguaro and a Joshua tree, signature
species of two different deserts, stand side by side,
identifying and defying both.
What’s beyond debate: These arid lands contain
some of the most remarkable ecosystems in the world.
Rainfall in the U.S. moves on a continuum from west to
east, Sala says. The West Coast gets winter rain. Farther
east, it rains only in the summer. Arizona’s deserts
reflect that pattern.
As Arizona’s westernmost desert, the Mojave gets
most of its rainfall in winter. It’s also the driest and the
hottest. Death Valley in California holds the record for
the highest temperature ever recorded in the U.S. —
134 degrees. And Lake Havasu City, also in the Mojave,
owns the Arizona record for heat: 128 degrees, in 1994.
Extreme heat and little rain mean sparse, low shrubs
— mostly creosote, mixed with Mojave sage and woolly
bursage. But in a spring following a “wet” winter, the
desert overflows with colorful annuals like Mojave
indigobushes, paperflowers and brittlebushes. The desert’s signature species, the Joshua tree, grows along the
Mojave’s borders, defining its boundaries.
Explorer John C. Fremont gave the country’s largest
desert its name, imagining the arid region as one enormous basin.
The Great Basin Desert is a high, cold desert. In Arizona, it gets much of its moisture as snow when plants
lie dormant. Few species thrive. Expanses filled with
a dozen varieties of sagebrush give the desert a feeling
of vastness and desolation. Remote and undeveloped,
it’s the domain of loners, pronghorns, prairie dogs and
raptors, although sego lilies and blooming prickly pear
cactuses add color in late spring.
In Arizona’s southeast corner, the Chihuahuan Desert
gets most of its rain in the summer, although winter
rains produce annual displays of tansymustard, peppergrass and popcorn flowers.
Relatively high rainfall, calcium-rich soils and low
winter temperatures create ideal conditions for the
grasses and yuccas that give this desert its distinctive
look. Creosote dominates the lowlands, as do low woollygrass and American tarwort, a defining species. At
higher elevations, grasses dotted with soaptree yuccas,
their 15-foot stalks crowned with creamy flowers, cover
the classic Southeastern Arizona landscape.
Grasshoppers clackity-clack through the savannah
in abundance. Scaled quail scratch out grassy ground
nests, their feathery “hats” as slender and white as
Q-tips, while ringtails prowl the boulders.
Although two-thirds of the Sonoran Desert lies
in Mexico, to much of the world, it’s synonymous
with Arizona, complete with coyote and roadrunner.
According to Marie Long of the Arizona-Sonora Desert
Museum, it was Forrest Shreve, a botanist, who defined
the desert in the mid-20th century. Shreve subdivided
the desert into sections. Two fall within Arizona: the
Lower Colorado River Valley and the Arizona Upland.
Dominated by creosote, the Lower Colorado River
Valley section includes the region along Interstate 10
between Phoenix and Tucson. Saguaro National Park
contains classic Arizona Upland: iconic landscapes with
arm-waving ocotillos, feathery paloverdes, mesquite
and ironwood trees, and a wide variety of cactuses,
including prickly pear, barrel and many types of cholla.
Forests thick with eerily anthropomorphic saguaro
cactuses can look as crowded and expressive as Times
Square on New Year’s Eve. The enormous cactuses,
found only in this desert, house Gila woodpeckers,
purple martins and sparrow-sized elf owls, the smallest
owls in the world. Spring ignites colorful eruptions of
Mexican goldpoppies, globemallows and lupines.
One of Shreve’s Mexican subdivisions was reclassified as thornscrub because of its higher rainfall and
taller trees and cactuses. Long believes Arizona Upland
might be next.
Charles Bowden, who wrote poetically about Arizona’s deserts over his long career, cared little for these
“Arizona’s four deserts will not answer to the names
we paste on them,” he wrote in Arizona Highways in
2006. “It is always the same whether swamp or desert
— it is life humming a song we cannot quite sing and it
always has just what it needs.”
The arms of a Joshua tree punctuate a view of a nearby saguaro
cactus in the Date Creek Mountains near Wickenburg. Joshua trees
are mostly found in the Mojave Desert, but a handful, including
this one, grow in northern sections of the Sonoran Desert. PAUL GILL
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LEFT: Beneath the petrified sand dunes of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, verbenas and
primroses blanket a hillside at dawn. By some definitions, the Vermilion Cliffs, located north of the
Grand Canyon, are within the southern reach of the Great Basin Desert. JACK DYKINGA
ABOVE: Joshua trees grow at sunset in the Virgin River Gorge’s Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness
in extreme Northwestern Arizona. The gorge is in Arizona’s section of the Mojave Desert, the bulk of
which is in California and Nevada. JACK DYKINGA
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“I don’t see the desert as barren at all; I see it as full and ripe.
It doesn’t need to be flattered with rain. It certainly needs rain,
but it does with what it has, and creates amazing beauty.”
LEFT: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which
protects 516 square miles along Arizona’s border with
Mexico, is home to saguaros and other Sonoran Desert
flora. Its best-known residents, though, are its namesake
cactuses, and the monument includes most of the
species’ U.S. population. PAUL GILL
ABOVE: Primroses and verbenas bloom in spring on
a Mojave Desert sand dune at Lake Mead National
Recreation Area, which includes both Lake Mead and
Lake Mohave. This spot in the 1.5 million-acre recreation
area is near Lake Mohave’s Telephone Cove. CLAIRE CURRAN
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Arizona’s Other Deserts
It’s not hard to explore the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.
Whether you’re in Saguaro National Park near Tucson,
South Mountain Park near Phoenix or anywhere south
and east of those two cities, if you see a saguaro, you
know you’re there. But Arizona’s three other deserts claim
significantly less territory in the state. Here are three easy
ways to experience them.
The Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from northern
Mexico into West Texas and Southern New Mexico, also
includes parts of the far southeast corner of Arizona. The
Chihuahuan has been called the world’s most diverse
desert, and that diversity is on display at Chiricahua
National Monument, which protects a section of its namesake mountain range. The monument is famous for its
thousands of rhyolite hoodoos, but it also features 11 types
of cactuses and two agave species. The area around the
monument is home to more than 90 grass species.
INFORMATION: 520-824-3560,
Most of the Great Basin Desert is in Nevada and Utah, but
some scientists define it as extending into Northern Arizona. By that definition, the Great Basin includes Vermilion
Cliffs National Monument, located north of Grand Canyon
National Park on the Arizona Strip. The cliffs are home to
a reintroduced population of California condors, but they’re
best known for the oddly textured “brain rock” of White
Pocket and for the Coyote Buttes, which are divided into
northern and southern sections and include the layered,
otherworldly sandstone formation known as the Wave.
INFORMATION: 435-688-3200,
Lake Mead National Recreation Area is the main attraction in Arizona’s section of the Mojave Desert, which also
includes parts of California and Nevada. The recreation
area’s namesake is the largest man-made lake in the
U.S. — when full, it holds more than 26 million acre-feet of
water — but the striking landscape around the reservoir is
reason enough to visit. A scenic drive from Kingman north
to Pearce Ferry, on the recreation area’s western boundary, passes thousands of Joshua trees, one of the Mojave
Desert’s signature plant species.
INFORMATION: 702-293-8990,
The steep, layered walls of Coal Mine
Canyon cradle rolling hills at the
canyon’s floor at dusk. The canyon is
on Navajo tribal land in the Painted
Desert of Northeastern Arizona. Some
scientists consider this area part of
the Great Basin Desert.
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LEFT: The hues of sunset color the rocky Peloncillo
Mountains Wilderness as an agave grows in the
foreground. The Peloncillos are in Southeastern Arizona’s
portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. The rest of the desert
is in Mexico, New Mexico and Texas. JACK DYKINGA
ABOVE: Evening light illuminates saguaro and prickly pear
cactuses, two iconic Sonoran Desert plants, and distant
Weavers Needle in the Superstition Wilderness east of
Phoenix. The Sonoran Desert includes parts of Arizona,
California and Mexico. JOEL HAZELTON
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A dry wash cuts through
the landscape of the
Great Basin Desert at
Vermilion Cliffs National
Monument. The remote
monument is known for
its hiking opportunities,
but also for its extreme
heat, flash floods and
venomous reptiles.
Evening light illuminates saguaros
beneath craggy peaks in the western
portion of Cabeza Prieta National
Wildlife Refuge in Southern Arizona.
Nick Berezenko
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The loudest sound — when the coyotes finally fall silent
— is the beating of my heart. I am in the Cabeza Prieta, technically a national wildlife refuge. But this designation is a ruse of
land management. On the Mexican border, the Cabeza Prieta
refuge lies swaddled by the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force
Range against the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to
the southeast. Together, all three spell immensity. I stand in
the heart of the Sonoran Desert, and the Sonoran Desert beats
as the heart of all the deserts of the world. It is about space,
and this space swallows what we call the world and takes us
to what is the world. I will explain.
A friend of mine insists that what matters is that here, in the
Cabeza Prieta, the wand-like ocotillo’s leaves turn blood red.
Sometimes I think what matters is that there are populations of
coyotes in the Cabeza that thrive without water and get their
succor from a diet of blood. But all of these facts are details.
This desert is mountains and wide valleys and the rain
that does not come. But the soul of the Cabeza Prieta is about
space and silence. About leaving walls and roofs and entering
a place that refutes all such structures. Thousands of square
miles without a house or human resident.
Silence so insistent that at times you hear
A gnarled granite
your own cardiovascular system thrumarch frames a view
of Cabeza Prieta
ming. Our ancestors saw this place as
National Wildlife
a wasteland and named their route of
Refuge’s sparse
travel through it El Camino del Diablo,
David Muench
the Devil’s Highway.
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I see it as home. True, we have all been warned that we can’t
go home again. But we can drop by for a visit.
I always come from the east because I feel better when I am
heading west. For the last 60 miles I notice the mesquite trees
slowly give way to ironwood trees, watch as the desert of random grasses and paloverde trees and cholla cactuses dwindles
until a sea of creosote brush covers the ground. Always, I pause
at Ajo to look west and think that, for a hundred miles, there
is probably not a person or cow or paved road or fence. Or a
radio crooning in the night. Just a series of mountains — the
Growlers, Granites, Sierra Pintas, Cabeza Prietas and, finally,
like a wall standing guard just outside the refuge’s far western boundary, the Tinajas Altas, the fabled high tanks where
water almost never fails if you know where to look. You could
walk across the Cabeza from water hole to water hole, spending days with your boots crunching the soil, doves flashing
by in the early morning and at dusk. Perhaps, if you are lucky,
you will catch a glimpse of pronghorn, and almost certainly at
some point you will be watched by desert bighorn, and in that
time see no one. Here pools the last reservoir of privacy in the
lower 48 states. I have been coming here for many years, and
now the place holds a grab bag of memories.
I sprawl on the Pinta Sands. Tongues of lava from Mexico’s
Pinacate flow lick the earth near my bedroll. It is night, the
moon hunts, the dunes turn milk-white and the sensuous
curve of sidewinder tracks etches the soft folds of moving
sands. Some think the Gila monster population peters out here
at the Pinta Sands. It is true that in the Tule Desert, just to the
west and north, a reckoning occurs. The rainfall drops off, the
mesquite and ironwood trees huddle under a relentless sun
and become dwarfish, the deer and javelinas become scant.
The endangered Sonoran pronghorns sometimes push farther
west, but then for years, scientists were not even sure if they
ever drank water (they do).
