Along I-10 east of L.A. were acres and acres of windmills filling the fields and lining the ridges; they were different sizes but all were white with three slender blades whirling slowly like diatoms turning in the surf. In Arizona, south of I-8, F-16’s played low over the desert, dazzlingly fast and viciously nimble. Across the length of West Texas oil derricks bobbed beside I-20, rising and falling in slow prayer.
The Sonoran Desert reaches tentatively up out of Mexico into the southwest corner of Arizona, where it is mostly encompassed and protected within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. I spent one night there.
It was everything I, as someone from New Hampshire, imagined a desert should be. It was larger than life, a Technicolor cartoon desert of bright red mountains and and huge green cacti; the plants were so strange, vivid and numerous that the red hills seemed lush even while they parched and baked in the heat. It was cactus Disneyworld.
The saguaro is cactus prime, the ur-cactus, the ideal cactus of our collective imagination, that giant green pole with one or two fat arms that has become the icon for cactus. It’s the cactus that appears on every sign for every Mexican restaurant in the world and the Sonoran is thick with them, although in real life they don’t wear sombreros. They’re 10 or 20 feet high and stretch out in all directions like trees without branches, a forest of odd green trunks that dominates the landscape.
The organ pipe cactus is a dense cluster of vertical spires or fingers 10 or 15 feet high. The individual fingers are about half as thick as a saguaro trunk but the cactus as a whole is just as green and striking. Each one is a big fat bunch of green organ pipes, a whole handful of cactus, all the cactus you could want. I didn’t see too many from the main road but from the dirt road that ran out to the mountains I could see them everywhere, their gothic silhouettes crowding the hills.
The creosote bush was omnipresent but barely there, like a wispy olive-colored mist. They’re like sketches of bushes, just collections of twigs so sparsely dusted with dark green they look leafless. They’re actually covered with leaves but the leaves are so tiny, just a few millimeters long, that they’re almost like stubby evergreen needles. The branches break easily and seem almost dry inside, as if they’re barely alive, or as if the bush feels no need to struggle because it has some other secret strategy. Crush the leaves and the sweetest smell in the world billows out, a sweet, tangy tar smell, a passionate smell in the desert.
There were two kinds of short cholla cacti. The chainfruit cholla looks like a miniature cactus version of a tree just a few feet high that lowers its linked fruit from its branches in spiny braids. The teddybear cholla is even shorter and spinier, a lumpy mass of golden-needled paws.
There were prickly pear, although I didn’t see any of their spiny purple fruit. There were ocotillo there, too, still fascinating. They only grow leaves after a rain, the rest of the time they’re just slender barbed whips clawing the sky. People break off the 15-foot strands and make fences out of them. In the wild they look like the skeletons of murdered plants.
I rode the 20 mile dirt loop out to the Ajo Mountains at dawn. At one point when I stopped I heard rocks clattering on a hill and looked up to see what looked like a tiny wild pig scrambling between the plants. It was short and dark, only a foot and a half long, and then I saw others. They were javelinas and there was a herd of about a dozen of them moving over the hill. They walked in single file and it was strange to watch, strange to see such clear herd behavior in such small animals, as if they were guinea pigs pretending to be buffalo.
As I rode I watched great swaths of the red, green and gold desert illuminate.