I look north toward the Sierra Pintas and see a black horizon
line — about 50 miles on foot to pavement and our four-lane
fantasies. To be honest, when I am sprawled here on the sand, I
never think of heat or water or highways. The Devil’s Highway
courses by a hundred yards to the north, but this small jeep
track hardly matters to me now. I am not in the wilderness, I
am in this universe of sensation with milk-white sand, the
moon hunting, the soft silence of the night, the stars brighter
than a city streetlight.
In the city, the minutes slip by. Here, the minutes, ripe and
full, spell endless delights. The world here swallows the world,
and I am left with myself and the planet we call Earth.
They gather in the early summer, dozens of desert bighorns
lounging about on the rock pile of the Sierra Pintas. Heart Tank,
a hole in the rock, stores the rare rains. The Cabeza has no
streams and but one tiny spring. Water
is found, if at all, in these isolated holes
Volcanic rocks
in the rock, charcos or tinajas in Spanish,
populate a lava field at
Cabeza Prieta. Some
life in any language. My bedroll faces
of the refuge’s lava
the Tule Desert baking at the canyon’s
flows are as old as
mouth. Some think Father Eusebio
2 million years.
Francisco Kino once visited this tank.
David Muench
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No one knows for certain. Hawks and eagles come each day
at separate times. The turkey vultures arrive as a group. They
form a line and then drink one by one. After a day or so, no one
pays attention to me. Big rams walk past maybe 20 feet away
as I make notes in the June heat. A coyote pads past my bedroll
twice each day with hardly a sidelong glance.
At sunrise, the sky goes blood red, and then the heat comes
on. Slowly, the heat waves leach all color from the land until,
by noon, I face the white light of high summer, a blaze that
flattens mountains into footstools and chases birds from the
sky to their roosts to wait out the heat. Except for the vultures,
who carelessly ride the thermals roaring off the desert floor
and watch for death. I have been living with a family of vultures for days now. They bed down 50 yards from my bedroll. I
am here to tell you that they no longer look ugly. And they are
very friendly. I look up in the sky and
see one brush the wing of another and
then wheel away in sport.
Each night at a specific time I am supposed to concentrate and try to communicate telepathically with a woman in
Texas. Each night I fail to do this. I do
not want to reach anyone out there.
The small stove flares up, and then I
put on water for hot chocolate and coffee. I am now camped in the Growler
Valley, a swatch of creosote about
30 miles long, and I have not seen a footprint other than my own all day. The
Granites rise up to the west; the cliffs
of the Growlers, where prairie falcons
nest, frame the east. I will never return
to this rest stop, and I will never find
it again. The Cabeza Prieta has no real
focal point, no Yosemite Valley, no singular peak towering over everything. One place looks much
like another, a slab of light and space and silence. For photographers, this leads to frustration. For the rest of us, it is a balm.
I have slowed down this time. I have been walking for days
and seem to live largely on sunflower seeds, raisins, salami,
coffee and hot chocolate. I carry a book, but seldom open it. In
the heat of midday, I crawl under a creosote bush and simply
exist ... hour after hour. I turn off the stove; its hissing has
become deafening.
You will be in the Cabeza when you can no longer tolerate
the hissing of a stove. That is the thing to make into a picture: silence, space and the shadow of a creosote bush on the
ground. You will look back and see your own footprints and
think they are an insufferable invasion. The best part of the
day: sitting in the scant shade of the creosote and waiting out
the heat. Put down the cup of hot chocolate, lean back. Now
the world swallows you whole.
What is an event? Once a desert bighorn with a broken leg
walked past me on the same thin mountain trail. A badger
shuffled by another time and hardly gave me a glance. I once
stared for six or eight hours at the same rock 50 feet away. At
dusk one evening, a rosy boa slithered across the ground. But
the best times I cannot remember at all.
The Cabeza is not about events. It flows in a deeper part
of life. It is barely about time, since minutes and hours and
days slowly become meaningless. Along El Camino del Diablo,
stones laid on the ground sketch crosses to mark the graves of
forty-niners who did not make it to the gold fields of California.
Even their faintly scribbled intrusion seems to annoy me.
In the Cabeza, you find that person who has been hiding
from you for your entire life. That person is yourself.
When I leave, I learn where I have been. At first, there is
too much of everything — too much sound, too much motion,
too many people, too many objects. When I leave, I always
have a deep craving for some meal or slice of pie, and I have
never once gone into a café and ordered this fantasy. The craving remains behind in the Cabeza, along with the silence and
space. I cannot explain this fact, but it always happens.
After a day or two, I drive my truck
like everyone else, I answer the phone
An ocotillo blooms
beneath wispy clouds
like everyone else. I listen to the hum
at Cabeza Prieta
my refrigerator in the kitchen and
National Wildlife
images dance across the televiRefuge.
David Muench
sion screen.
But a part of me stays in the Cabeza, perhaps that part that
actually is myself. The huge desert holds precisely nothing,
nothing at all. When people ask you about your visit, you will
say that nothing happened, that there is nothing special to see.
But you will never really leave the place, no matter how far
you drive or how fast.
This place will own you, even though in no sense can you
ever own this place.
Space, silence, a world swallowing a world. Frankly, you
will give up trying to explain it to people. It is enough to know
it. More than enough.
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The traditional role of agaves in pre-Columbian cultures
has been known for centuries — the desert plants were a
critical source of food, medicine and building materials.
In recent years, however, botanists have discovered that
ancient societies were actually cultivating agaves in
Central and Southern Arizona. Some of those prehistoric
farms are still out there, and researchers from Desert
Botanical Garden are determined to find them.
Desert Botanical Garden
botanists Wendy Hodgson
and Andrew Salywon
examine a blooming agave
in the Sedona area. When
the botanists are out
searching for domesticated
agave species, they often
encounter new, scientifically
undescribed native agaves
such as this one.
HE JOB DESCRIPTION FOR an agave researcher
should read something like this: Must be willing to shed blood and expose oneself to blisterinducing juices while obtaining specimens. Most
field days are spent hiking off-trail, up steep rocky
slopes, in triple-digit temperatures. Encountering
Africanized bees, rattlesnakes or crazy humans is
a constant possibility. Being able to identify and follow obscure
clues across large swaths of desert is a plus.
Although scientists have always roamed rugged landscapes
in search of new information, few can match the challenging working conditions faced by Arizona botanists Wendy
Hodgson and Andrew Salywon. Their groundbreaking agave
research takes “suffering for science” to a whole new level,
but the payoff is big: In recent years, they’ve discovered five
Arizona agave species that previously were
unknown to science, and in the process,
they’re rewriting history on how the plant
was used by pre-Columbian cultures in the
“There is no one else doing this research,”
Salywon says, laughing, as he slathers his
face and neck with sunscreen before we
set out on a scramble up a steep hill west of
Sedona. “Who would be this crazy?”
It’s late June, and an excessive-heat warning is in effect. But it’s also when the agaves
bloom in Central Arizona, so Hodgson and
Salywon aren’t about to pass up the possibility of a new discovery just because
the forecast calls for a record-breaking
110 degrees. Salywon stuffs a plant press
into his daypack and grabs a 10-foot aluminum “snatch pole,” and he, Hodgson, photographer Eirini Pajak and I head toward
the place Hodgson has named Angel Hill.
The saguaro may be Arizona’s most
iconic plant, and its blossom is the official
state flower, but the agave most embodies
Arizona’s rich cultural history. There are
more species of agave — at least 21, including varieties and subspecies — in Arizona
than in any other U.S. state. The agave was
a staple food for Arizona’s pre-Columbian
cultures, as well as a critical source of
medicine, cordage, textiles and building
materials. And it’s long been utilized by
the indigenous cultures of northern and
central Mexico. People living in the Yucatán still have 40 different uses for it, and
anthropologists estimate that number was
far higher in pre-Columbian times. Archaeobotanist Phil Dering calls the agave the
“buffalo of the region” to convey how indigenous cultures in Mexico and the Southwest depended on the plant for countless
purposes, much as the Plains Indian tribes
depended on bison.
The traditional role of agaves in pre-Columbian cultures has
been known for centuries. But what’s been realized in just the
past three decades, thanks to the work of Hodgson and Salywon, is how these ancient societies domesticated and farmed
agaves throughout Central and Southern Arizona — and even
in the Grand Canyon. As senior research botanist and curator
of the herbarium at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Hodgson has been on the hunt for domesticated agave species in
Arizona since the mid-1980s. Her colleague Salywon, a research
botanist and assistant herbarium curator, joined the search a
decade ago.
“People have underestimated how important the agave was
to ancient cultures,” Salywon says as we pick our way up
Angel Hill. “Arizona was possibly the center for domestication
of the plant.”
LEFT: Parry’s agaves (Agave parryi) thrive near an archaeological site.
While not a domesticated species, Parry’s agaves were among the
native agaves cultivated by Arizona’s early inhabitants.
ABOVE: An unusual dwarf form of an agave — possibly Sacred
Mountain agave (Agave verdensis) — grows near an archaeological
site in the Sedona area.
Hodgson, who’s leading us on the scree-filled route, adds
that the discoveries of domesticated “heirloom” species across
the state help document “the bio-cultural landscape” of
Arizona. “We’re learning how people adapted to their environment,” she says as I grab a juniper branch to keep from
tumbling downhill. “There’s not enough time in the day to discover all the new domesticated species — they’re right under
our noses.”
are pulling out binoculars and glassing distant ridges for the
telltale agave stalk. Sometimes, they find an unusual species
next to the interstate. More often, though, they stumble upon
a discovery far off the beaten path. When Hodgson wandered
to the top of Angel Hill on a hunch nearly 20 years ago, she hit
the mother lode. The area contains an agave farm dating back
at least 700 years, with three different domesticated species
growing on a rocky perch high above Oak Creek. Of all the
scenic places Hodgson has visited for her research, Angel Hill
is her favorite.
“Hello, baby!” Hodgson says, as if she’s greeting an old
friend, to an Agave phillipsiana on top of the hill. Commonly
called Grand Canyon agave for the place the species was discovered, Agave phillipsiana was later found by Hodgson in the
Sedona area, then around Prescott and the Tonto Basin. Presumably, it was traded by ancient cultures in the region and
maybe from as far away as central Mexico. The cluster of the
species on exposed Angel Hill has the
good sense to grow in the shade of a
large juniper.
Hodgson talks about her research
the way a detective discusses an investigation. In 1990, a fellow botanist told
Hodgson about an unusual-looking agave
spotted in the Grand Canyon. “The Canyon flora list included [the wild native
species] Agave parryi, which I knew
would not be found there,” Hodgson
recalls. She and some friends found the
strange agave near archaeological sites in
the Canyon’s Deer Creek drainage, but
it wasn’t flowering at the time. Another
friend, the Canyon botanist, later sent
Hodgson a sample of flowers from it.
By then, Hodgson was convinced there
was an unknown agave domesticate in
the Grand Canyon. “It was a remnant of
being farmed,” she says. But she couldn’t
prove it until she got a fresh flower,
which she and a friend finally did by
hiking into the Canyon’s waterless Surprise Valley in tripledigit August heat. Hodgson named the species after the late
botanist Arthur Phillips III, who gave her the original tip.
Agaves are sometimes mistaken for cactuses because of their
spiny leaves, but they’re in a different plant family. Calling
them “century plants” is another common misnomer. In reality,
most agave species mature and develop a tall stalk from their
rosette of leaves after about 20 years. In the same year the stalk
shoots up, flowers bloom on the top half, and then the plant
dies. Instead of reproducing from seeds, domesticated agaves
perpetuate through vegetative reproduction, where rhizomes
from the mother plant produce “pups” that continue to grow
after the mother plant dies. The portable little pups were ideal
for trading and transplanting in Arizona’s pre-Columbian
agrarian communities.
Salywon pulls out a knife and carefully cuts a spiny Agave
phillipsiana leaf to take back to Desert Botanical Garden’s
extensive herbarium. Hodgson estimates the herbarium has
archived more than 3,000 agave specimens, representing more
than 180 different species. Almost all of them were collected
by Hodgson, and more recently by Hodgson and Salywon, over
the past 30 years. While Salywon presses the leaf between
newsprint, Hodgson makes notes in a journal wrapped in a
bloodstained suede cover. In addition to having gnarly spines,
the agave leaves contain a caustic juice that can be as irritating
to human skin as poison ivy.
After visiting Agave phillipsiana, we walk across the hilltop to
check on Agave delamateri, another domesticated species first
discovered in the Tonto Basin and later found by Hodgson in
the Verde Valley. She suspects this plant, like Agave phillipsiana,
originated in northern Mexico but was widely traded in Central Arizona. We’ve arrived a year too late for this cluster: Dry,
skeleton-like stalks rise from fading rosettes. The dying plants
are surrounded by a few parched pups shriveling in the heat.
Salywon pulls out what’s left of his dwindling water supply
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and sprinkles it on the baby agave.
“These plants are living archaeological artifacts,” Hodgson
says. She explains that because of the agave’s vegetative reproduction process, the plants we see on Angel Hill today are
genetically similar, if not identical, to what pre-Columbian
people were cultivating here hundreds of years ago.
But the clock is ticking for these living legacies. Due to
drought over the past two decades and lack of human tending,
the rare domesticated agaves are quickly disappearing from
Arizona’s wild landscapes. An untold number probably died off
before Hodgson and Salywon could even get to them.
Nearby, we inspect a cluster of Agave verdensis, called Sacred
Mountain agave in honor of where Hodgson first found it near
Sedona’s Sacred Mountain archaeological site. “This is the
cutest agave I know,” Hodgson says. The stalk of one plant is
curved from the wind, and she cups the flowers in her hand
as she takes a whiff of the sweet, musky scent. “When I first
came up here,” she adds, “there were probably 100 stalks. The
hillside was covered.”
Today, we walk across an agave graveyard. Some 20 to
30 dead stalks are strewn across the ground, and a handful of
pups are trying to beat the odds. Salywon digs up one pup to
take back and grow in the garden’s greenhouse, in case this
Sacred Mountain clone’s descendants don’t make it.
Hodgson is wistful about Angel Hill as we hike back to the
car in 107-degree heat. She knows the next time she comes here,
there will be even fewer agaves. “I literally cried recently when
I left a clone in Sycamore Canyon,” she says. “I knew I would
never see it again.”
THE NEXT DAY, we scramble up to a remote ruins site off
Red Canyon Road west of Sedona. Recent research into agave
domesticates is not only expanding the scientific understanding of the plant, but also providing valuable information to
archaeologists — because domesticated species are almost
always found near archaeological sites.
“Sometimes I stumble upon the agave first. Sometimes it’s the
ruins,” says Sedona resident Scott Newth, a regional coordinator for the Arizona Site Stewards Program. Newth is part of a
group of citizen scientists whom Hodgson and Salywon have
enlisted to help hunt for domesticated agave species. “It’s easy
to tell a domesticate from a wild species once you learn how,”
Newth says. “The leaves on the domesticates are not as stout.”
Newth and his wife have discovered more than 20 clusters of
domesticated agaves while hunting for archaeological sites over
the past five years.
Near ruins and rock-art sites, Newth also frequently finds
roasting pits where ancient dwellers cut the leaves off the agaves to harvest the plant’s “heart.” Over a period of days, the
plant’s coveted insides were slow-roasted in a pit until the
sweet meat was ready for eating or storage. Arizona’s Apache
tribes still conduct traditional agave roasts.
“We’re exchanging information with archaeologists all the
time,” Hodgson says as our crew tops out on a slick-rockcovered mesa. Ruins of a multi-room dwelling sit at the edge of
an escarpment. The mesa rises like an island amid a red-rock
sea. The inhabitants of this community — likely the Sinaguans,
who lived in the area between A.D. 1150 and A.D. 1300 —
surely chose this location for the view, whether for defensive
reasons or aesthetic ones.
Just beyond the jumble of collapsed walls are the agaves
we have come to see. The current theory is that these are not
domesticated species, but what Hodgson calls a “cultivated”
variety of native Agave parryi. The community of farmers who
grew beans and squash along the creek below also tended
clusters of agaves around their homes. It was what scientists
call symbiosis: The humans helped the agaves, and the agaves
sustained the humans. Before the days of grocery stores, symbiosis was key to survival.
Hodgson’s and Salywon’s research is documenting not only
which agaves were farmed and how pre-Columbian cultures
farmed them, but also how they cultivated various plants over
centuries to create new “designer” species. Domesticates were
developed by favoring specific desirable traits, such as leaves
that were easy to cut, hearts that were large and sweet, or
strong fibers for cordage. The most notorious modern example
is the blue agave, which is grown in a specific region in central
Mexico and produces the liquid that, when fermented and distilled, becomes tequila.
About 100 feet from the ruins site, agaves perched near the
edge of the mesa are in bloom. Bulbous clumps of bright-yellow
Andrew Salywon and
Wendy Hodgson collect
specimens from the
stalk of a mystery hybrid
agave species near an
archaeological site south
of Sedona.
Five years ago, Desert Botanical Garden
created a molecular lab to conduct a variety of research, including analysis of agave
domesticates. Although Hodgson’s and
Salywon’s blood-spilling fieldwork still constitutes most of the research, the work in the
lab has become a key component. A small
amount of agave leaf tissue is used to extract
the plant’s DNA. The DNA is then sequenced,
allowing an evolutionary tree to be constructed. This data offers additional evidence
of whether a species is new to science.
“When we analyze the evolutionary tree
of a specimen, it helps us answer anthropological questions about where the plant
originated and how and where it was domesticated,” Salywon explains. “Plants are central to understanding human culture and the
societies that utilized agriculture.”
Unfortunately for the domesticated agaves
growing in the wilds of Arizona, there’s no
formal way to preserve them, even as they
increasingly vanish from the landscape. The
federal Endangered Species Act protects only
plants that are native to an area and have
not been manipulated by humans. And the
federal Archaeological Resources Protection
Act does not extend to plants. Hodgson and
Salywon hope protections for the species will
come through some form of human tending,
perhaps by bringing the domesticated agaves
back into agriculture. “These agaves were
grown here for a reason,” Salywon says. “Maybe they could
become a new crop for this arid region.”
The intrepid botanists are also in a race to document as
much as they can. “We don’t know where this research will
lead,” Hodgson says. “We are collecting for the future. What
scientist would have thought, 100 years ago, that the specimens they were preserving at the herbarium would one day be
used for DNA analysis?”
But right now, as we huddle in the shade of a juniper and
look out onto the sprawling greens and reds of the Verde Valley,
time stands still. We’re just the latest in a long line of people
who have enjoyed this view. Far below, the stream that once
nourished ancient farmers’ crops still snakes through a ribbon of trees. Tiny clouds sneak across the blue sky, signaling
the approach of the monsoon. And the stalwart agaves rise
like totem poles from the slick-rock — just as they have for
700 years.
It was what scientists call symbiosis: The
humans helped the agaves, and the agaves
sustained the humans. Before the days of
grocery stores, symbiosis was key to survival.
flowers balance on tiny branches at the top of 20-foot stalks
that resemble something from a Dr. Seuss book. These agaves
look different from what Hodgson and Salywon have seen
here before. It might be Sacred Mountain agave, or it might be
something new.
“Could this have been an experimental agave garden? Maybe
they knew how to hybridize,” Hodgson muses. “Part of the
beauty of science is that you think things are known, but then
you find out they’re not.” Hodsgon and Salywon are determined to solve the mystery.
They use the snatch pole to get a sample of a flower to take
back to the herbarium. They also take measurements of various
plant parts and place the specimens between newspaper pages
in the plant press. It’s the same methodical collection process
botanists have used for at least a century. But what has revolutionized Hodgson’s and Salywon’s research — along with other
aspects of botany — is the ability to examine plant DNA.
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for the
Saguaro cactuses in Peralta Canyon
reach skyward during a thunderstorm in the
Superstition Wilderness east of Phoenix.
Laurence Parent
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T W E N T Y- S E V E N Y E A R S A G O T H I S M O N T H ,
Bruce Itule wrote about the Superstition Mountains for
Arizona Highways.
He rode on horseback through the wilderness for a few
days and later mused, “It is a peaceful place, a haven for deer
hunters, Boy Scouts, treasure seekers, and others searching for
adventure in the Superstition Wilderness, a 250-square-mile
slice of Sonoran Desert and mountains (in the Tonto National
Forest) that begins about 35 miles east of Phoenix at Apache
Junction and stretches east and north beyond Canyon Lake.”
The description is accurate. I know for two reasons.
First, because I’ve spent so many days in the Superstitions,
I feel sometimes that I could map their trails as I could my
daughter’s face when she is about to laugh or cry or explode
with some line she knows already to be funny. Or vicious. Or
somewhere on the cusp of the two.
Second, because years after Itule’s story was published in
the magazine, he was my reporting professor at Arizona State
University. And if Itule reported it, it is so.
For me, though, the Superstitions are a place of firsts and
lasts and things in between. I will leave the hunting, scouting
and treasure seeking to others.
I saw my first rattlesnake in those mountains. Heard it.
Jumped backward and ran toward my parents, who were hiking behind me. There may have been a squeal-scream. The
snake was coiled and ready, but I was not. I was sweating, and
I cursed and wondered how I’d gone so long without seeing
one. As we passed it again, I had a chill. I knew it was watching us, feeling us. Waiting.
Once, there were coatis in the reeds and brush along the
Second Water Trail. I saw them as I neared Boulder Canyon,
their tails like those of monkeys. I’ve looked for them every
time I’ve visited the trail since, but they’ve disappeared somewhere. Into imagination or deeper into the reeds, I’m not so
Another time, I backpacked far into the wilderness, turned
left at the rock that looks like a giant gorilla. The mosquitoes
were so thick, they attacked my forehead — the only place I’d
left uncovered. That night, as the sun went down, I sat on a
boulder and watched the sky unfold. I remember the moment
now through a photograph. In it, I am small and the world is
big, and we are both wrapped up in that many-colored blanket
of near-night.
Most other times in the Supes, though, I was late for the sky.
Dozed through too many sunrises — how long have I been sleeping — or darted off the trail before sunset dyed the atmosphere
the colors of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Red Canna, 1924. Too
many times, my eyelids grew heavy before the stars shot the
Missed moments can turn a person inside out sometimes.
But others make up for it.
In a very cold December more than two years ago now, I led
a group of hikers into the Superstition Wilderness. Fog rolled
through its canyons as clouds loaded their bellies with rain,
unleashing finally in a deluge so cold, it took me hours after to
make my bones warm again.
Even after so many years here, a cold desert seems a foreign
Then, the world was so many shades of gray, I wondered if it
would ever go blue again. But the mountains were the color of
Northwest moss, drinking the sky. They were the most beautiful things I’d seen in a while, and I think maybe they moved
into me that day. But not the same way bronchitis did a week
later. That sick lasted too long.
Still, as I write this, I’m waiting for the seasons’ change to
run a little deeper. Waiting for the rain to come again, and
more so for the gilded heads of Mexican goldpoppies to break
the earth and unfurl, for the lupines and penstemons to paint
another wild O’Keeffe.
Because somehow, when the desert wakes to spring, it
becomes even more of that peaceful place Itule wrote about.
Where scouts and hunters and snakes and coatis roam.
And where I try to make it in time for the sky.
The Superstition Mountains’ Three Sisters formation, dusted by rare winter snowfall,
catches the last light of the day. Peter Coskun
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Originally published in January 1969
In January 1969, we dedicated our issue to
the saguaro cactus — “the Monarch of the
Desert,” we called it. Inside were beautiful
photographs by Ray Manley, David Muench,
Josef Muench and Darwin Van Campen, along
with stories about the cultural and scientific
significance of the desert plant. In addition,
the issue featured two dozen images from
two “amusing” brochures by Frank Redding:
Silly Saguaros and Some More Silly Saguaros.
With saguaros once again playing a leading
role in our cover story, the resurrection of this
piece was too good to pass up.
By Frank Redding
Photographs by Ed Mateo
SILVER CREEK ROAD From the novelty of wild burros to the majesty of
Cathedral Rock, this scenic drive in Northwestern Arizona offers all kinds of
hen you’re standing amid chollas and yuccas in the Arizona
mining town of Oatman, it’s
hard to fathom that you’re just a 14-mile
drive from the cool water of the Colorado River. (It’s hard to fathom anything,
really, other than: What are all these burros doing here?) But it’s true: Silver Creek
Road, which leads from Oatman to Bullhead City, takes you from arid Mojave
Desert to the banks of the Colorado, with
plenty to see along the way.
Before you leave Oatman — named for
Olive Oatman, whose face was tattooed
after she was captured and enslaved by
Mohaves in the mid-1800s — a word
about those burros. These days, they’re
the town’s biggest tourist attraction, but
their ancestors lived less glamorous lives
as beasts of burden in the area’s mines.
When the mines went bust, the prospectors turned the burros loose, and now
they graze on desert fauna and handouts
from visitors.
Once you and the burros have had
your fill of each other, head north on the
Oatman-Topock Highway, a section of
Historic Route 66. After a mile, you’ll turn
left onto Silver Creek Road, a rolling dirt
road that’s rough in spots but passable in
any car with a careful driver. Teddy bear
chollas and yuccas dominate the scenery
along the road, which quickly curves to
the north. On the right side, to the east,
are the multicolored volcanic buttes of the
Mount Nutt Wilderness, which protects
28,000 acres of the Black Mountains. If
you have a pair of binoculars, you might
be able to see the desert bighorn sheep
that live in the wilderness area.
Silver Creek Road then turns to the
west, and at Mile 2.8, you’ll get a view
of Hardy Mountain, a 3,143-foot summit,
dead ahead. The peak likely is named for
William Harrison Hardy, an early settler
of the area that later became Bullhead
City. A mile and a half later, northeast of
ABOVE: Hardy Mountain rises from the landscape of
chollas and yuccas along Silver Creek Road.
OPPOSITE PAGE: One of the Oatman area’s many
burros ambles along the dirt road.
the mountain, you’ll pass the entrance to
one of several mining claims in the area
— some of which are still active.
As you continue, you’ll get glimpses of
the mountains across the Colorado River,
including Spirit Mountain in Nevada. But
don’t let that distract you from the sights
along the road, including Cathedral Rock,
which is on the left at Mile 5.5. Arizona is
home to several Cathedral Rocks — the
most famous is in Sedona — but this
one is as eye-catching as any of them, its
volcanic spire pointing sharply skyward
from the desert landscape.
Be sure to stop at the pullout at Mile 7.3
for a panoramic view of the Lower Colorado River Valley to the west. From there,
the road rolls for a few more miles down
to an intersection with Bullhead Parkway
and a return to pavement in Bullhead
City. Keep going past the stoplight for 2.5
miles to State Route 95, the stopping
point for this drive.
If you’d like to dip your toes in the
river, head north on SR 95 for a mile and
a half to Bullhead City Community Park,
which has a public beach and a boat
launch area. If you’re looking to strike
it rich, you can cross the river into
Laughlin, Nevada. Or you could try your
hand at a mining claim along Silver
Creek Road.
of Arizona’s
Best Back
Edited by Robert Stieve
and Kelly Vaughn Kramer
For more adventure, pick up
a copy of our book Arizona
Highways Scenic Drives, which
features 40 of the state’s most
beautiful back roads. To order,
visit www.shoparizonahighways
Note: Mileages are approximate.
LENGTH: 14 miles one way
DIRECTIONS: From Oatman, go north on the OatmanTopock Highway (Historic Route 66) for 1 mile to Silver
Creek Road. Turn left onto Silver Creek Road and continue 13 miles to State Route 95 in Bullhead City.
VEHICLE REQUIREMENTS: A high-clearance vehicle is
recommended, but the road is passable in a standard
sedan in good weather.
WARNING: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be
aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of
water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where
you are going and when you plan to return.
INFORMATION: Oatman Chamber of Commerce,; Kingman Field Office,
928-718-3700 or
Travelers in Arizona can visit or dial
511 to get information on road closures, construction,
delays, weather and more.
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of the month
PERALTA TRAIL Somewhere in the vicinity of this trail is the legendary
Peralta Mine. Even if it exists, you won’t find it, but you will discover one
of the most scenic routes in the Superstition Mountains.
n the 1930s, you might have seen Arthur
Weber wandering around Peralta Canyon. He’d go out there looking for the
mother lode. He never found it, but he
did establish something that came to
be known as the Dons of Phoenix — a
name that honored the Spanish dons who
explored the area in the 1600s. The group
initially was made up of young men from
the Phoenix YMCA, where Mr. Weber
was the physical education director. Its
purpose was to keep alive the folklore of
the Southwest, and over the years, the
Dons became famous for their Superstition Mountain Lost Dutchman Gold
Mine Trek. In fact, it was such a big deal
the U.S. Forest Service erected an official sign in Peralta Canyon marking the
“Dons Club Base Camp,” which is still
located about a quarter-mile southwest
of the Peralta Trailhead. The sign read:
“This is the starting point each year for
the Dons Club Trek into the spectacular
Superstition Wilderness Area in search of
the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine.”
Although the Dons are still around,
their annual trek hasn’t happened since
2004. That doesn’t mean the canyon is
quiet, though. The Peralta Trail is one of
the most popular hikes in the Superstition Mountains, especially in the springtime, when goldpoppies add a splash of
color to the rugged landscape of boulders, saguaros and paloverdes.
From the trailhead, the hike drops into
a riparian area and enters the Superstition Wilderness, which was designated a
forest reserve in 1908 and then the Superstition Primitive Area in 1939. It got its
wilderness protection in 1964 and now
cradles 160,236 acres, including all of
those along this trail.
After about five minutes of easy trekking, you’ll come to a small pool that’s
fed by an even smaller waterfall, but only
when the conditions are right. Pray for
rain. Five minutes later, you’ll come to
another small pool and a thicket of trees.
This is where the trail begins a gradual
climb. The only real challenge at the
outset is an overhanging rock that will
dent your forehead if you’re not paying
As you climb out of the riparian area,
the trail steepens and winds uphill
through a canyon of boulders, some as
big as small houses. To the left is a gathering of hoodoos, and all around are
BELOW: Weavers Needle, a volcanic monolith, is the
payoff on the Superstition Mountains’ Peralta Trail.
RIGHT: Hikers pass saguaros and brittlebushes on
a rocky section of the route.
giant saguaros, the dominant plant species in the area.
After an hour of overall hiking, the
well-worn footpath turns to flat rock.
From there, the trail quickly leads to
Fremont Saddle, which is the turnaround
point for this hike. However, if you’re
feeling ambitious, the Peralta
Trail continues into Boulder
Canyon for another 4 miles and
connects with the Dutchman’s
Trail. The extra distance turns
this otherwise moderate hike
into a 12.4-mile round-tripper
that’ll make you sweat. But the
payoff on Peralta is the view of
Weavers Needle from up on the
Named for Paulino Weaver,
a famed mountain man, scout,
trapper and miner, Weavers
Needle is a volcanic monolith
that rises almost 1,300 feet
from its base to an elevation of
4,553 feet. It’s the most recognizable landmark in the wilderness,
and it’s also considered a marker for the
legendary Peralta Mine.
As the story goes, Don Miguel de Peralta and his family, who had come to the
Superstition Mountains from Mexico,
discovered gold, lots of gold, in the
shadow of Weavers Needle. However,
before cashing in, according to the story,
they were killed by Apaches, who allegedly sealed off the mine. A few decades
later, Jacob Waltz, better known as the
“Lost Dutchman,” claimed to have found
the old Peralta Mine, but he died before
proving his claim. Since then, thousands
of treasure hunters have gone looking,
including Arthur Weber and the Dons
of Phoenix, but no one has ever found
the gold. And it’s unlikely anyone ever
will — the volcanic rock out there isn’t
conducive to producing precious metals.
They’ll keep looking, though. Meantime,
the real treasure is the trail. Especially in
the springtime, when the ground is covered with gold.
For more hikes, pick up a copy
of Arizona Highways Hiking
Guide, which features 52 of the
state’s best trails — one for each
weekend of the year, sorted by
seasons. To order a copy, visit
LENGTH: 4.4 miles round-trip (to Fremont Saddle)
ELEVATION: 2,401 to 3,751 feet
TRAILHEAD GPS: N 33˚23.859', W 111˚20.874'
DIRECTIONS: From Idaho Road in Apache Junction, go
east on U.S. Route 60 for 7.7 miles to Peralta Road.
Turn left onto Peralta Road and continue 7.3 miles to
the trailhead.
VEHICLE REQUIREMENTS: None; however, the pavement
ends on Peralta Road after 0.9 miles.
HORSES ALLOWED: Not suitable for horses.
USGS MAP: Weavers Needle
INFORMATION: Mesa Ranger District, 480-610-3300 or
• Plan ahead and be
• Travel and camp on
durable surfaces.
• Dispose of waste
properly and pack
out all of your trash.
Leave what you find.
Respect wildlife.
Minimize campfire impact.
Be considerate of
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No, this large-nosed
sculpture isn’t on Easter Island — it’s in a
small town along the
Arizona stretch of a
famous highway. The
town shares its name
with a bright star and
a Eurodance band
from the 1990s. And if
you’ve got a nose for
details, the mountain
range in the distance
might help you identify it.
Win a collection of our most
popular books!
To enter, correctly identify the location pictured at right and email your
answer to editor@arizonahighways
.com — type “Where Is This?” in the
subject line. Entries can also be sent
to 2039 W. Lewis Avenue, Phoenix,
AZ 85009 (write “Where Is This?” on
the envelope). Please include your
name, address and phone number.
One winner will be chosen in a random drawing of qualified entries.
Entries must be postmarked by February 15, 2018. Only the winner will be
notified. The correct answer will be
posted in our April issue and online at beginning March 15.
Find Tempe Public Market Café
8749 S. RURAL RD.
We offer fresh market cuisine crafted with seasonal
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